Beyond “Dover Beach”

 

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So this April I am mixing my poetry with lots of cool poetry by people who are not me, the famous and the not-so-much.

Matthew Arnold’s best known poem is “Dover Beach,” written on his honeymoon in the south of England while war was going on (Napoleon?) on the Continent. But he wrote other stuff. This poem has the weird rhyme scheme: ABBB, CDBD, EFFF, GHIH, JKLK, MBMB, NONO, PBPB, QQBB. I am pretty sure this is not a classical rhyme scheme. I think he was just messing with us to get his point across, and having been born way too early for modernism, used rhyme anyhow because there were no other options.

Self-Dependence

Weary of myself, and sick of asking
What I am, and what I ought to be,
At this vessel’s prow I stand, which bears me
Forwards, forwards, o’er the starlit sea.

And a look of passionate desire
O’er the sea and to the stars I send:
‘Ye who from my childhood up have calm’d me,
Calm me, ah, compose me to the end!

‘Ah, once more,’ I cried, ‘ye stars, ye waters,
On my heart your mighty charm renew;
Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you,
Feel my soul becoming vast like you!’

From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,
Over the lit sea’s unquiet way,
In the rustling night-air came the answer:
‘Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.

‘Unaffrighted by the silence round them,
Undistracted by the sights they see,
These demand not that the things without them
Yield them love, amusement, sympathy.

‘And with joy the stars perform their shining,
And the sea its long moon-silver’d roll;
For self-poised they live, nor pine with noting
All the fever of some differing soul.

‘Bounded by themselves, and unregardful
In what state God’s other works may be,
In their own tasks all their powers pouring,
These attain the mighty life you see.’

O air-born voice! long since, severely clear,
A cry like thine in mine own heart I hear:
‘Resolve to be thyself; and know that he,
Who finds himself, loses his misery!’

The Problems of the Epic Fantasy Fan Poet: Reportage, Character and Style

 

As I mentioned on Saturday, the big motivating questions behind so much fan fiction are when did the two characters finally get together and how. But for me as a poet, the question is more about who gets to “report” on these matters, and how do I do it with style, finesse, dignity and just a tiny bit of steam?

First, I set it after Gabrielle’s (brief) marriage to Perdicus. That gets the whole virginity thing out of the way, and it also gives me another chance to see Xena’s Hopeless Yearning (which is something that, as a writer, I have a whole lot more experience with anyway).

Alone on Her Wedding Night, I Think of the Past

 

Once upon a time, an innocent village girl

Left behind her village, parents, sister, even

Her betrothed, to seek adventure on the open

Road. Always ready to talk her way onto a farmer’s

Cart or out of a fight. Talking, stalling for time:

She has a real knack for using words. It’s as if

The words come to her, begging to be said

By her lips, molded to her uses by her tanned

Hands. If I could be a word, I’d come to her

To be said, over and over, like a litany

To Artemis the Huntress or Athena the Wise.

 

Why are all the best goddesses virgins? What is it

That men do to take a woman from her truest self?

Before I stood with her, I braided the garland

Of white flowers for her to wear. She should have

Had a laurel wreath, a crown to tell the world

Of her mastery of words, and the mystery of it:

How she reaches out her hand to touch

The stars, caress the waxing moon, and when

Dawn breaks, a scroll lies next to my pillow.

Perhaps she will write for him now. I promise you,

He won’t know enough to appreciate it any more

 

Than I did. If I had a heart to break, I would cut it

Out of my chest, leave it to beat its last on some

Flat rock, garlanded with a discarded wreath

Of small white flowers, fading as night falls hard.

It doesn’t take a blinded Cyclops to see where this

Night is headed. There is a storm on the horizon,

Purple clouds rolling in with the flash of lightning

Piercing the repeated booms of thunder. And I,

I stand in the pelting rain, oblivious, cold,

Alone again. Once upon a time, foolishly,

I had thought it would be me.

 

I have some poems where I show Xena letting Callisto die in the sandpit, and then I made a bunch of poems set during the Athenian games, which shows all the characters (including Joxer, Salomoneus and Autolycus) dealing with Gabrielle’s grief and mourning. Xena gets (briefly) killed and comes back with her friends’ help and then the ladies get back on the road.

I chose to have Xena be the one to tell what happened, but in an indirect format. Since Gabrielle is usually the bard/poet, I though I would have Xena try a shy love poem. Because beginning poets almost inevitably lean on rhyme, I knew I had to use some rhyming elements, but because I wanted the poem to be dignified and not sing-songy or trite, I used a stanza form with endings ABCDEFGH, so the first line of every stanza would rhyme, etc. Also, in the first two stanzas I used end-stopped lines, which means that the line either ends with a comma or period, or it ends at a fairly sensible place in the sentence. I only start using enjammed lines in stanza three, where a sentence ends in the middle of a line and a new sentence begins right after. So, similar to the events the poem recalls, she starts out shy and awkward and gradually gains confidence and speed.

Xena-and-Gabrielle_article_story_large.png

Shyly, X. Tries Her Hand at Poetry the Morning After

 

Four hundred nights I must have watched you sleep,

The dying fire catching the gold in your hair.

Your sweet breath rose and fell and rose again

With the rhythm of your dreams I was not in.

I did not see you clearly, not at first.

Experience makes innocence seem weak.

Not until you fought beside me did I see

That you had steel in you and your own light.

 

You were a secret I felt I had to keep.

I could not ever let you catch me stare

When you, eager, scratched the parchment with your pen

Or dutifully cut our dinner, gill from fin.

