Notes on Verse Technique

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1932

In trying to decide what real poetry, as distinguished from mere rhyming prose, actually is, we conclude that the essential marks of poetry are sincere and intense emotion, the use of delicate suggestion, symbolism, and depiction rather than bald statement as a medium of presentation, musically rhythmical language with sound expressive of the theme, and a tremendously exact and intelligent choice of words based on their associative value, literary and colloquial, and on their fresh unhackneyedness in connexion with the given purpose.

Naturally, so general a definition is of only vague help in enabling the amateur to discriminate between good and bad verse in specific cases; hence it would be well to inquire further about the earmarks of poetic merit. Roughly, we may say that any piece of intendedly poetic composition, whether one’s own or another’s, ought to be studied with a keen eye for at least four points: (1) suitability of the rhythmical form; (2) appropriateness of the vocabulary, language, and manner of approach; (3) sincerity, relevance, and vividness of the symbols, images, or figures of speech employed; and (4) sincerity and truth to human nature of the theme, mood, and plan of presentation.

The first point—about suitability of form—need not be taken as an argument for regular verse against intelligently irregular or free verse; for it means only that the basic harmony between thought and rhythm ought never to be broken, and that when a certain type of cadence-pattern is once decided on, it ought not to be blindly, carelessly, and capriciously violated by deviations inherently alien to it.

In free verse, of course, only a sort of natural taste or instinct can tell the beginner exactly what rhythms are or are not suited to certain passages in a given poem. That is one reason why the indiscriminate use of this medium is not to be highly recommended to the novice except when he has a spontaneous inclination toward it. The lack of guiding rules is a severe handicap at an early stage of poetic growth. In metrical verse, however, it is easy to envisage the various parts of any chosen rhythm-pattern, whether regular or irregular, and to see that the number of accentual beats in any given line complies with the understood requirements of a pattern.

Any good poetic manual like Brander Matthews “A Study of Versification”, or any standard textbook on composition and rhetoric, will give the beginner a full idea of the various English metres, their names, their rules, and their relative fitness for different types of poetic use. It remains for him to see just how these metres are to be applied in practice. Many novices appear to think that the management of line-lengths is a wholly free-and-easy, hit-or-miss process; so that we often find in the amateur papers something like the following:

 

“My eyes doth behold the tawdry sky,

My thoughts doth soar up very high,

I study, I meditate, my soul opens wide

Like the rushing and rolling of the daily flood tide.”

 

Now this will never do. When we agree on a certain pattern, assigning so many beats to a line, we must stick to it. In the case cited, the author undoubtedly wanted to use iambic tetrameter, or iambic verse with four beats to a line, thought he succeeded in doing it only in his second line. A more correct version—with certain points other than metre also straightened out—might read:

 

My eyes behold the vaulted sky,

While every thought ascends on high;

My brooding soul is opened wide

To Truth’s incessant mounting tide.

 

It will be noted that the amended version has exactly the same number of syllables, as well as of beats, to a line; and one may add that of course this must tend to be so, dominantly, in all regular metre, since each metrical beat is usually associated with a certain number of syllables. Thus four-beat iambic verse, since the iambic foot is traditionally an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, will always tend to have just eight syllables per line—as the foregoing revised specimen has. In general, it is safest for the beginner to count his syllables and plan his metrical pattern on a syllabic basis; though experienced poets, with a trained ear for subtle harmonies, are able to vary the number of unstressed syllables provided they keep to the prescribed number of beats per line. Thus Coleridge, in a specimen of four-beat iambics:

 

“A snake’s small eye blinks dull and shy,

And the lady’s eyes they shrunk in her head;

Each shrunk up to a serpent’s eye,

And with somewhat of malice and more of dread

At Christabel she looked askance. . .”

 

Here a genuine poetic master is syllabically irregular without spoiling the regularity of the underlying metrical pattern; but as in free verse, it takes a very sensitive and well-trained ear to decide just how to manage the irregular syllables. No beginner is likely to be able to “get away with it”, hence the advisability of sticking at first to a regular number of syllables per line. Many, of course, prefer always to retain this absolute regularity; so that some of the world’s foremost poetry is in lines which may be largely measured by syllable-counting. Everyone, however, should strive to educate his ear to such a point that he can discriminate between artistic, basically rhythmical irregularity and the irregularity which is irresponsible and violative of rhythm.

