I have, at last, finished my Belle Dame poem.
Well, for a given value of ‘finished’. It’s made it to printout-draft stage, been primped and prodded, and has been through the scrutiny of my beta-readers. The interesting thing is that none of them agree on the bits that they query, and none of the queries are especially definite. Which could be good, if it means that the queries are there more or less for the sake of having something to say. Or could be a bad sign, if they indicate that there is something fundamentally flawed about the poem, and which everyone responds to slightly differently. Time will tell. And that’s what I’m going to do now – put it aside and not even look at it for six months or so, so that I can look at it without being swayed by all the things I wanted it to do, all the plans and motives and hopes that have been bound up in it for the last three months. (Three months. God, I’ve had romantic relationships that lasted for less time!) Actually that’s not quite true – I am going to read an excerpt from it at the Festival of Ideas “Putting Words to the Feelings” session next month. Given that we’re supposed to be talking about how the earthquakes have touched our writing, it seems appropriate. So those of you who are feeling curious, there’s your chance for a sneak peek!
The revising of the thing for rhythm was every bit as messy and convoluted as I’d feared. Part of it is that I am rubbish at scansion – how do you decide that line X is iambic tetrameter with a trochaic substitution in the second foot and an acephalous first foot, rather than two spondees, an anapest and a concluding iamb? (Ok, not the best example. But you know what I mean.) Last year I spent a very frustrating three days diligently trying to work through Mary Kinzie’s scansion exercises in A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, and got nearly every one wrong. Repeatedly. Mind you, she was using a three part notation system that I haven’t come across before. The sod of it is that her system strikes me as very sensible and helpful. I just don‘t seem able to put it into practice.
I suspect it’s the same as my issues with music. I used to play clarinet – I was pretty good too. But I play by ear, which is great most of the time. Play me a passage from a new piece of music, and I could play it back to you pretty accurately. Which is all very well and good, but did mean that my sight reading skills didn’t ever get the polishing they needed. It came back to apply forcible mandibular pressure to my gluteal muscles one day when the band leader asked me to stand up and play the first solo section of the piece of music he’d just handed out to us … and yes, it was every bit as embarrassing as you’re imagining. No-one – including me – had realised quite how poor my sight reading was until that moment. (Hello hours of study and two more years of scrutiny …) And I think it’s the same thing going on with my writing, and which this poem has really highlighted. I don’t have the faintest idea what I’m doing most of the time when I write. I’ve cultivated a very good ear for things like the rhythm of a line and how sound and pitch and emphasis serve to speed or slow or even stumble over each other. But until fairly recently, I’ve been doing it all by feel. It’s only been the last couple of years that I’ve started looking at things like the scansion of a line, to work out why a particular pattern isn’t quite flowing, or is letting things slip too quickly over an area that needs more consideration. Working on Fare has made me really pay attention to things like the different emotional characteristics of anapestic versus trochaic versus iambic lines. The way they lighten mood, or darken it. And which ones you need to have following each other.
It’s actually been fun. Sitting down with the stanzas that didn’t quite work, working out what their scansion was, and what it needed to be. Although I suspect only another poet would see the interest in things like ‘argh, to hit that word right I need that line to begin with an iamb, so the preceding line has to end trochee-iamb’† … But it’s important. Otherwise you end up doing what Toto did, and rendering an otherwise lovely song painful to hear. I swear my body tenses up as they approach it: that horrible, boxed-in, cramped and barely intelligible line:
“Sure as Kil-i-man-ja-ro ris-es like O-lym-pus above the Se-renget-i …”
Ugh. To make ‘Serengeti’ sound more like a place name and less like an attempt to gargle tapioca, they need to respect its actual rhythm. Ser-en-ge-ti. Trochee, trochee. Rather than doing a Cinderella’s step-sisters number and trying to stuff all the final three syllables into a size two slipper, they needed to shift the weight backwards, give the third syllable (‘ge’) the three note glide: Se-ren-ge-eh-eh-ti. Yes, they’d have to shuffle things earlier in the line a bit, maybe cut some words in order to get to that note at the right time, but in such a lovely song, wouldn’t it have been worth it‽
(This digression brought to you by For the Hell of It (Pty Ltd) and I’ve Got to Get Out More Co.)
† An actual quote from my work book, although I’ve omitted the swearing.