Discussing poetic form with Stephen Fry



for some aspects of poetry that can seem quite intimidating there's a lot of technical vocabulary that goes with it and I think if we're going to really seriously explore the value of poetry at times of stress then we need to learn a little bit about how poetry works and indeed one of the things we'll find is that that very word stress and its opposite unstressed plays an important part in how poetry is put together in order to help me explore some of these ideas I've got with me the author of what in the old days would have been called a manual of English prosody prosody is the technical term for how poems are put together the technical aspects of it but it's not actually called a manual of English prosody it's called the ode less-traveled unlocking the poet within and it's by a poetry fanatic someone who's been privately writing poetry pretty well all his life Stephen Fry welcome yeah I loved this book I absolutely loved it I remember reading old George Sainsbury's manual of English prosody written 100 years ago and it was not quite as accessible as your approach no it's the interesting things sometimes people imagine that poetry is just about putting down all your feelings and and that that's all all you need to do and then that's valid and it's good occasionally that can work and that's called free versus you know it has no particular form or structure that's laid down and I can't argue that I love a lot of reverse or Whitman TS Eliot some of the first is free and as good as anything ever written but a lot of verse that's written is uses you mention the word stress uses the nature of the English language which it comes in beats whether you know it or not I haven't time to take your call right now so leave a message when you hear that that happens to be two lines of iambic pentameter most people are familiar with that exactly it's it catches it seems to catch the rhythm of English English speech I mean one of my favorite examples very famous 18th century poem Thomas Gray's elegy in a country churchyard and it begins the curfew tolls the knell of parting day do you dump dee-dum dee-dum and it's you you say you have a lovely phrase in your book you say the life of a poem is measured in regular heartbeats the name for those heartbeats is metre that's right that's metrical verse metre it's just agreed for measure and it's how you count it out in America the word measure is used to what we call a bar and in music in English and if you think of music it's it's a good comparison nobody would imagine that the way to express yourself musically is to care to a piano or guitar and just do this without knowing what you're doing you have basically a sense of rhythm is it in which will be a a waltz or is it one two three four one two three four one two three four one two three four was it one two you know we all know that sort of the most likely way to play music and then we have to know a few technical words like chord or something and and really it's no different in poetry the only thing that's different is we use language all the time we use it to order up pizza on the phone we order it to ask someone to pass the mustard it seemed strange to be told how to regiment it in order to express it at its finest and most complex which is a poem and yet I think it's actually liberating and a lot of poets have thought this Wordsworth is a good example he wrote a poem on the nature of the sonnet this scanty plot of ground and if you imagine you had to plant a row of flowers and you were given a small area then you'd think very hard about how to do it the result be rather wonderful if you're given a huge field after you do then a great open field nah didn't have open field is a word for american-style of free verse Charles Olson and others wrote to this open field poetry which was the reaction against regular rain it was and and all that is of course completely valid and it's important to remember that there are in ultimately no rules about poetry except what either pleases you as a reader what connect what you connect with what makes sense to you or what as someone who's trying to write poetry makes it easier for you to express what it is you want to express because the words are the only things you have to make a poem and people have played around with all kinds of things to do with words whether how they look on the page concrete purchases sometimes call which should mix shapes and which which reflect the feelings of the poem or the the meaning of the poem perhaps I think a very good example is the Thomas Hardy poem which as a rather typically hardly pompous title because it's about the Titanic and it's called the convergence of the Twain about the meeting of this great ocean liner and the iceberg and how they were destined and doomed to meet which is very Hardy esque sort of thing isn't it this doom there's inevitability but each stands each verse actually looks like a ship it's got its got its long line at the top and then sort of the shorter ones down to the bottom and and and it's very very pleasing how you can do that yeah I mean it's an amazing thing about form isn't it I mean in certainly if we think about the Western tradition our ideas of poetry literature go back to the ancient Greeks and the fact is for two and a half thousand years until the advent of free verse people thought it valuable to put their best thoughts into poetic form with very rigorous meters and rules I mean as you say these a lot of the terms the formal terms go back to the ancient Greeks there then imitated by the Romans and then through the Renaissance and Shakespeare's time and and so on right down until the