This applies not only to irregularity of syllables, but to such deviations from the main accent plan as cause one metrical foot to be substituted for another. In the midst of iambic verse we often insert a line which begins with a trochaic foot (with accents reversed) or a spondee (with two equally accented syllables), but we must learn to do this intelligently if we do it at all. Thus the following from Keats is wholly artistic, even though the lines do not all consist of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables as implied by the dominant iambic metre:

 

“Then Lamia breathed death-breath; the sophist’s eye,

Like a sharp spear, went through her utterly;

Keen, cruel, perceant, stinging: she as well

As her weak hand could any meaning tell,

Motioned him to be silent. . .”

 

Were it not for this variety of accent, a long piece of verse might readily become highly monotonous, yet it is only too easy to make careless variations which are not permissible at all. Thus the following is only harsh and ridiculous because of its irregularities:

 

Bright shines the sun over the serene wold,

And adorns every hedge with refined gold.

 

Clearly the original plan of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable should be more closely adhered to—perhaps like this:

 

Bright shines the sun above the quiet wold,

Decking each hedge with transcendental gold.

 

Here the regularity is not absolute, but the exceptions are confined to places where they do not halt the rhythm. The learner should strive his utmost, by cultivating a rhythmic instinct and by studying the best poetic models, to develop a subconscious taste in the matter of cadences in poetry. Also, he should learn to shun freakish and arbitrary variations in his metrical plan, such as the insertion of lines of one kind of metre in the midst of a poem designed to be in another metre. All too many amateurs are careless in this respect; irresponsibly putting occasional tetrameter or hexameter lines in intendedly pentameter verse, and so on.

Now as for the second earmark of good verse—appropriateness of vocabulary, language, and manner of approach—here we must rely almost entirely on a developed taste, for the specific guiding rules are very few. We have noted before that certain archaic and affectedly “poetic” words are taboo—yclept, quoth, cloth, ‘gan, charger, morn, and things of that kind. It may be added that other words or alleged words such as galore, enthused, doped, disgruntled, etc., are taboo because they either do not properly exist or are parts of a lame, feeble type of tame, trite, and stupid colloquialism or “Babbitt English” without standing in any real art of expression. Further taboos exist against definitely slang words except in consciously light or comic verse; against the oh’s, ah’s, alas’s, dear’s, sweet’s, and tender’s of spurious emotion; and above all, against technical or technically-suggesting words such as psychology, process, inhibition, educational, economics, terrain, parallax, citizenship, civics, maximum, stabalisation, and the like, which are utterly and irrevocably confined to prose and the thought-processes peculiar to prose. Thus the following extracts are hopelessly unpoetical:

 

“And don’t make your trip purely educational,

But let it be rather somewhat recreational.”

 

“Service and knowledge solve problems we share,

More applied Religion leads to the goal,

Character, Citizenship, Conduct fair,

Build genuine Peace to master the whole,

Cooperation with duty and care

Will make Better Homes the joy of the soul.”

 

In the same class are words or terms of expression suggestive of prose logic rather than poetic symbolism—hence, therefore, thus, namely, respective, corollary, and their kith.

It is, of course, but a step from this matter of vocabulary to the question of manner and approach. Here we may only say that poetry must convey its message simply and concretely; using plain, universal, and appropriately symbolic words, and speaking in images, comparisons, suggestions, and implications rather than in coldly explanatory statements or logical expositions. Thus the following line (referring to the Mound-Builders of prehistoric America), though taken from an intended poem, is certainly prose and nothing else:

 

“And that whole population disappeared without leaving a physical trace.”

 

To change this into poetry one would have to alter the whole method of diction and approach; untechnicalising the language, substituting pictures, comparisons, or emotional effects for dry statements, and producing something more like this:

 

And like a cloud that melts in mystery

   Before the breath of summer’s sun-charged wind,

That race, whose walls had towered from sea to sea,

   Vanished, and left a lifeless void behind.

 

Often the contrast between prosaic and poetic expression is not as clear-cut as in this example; so that we must look sharply to see whether the poet is really speaking in symbols and images, or merely “bluffing” by writing literal prose statement in language otherwise fairly acceptable to poetry. For example, note the relative flatness and tameness of the following entirely correct verse:

 

Her mouth is sweet and music-fraught,

   And on her fair face beams the glow

Of amorous guile and subtle thought

   Bequeathed from Egypt long ago.

 

This is smooth enough, but there is no life in it because it merely states something instead of picturing it. It is really a paraphrase of the opening of Swinburne’s “Cleopatra”, and when we turn to the original we may instantly see how the concrete and figurative language vitalises and makes poetry of the description:

 

“Her mouth is fragrant as a vine,

   A vine with birds in all its boughs;

Serpent and scarab for a sign

   Between the beauty of her brows

And the amorous deep lips divine.”

