Wednesday, 28 December 2011

To Pause or not to Pause

Boys and girls, it is officially getting more complicated! In this chapter I learn that there is so much more to Iambic Pentameter than meets the eye. I thought I could get by just writing a line with ten syllables, followed by another one. But no; I am to incorporate enjambment and caesura into my I.P. in order to make it more exciting. What the hell are these nasty sounding words? I remember them vaguely but I must admit I needed a (major) refresher from Stephen, which I will pass on to you with love and care. Enjambment is when you flow on from the first line to the second, rather than stopping. And Caesura is when you have a pause in the middle of a line. Sigh. My first thought is: why do the names always need to be so fancy? Why can’t they just call caesura a break or pause, and be done with it?
I’m hoping that I can get away with just putting commas randomly in the middle of my poetry lines to create the effect. But then, damn it, I’m told that not every comma even causes a caesura. How am I supposed to know the difference? Stephen begins discussing the situations in which a comma is, or is not, a caesura, but to be perfectly honest I haven’t got a clue what he’s on about, so I swiftly gloss over that part and move on.
I am then lead into a trap, like a stupid lumbering bear following a trail of food. Stephen asks me if the world would be better off if poetry was just written in lines that make sense, like this:

So threatened he,
But Satan to no threats gave heed,
But waxing more in rage replied:

I reckon that’s a pretty good way to arrange those lines, rather than worrying about I.P. So I go with yes, the world would be a better place if it was arranged like this.
But NO! Stephen shouts at me across the page in mean bold letters. Don’t be so idiotic Rachel! Well that’s not actually what it says, but it's something along those lines.
The most important thing is the metre and then after that come the sense and feeling of what is being said. Silly me. Metre is the don, the other two his bitches, always second to that all important rhythm.

In the unlikely event that you are unfamiliar with Milton, here is how the real thing looks:

So threatened he, but Satan to no threats
Gave heed, but waxing more in rage replied:

Metre is not a poetic prison; it’s there for our own good! And I am pleased to say I actually agree with this statement, because if the poem is just a bunch of words (that don’t rhyme haha) with no rhythm or beat then really they’re not a poem at all. And we need to know the rules in order to mess with them and break them! I find this amusing mostly because it reminds me of a certain person on my Masters course who thought they were above all rules of writing, whether it be poetry, prose, script, or in fact a simple sentence.
I have a go at marking the caesuras and the enjambment in some poems in the book. They look pretty on the page but as it turns out I don't do very well at it. I guess I just don’t really know when and when not to pause…
And now, God help me, it’s my turn to have a go. Yikes. But it’s OK, because I am going to be guided through it, step by step. Hold my hand, Stephen, hold my hand!
I write five more I.P. with no enjambment and no caesuras. Quite easy. Then I realise I have totally run on ahead without the intended and necessary help, as I have actually been given five topics to work with. And so I start again.

 1. What I can see and hear outside the window:

The children scream and run about the place.
             Some snow is on the ground but not too much.

2. What I’d like to eat:

I’m not too hungry because I ate lunch.
             Later I’d like a pizza with a film.

3. What I last dreamt about:

A serial killer living next door.
             It’s Dexter’s fault I’m having such bad dreams.

4. Uncompleted chores niggling:

Boring but I have to do the washing.
             Communal washers are so annoying.

5. What I hate about my body:

            Ha ha now Stephen I don’t want to say.
            There’s many things but most are a secret.

Now it’s time to do it again, but better, with the inclusion of the dreaded 'e' and 'c.' Fortunately I am assured that it doesn’t have to be elegant, sensible or clever. Not exactly an advert for a potential date, but good for me right now.

1.         A scream! Don’t worry it’s children playing
            In break, enjoying snow while they still can.

2.         I’m not hungry- noodles for lunch an hour
            Ago. Later a pizza, what a joy.

3.         The threat of killers, Dexter! How sad that 
            You can haunt my dreams, worry me at night.

4.         Washing the clothes is boring! Must be done
            Today in shared washers, how I hate them.

5.         Stephen! You’ll have to try harder to learn
            My personal dislikes, my lips are sealed.

Finished! And breathe. 

Thursday, 22 December 2011

My time is finally here!

In this chapter I am told to read through a list of Iambic Pentameter (or I.P as I'm now going to call it) and 'savour' each line as if it were chocolate, 'slowly taking it in.' But I'm not too sure that I am really meant to read poetry slowly, as personally I prefer to shovel chocolate in as quickly as possible. I have never been a 'sucker,' I find it annoying and unsatisfying. Hmmm....
I go through the I.P as instructed, marking the unstressed syllables like this _ and stressed ones like this / . It's quite fun and I soon get into the rhythm, getting carried away with it rather than actually reading the words properly. But whatever.
My favourite one in the list is by WH Auden, so I will use it as an example:
_      /       _  /    _   /   _    /     _    /
And death is better as the millions know,
_       /    _      /        _   /   _    /   _  /
Than dandruff, night-starvation, or B.O.

I prefer the way it looks on paper than on the computer, but that's the best I can do.