so called modernist revolution everybody always used form used metre and there's something is something about the line as as the unit of verse that's particularly important isn't there the line is absolutely right and as a lot of people might have thought when confronting modern poetry that it seems to be randomly chopped lines because they're no longer following the rule of ten syllables for example which which would be a pentameter and instead they seem to go this and then will be the line that then stops and in a good poem it's very provocative and interesting how it's done but in in the in the in the formal poetry the line is is in a sense how the sense is expressed and the way flows or doesn't flow stops and doesn't stop but a lot of people would say of course that it was the rules were there because that's how you learned the rhythm talk to you how to learn it if you if it weren't rhythmic and it didn't rhyme it would be a lot harder a lot harder to learn wouldn't it now that brings us one of your your rules in your book which is how valuable it is a to read poetry slowly and B to read it aloud and of course if you're ever struggling with the rhythm or the meter read it aloud and you you discover from the natural stresses of the words you just you just discover that the rhythm so Y slowly and Y aloud well poets put poems together very slowly there are a few famous exceptions to that Keats wrote a wrote a sonnet the grasshopper and the cricket apparently in about 20 minutes but generally speaking they're very very slowly put together and the words are all kind of balanced and shaped like a beautiful object and they need to be looked at inspected felt in the mouth in the eyes and of course with the intellect but mostly with the emotion there all kinds of different ways of engaging with it and I'd recommend taking a poem it can be the most famous poem in the world it can be shall I compare thee to a summers day take take it to bed and reading it every night for a couple of weeks and it won't have given up all its goodness that there is so much as it were nutrition emotional and intellectual inside the best poems and the ones that are famous and I always think it's silly to be embarrassed about reading about like country church owned by Thomas gray that you mentioned the energy or Shakespeare's a things on it for example nothing nothing to be embarrassed about taking one that's incredibly well known could be the charge of the Light Brigade it can be it could be a Keats ode and just it seeing why it's it's it stood the test of time much as you might want to go look at men losing when you're in Paris City not to it might be annoying having all the tourists there but it hasn't taken away its value and when because those are well-known ones and and because you probably know most of the words of them already these the beginnings of them sort of it becomes yours becomes your friend you know it you know every line of it and you question why and and I think that you can't be too slow with a poem and that's one of the values they have obviously one of the ways in which poetry achieves form and a sense of harmony and completion one of the ways in which a poetic couplet can be like a kiss two lines joining is is through rhyme poetry doesn't have to rhyme but many of the greatest poems do what what what are your views on rhyme I think I think you have to be very you have to have a good ear and sometimes even the great poets didn't have a good I mean there's a famous Lucy poems of Wordsworth about her grave I measured it from side to side it was six foot five and four I don't know why you just can't I think most people would giggle if they heard that and I think obviously avoiding cliche Grimes there's so many that draw attention to themselves as moon and Joon and whatever you know sort of love and they're a few words of I'm in love pretty much used up domed above of in in lyrics I think a lot of poets a good example this the great darken and also Wilfredo in use what what is called partial slant rhyme where it can just be the consonants that rhyme so port would rhyme with pine to say or heart with hunt you just got that hat or you can have rhymes where the the the vowels in the middle rhyme so you could have heart and far or something like that you know just just just a gentle rhyme just a gentle suggestion of connection between the lines that that somehow stops it being I suppose in our culture now because we're so used to every run that's possible it starts of being a bit pat you know sort of haha yeah so the thought is it's of held together in unity there's a kind of harmony but as you say it's not it's not an overeasy resolution that's right exactly and i suppose we live in a time ever since the age of anxiety ever since the first world war modernism you know we're sort of easy conclusions just something not part of our culture anymore yeah the other thing about the line you said this moment ago is that one of the things all great poets do is a mix between lines that are stopped at the end so could n stop lines that are where the unit of the sense falls in with the unit of the line and lines that run on across the line and we use this technical enjambment or jean bomb all for that French word you know Matt Beth tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow it's a single line creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time and you start running across the line endings and the do you think that and that that sort of balance between a stopped line and the run on line is what's going on with that why does that seem such an effective device it's a really good point and actually in this book not that I'm asking anyone to read it or go to a library and refer to it but it's just an example that struck me very strongly there's a speech Leon T's in in Winter's Tale which is astonishing it has the famous line about smile the neighbor and loosing the pond and it's a hideous thing this jealous man suddenly believing that his wife is having an affair with his friend and there's a section number which happens to be about 14 lines like a sonnet and every single line is an ulzzang mine is a flowing through it and in the middle it has a hard pause caesura as they're called as you know and and so it you develop it it's all it's all correct if you want to use that word in terms of its meter but it's severely fractured and the point is that pericles at this point is going mad so sorry leontes at this point it's going mad he is severely disturbed he's having a kind of psychotic episode essentially and and the the lines of the poetry are doing that they're showing that as clearly as could possibly be and if you compare it to the one I've just mentioned shall I compare thee to a summers day thou art more lovely and more temperate there isn't a single enjoyment and that whole 49 sonnet because it's just it's laid out as clear thought through fact I know what's going on I you know you are not like the summer because the summer will fade spring summer they all fade they all change everything dies but no you're not gonna die because you're in this poem and that's going to live forever an act of breathtaking conceit reshapes bit but of course as we're talking about it now he was quite right yeah I think the other thing was for lying in it gives it gives you that pause I think one of the great poets for those songs earned or run on lines is Wordsworth it's a wonderful line where he's talking about listening for the sound of an owl and he has a line and while I hung the end of the line listening in the next line and you hang for a moment in the pores the pores blank space at the end of a line just makes you pause it makes you slow down and then the thoughts completed yes and another one great one of that is well for doing who is worth looking at again because almost certainly people look at well for doing with a view to his disgust and at war and of course that is the main feeling that comes from it it's easy perhaps not to notice what an extraordinary craftsman he is he's truly in the tradition of Keats as one of the most gifted prosodic craftsmen that the English language can boast and so a lot of his effects are a perfect example of how the the powerful emotion and they can hardly have been a more powerful emotion than the feeling he had in the middle of that appalling war was channeled into a technical expression of poetry which is rarely been surpassed and some people may think that that's a bit of a contradiction that if you're feeling that emotional you wouldn't then stop to package it in such perfect poetic form but actually that is the great perhaps counterintuitive achievement of all art is that the it often seems the more structured it is and the more there's a thing we might come to when talking about emotion particularly feeling in poetry which is the famous phrase of TS Eliot's which is one that people have puzzled over and sounds a bit grand and intellectual which is an objective correlative and it's quite hard to explain really because partly because I don't really understand it but I glimpse what it means which is something to do with emotion having to be earned it's it's it can't just be put out there and in good poems emotion isn't just splurged out and in a whale or a moan or a rage or whatever the emotion may be it's controlled and it's it's held back usually and then it may come strongly but it's the very fact that it's channeled into chosen words makes it so powerful and indeed so enduring otherwise it's a tantrum and and poetry isn't a tantrum as well and this you're talking of Ginsberg's yeah I suppose the other aspect of the objective correlative it is exactly that idea of finding something exterior finding an object an object an image typically poetry is so often made of images that somehow speaks to your interior state yes you know what why is it poets are so fascinated by nature because in nature around us whether it's the role of a wave at the sea or the sound of a storm or the flight of a Skylark and somehow nature can can give us external images which is vaca t'v lincoln's yes exactly there's another famous phrase also two words which is used often to describe that sense of the the poet immersing himself in nature not in order to glorify nature but to find some truth about himself for the egotistical sublime is the phrase that is often used and it's rather nice because it seems like it's contradictory if it's egotistical how can it be yes of course that was Keats's some term for the thing that he sort of admired but also didn't admire Wordsworth which was exactly as Wordsworth was the great poet of projecting his own feelings into external nature and Keats sometimes felt that there was a bit too much of that and he proposed this alternative phrase negative capability what do you understand by negative capability imagine that somehow subsuming yourself into things it's a phrase that I find I have I find it really really useful sometimes to describe even it sounds appalling a betrayal of the high art of the piece of technology for example there's a recent new piece of technology that's come out and people say what you like what's it like how does it work well it's strengthening is it's all its achievements are in its it's subsumes itself you don't notice it and it's it finds a it finds an achievement through its lack of presence which is subsuming the the egotistical into presumably is that is that what he meant I think that's part of what him and I think the other thing and this sort of relates to the idea of the possibility of poetry as a kind of stress management tool is he he describes negative capability is the opposite of a state of irritably reaching after fact and reason the idea that you know sometimes we we want an answer we're we're we're we're we're always sort of thinking about about the next thing but negative it's almost like a state of karma or you're just content to sort of let it be and often the best poetic moments do seem to be exactly that they're they're moments where your content to to reside in the moment without this you know looking to the future yes and I would say I would add to that that there is a deep sense that pertree tries to achieve or find the reality of things not of ideas that the reason it looks nature the reason it looks at rocks and water and the reason it might look at a small thing a chair or a pair of shoes is because it finds reality in those things not in the abstract and that the idea that poetry is an ethereal thing that looks at the sky and ideas and the glory of this or the terror of that is that it's tested on the pulses indeed as as Keats would say it's tested on the the watching us of things the quiddity of things is it sometimes called jared manley hopkins what just somehow arresting the essence of a thing a movement a moment indeed absolutely and it's the the fingernail nests of a fingernail is is crucial and in a sense that's one person like other artists in that sense painters painted are constantly striving to find the absolute essence and what it is they're painting this is would bore his friends endlessly talking about how to achieve a tomato on a canvas and as we know he probably did that sort of thing better than anyone has ever lived but it's no accident because he thought about it more than anyone any practice which comes back to the craft I mean there's that sense that we we can all write poetry because we all have language it's something you say in the book but we can't necessarily all right good poetry but we can develop a craft well if what tips would you have for someone just wanting to try their hand at and putting feelings thoughts moments what matters I would suggest they might look at their favorite poem that has form and it can be I wondered learn music loud it can be a sonnet it can be tava Remos I think what they don't have to know what the form is but just observe it and look at it count the syllables and the beats in each line and then write how to sort of grid and and then do a silly verse that fits it exactly and then think well okay I'm good to write a write a poem about that it could be about my daily commute it could be about anything really but just just try out writing in that form and I think people amaze themselves when they do that whereas if you just sucking up anything I want to I want to write a poem here's a blank sheet of paper what do I do there's no grid and I would emphasize Jonathan I'm sure you'd agree that I am in no way devaluing free-verse first it doesn't have form it's just by definition can't can't give any advice about it because it's you know it's up to the but in a sense you do you do you do need to earn it I mean it's very striking I mean even with a great poet like Shakespeare he actually begins with very very regular forms I'm in in early Shakespeare there's a lot more rhyme there's a lot more end-stopped lines his verse gets free as he goes on but but he earns it and all the great poets and they become poets through reading poetry and through learning often very overtly imitating the techniques of existing parts then eventually they find their own voice they find their own freedom just just as with a with you know with a musician or a painter you know a painter has to start by doing life classes and basic drawing stuff a musician has to learn by actually you know learning some chords yes once you've you've got the basic techniques then you're free rules exactly I couldn't agree with you more it's yeah drawing life classes they're pretty obvious they're not everyone agrees with them but I think the best comparison is music no one would suggest that you can learn the guitar by ignoring Western harmony it just it's not gonna happen you know and and we've all probably had friends who go around saying oh have you I've got this new D ninth have you seen how that works and they'd show you and and it's somehow it's rather cool when you do that with music but when you say Oh have you seen this new and a piece T doesn't have quite the drama seat to it somehow there's a very photo evander piece which is a perfect example of a Greek word awfully awfully awfully GaN word that anapestic yes there's a very funny very funny you can find on on YouTube Robert Browning who was invited to dinner was surprised to have the inventor of a photograph type thing a bit like he was a rival of Edison's and he asked browning to record something on it and he wrote a poem called how I broke the news good news from Kent awakes which is in a piece and it's supposed to represent the horses thundering I sprang to the SteriPEN Joris and he I galloped galloped with Galit all three God speak read the host and as the gate bolts withdrew speed occurred the walls – its kind of pick through and he starts like that he goes I sprang to this dear open giorious and he I get up there Gannett we get him till three completely forgotten but the rhythm took him to the end this father chopped me very sweet

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