 

The third earmark of good verse—sincerity, relevance, and vividness of the symbols, images, or figures employed—is an infinitely subtler point than either of the preceding ones; and can be perfectly understood only through the development of one’s own inmost taste. Often a poem may be as wholly figurative as the Swinburne original just quoted, yet it will fail to ring true because the symbols, images, and comparisons are forced, artificial, inapplicable, or not deeply felt. A figure of speech, to be really effective, must directly, powerfully, naturally, and genuinely symbolise the actual object, condition, or occurrence which the poet intends it to tell about. If it does not, the effect can never ring true, but will always be bad poetry. It is better to drop into figureless prose than to concoct flimsy and artificial figures which really apply very little to the thing depicted. Such pseudo-figures always reveal their irrelevance to the reader and make a poem feebler instead of stronger. Thus in the first specimen quoted in this article the final image is a palpably false one—a mere rhetorical flourish without relevance or meaning:

 

“. . . my soul opens wide
Like the rushing and rolling of the daily flood tide.”

 

Does the wide opening of anything bear any resemblance to the rolling of a tide? If we have a symbol, it must be an applicable one. Had the poet compared the opening of his soul to the unfolding of flower-petals, the raising of a portcullis, or better still, the opening of a flood-gate, his parallel would have been an applicable and therefore potentially effective one. Some cases, of course, are far subtler than this. It is so easy in poetry to perpetrate passages like:

 

The roseate dawn at last flared up
Like wine within a magic cup;
While on the green the shadows fell
Like Titans half-invisible...

 

Yet when we look closely at such concoctions we can easily see that the comparisons are forced, inept, and obviously devised merely of the sake of creating a poetic-looking exterior. They are not real because they are not exact, natural, and spontaneously generated in the poet’s subconscious. They are no more real to the poet than to the reader. It will be useful to contrast a bit of typically pompous “hokum” with a piece of genuinely poignant concrete expression on the same subject; hence at the risk of consuming too much space the following pair of Memorial Day verses—collated some years ago by B. K. Hart, Literary Editor of the Providence Journal—are given in full. A is smooth, and even free from really false figures, but the symbols are in this case ruined by sheer tameness and triteness. Notice the tremendously increased vitality of B, whose symbols and images are really living and potent ones:

 

A

 

Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest

   On this Field of the Grounded Arms,

Where foes no more molest,

   Nor sentry’s shot alarms.

 

Ye have slept on the ground before,

   And started to your feet

At the cannon’s sudden roar

   Or the drum’s redoubling beat.

 

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!

   The thoughts of men shall be

As sentinels to keep

   Your rest from danger free.

 

Your silent tents of green

   We deck with fragrant flowers;

Yours has the suffering been;

   The memory shall be ours.

 

B

 

Do not cry!
But gather buds! And with them greenery
Of slender branches taken from a tree
Well bannered by the Spring that saw them fall,
And you, for you are cleverest of all,
Who have slim fingers and are pitiful!
Brimming your lap with bloom that you may cull,
Will sit apart and weave for every head
A garland of the flowers you gathered.
Be green upon their graves, O happy Spring!
For they were young and eager who are dead!
Of all things that are young and quivering
With eager life, be they remembered
They move not here. They have gone to the clay.
They cannot die again for liberty!
Be they remembered of their land for aye!
Green be their graves, and green their memory!

 

But the fourth earmark of good verse—the sincerity and truth to human nature of the theme, mood, and plan of presentation—is the hardest one of all for the amateur to define and identify. Literature is so full of favourite stock subjects and conventional modes of treatment that it is really hard sometimes for a novice to know whether he is singing his own mood or the mood of an endless crowd of other writers whose style he relishes and tends to echo. If he is wise, he will beware of trusting himself to be original and sincere in any piece of work except one born directly out of his deepest personal feelings as distinguished from his polite and palpably acquired literary feelings. one ought not to make a show of great emotion where little or none exists. This sort of deception always results in feebleness, unconvincingness, and mushy sentimentality as distinguished from actual warmth. It is fairly easy to detect in the novice, for he usually reveals his hollowness by parading the long string of false-sentiment adjectives and ejaculations—fond, grand, rare, mighty, wonderful, beauteous, sweet, oh, alt, hark, lo, etc. etc.—with which he has whipped up a spurious enthusiasm for something that may or may not merit any enthusiasm at all. Much is revealed by choice of subject, as well—for we are on guard against saccharine and perfervid rhapsodings about home, mother, spring, pure love, snow, righteousness, pearly gates, the moon, courage, success, and all the rest of the old standbys.

