My latest experiment has been with hendecasyllabic poems, or hendecs. Any poem with 11 syllables per line can be called a hendec, but the traditional version used by ancient Greek and Latin poets employed ‘quantitative meter’, which relied on the length of syllables rather than the pattern of stresses. I can’t quite get my head around that; but most modern versions use instead a metrical combination of 4 trochees and a dactyl.
The commonest arrangement (Phalaecian) has the dactyl in the second foot, as in the example by Tennyson: “O you chorus of indolent reviewers…”
My poem moves the dactyl to the 3rd foot, which I’ve seen described as the Sapphic version. It seems to trip along a bit easier that way. The problem with hendecs is that they can sound pretty ponderous, especially since I don’t have a feel for how much it is acceptable to vary the pattern from line to line. Almost nobody uses the meter, so you’d think I could make up the rules to suit myself; but those few people who know about it tend to be from the pedantic Latin scholar end of the spectrum. They are easily angered by metrical infringements (and probably also by cheeky ignorant blogs).
I finally got my hands on Don Paterson’s book on sonnets. It gives a pleasing selection of 101 poems from 101 different authors over the ~500 year history of the form in English, with a brief commentary on each. He mostly limits it to 14-line versions, but otherwise leaves it open to rhymed or not, metrical or free, with turns anywhere or nowhere. It introduced me to a lot of poets I hadn’t heard of, and I might look for more of their work if it’s around. My first time through I didn’t notice the index of dates for the poems at the back, so I had only the linguistics to guide me on which century they came from. The 20th century ones were usually easy to spot, but I often had trouble telling the 19th century from the 17th.
I was particularly interested in Paterson’s take on the mathematics of sonnets. I met him when he was Poet in Residence at the Whipple Museum of Science in the spring, and he seems to have a deeper interest than most in the intersection of arts and sciences. He thinks sonnets are organized according to the golden section – this is a phenomenon that governs a lot of natural and biological architecture, as well as manmade structures. The ratio of the smaller component to the bigger is the same as the ratio of the bigger component to the whole, at a value of ~1:1.62. But of course this isn’t precisely the same as the actual ratios of 6:8:14 found in the stanzas of a classic Petrarchan sonnet.
Then there’s another theory about 12-note musical scales, so the 13th line is a return to the beginning, the tonic. But that would make a sonnet 13 lines…
I like to think about the weighting of thesis, antithesis, and resolution in terms of decreasing powers of 2, 8:4:2. You end up with a sort of refinement through distillation of an original idea.
Of course I don’t actually write sonnets this way. I try never to force a turn to be where it doesn’t want to be. The math shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of the poetry. But it’s fun to come up with theories for why one particular arrangement of lines is more satisfying than another.
Graham Linehan on Twitter drew my attention to this great advice on writing by Chuck Palaniuk:
“To begin a new novel, I look for the biggest problem in my life that I can’t solve or tolerate. Something that drives me nuts, but I can’t fix. Then I find a metaphor that allows me to explore the problem, exaggerating and expanding it beyond reason. I build it up to the worst scenario possible and then find a way to solve it. By the time the book is done, I’ve exhausted all of my emotions around the original problem. Whatever it was, it no longer bothers me. And typically, during the time of writing, the problem has resolved itself. It’s like magic. Try it. It will keep you alive in this world of bullshit.”
Unfortunately, the problem driving me nuts at the moment is a periodontal abscess. I’m dreading root canal surgery, fearing I’ll lose the tooth anyway, and cursing the name of my dentist who failed to spot it 2 months ago when I went in with a toothache. Not sure how to turn this into art. I suppose Pam Ayres managed it.
(*The blog title is a reference to the Simpsons episode where Lisa gets braces)