Measuring up

So. The metre is still running. Although I’ve been writing and thinking about iambic pentameter for a while pentameter is not the only option for iambs (it is a silly looking word – like a typo for lambs). Of course, there are tetrameters, but even trimeters. But what about monometers? Lines of one iamb apiece. I thought I’d give it go.

This was the first thing I got:

The fish
I ate
had life
but now
is dead.
I gulped
it down
and now
I am
well fed.

Now that looks OK, but if I prod the lines a bit it looks more like pentameters in disguise:

The fish I ate had life but now is dead.
I gulped it down and now I am well fed.

The lines run together properly. Grrr. So I tried it again:

The fish
it lived.
But now
it’s dead.
I gulped
it down.
I’m now
well fed.

That initially looks better, but again, merge the lines and I think it’s happier as dimeters:

The fish it lived.
But now it’s dead.
I gulped it down.
I’m now well fed.

How can I get it to sit happily as monometers. Finally, I tried:

It lived.
I grilled.
I ate.
It’s dead.

I think that works. How about you.

What am I doing when I write poetry?

So. At times, things serendipitously drift together, like a twigs on a stream floating into a transient raft. This week, definitions of poet were eddying past each other.

“But look there!” she resumed. “Do you see a boat with one man in it—a green and white boat?”
“Yes; quite well.”
“That’s a poet.”
“I thought you said it was a bo-at.”
“Stupid pet! Don’t you know what a poet is?”
“Why, a thing to sail on the water in.”
“Well, perhaps you’re not so far wrong. Some poets do carry people over the sea. But I have no business to talk so much. The man is a poet.”
“The boat is a boat,” said Diamond.
“Can’t you spell?” asked North Wind.
“Not very well.”
“So I see. A poet is not a bo-at, as you call it. A poet is a man who is glad of something, and tries to make other people glad of it too.”
“Ah! now I know. Like the man in the sweety-shop.”
“Not very. But I see it is no use. I wasn’t sent to tell you, and so I can’t tell you.”

That’s George MacDonald At the Back of the North Wind (chapter 5). Noting, but leaving aside, the masculinity of the definition, I wonder if ‘being glad of something’ is a reason many people would own up to for writing poetry? I think in MacDonald’s case it probably was true: he spent his adult llfe trying to convince people God was out to get them, but in the best way possible.

Then, nudging up against MacDonald is Charles Reznikoff:

What Reznikoff liked about courtroom testimony, he said, was that what matters is the facts of the case, what the witness saw and heard, not the witness’s feelings about, or interpretations of, those facts. It was his ideal for poetry. He often cited some lines from the Sung Dynasty poet Wei T’ai (which he found in A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang): ‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.’ His aim in Testimony was to create a ‘mood or feeling’ by the ‘selection’ and ‘arrangement’ of the facts, as well as by the ‘rhythm of the words’.
(Eliot Weinberger. The Poet at the Automat. London Review of Books. Vol. 37 No. 2. 22 January 2015. pages 15-16. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n02/eliot-weinberger/poet-at-the-automat but full text for subscribers only.)

First, that is quite a chain: I am quoting Weinberger, quoting Reznikoff, quoting Graham, quoting Wei T’ai. Secondly, I’m not surprised: Wei T’ai was on to something. Talking about or writing down your feelings is odd: it’s a mad person on a train who insists you have to know everything about them. But expressing something which builds in them a sense of your anger (at a very specific object), or your joy (at a very specific thing), that is worth doing. R G Collingwood writes of conveying the emotional charge rather than a feeling: it is the same thing.

It is also (and here I have turned a corner and taken myself by surprise) part of what MacDonald was getting at (it is, at times, difficult to be entirely clear about what MacDonald is getting at): you don’t make other people glad by telling them to be glad, there needs to be a thing to convey that gladness.

So. That’s what I’m doing when I’m writing poetry. I might not be a very good poet, but, as Chesterton wrote (somewhere in The Napoleon of Notting Hill):

Just as a bad man is still a man, so a bad poet is still a poet.