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Will's New Experiments in Modern Verse

The first stage: March 17, 2010

As I devise my new approach to verse,
I thought it best to jot my research down
To make sure others understand the choices
I have made, and why I thought them wise.

Old English gave my early works their voice.
But now, alas, an English not my own
Rules modern hearts, and all my finest tricks
Are merely that. They sound contrived because
The language changed… and so must my approach.
My first experiment will test the form.

Blank verse is oft defined by “beat and count” –
Ten syllables that alternate in stress –
Quite similar to normal speech, and yet
It overlays a structure on the words
Beyond the strictures placed by common use.
In nonsense sounds, it babbles on like this:
da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.

A compromise, this is; a borrowing
From poetry composed in other tongues
That used one or the other, but not both.
Some poetry is syllabic, its count
Of “das” and “DUMs” per line becoming all
That early English poets seemed to see.
The Latin poems they thought to emulate
Had syllables of different lengths, but this
Did not apply to English; so they tried
To substitute the “das” and “DUMS” instead.

Likewise, another only heard a beating
Like a heart, a steady drumming, constant
Through a poem. For many, this is singing
Through a poem, where syllables are just the
Pleasant sounds that tie the beats together.

The compromise works well enough… but soon
The steady beating, plus the steady count,
Becomes a lullaby. We go to sleep.
And so we try to mix it up a bit –
We rearrange the beats, or change the count.
There is no strong agreement how to do this.
(I could have put that last “this” here; instead
I stretched the count by one. Is it better
That way, or worse? That’s anybody’s guess.)
And sometimes – heresy to some – we add
Or take away a beat. Another guess.

So my approach to verse must start with this:
How tightly will I grip the “beat and count”?
A tight grip gave us Milton; lighter, Frost.
Too light a grip may sacrifice the verse
Completely. How far should I let things go?

My starting thought may seem a bit bizarre:
Why hold on to both? What if I keep one
And only one as sacrosanct, and let
The other take its chances with the poem?
Emboldened by the thought, I make a choice
To hold the count and not the beat. At times
I may add counts; at others, take away.
But this will be the gist of my first test.

What of the beat? What fate shall it suffer?
Perhaps no fate at all; iambic beats
Are natural to English speech and may
Appear without my halting aid. But should
A line read well with four beats only, or
Find a well-formed sound with six, so be it.

Initially, this ten-count line shall be
The beast of burden carrying my work.
The count insures the lines will form a unit,
A structure reading clearly as a poem.
I’ll try it now, and see what poems are born.

The second stage: April 17, 2010

To work in decasyllables is fun!
But the meter suffers too much violence
In the reading; it can’t defend itself
Against the onslaught of the scrambled stress
So many awkward phrasings tend to cause.
It does indeed have form. A limit on
The line length does affect the rhythm of
The piece – some phrasings I might use will not
Conform; to keep the length, I have to change
The sense or else the words. Nevertheless,
When read aloud, the pieces may as well
Be prose for all the difference that it makes.

In many ways, this “line of ten” works well.
I like the sound of many of the poems
I’ve done; the lyrics bounce along and fairly
Sizzle with the unexpected rhythms
Thus created. Still, it’s hard to call it
“Blank verse” when it lacks the common meter
Basic to the form since its inception.

And so I must move on and try again.
The second stage: Reclaim the iamb’s beat.
Some rhythmic variations must be used,
For fear of writing clockwork doggerel
Dogs the best of us; precautions must be
Taken to avoid it. But I shall try
To hew a line much closer to the standard
For a while, and see where it may lead me.

The third stage: May 2, 2010

I need to push myself in new directions;
Variety is still a spicy dish!
A splash of different meters now might give
My growing folio that extra “zing.”

A dash of light tetrameter, its lines of
Four beats – some iambic, others varied –
Sends rhythms bouncing happily along like
Children playing in the summer sunshine.

A pinch of ancient Anglo-Saxon style –
Accentual-alliterative verse –
Four beats per line, each line divided into
Halves of two beats each, a breath between them.
Of the first two stresses, one or both share
A common sound, alliterating with
The third beat, then the last beat stands alone.

And finally, perhaps a twist of hymn verse,
As used for centuries at worship time,
Reuniting poetry and music.

These different styles may stimulate new growth;
Just think of it as di-VERSE-ification.

The fourth stage: August 12, 2010
Oriental Musings

What we may recognize as haiku form
Does not, in fact, resemble it at all.
Quite commonly, we say that seventeen
Lone syllables create an English form
Equivalent to this most Japanese
Of poetries… but we are wrong. You see,
Traditional haiku counts sounds—“onji”—
A symbol representing sounds; think letters
Of our alphabet, not merely syllables.
These onji often number seventeen;
But were they English syllables instead,
Then twelve would much more closely match the length
Of time a haiku takes to say. Some teachers
Make it a matter of stresses per line:
With two, three, and two, it works out to twelve
Syllables often enough, making stresses
A useful yardstick for English haiku.

Haiku, however, is a partial art.
Merely the first lines of a renga verse—
In turn, its structure looking like a tanka.
But neither one is used for telling tales.
I seek an Oriental-sounding form
That I might bend to narrative designs.
The tanka may suffice: A haiku structure
Followed by a couplet—two lines of three
Stresses, it lends itself to clipped and vivid
Speech. Five short lines where syllables don’t matter;
Rather, the number of stresses alone
Determining the meter of the piece.
Further experiments may prove rewarding.