Even worse than the insincere treatment of a theme which may in itself be intrinsically sound, is the juggling of false ideas and values which have no relation whatever to any form of life or reality. By this is meant, for one thing, the personification or attribution of feeling and consciousness to things utterly incapable of such treatment—the process by which mawkish poets speak of tender rocks that dream in the sweet twilight, or tell about the song of the fond blossom that woos the nightingale. Another form of this insincerity is the display of extravagant emotion over things which warrant it—as when the poetaster avers he is ravished and transported by the fact that a robin has laid an egg in his bird-house, or wails of being plunged into abysses of grief by the death of the day at sunset or that of the year in autumn. These are the kind of fellows whom beauty hurts, and who cannot see a butterfly without chanting a hymn of praise. A recent example of this type of artificial sentiment addresses the much-overworked moon as follows:

 

“But to me—you’re like a beautiful prayer—
Something aloof—marvelous and rare.”

 

Only wide reading, keen observation, and cultivated sensitivity will enable the novice to draw an exact and instant line between mawkishness and true feeling; but with time and growth the faculty becomes acute and readily available. The other points—form, language, vividness—likewise become clear under such a regimen; so that to the young bard in any stage of evolution we may always safely give one dominant piece of advice—to read, watch, think, feel, and practice for all he is worth; analysing every specimen of verse he writes or encounters, and refusing to be sidetracked by carelessness or inflated with false sentiment.

 

***

 

Recent months have brought such a profusion of good verse in the papers of the National that it will hardly be possible to do more than glance at certain salient examples.

In Masaka for October and January Mr. Burton Crane reveals himself as one of the cleverest and most intelligent of our poets, furnishing several specimens of diverse forms and varying degrees of seriousness whose connecting thread is a definite mood of ironic, half-jaunty disillusionment in which easy assurance is faintly touched with traces of light wistfulness. It is a poetry of ideas rather than of images; but the authenticity and distinctiveness of the mood, the mature flow of the language, and the aptness of the turns of thought all give it a lyric grace which places it far outside the field of mere rhyming prose. Current colloquialism is often used to great advantage, especially in those pieces which frankly belong to the light verse category. “Lipstick”, “A Bronx Cheer for Life”, the sonnet sequence “In Passing”, and others are all worth more than casual mention. The technique is in general so good that one wonders at the presence of two small but slightly irritating flaws—the assigning of a disyllabic value to the monosyllable hours, and the accenting of romance on the first syllable. Lighter pieces are “The Seal”, “Your Love”, and “The Ballad of Alexis”, all of which contain an especially keen and sophisticated wit. “Little Streets at Night” is in many ways the finest of the offerings from an imaginative point of view, being full of vivid pictures which arouse a horde of pleasantly exotic vistas in the reader’s mind. As the lines themselves say,

 

“The silver ghosts of old Japan
Come gliding forth from vase and fan
And coloured prints live once again in little streets at night.”

 

An additional word of praise is due to Mr. Crane for his brief but very illuminating article on Japanese poetry.

Ripples from Lake Champlain continues to purvey poetry of an exceptionally high order. The contributions of Vrest Orton, mostly in the sonnet form, attain a literary level which puts them in competition with the best of recent American verse, whether inside or outside amateurdom. Mr. Orton’s instinctive command of symbols and images expressive of precise shadings of emotion, and of verbal effects which convey worlds of thought in a single deft twist or eloquently significant pause, makes him a poet in the most genuine sense, and causes us to forgive any signs of careless workmanship which may now and then creep into his lines. “Pension” is a remarkably—almost disturbingly—vivid study of old age, which Editor Kelley has honoured by reprinting in a highly tasteful broadside form. “Mirage” is charged with an unusual amount of harmony despite an irregularity in the rhyme scheme and an employment of the somewhat outmoded archaisms ‘neath and o’er. But the lyric “To Helen” is probably the most thoroughly poignant example of Mr. Orton’s recent verse. The musical cadences of these brief couplets blend magnificently with the graphic and delicate procession of autumnal imagery—so that we quite forget the disyllabic use of hour in the first line.

Aptly supplementing Mr. Orton’s work in Ripples are the twin replies to his “Pension” by Berniece L. Beane-Graham. While scarcely equalling the potency and rhythm of the original, they display much cleverness and observation, and exemplify an irregular metre which generally escapes harshness.

