Saturday, 6 December 2014

No Poetic Makeweights, Thank You, Pastry Cooks Excepted . . . . . . . or Finishing School for Versifiers (part 2).

When is a metrical makeweight ever acceptable to a poet?

Padding? Never!

Tennyson’s Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white, for example, is not by the merest jot weighted with such dud ballast.

Tennyson does not stumble at his envoi by interpolating a school-marmish stage direction:

            So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
            Into my bosom (Write it!) lost in me. 

I ask this question because for some time now I have striven to reconcile my admiration for Elizabeth Bishop’s much-lauded villanelle, One Art, with certain misgivings, which I expressed in an earlier post: ‘Do other readers share my doubts when considering the concluding lines of the final quatrain?’

           the art of losing’s not too hard to master
           though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Even the charm of Cameron Diaz when stumblingly reciting the piece in the movie, In Her Shoes (2005), cannot redeem the parenthetical padding of that clumsy antepenultimate metrical foot, which to me always seems as though it’s been desperately shoe-horned into a fit unsuited to it. Metrically, it seems like – as we English say in the demotic – like a cop out. 


Pastry wrappers. ‘It’s all poetry is good for.’

I can think of only one poet whose makeweights have been indulged by his followers. I am thinking of ‘the pastry-cook of poets,’ Ragueneau in Cyrano de Bergerac, whose brioche pastries were shaped as lyres since they additionally gained worth by the burden of his verses. You may remember that the poems of those who consumed his confections (bardic cavaliers who numbered Cyrano in their company) saw their screeds as currency cut up for paper bags by Ragueneau’s wife in her perpetual war to defeat Orpheus by punishing the Bacchantes. 

As Mme Ragueneau says, ‘It’s all poetry is good for.’

Yes. It’s one of the very few cases of utilitarianism in the history of poetry, apart from that other witty confection, Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis (Fence/Gate/Stile), created by Britain’s supreme exponent of la poésie concrète, the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, for his garden of contemplation in South Lanarkshire. 


The Incredibly Obvious Manoeuvre.

But, you know, it is my belief that the stumbling closing line that so vexes the reader of Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art could have been fixed so very easily because the secret mechanism for perfecting the verse was hidden from her all along in her antepenultimate line:
I shan't have lied. It’s evident
Since the structure of a villanelle is surely to reconfigure the poem’s principle elements to extract new and surprising nuances (from such words as ‘evident’ and ‘intent’, say, which provide the secondary rhyme), then it should follow that, when the poetic metre is implacably trochee and suggestive of a revaluation of evidential experience viewed in maturity, the perfect trochaic component – far from being a superfluous padding out (Write it!) – should noticeably possess for the final inevitable clincher the inherent potential to practically write itself

In short, it is possible that a poet can be blind to the compelling dynamics of her own invention even while those dynamics are seen to operate with an irresistible momentum within the closed system that is a poem’s argument.  

As a gifted cryptologist declares in my recent post of November 16: ‘The correct solution can often be found hidden in plain sight . . . in this kind of business, we learn to recognise the Incredibly Obvious Manoeuvre.’  

In other words, even the most proficient magician can miss a trick.

So, in my view, the answer to the One Art problem has been embedded in the verses all the time, intrinsic to the text. And, therefore, the poem’s conclusion – defined by its own special impetus –  should/could more directly read:

            Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture 
            I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
            the art of losing’s not too hard to master
            though it may look like evident disaster.

Well. Free of independent thought, driven only by the propulsive energy of the unique devices the poet had set in motion in her masterly verses, that’s what I would have done . . . had I been in her shoes.

Cameron Diaz
In Her Shoes

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