How did it happen? How did the most
Important point and poem of sound
In our day indict dapper slices
Of itself and shrink slowly to the noice
Of phones buzzing? Petty to trade
The cuckoo clock or the bells
Of the belfry tower at the best hours
Of vigils and vespers or the violin my Great
Grandfather grabbed in the grey of dawn
To wake the women and the wider-eyed
Girls who had gone to the gossamer dreamlands
After they aimed amber shooters
At their mother’s marbles and maybe she lost
Them as in later years when lights went off
In her mind’s eye or the mixing swishes
Of the winter walk through wet snow
At an asinine hour to the outhouse door
Or the cheering crowds with their cheap beer
Showers shining at the shipping of balls
over the green outfield wall
To infinity from the finite. Find in me and drill
To the remnant of my ringings and require the miners
Of culture to core my cardiac sack
And my soul’s one for the sake of the singing of old
Songs and their sounds. Seek this or, Dust,
Settle for the buzz and scuttle of locusts
That claim the culture’s clanging moments.
. . .
:: 58 poems ::
• written at 29 years •
This year, for the 58 @ 29, I plan to focus on alliterative meter. It’s the meter used by Middle English and Old English poets as well as Latin and Greek poets. Basically all epic poets use some form of alliterative meter and it hasn’t been used in English for a thousand years. I will be pulling from the rules offered in Lewis’ article on The Alliterative Meter:
In the general reaction which has set in against the long reign of foreign, syllabic meters in English, it is a little remarkable that few have yet suggested a return to our own ancient system, the alliterative line…. Alliteration is no more the whole secret of this verse than rhyme is the whole secret of syllabic verse. It has, in addition, a metrical structure, which could stand alone, and which would then be to this system as blank verse is the syllabic….
A few successful specimens of alliterative meter would be an excellent answer to the type of critic (by no means extinct) who accuses the moderns of choosing vers libre because they are not men enough for meter. For if syllabic verse is like carving in wood and verse libre like working with a brush, alliterative meter is like carving in granite.
“Vers Libre” for those who don’t know is Latin for “free verse.” Lewis has, ultimately, offered for my poetry just the kind of reaction I prefer in all of my life: a reaction that is, deep down, orthodoxy. A reaction to dead leaves as radical as the radish itself: radical because it is the living root of the thing.
Here is the table of contents for my 58 attempts over the next year. After the monogram, I’m including a quote from Chesterton’s An Apology for Buffoons because it defends proper use of alliteration in English:
58 poems at 29 years old ::
- The Brooklyn Film Festival at Windmill Studios
- Rio Sunset Park
- The Ballad of the Writer’s Morning
- To Jack Across the Sea
- To Della Beyond the Veil
- Mother of Exiles
- Greenwood Cemetery Graves
- Upon Finding Your Old Prison Letter Prayers
- A Drizzle in Brooklyn
- Yoke of the Mother
- Evil is my Disease
- CSA Potluck
- Daylight and The Stand
- Megabus Moon Roof
- Baltimore Buildings
- On the Instance of My Wife Sleeping in
- Giving Up Reading News
- Ash Wednesday
From Chesterton’s The Well and The Shallows:
A very sympathetic reviewer said that I used too much alliteration; and quoted Mr. T. S. Eliot (see apology in Introduction) as saying that such a style maddened him to the point of unendurance; and a similar criticism of my English was made, I think, by another American writer, Mr. Cuthbert Wright. Now I think, on fair consideration, that it is perfectly true that I do use a great deal too much alliteration. The only question on which these gentlemen and I would probably differ is a question of degree; a question of the exact importance or necessity of avoiding alliteration. For I do strongly maintain that it is a question of avoiding alliteration—and even that phrase does not avoid it! If an English writer does not avoid it, he is perpetually dragged into it when speaking rapidly or writing a great deal, by the whole trend and current of the English speech; perhaps that is why the Anglo-Saxon poetry even down to Piers Plowman (which I enjoy hugely) was all alliteration. Anyhow, the tendency in popular and unconscious speech is quite obvious, in phrases and proverbs and rhymes and catchwords and a thousand things. Time and tide, wind and water, fire and flood, waste not, want not, bag and baggage, spick and span, black and blue, deaf and dumb, the devil and the deep sea, when the wine is in the wit is out, in for a penny, in for a pound, a pig in a poke, a bee in a bonnet, a bat in a belfry, and so on through a myriad fantastic changes of popular imagery. What elaborate art, what sleepless cunning even, must these more refined writers employ to dodge this rush of coincidences; and run between the drops of this deluge! It must be a terrible strain on the presence of mind to be always ready with a synonym. I can imagine Mr. T. S. Eliot just stopping himself in