The English Beat

The Bourgeois GentlemanI am on a detox diet that involves soaking in a bath nearly every day. Lately, I have been taking The English Language: A Historical Introduction with me. (It only took dropping my precious iPod touch into sudsy water once to break me of my previous habit.) Aside from the occasional snide remark about pronunciations other than strict-and-snotty RP (like, say, American English), the book is excellent.

I found this passage particularly interesting:

Try speaking the following two sentences as naturally as you can, stressing in each the four syllables marked:

There’s a néw mánager at the wórks todáy
There’s a néw bóss thére nów.

Although the first has eleven syllables, and the second only six, you will find that the two sentences take about the same time to speak. The reason for this is not hard to see: a speaker of English tries to space the stressed syllables evenly, so that both sentences contain four time-units. … This characteristic of the English language plays a part in the rhythm of English poetry, since a sequence of stressed syllables makes the verse move slowly, whereas a sequence of unstressed syllables makes it move fast.

This is an elementary point, but one I found revelatory in that it clearly articulated something I had only understood on instinct before. The book also points out that many languages other than English space all syllables evenly. In our case, however, we have a built-in mechanism for the equivalent of musical rubato.

This is what enabled Gerard Manley Hopkins to cluster stressed and unstressed syllables into a metrical invention he called sprung rhythm, and what allowed the beats to mimic the syncopation of jazz.

At the end of The Bourgeois Gentleman, the main character is surprised and delighted to discover he has been speaking prose all his life. Call me bourgeois, but I, too, am in fact delighted to have discovered this simple, mechanical understanding of the meter-making elements of the language in which I have been inventing, both poetry and prose, ever since my first uttered word.

The Revelations of Gerard Manley Hopkins

“Go forth: amidst our chaffinch flock display
Thy plumage of far wonder and heavenward flight!”

-Robert Bridges

Reading “Poems 1876-89” in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Fourth Edition), it struck me how much of his verse was not necessarily much more technically interesting than other poets of the Nineteenth century. What remains remarkable are his most famous poems, which seem to typify and embody what he strove toward in other works. Most of his poems employ what he calls “sprung rhythm,” which is simply a dense clustering of stressed or non-stressed syllables in a way that was not typical at a time when two- and three-syllable feet, and especially iambs and trochees, ruled the day. Yet this particular break from convention is not interesting in itself. Hopkins’s work gets most interesting when he focuses so intently on the music of the poem as to push the literal meaning aside, and further compounds, enhances, and transcends any such meaning with revelatory line breaks.

Consider one of my favorite poems:

The Windhover:
To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

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Tactics for Contemporary Sonnets

Contemporary sonnets are not easy to write.

Yet some have done it surprisingly well. Of the poems I liked best toward the latter half of this anthology, there seemed to be three general types of poems that employed either dense music to drown out the form; an “absurd” subject matter juxtaposed against the intricate, labyrinthine turns of the form; or a very faint adherence to the form, giving a vague echo or nod to the tradition while also breaking free.
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