On my way back to Cambridgeshire from Edinburgh, I was sat on the train reading the introduction to the book of German poetry I was so lucky to get for Christmas and it got me thinking about something. What really needs improving on my current poetry style? Obviously there is a lot of work to be done, but I just want to talk about a few points which this introduction brought clearly into perspective for me.
For those who have read a fair bit of my poetry you will probably know by now that, most of what I write follows rhyming patterns and (relatively) strict meter. I have ventured out of that occasionally, but not very often at all. This German poetry book however changes my idea there. There is no doubt that rhyme and meter are hugely important aspects of the German styles, yet as some of the early lines in the introduction to ‘German Poetry- an anthology from Klopstock to Enzenberger’ points out, ‘Poetry is claimed as carefully wrought, compact, stylised. The very term ‘lyric’ implies in its etymology that Poetry is linked with music and with song.’ It then continues to talk about the importance of rhythm and pattern that poetry consequently shares with music. In short, rhyme, a part considered so important to poetry to many – including myself originally – has little importance in comparison to the flow and feel of poetry. Rereading some of my own work, I notice that it severely lacks the smoothness and ease of movement of my favourite poets, and it is because of my neglect of rhythm and flow. The introduction draws parallels between the English styles and German, stating the importance of stress patterns in both languages, whereas other languages are more focused on syllable count or vowel sounds. I have no experience of poetry outside of English or German (or old Norse…but that’s another story) so I can’t state my opinion on this idea, Therefore I shall assume its true…after all, the editor of the anthology works at the university I have an interview for in February, so I should definitely be nice to his commentary.
What I can however do, is give an example of that importance of stress in English poetry that Martin Swales, The editor of the Anthology, speaks about. Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven‘ contains a very strong example of the ‘trochaic’ form. That is, an alternating strong stress to weak stress.
“Once, upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered
weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten
This is of course only one example, and the iamic form (weak strong alternating) is much more common. What it highlights however, is how essential stress is to English poetry. In the excerpt of The Raven I gave above, other than internal rhyme, the rhyme hasn’t yet appeared as the section is too short, but it is still clearly recognizable as poetry. It isn’t the rhyme that does that. It’s the stress. So back briefly to the quote from the anthology’s introduction I added at the start. “Poetry is linked with music and with song.” Do songs rhyme and have strict meter? some of them do, but certainly not all. (I say as my next planned post should be a translation of a Ballad…) Songs of the modern day are more concerned with the rhythmic form and hence the stress, than with rhyming every line.
What’s my point then? Instead of writing within rules and structures, bend them to make way for the natural flow of rhythm. That by no means demands the rejection of strict rhyme and meter – they have their place and are hugely powerful techniques – but instead reminds that they are just that: techniques. And just like music, the more techniques you know, the more you can express what you truly meant.