Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Trouble With With

I’ve been struggling a lot with prepositions recently. Partly at work, correcting theses by students who don’t appear to believe in them. Instead they prefer to string along lists of words with little indication of the relationship between them. It’s a Me Driving Bonkers Practice.

But mainly I’ve been struggling with them in my poetry. Prepositional phrases are difficult in iambic or trochaic meter, where alternate syllables are supposed to take a stress. Take the phrase, “Brian Cox was diagnosed with herpes.” The word ‘with’ is clearly an insignificant linking word and receives no stress or attention. (All our attention is grabbed by the horrible disease, and by herpes.) It’s straightforward trochaic pentameter.

But now take the sentence: “He drove to London with the Queen of Hearts.” You could read ‘with the’ as a pyrrhic substitution (a beat without stress). Or, since ‘with’ is in a position that should be stressed, you could ‘promote’ it to receive one. There’s nothing wrong with promotions – I think they actually make verse read more like normal speech. Every other syllable might be stressed, but the amount of stress each receives is variable, so it keeps it from being too sing-song.

The trouble is that I don’t always want prepositions to be promoted. For the purpose again of trying to replicate more normal speech patterns, sometimes I like to do anapaestic or dactylic substitutions (throwing in an extra unstressed syllable): “ Martin rode a horse with a cowboy saddle.” This is trochaic pentameter again, but the middle foot is a dactyl instead of a trochee.

This last example is in fact the precise pattern of metrical hendecasyllables I tried to write a whole poem in recently. Although I thought that my meter was if anything too regular, many readers had a real problem with identifying it as being a formal meter at all. I think one of the main issues was that because I used a lot of promoted prepositions, they were trained to read all prepositions as promoted, so when they got to prepositions that were thrown-in extra syllables, it tripped them up.

Worse yet, I began a lot of lines with promoted prepositions, so people were inclined to read them as anapaestic, which threw everything off from the start. Gah! Maybe my students are right. Better off without the blighters.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Learic Poetry

After Maurice Riordan, who I missed seeing at the Boathouse, I read Geoffrey Hill, who I have a mad idea maybe I did see there. There was a man there who looks a bit like him, who read a sonnet by Wilfred Owen, and he introduced himself only as Geoff – surely you only skip your surname if you think you’re famous?

And Geoffrey Hill is famous. The jacket of Orchards of Syon proclaims him the greatest living writer in English, although I was predisposed to dislike him because of his suggestion that Shakespearean sonnets are inferior to Petrarchan http://www.varsity.co.uk/culture/4702

So given his anti-Shakespeare bias, I was surprised to find his poetry reminded me of King Lear. Specifically the mad scene. It reminded me even more of the occasional manic episodes of my bipolar acquaintances over the years: every now and then a lucid phrase would pop out and grab my attention, but I couldn’t make sense of the whole. This annoyed me less than usual though, because the occasional images were striking, and the overall ripple of words was engaging as it washed over me.

However, I wasn’t inclined to copy his style. I’ve worked too hard to achieve this level of sanity to throw it all away.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Missed Opportunity

The latest poetry book I picked up from the library was Maurice Riordan’s Floods – largely because I missed the opportunity to see him read at the Boathouse some weeks back. (And he’s the new editor of Poetry Review). 

I liked it better than I expected. His free verse can seem prosaic to me, particularly in his longer poems like the title work (I didn’t finish the longest, The Boy Turned into a Stag, but that was due more to pretension than prosiness). But I like the combination of science and history that he weaves into much of his work. (Possibly the only successful poetic use of ‘anisotropic’ to date?)

My favourite was the first poem in the collection, The Sloe, which tells about some ancient remains revealed  by a shrinking glacier in the Alps. It gives the dry facts about him which can be deduced from the skeleton’s injuries and the things he was carrying, but paints around them a strangely touching and vivid picture of his last weeks of life….’that he died really from being alone.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized