Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On the art of super-poetry

W. H. Auden pithily defined poetry as "memorable speech," and a great part of the joy of reading poetry seems to be in the remembering - that once you've read a really good poem, bits of it will rattle around in your head forever. When you least expect it, some half-forgotten line of verse will emerge from the shadows and hit you over the head, insinuating itself into your daily routine and becoming a permanent part of your mental landscape. For me, Middle English poetry occupies a particularly prominent place in my memory; written for oral recitation, it has an incantatory, musical quality that makes it lodge in my memory. Which is true as much for the liquid elegance of Chaucer as it is for the hammer-blows of the Pearl-Poet. I suppose it says something about me that my favourite couplet in English verse is this, from the opening of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight":
Siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye
þe borʒ brittened and brent to brondez and askez

The poem seems to ask to be recited aloud - and enthusiastically, with spittle flying everywhere and exaggerated rolled r's on "brittened," "brent," and so on. It's delightful.

(I suppose this is as good a place as any to apologize to anyone who has had the misfortune to meet me at some party and be subjected to my extempore recitations of "Sir Gawain" or the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.)

This musical quality persists, albeit considerably altered, in modern poetry, and so along with Chaucer and co. I find myself recollecting bits of Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Eliot, and so on. The problem, though, is that in reconstructing the texts of these poems in my memory I conflate quite unrelated bits of verse from different periods. Thus, in attempting to remember Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" I invariably produce the following novel variant:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high.
At this point I usually realize that something is amiss and stop.

(For the benefit of my non-Canadian readers, the poem that interrupts after the fourth line is John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields," a poem written by a Canadian doctor during World War I. It is probably the only Canadian poem that everyone in the country stands a good chance of knowing, having heard it read on Remembrance Day every year since time immemorial. To be truly authentic, the poem must be read by a sweaty ten-year-old in an undifferentiated monotone, pausing at the end of each line for a sharp intake of breath; at the back of the gymnasium, a harried teacher should be shushing a restless grade two class.)

It is perhaps understandable that I should conflate Frost's poem with McCrae's: they both have the same slightly pedestrian tetrameter rhythm (ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump), and use repeating rhyme schemes to similar effect. The transition from the one poem to the other is made seamless by a coincidence in their two rhyme schemes ("snow" with "foe"). One can even imagine a shared narrative in which the two poems' meanings are reconciled. Why does Frost's narrator resist his morbid fascination with the snowy woods? Because he has obligations to fulfill ("promises to keep"). Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that his "promises" were made to the dead soldiers in the fields of Flanders ("Take up our quarrel with the foe") - and that by honourably fulfilling their charge the traveller and the soldiers can finally reach the rest they yearn for? (Compare Frost's "miles to go before I sleep" with McCrae's "If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep") Nunc dimittis servum tuum, indeed!

I may perhaps be excused for taking some aesthetic satisfaction in the combination of the two poems above, although I leave it to future scholars to decide whether it is preferable to the original as poetry. I am rather less proud of my other contribution to English literature, a mutant hybrid of Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and Shakespeare's Sonnet 116:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
I would welcome suggestions on what these two poems could possibly have to do with each other, or - more pertinently - on how I can separate them again.

1 comment:

Alice said...

I do the same thing with melodies...I'm a natural medleyist, I guess -- but yours are much more amusing!