Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Postscript to Epic Poems (& 'The Lyric Principle')

While tidying my study yesterday - yes, the annual clean-out has finally occurred - I found a note I'd made and lost some months ago of a superb quotation from 'On Poetry and Poets', a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot.

The quotation I'd noted down is from 'The Music of Poetry' (see how closely Paterson follows in the great man's footsteps?) and is relevant to me in connection with my last few posts on Alice Oswald and the writing of a long poem and on the structure of three modern epic poems. The following should serve rather well as a postscript to those entries:

'It would be a mistake, however, to assume that all poetry ought to be melodious, or that melody is more than one of the components of the music of words. Some poetry is meant to be sung; most poetry, in modern times, is meant to be spoken – and there are many other things to be spoken of besides the murmur of innumerable bees or the moan of doves in immemorial elms. Dissonance, even cacophony, has its place: just as, in a poem of any length, there must be transitions between passages of greater and less intensity, to give a rhythm of fluctuating emotion essential to the musical structure of the whole; and the passages of less intensity will be, in relation to the level on which the total poem operates, prosaic – so that, in the sense implied by that context, it may be said that no poet can write a poem of amplitude unless he is a master of the prosaic.'

Plus, the footnote accompanying that last point:

'This is the complementary doctrine to that of the 'touchstone' line or passage of Matthew Arnold: this test of the greatness of a poet is the way he writes his less intense, but structurally vital, matter.'

Now, you have to admire Eliot's mastery of prose - let alone the prosaic - in the passage I've just quoted. For a start, it's highly Latinate, in a way we rarely see anymore, not merely in his word selection, but more interestingly in his sentence structure, with its elegant asides, caveats and micro-clauses. But beyond that, his ability to make good solid sense, even with all that scaffolding in place, is what allows his criticism to stand out from other twentieth-century critics and to continue in its relevance to poets today.

This, of course, is the crux of that whole passage, at least for the purposes of my own earlier discussions on the writing of long or epic poems: in a poem of any length, there must be transitions between passages of greater and less intensity, to give a rhythm of fluctuating emotion essential to the musical structure of the whole ...

This seems to indicate that epic poetry follows the same pattern as other works of literature of any length - i.e. novels, theatrical dramas, screenplays - and that this is done, not simply to accommodate Eliot's nod to musical rhythm, though that is hugely important in the overall scheme, but also for our comfort as readers/listeners. Unending conflict and other excitements begin to be unpleasant, and eventually ludicrous, if suffered at length. (You often see impossibly manic sequences in comic films, for instance, to great effect.) So in a longer poem, a poet needs the quieter movements to recover from and prepare for the heights.

Assuming you have any heights, that is ...


mishari said...

Re: the connection between music and poetry, ( music is not always melodic. I love Conlon Nancarrow, who composed almost exclusively for player piano. This meant that he spent endless long nights in his Mexico City home, where he'd moved because it was cheap, punching holes in huge rolls of paper.This went on for years. He had a very understanding wife), here's something I posted a few months ago when the same subject came up. Hey, I believe in spraeding the boredom. Why should you have a glamourous and interesting life? :

Arms and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate,
And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,
Expell'd and exil'd, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin'd town;
His banish'd gods restor'd to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.

(from Aeneid, trans. by John Dryden)

The operative word here is 'sing'. Homer almost certainly sang The Illiad and The Odyssey. There's been a dis-connect over the centuries but I think it's an unnatural one. If, as I believe, no poem that can't be recited aloud is worth a damn, does it not follow that it might be sung? If not, why not? Am I wrong in thinking that the Welsh bardic tradition is one of poems being sung?

I think that the reason that poetry is no longer woven into the fabric of peoples lives is precisely because a borderline, albeit a spurious one, has been created between poetry and song. Hence this thread. There was a time when the question Rob asks would have been meaningless. Last night, I went to bed with Freya Stark's 'The Valley of The Assasins', a record of her journey around Persia in the early 1930's. Travelling in the wild and lawless mountains of Luristan, near the Iraqi border, Stark spend the night at an encampment of nomadic Lurs and wrote the following passage:

'The daughter of the family had a velvet coat too, full-skirted and left open in the front. She had a turqouise and gold ring in her nose, over the tattoo mark on her lip; her hands were tattooed with thin blue branches, not unbecoming; and on her wrists she wore heavy silver bangles which flashed in the firelight as she kneaded dough for our supper.
I wondered if among their poets, who still sing in the old manner about the things they know, there is not someone who has told of the splendour of his beloved's hands with their silver bracelets, as she tosses the bread from one to the other with swift and lovely movement in this most beautiful of household tasks.'-Pg.82,Century Hutchinson edition.