Stephen's knowledge never ceases to amaze me. At the end of the examples, he casually points out that there is more than 700 years of poems represented there. And my guess is that they are probably in chronological order, too. What a show off!

I am supposed to go back and read them again, this time as if I were tasting wine. I’m afraid this has lost me as well, because I like to glug down wine!

I have to write ‘only’ about twenty I.P of my own, of either one or two lines. So much for easing me in gently, dude.

I am given a series of instructions, including the following:

  • Do not rhyme this time (damn it)
  • Don't try to make them good (what a great excuse for churning out a pile of shit!)
  • Beware of monosyllables (they bite)
  • Don't use archaic vocabulary (damn, what am I possibly going to substitute in place of 'thou' and 'thee'?)                                                         

And now, I am finally ready.  Here goes.

Now that it’s time I don’t know what to write.
I think it will be shitty but who cares?

They lost our luggage somewhere on the way.
But will we get it back, I dare not say. (oops, my bad)

I ate too much chocolate from Prague today.
How nice of June to bring it back for me.

I loved to play dodgeball on my first night.
It made me think how much I’ve missed this school.

I had high hopes to write on the journey,
But when it came to it, could I be arsed?

Police class with the fake gun is so weird.

I want to read now, am I nearly done?

The cat has got so fat, or warm with fur.

Monosyllables, how I love you so.

I only have three pairs of pants with me.

It’s nearly Christmas and I am away,
No more X Factor girls, hip hip hooray!

You are couple? Teacher ah! I hate you.

My shoes are warm and so is my bedroom.
But as for outside, I’ll just stay right here.

Getting paid to play jenga with the kids.
Could anything be more weird than this?

I miss the babies, they are amazing!
Walking and talking when I get back home.

And that’s quite enough of that, I’m exhausted. Stephen says that even simple poetry like this can be a way of expressing thoughts and feelings, which was (rather unwittingly) true for me. A sort of rhythmic diary. I can also see how it is like doing scales on a piano.
As you already know, I am supposed to take my notebook with me everywhere. I might just take it with me to school tomorrow and run riot with my pen during my free lesson. Anything could happen.
Ooh, what an exciting life I lead.   

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Meet Metre

"Hello Metre,"
"Hello Rachel,"
I imagine a small, gruff, moustached man... but not unfriendly.
Metre in poetry is described here as being like a heartbeat. Bum bum, bum bum. Apparently we use Greek words to describe a lot of technical things in English. Stephen gives a few examples, and I particularly like that 'gynaecology' is just thrown into the list casually.
And so I learn more about metre, about the rhythmic banging of a drum that makes up a line in a poem. Ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum, makes me think of Winnie the Pooh ambling along happily, thinking of nothing at all, especially not poetry. The non-stressed words in a line of poetry can be referred to as a number of things, such as 'weak' and 'slack,' which seems a bit mean to me. If I were an unstressed word I would definitely be offended by that. But even though I'm not one, is it OK for me to stand back and say nothing?  
The chapter then descends into talking about Iambic Pentameter. Even hearing those two words make me shudder with bad memories of poetry lessons past. But I'm not going to let that bother me. The opposite of an Iamb 'ti-tum' is called a trochee, which has a falling rhythm, 'tum-ti'. There are also spondee's, which have equal stress on both ti and tum. I find myself wondering who came up with these stupid names. It's hardly surprising that the Iamb is the most popular, because if I was a trochee or a spondee then I would be embarrassed to introduce myself to anyone at a party.
Oh dear, I wonder if this apparent theme of personification is going to be present throughout the whole of my blog? It's annoying me already, but somehow I just can't help it.
The final one is two unstressed units (ti-tum), called 'pyrrhic foot.' Now that just sounds like a disease.
Stephen refers to the Iamb as the hero of the chapter. How very Hollywood.  Never fear, Iamb-o-man will save us!
I'm sorry, Stephen, I really don't mean to take the piss so much, honestly.
In conclusion, Iambic Pentameter is a measure of five 'feet' with a strong accented ending.

I feel like I'm building up so much to the actual writing of any poetry, that when I finally get there it will be a huge anticlimax, for me and more importantly for you the poor reader. Be prepared for next time...

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Stress in speech

I am on chapter 1! How exciting. It begins by saying that I have already achieved a great deal by being able to understand English well enough to read the sentence. Well that's a relief; I'd be a bit bummed if I realised at this point that the book really wasn't for me.
I am warned that the obviousness of what is about to be explained may give me a nosebleed, which leads me to wonder if English lessons were the reason for my frequent nosebleeds as a child. I always attributed them to hayfever, but maybe I was wrong.
The first section of the chapter is about how we speak, the stress we put on certain syllables and so on. I try reading the sentences putting a stress on every single syllable, which as Stephen points out, makes me sound like a computer. Try it! It's quite fun. And now I can list 'talking like a computer' as one of my skills on my CV.
Anyway.... I then learn that both the Chinese and Thai languages are monosyllabic, which means that all words are made up of only one syllable. If only the same could be said of Korean; I might just have learnt more than twenty words in an entire year.
In English, apparently we only stress important words, generally leaving unimportant ones such as pronouns and prepositions to melt into the background. I can't help feeling a bit sorry for them, as they are, after all, pretty important. 
I've been thinking for a while now that English is a pain in the butt language. One reasons is that there are so many words that are spelt the same, but pronounced differently and with completely different meanings.
An example Stephen gives is:
He proceeds to rebel
The rebel steals the proceeds
How is anyone learning English ever supposed to get to grips with these incredibly subtle but important differences?
Stephen talks briefly about the differences in stress between American-English and English-English. It's weird how over time we have just refused to be the same. Apparently in French (which I know nothing of except for how to ask for 'one baguette, please') each syllable is stressed equally. This has a great impact on French poetry, but Stephen doesn't feel it is important to go further into this, as it should be clear to the reader that the book is not going to be about writing in French. Another point at which, if you had misunderstood the purpose of the book you would be like, 'oh damn, now where did I put my receipt?'  