But it was the long spring nights that were the worst,

As I lay by the fire, cold and bleak,

Knowing my desire could never be

More than a whispered dream of warm delight.

 

I could not know how time would make you weep.

The violence of my life you chose to share

Would take your light and heart and try to rend

Them apart, a battle you could not win.

Your pain, my fault; because of my past, cursed.

What changed it all was tragedy. We are Greeks.

We never take life easy. You and he

Married, deflowered, widowed: one day, one night.

 

The poets say that what we sow, we reap.

I had to make it right. I could not bear

To see you in such pain, my more than friend.

My vengeance had little glory, was messy, thin,

A deed I had to do, although perverse.

And after, it was hard for us to speak

Of any of it. The silence between you and me

Crashed through the trees behind us like a kite.

 

It took a few more months for you to steep

In your grief, to face the morning air

Without mourning his reaching of life’s end,

His power over you and its long romance.

You threw large stones into the watercourse.

You say you did not dream. Tears on your cheek

Kept my hand from touching your knee

To “comfort,” a self-deception I had to fight.

 

Then, one evening I heard you moaning in your sleep,

Crying out my name, demanding more!

You were tearing at your clothes and then

Reaching for me. I felt my whole world spin.

I touched your face. I thought my heart would burst

As your eyes flew open, blushing that I could see

All of you now seeing all of me

Finally! At last! And then, all night…

Rhyming Poetry vs. Song Lyrics

hourglass table

Okay, so back around Christmas I indulged in a rant about rhyme. To my mind, rhyme in poetry is a lot like sex in movies. Often it is irrelevant, not really helping the plotline or character development. It is there because people expect to see it there. It makes them feel like they are getting the Real Thing, whatever the heck that means. But this is about rhyme in printed poetry, or in the annoying jingles on TV commercials. In other contexts, rhyme is appropriate and powerful.

Usually that is because the rhyme is original, not the moon/June/spoon pablum we get when we are kids. (Although, having said that, I must admit that a lot of Dr. Seuss and pretty much all of Shel Silverstein is pretty brilliant.) But often you get stopped in your tracks by an original rhyme. This happened to me Friday. I was in the Park Street subway station, on the Red Line waiting to go to MIT, and there was a female musician singing with her guitar. I had never heard the words to Anna Nalick’s “Breathe (2AM)” and the chorus mesmerized me. Here it is:

 

‘Cause you can’t jump the track, we’re like cars on a cable
And life’s like an hourglass, glued to the table
No one can find the rewind button, girl.
So cradle your head in your hands
And breathe… just breathe,
Oh breathe, just breathe…

 

This rhyme is awesome because the images are so original. That rhyming couplet has been stuck in my head for days. It sounds true even though I can’t entirely decide what it means.

In older and more traditional poetry, rhyme helped people to remember things. We still use this in the alphabet song. Other cultures developed other mnemonics. Old Scandinavian poetry used alliteration, the repetition of consonants. So, for example, from “The Seafarer”:

A song I sing                                     of my sea adventure

The strain of peril,                         the stress of toil,

Which oft I endured                         in anguish of spirit

Through weary hours             of aching woe. (Kennedy 19)

Now that we live in a world where people read silently and do not do a whole lot of performing for their friends at parties (or at least not that way), such mnemonic devices, which clearly still work as my experience shows, are no longer really necessary. I think this today. I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow.

Kennedy, Charles W., ed. An Anthology of Old English Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1960

What Poetry Is Not: A Short Rant

These days, going to the gym gives me indigestion. I blame the Food Network. You see, some days the only thing on the TV on the elliptical machine is food shows. So I watch Giada De Laurentis or Ina Garten or Robert Irvine making magic with food. And then there is the dreaded commercial.

I get it. It is now Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, and everybody wants to Get Into the Spirit of the Season, but why do they have to do it by sounding like a stupid Hallmark card? The ad for a new holiday dessert competition tells us about the show that will apparently give chefs only an hour to make their cookies “and dust them with flour.” (Which they say while actually showing a chef dusting a cake with sugar. But you know how it is with rhyming poetry: the only thing that really rhymes with sugar is…wait for it…booger.) At Christmas, cheesy rhymes, especially rhyming couplets (an AA rhyme), come out of the woodwork to make my blood boil.

Now it is one thing if you are under the age of consent to still believe that a rhyme makes a poem. And especially if you do not think of yourself as a poet and you are not trying to become a professional poet, you can believe whatever you want. I don’t care. But I have seen too many badly rhymed pieces of crap labeled poetry. And if that weren’t bad enough, you also get the other side of the coin: prose broken up into very short lines, usually broken right before prepositional phrases, with no rhythm at all, not even conversational or, failing that, blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). It’s like the writers aren’t even trying. And they justify it by saying anybody can write poetry.

Well, you know what? They are right. Anybody can write poetry. Sometimes it is going to be bad poetry. Ted Sturgeon, a science fiction writer, famously said that 95% of science fiction was crap, like everything else, and Ursula K. Le Guin commented, “The Quest for Perfection fails 95% of the time but the Search for Garbage never fails” (223).

So if you are going to insist on writing poems and calling it poetry, then do yourself and the rest of us a favor. Invest in some Peterson’s Guides and a really good thesaurus, so that you know the difference between a birch and a sycamore and you have lots of different words for green. And if you insist on rhyming then also get a good rhyming dictionary so that at least your rhymes will be more original…

…and less boogery.

Le Guin, Ursula. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Berkley Books, 1982.