Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Life Iambically Pentametrical

I picked up a book by Stephen Fry called The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, and thought I would share a bit.

I've gone most of a lifetime being a complete poetry Philistine. I was among those who would rather have chewed glass in a class in avant-garde performance art than tell a teacher what I thought Wordsworth "meant" by writing about Tintern Abbey. I think I may have been one of those who actually hated poetry in school. (God forgive me) I think I even once said something like, "But what use is it?"

But I knew eventually the day would come when I would have to pay some serious attention to poetry. I read Aristotle's Poetics many years ago, thinking (pragmatically) it would be a good idea to start methodically at the beginning and work one's way up, but found I couldn't make head or tail of it. Beginning, Middle and End...yah. Gotcha. I soon was distracted.

But one cannot go through to the end of life being a literary Philistine thinking that anything one needs to learn, one can learn from a "Made Simple" book. One especially cannot do so if the only excuse one has is sloth.

Having just come back from Rome, I am reminded of the rule of the Italians: "If it can't be done beautifully, it isn't worth doing." Life cannot be lived entirely in the Northern, Protestant, legalistic and practical realms. This thinking is what brought us atrocities like the Brutalist school of architecture, mobile phones and a world paved with asphalt. Roman streets are impractically cobbled. Its walls are pink and orange and nearly every bit of it is in a state of decay and charming crumbliness. It is messy; it is disorganised; it is right brained. It is Catholic

I believe we Northern, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon types must learn to be messy and impractical or the world is doomed. I was given a good piece of advice once from a wise spiritual director who is an accomplished golfer: "Kill your inner Protestant."

But the problem remained that it was obvious one could not really enjoy poetry properly just by picking up a copy of Paradise Lost and getting on with it in a stoic legalistic Anglo-Saxon way. One cannot just read poetry the way one reads, say, a piece of legislation or a news article. When I started on Paradise Lost, I realised my brain was like a starving camp survivor. One could not just feed it a lot of rich food. One had to start slowly. But all the poetry books I found were either incomprehensibly full of jargon (don't whatever you do, start with the modern critics) or pointed back to the left-brain Anglo-Saxon way again: "Poetry for Dummies" with a brightly inviting yellow cover and lots of diagrams and bulleted lists.

Stephen Fry is aware of the suffering of us protestantised Northerners who, further, were blugeoned with poetry-appreciation classes in fourth-rate state schools.

In the first few pages of his book, I saw that Stephen understands my fear of poetry.

He says:
I believe poetry is a primal impulse within us all. I believe we are al capable of it and furthermore that a small, often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it. I believe our poetic impulse is blocked by the false belief that poetery might on the one hand be academic and technical and on the other formless and random...poetry lies in an inaccessible marshland: no pathways, no signposts, just the skeletons of long-dead poets poking through the bog and the unedifying sight of living ones floundering about in apparent confusion and mutual enmity. Behind it all the dread memory of classrooms swollen into resentful silence while the English teacher invites us to 'respond' to a poem".

Yes. That kid, sitting in the back of the class boiling with resentment at having to waste time on such rubbish...

That was me.

We have all of us, all of us, sat with brows furrowed feeling incredibly dense and dumb as the teacher asks us to respond to an image or a line of verse. What do you think Wordsworth was referring to here? What does Wilfred Owen achieve by choosing this metaphor?

He makes short work of the "no rules" school of thought that I was "taught" in school in the 70's.

"Don't worry, it doesn't have to rhyme. Don't bother with metre and verses. Just express yourself. Pour out your feelings."

Suppose you had never played the piano in your life.
"Don't worry, just lift the lid and express yourself. Pour out your feelings."

We have all heard children do just that and we have all wanted to treat them with great violence as a result. Yet, this is the only instruction we are ever likely to get in the art of writing poetry. Anything goes.

So it was that on the plane on the way home, my mind filled with Rome, I had a go at Stephen's first exercise in the book: write out at least twenty random lines of your own iambic pentameter. Do not rhyme. Do not strive for any effect beyond the metrical.

For your enjoyment, here's what I came up with.

I like to use a book until it's gone,
to see it's pages ruffled, bent and curled.
I know this drives an English teacher mad.

When ladyfingers boil in truckled milk,
trifle in the jam and pickled silk.
Desert should be a refutation of
all that we know of melancholic love.

I went to Rome one day to see my friends.
I took a morning plane from liverpool.
Surrounded by the Liverpudlians,
Bleary eyed and pallid Englishmen.
I stood and fretted in the airport queues,
I didn't think that Rome was really there.
In Rome I wandered in a happy dream,
to see the cobbled streets and villas pink,
but all I bought was thirty mls of ink.

In Rome the gypsies pester for a coin
in doorways practising their mournful look.

I love my kitty's paws and purring but
her hair is something I could do without.
It's in my tea and in my salad cream.

It's not poetry, but it is iambic pentameter. The first thing I noticed was how difficult it is to try to think in heroic couplets without also trying to make it rhyme. You can see I failed to resist the urge several times.

This is certainly the best book about poetry that I have ever read in a lifetime of almost entirely not reading about poetry. Take that as you will. I think I am going to keep trying this since it is fun and it might result in lifting me out of my current wretched state of cultural savagery and ignorance.

(And yes, I know that Stephen Fry is an atheist, but I think it is only because no one has ever told him what he needs to know. Don't be narrow minded. For some reason, Stephen Fry reminds me of David Warren, but maybe it is only because I suspect that if he knew me personally, he would shout at me a lot and tell me I'm doing things wrong most of the time.)

1 comment:

Mal said...

..."When ladyfingers boil in truckled milk,
trifle in the jam and pickled silk."...
Man, that's a cracker of a couplet, HJMW. Sir J. Betjeman only WISHES he wrote that one.
More please!