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Three Golden Rules

Well it's nearly time for me to embark on my poetry writing quest! But first, some tips from Stephen on 'how to read the book.'
Apparently I should be prepared for a bombardment of jargon. I'm not sure how up for jargon I am, but hopefully I can just pretend I know what a word means and then move on. It doesn't really matter, does it? Plus, Stephen's put a helpful glossary at the back. Thanks!
Seeing as I studied poetry at uni and therefore, you would think, should have a basic knowledge of the subject, I could maybe skip the first few exercises. You know, get straight to the 'good stuff.' But somehow I don't think that's a good idea, and nor does Stephen. I feel like he knows me so well already! I need to start from the basics, of that much I am sure.

Here are the Golden Rules for reading The Ode:

1. Take my time.
This is pretty important for me, as I am an expert at skimming. I consider it a talent of mine that I can read a whole book in one night, and afterwards have no idea whatsoever about the characters or the plot, or anything else. Well I read it, didn't I? So it doesn't matter what it was about, does it really?
Stephen also suggests reading out loud. At some point I should definitely do this in public, like on the train or something...

2. Never worry about 'meaning.'
I like this! Thank you Stephen for making it Ok for me not to understand or care what a poem means. I appreciate that a lot.

3. Buy a notebook.
I feel very pompous and smug writing this rule in my already purchased notebook. What a good student! But then I read on and see that Stephen wants me to carry it EVERYWHERE. Oh. I will have to make a deal here: I promise to take it with me, whenever I have a big enough handbag. Sorry this is a lame and girly proviso, but it's just honest. Sometimes a notebook is simply not practical.

And now, I am assured, I am ready to begin.
Bring it on!

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Road Begins- Foreword

Well hi and hello to everyone! (or to no-one, seeing as no-one is reading this right now). The reason I am here is because I have decided to attempt to blog my way through Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled. If you don't know it, it's a book about poetry, about reading it but mainly writing it. And it has a nice red cover with a quill and ink on the front....
So, that's what I'm going to do. Interesting or not to anyone else, at least I hope it will be fun for me!
The chapters are as follows: Metre, Rhyme, Form, Diction and Poetics Today. Exciting, right? If not for the fact that I know the wonderful Stephen is going to guide me through, I would be feeling a bit sick right now. The memories I have from school, and in fact from my English degree, of poetry, are not particularly good. As Stephen reminds me, being asked to 'respond' to a poem was just the most annoying thing I'd ever heard back then. How should I respond exactly? By doing a little dance? By taking my shoes off and throwing them at the teacher? Usually in fact I responded by not understanding what the hell the poem was on about. The thought of any of the big poets still fills me with dread. Wilfred Owen, urgh. The only stuff I can think of that I liked was Shakespeare's Sonnets, and even then all I can remember is that my tutor told me that there were major undertones of homosexuality, i.e. Shakespeare was gay. I would like to read them again to be sure of this, but truthfully, I can't be bothered. And then there was The Faerie Queen: I distinctily remember painfully reading all of the approximately 100 pages, only to go to my tutorial to find no one else had read it. Then when the tutor asked me how it ended, I answered truthfully (and embarrassingly) 'I don't know.'
Stephen assures me that it doesn't matter if I'm any good at poetry. Definitely a good start, as I can absolutely make no promises. It's probably going to be a load of crap. But at least it will give me something to do, won't it?
I also have a little problem, which is that I generally only write poetry that rhymes. Because without rhyming, I'm just writing a load of words, and starting a new line whenever I feel like it. Maybe working my way through this book will help cure this problem, or maybe it will just secure for me that I must rhyme all the time.
Reading the foreword, I already feel comfortable because of Stephen's friendly, endearing manner. Something that should be scary and yawnable somehow isn't.
I do find it funny that he promises not to bore the reader with any of his own poetry, which is the exact opposite of what I'm going to be doing. For that, I'm sorry. But at least right now my readers are imaginary, so I don't need to feel bad!
The foreword finishes with a word that I didn't know, so I am passing it on. Plus I quite like it so I want to include it. The word is Opsimath, which means 'one who learns late in life.' I don't know if twenty seven counts as old, but then it really depends on who you are talking to.
From here on in, therefore, I will consider myself one.