October 1st, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; stylistics; making choices in poetry; part three...

Topic today: making choices in poetry through patterning for the ear. I have to do this in two posts: (a) one -- this one -- on patterning with rhythm, and (b) one (later) on patterning with specific English sounds. Here's the original version of the verse we've been discussing:

"If raping a woman is a sexual offense,
you need a prison.
If raping a woman is a crime of property,
you only need to make a deal."

One way I could revise this verse for the ear would be to put it into one of the more traditional metrical forms that can be recited aloud while swinging a mug of beer. [For a very quick nontechnical overview, see http://ozarque.livejournal.com/162034.html .] Here's a possible version, if I were to make that choice....

10. If raping a woman is a sexual offense,
you need a judge, a courtroom, and a prison;
if raping a woman is a property offense,
you only need to negotiate a deal.

That is -- with stressed (emphasized) syllables indicated by bold type --

If raping a woman is a sexual offense,
you need a judge, a courtroom, and a prison;
If raping a woman is a property offense,
you only need to negotiate a deal.

That's not the choice I made, however; I set out to do this poem in the form that's called "free" verse, which -- for me -- isn't particularly free. In free verse I rely on rhythmic phrases and combinations of rhythmic phrases. Which means that my original version is -- as some of you have already pointed out -- rhythmically lame beyond description. It has almost no rhythmic phrases at all, and the ones it has are only in the form of individual words: "raping, woman, prison, only" and "sexual, property." Dreadful. Weak. Badly crafted. Blech. It appears to be prose that I'm trying to fob off as poetry by breaking up the sentences into arbitrary chunks of words.

This is why I recommend making a word-palette as preparation for making a poem -- so that you have a page of possible words and phrases to choose from all laid out for you in advance. But if you do a word-palette for this particular chunk of poem, you'll discover that it's impoverished -- at least, the one I've been able to construct is impoverished. One "shade" on the palette is words/phrases from law enforcement and judicial punishment... another is words/phrases from negotiating payment terms for goods. Neither shade has yielded anything that I can turn into rhythmic phrases.

At this point I am aware of three strong temptations. One is to throw out this verse on the grounds that -- by an accident of vocabulary -- it's impossible to write the cursed thing. After all, I have lots of other examples, in other verses, that illustrate the point I'm trying to make; maybe it's irrational to cling to this one. [I hate to do that; this particular pair of metaphors really matters to me.] The second temptation is to give up the idea of doing the poem as free verse and use something like version #10 throughout, which would release me from the obligation of constructing rhythmic phrases. [I hate to do that in public. That is, if I hadn't been writing this poem here, nobody would ever have known that I started out doing it as free verse and then -- when I got stuck -- gave up ignominiously and switched to good old iambs and spondees and whatnots. But I have been writing it here, and if I do that I look like a wuss. I could of course construct a hyper-intellectualized rationalization for doing it -- that's one of the skills you acquire on the way to a Ph.D. -- but it wouldn't fool anybody.] The third temptation is to do a quick segue and present the information about patterning for the ear using some different verse from the poem, one that offers a more abundant and tractable word-palette. [I've been writing this journal long enough to know that that wouldn't fool anybody either. The response would be, roughly: "See? The minute she gets stuck she cops out. And she calls herself a poet. Pathetic."]

So, there we are. I'm stuck. And when I'm stuck in the process of writing a poem my standard practice is to turn the whole thing over to my "right brain" [metaphorically speaking] and wait. I may still have to give in to one of those three temptations -- my Head Nanny is standing here with arms akimbo predicting that that's what will happen. We'll see.

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Some sources, if you're inclined to explore the topic of making choices in poetry::

1. "Linguistics and Literature," by Donald Freeman, at http://www.lsadc.org/info/ling-fields-lit.cfm ; third header down is "Poetic Language and Meter."

2. There are technical discussions with more detail in the chapters on stylistics in Guide to Transformational Grammar (Grinder and Elgin, Holt Rinehart 1973) and What Is Linguistics?: Second Edition (Elgin, Prentice Hall 1979) -- both floating around in the Net's used-book marketplaces.

3. There's nontechnical discussion with more detail in The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook (Elgin, Sam's Dot 2005).