I was especially struck, having been reading this thread a short time before, by Stark's phrase, '..their poets, who still sing in the old manner about the things they know.'
It occured to me that here was the problem of poetry in a nutshell. Poets no longer 'sing of what they know'.
Poetry has become irrelevant, a minority taste and an indulgence for the bourgoisie. Wendy Cope's brittle excercises in rueful humour, Andrew Motion's mediocre banalities in honour of the Queen's 50th bowel movement, Jeremy Reed's throbbing,frilly purple whatsits, for all the world as if Baudelaire had never lived.

Poetry used to be so much more than this. Amongst the Arabs, a poet was more highly esteemed and honoured than any King or conqueror. More feared, too. A poet could bring down a government. And now? Poets are either co-opted or ignored. It kept bringing me back to the issue of song. The vital importance of song as the medium for poetry. Is this where it's all gone wrong? Abandoning song as the medium of poetry?

Chanson de Roland was a chanson, a song. The Gitas and the Upanishads were and still are, sung. The aboriginal peoples of Australia believed that the world had to be 'sung' into existence. Now that's fit work for a poet.

david lumsden said...

I can't argue with Eliot, simply because his tone carries such authority, and I read these essays over and over when I was about 18, so I guess I programmed myself with a lot of his ideas. I'd forgotten the "test of the greatness of a poet is the way he writes his less intense, but structurally vital, matter" bit, but read it like seeing a snapshot of an old childhood toy.

With orchestral music as a teenager I always preferred the loud exciting bits, but even then realized that you needed some pianissimo and build-up to make the whole thing work. When musicians see the marking cresc they had better be playing quietly so they have somewhere to go. A quarter of a century later I'll opt for the grace and balance of the baroque more often than not; which puts me in mind of something Hugo Williams once said (but where? where? maybe in an interview) ... ""Sung Dynasty poetry is like tea. T'ang verse is like wine" As we age, unless blessed with iron constitutions, tea often seems a better choice than wine.

Jane Holland said...

This is a fascinating topic, and one I intend to return to in the future. For now though, my immediate reaction is to hold fire while I do some actual thinking. It's too easy on blogs, and especially perhaps in comment mode, to simply shoot back some trite response and not really think seriously about what you're saying. For me, at any rate.

The most important thing for me when discussing prosody and the other finer points of poetry-making is not that I reach some academically sound conclusion, but that I see how these ideas tie in with a practical application of them to poetry, i.e. how they relate to my own work and the way I am to go about creating it. Without that practical basis, ideas are useless.

So points to consider would be, how does my own poetry work now in musical terms? Do I read it aloud when composing (usually, but not religiously, and that is a fault) and how do I read it in public? I certainly never 'sing' my poetry. But I would like to think that some lines 'sing' on their own. So what is the connecting tissue between actual song and a song-like rhythm or cadence?

Good to see you here, Mishari. David, a pleasure also.

Rachel Fox said...

To respond to the first comment - for me there are lot of songwriters working now who are today's poets...not more than, but certainly as much as, writers who are only called 'poets'.
This week I have been listening to 'This Earthly Spell' by Karine Polwart (the Scottish singer/songwriter) and 'The Boy Bands Have Won' by Chumbawamba (the English band that used to be a mob of anarchists and are now a much smaller group - still anarchic but more tuneful and folky). On both of these albums the lyrics are just knock-out - in places clever, beautiful, poignant, well-crafted.... It could be argued and reargued (and argued again) as to whether the lyrics I mention are poetry or not but in the end it is a personal decision, I think. For me they are. Not as many people may think they are hearing poetry these days but that's only because of what's happened to the word 'poetry' in a way. Words are still freer than we are...hmm, that sounds like hippy nonsense...could still be true though.