time, and saying with a refined cough, “Waste not, require not.” I like to think of Mr. Cuthbert Wright, in some headlong moment of American hustle, still having the self-control to cry, “Time and Fluctuation wait for no man!” I can imagine his delicate accent when speaking of a pig in a receptacle or of bats in the campanile. It is a little difficult perhaps to image the latter critic apparently confining himself to the isolated statement, “Mr. Smith is spick,” while his mind hovered in momentary hesitation about how to vary the corresponding truth that Mr. Smith is span. But it is quite easy to conceive an advanced modern artist of this school, looking for some sharp and graphic variation in the old colour scheme of black and blue. Indeed, we might almost invent a sort of colour test, like that which somebody suggested about red grass and green sky as a test of different schools of painting. We might suggest that Decadents beat people black and yellow, Futurists beat them black and orange, Neo-Victorians beat them black and magenta; but all recoil from the vulgar alliteration of beating them black and blue. Nor indeed is the reference to these new and varied styles irrelevant. Some of the more bizarre modern methods seem to me to make it rather difficult to have any fixed criticism at all, either of their style or mine. Take, for instance, the case of Mr. T. S. Eliot himself. I recently saw a poem of his praised very highly and doubtless very rightly; though to some extent (it seemed) because it was a poem of profound “disillusionment and melancholy.” But the passage specially quoted for commendation ran, if I remember right:
“the smell of steak in passages.”
That quotation is enough to indicate the difficulty I mean. For even style of this severe and classic sort is after all to some extent a matter of taste. It is not a subject for these extreme controversial passions. If I were to say that the style of that line maddened me to the point of unendurance, I should be greatly exaggerating its effect on the emotions. I should not like everything to be written in that style; I should not like to wander for ever in passages stuffy with steak (there we go again!) but I cannot think these questions of style are quite so important as these pure stylists suppose. We must be moderate in our reactions; as in that verse specially headed “The Author’s Moderation” in the Bab Ballad about Pasha Bailey Ben—another great poem written in a tone of melancholy and disillusion.
To say that Bailey oped his eyes Would feebly paint his great surprise; To say it almost made him die Would be to paint it much too high.
I may be allowed to open my eyes for a moment at some of the literary models thus commended to me; but I shall soon close them again in healthful slumber. And when the more refined critic implies that my own manner of writing almost makes him die, I think he over-estimates my power over life and death.
But I have begun with this personal example of alliteration; because a question like that of alliteration is not so simple as it looks; and the answer to it applies to much more important things than my own journalistic habits. Alliteration is an example of a thing much easier to condemn in theory than in practice. There are, of course, many famous examples in which an exaggerated alliteration seems quite wrong. And yet those are exactly the examples which it would be most difficult for anybody to put right. Byron (a splendid example of the sort of writer who does not bother much about avoiding anything) did not hesitate to say of his hero at Quatre Bras that he “rushed into the field and foremost fighting fell.” That is so extreme that we might well suppose it described the end of the life and adventures of Peter Piper. But I will trouble anybody to alter one word in the line so as to make it better; or even so as to make it sense. Byron used those words because they were the right words; and you cannot alter them without deliberately choosing the wrong words. This is more often the case in connection with alliteration than many people imagine. I do not mean to claim any such exalted company when I say that, on this particular point of conduct, I agree with Byron. But Byron does not stand alone; Coleridge, a person of some culture, could burst out boisterously and without stopping for breath:
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, The furrow followed free.
and I do not see that he could have done anything else. I do not think anybody could interfere with that foaming spate of Fs, if the verse that followed was really “to follow free.”
There is a problem behind all this which is also illustrated in other ways. It is illustrated in the other much controverted question of puns. I know all about the judgments regularly cited as if from dusty law-books in the matter. I know all about the story that Dr. Johnson said, “The man who would make a pun would pick a pocket.” How unlucky that the lexicographer and guardian of our language, in the very act of purging himself of puns, should have plunged so shamelessly deep into the mire of alliteration!
cover image of ashes by Trilok Rangan