“Water Lily”, by Rev. Philip Jerome Cleveland, is rich in visions of natural beauty, and is cast in a metre of alternating Alexandrine and pentameter lines which proves highly satisfactory until the Alexandrines, toward the close of the poem, unaccountably swell into heptameters. “Stars”, by Daniel W. Smythe, “The Hell of Wrath”, by Marie Tello Phillips, and various brief items by Bettie Margot Cassie, are all clear-cut and adequate in the expression of single ideas. “Eroti”, by Ray H. Zorn, has images of genuine power, though the verses as a whole retain vague traces of an immature workmanship betrayed by the conscious rather than unconscious management of the rhythm. “An Evening and a Morning”, by William Sheppard Sparks, is a free verse experiment whose panoramic glimpses indicate a very promising selective imagination, while “Universal Ripples”, by Leonard Twynham, is exceedingly eloquent and melodious. The work of Miriam Irene Kimball, here as often elsewhere, suffers from a spirit of prose which persists in spite of the use of metre. It is a matter of vocabulary, mode of approach to the subject, type of diction, and the habit of making flat statements instead of using symbolism, association, suggestion, and pictorial imagery in conveying the desired effect. It would pay Miss Kimball to form a completely fresh idea of the province and methods of poetry through the study of some contemporary manual like the recently published works of L. A. G. Strong. A similar criticism might sometimes be applied to the work of Florence Grow Proctor. Another kind of weakness—the weakness of trite, vague phraseology, dif. fuse, rather imitative stock emotion, and careless, uncritical, and unselective construction—is exhibited in “Oh! Moon”, by Hazel Jacobs.

In “The Woodland Smoke” Rev. Eugene B. Kuntz is seen most advantageously as a weaver of exact, delicate images to mirror his sensitive responses to natural beauty. R. Malcolm Beal also shews much eloquence and vividness in his “Syrian Beggar’s Prayer”, though the form is somewhat irregular. Always graphic and meritorious are the short lyrics and vignettes by Marjorie Tullar, of which an untitled specimen heads the Autumn Ripples. Other excellent recent work by Miss Tullar includes “Irony” in the April Sea Gull, “Treasure Chest” in the January New Amateur, and “Sanctuary” in the November Goldenrod.

Scattered through the different papers of the day are many more poems of undoubted value. William Henry Blauvelt’s “Evening”, in the New Amateur, is very graceful except for the use of the awkward pseudo-poetic idiom does rear. “After the Christmas Dance”, by Mary Elizabeth Mahakey in the December Reg’lar Fellows, has a pathos and simplicity belonging to the true poetic tradition. In the ample February Amateur Affairs several good verses occur; notably George W. Roberts’ artistically sincere though not very polished “Regrets”, Max Kaufman’s “The Untapped”, and Arthur Canto’s “Sunset”—which latter would perhaps be more convincing if not so reminiscent of the synthetic “folksiness” of James Whitcomb Riley and his school. “The Beautiful Night”, by N. B. McCarter, shews undoubted poetic feeling but an almost complete lack of technical training, which calls for remedy.

At least two poetry brochures of great merit have appeared in the National since the last report. Thoughts and Pictures (22 pp.), by Eugene B. Kuntz, D.D., contains a selection of Dr. Kuntz’s lighter newspaper verse compiled by the able editor of The Tryout, and includes a great deal of highly pleasing material. Perhaps the most notable poem is “Dusk on a Rainy Night”, in which the author’s responsiveness to delicate visual impressions, and his instant ability to translate a subtle image into a definite mood, are exhibited with particular force.

Poems from the Heart of Vermont (60 pp.) is an ambitious anthology of work both amateur and non-amateur compiled and published by Mr. Stanton C. Muzzy. It is adorned with two delightful illustrations—a woodcut frontispiece by F. Gilbert Hills, “A Vermont Hillside”, and a fine halftone view of a steepled hilltop village photographed by Frank H. Craig and entitled “Sabbath Morn”. Perhaps the most distinctive original ingredient is Arthur Goodenough’s majestic piece of pageantry, “The Clouds”, where we see something of the imaginative power which Lord Dunsany praised over a decade ago when awarding Mr. Goodenough a laureateship in a United contest.

Legújabbak

Clark Ashton Smith:
Hasisevő, avagy a Gonosz Apokalipszise, A

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Robert E. Howard:
Harp of Alfred, The

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Robert E. Howard:
Red Thunder

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Legolvasottabb

Howard Phillips Lovecraft:
Cthulhu hívása

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Olvasás

Howard Phillips Lovecraft:
Őrület hegyei, Az; Hallucináció hegységei, A

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Abraham Merritt:
Moon Pool, The

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