[ed. tightened up a few things 6/10..]
So, welcome back. I wander and meander, so let’s wander back, and eventually touch on the actual aim of these postings – exploring how to adopt the meters used in Ghazals, Ruba’iat, Qasidas, and all sorts of other wonderful “Oriental” forms of Persian, Hindi, Urdu, Turkish, and Arabic verse.
To explore these things, and see whether or not, and if so how, they can re-inspire us in our English poetry, just as Eastern forms actually once did, long ago. Since I’m fond of meandering we will meander to this, soon.
But first more wandering in the deserts of the real.
It’s funny – like, don’t you just hate it when you start to write something, and you find yourself on a roll, and then *pow* it gets deleted by mistake, leaving you forced to start again from scratch?
So, I started this piece again from scratch, and was forced to re-examine the whole thing.
Perhaps there is something providential in this, for us to reflect on. Like everything that comes to us, it may be a matter of perspective. Seeing the mercy inherent in the things that prick us takes maturity.
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I’m not one of those pedantic formalists, decrying the e’er so ugly destruction of the e’er so noble classical Occidental, and in particular English, poetic tradition by bands of feckless, reckless, bohemian, “SWPL“, self-hating post-modernist barbarians.
After all, I do not worship shibboleths, or at least certainly not for their own sake.
I’m a traditionalist in some ways, nor is this out of simple sentiment, or mere reactionary stance. What I admire in tradition are real and essential things transmitted from a higher source and nature.
But I do not just worship things that seem to be hallowed by the past. I neither worship, nor seek to destroy, sacred cows as an end in itself, and if I keep a sacred cow in my pasture, or if I slaughter the poor thing and make sausage out of it, in both cases this is but a means to an end I’ve chosen.
I do not worship forms, so let’s not, us together, worship form and let’s not worship meter. Rather, let us find in both form and meter things highly useful, things highly beautiful, and things highly interesting.
Since words have meaning, and one definition of verse from time immemorial has included meter, or at least some form of prosody (there is a subtle difference) throwing the baby with the bathwater out the alley window means throwing verse itself out, and simply renaming something that isn’t quite verse, as verse. Some people think this attitude is “limiting”
I wonder what’s wrong with limiting things, at times? Life, on this changing shifting world, is finite and short. What lies behind her veil may be eternity, but what terms we spend here may either be hoarded like a miser, wasted and spent in frivolous pursuit of the non essential, or perhaps better than both, wisely spent and enjoyed on what matters. So finding what matters, and what is essential, at a given time requires limiting things. Filtering things out.
Among the Arabs and Persians the very concept of poetry itself was explicitly defined as speech with meter and rhyme (‘arud wa qafiyah) – others like the ancient Greeks may not have used rhyme, but they certainly cultivated meter. In fact almost all ancient peoples used a prosody of some sort that involved some sort of metrics (there are exceptions, I admit)
So I think that we should re-examine it, and it’s relation to verse, and poetry.
The word poetry, much like the word art, has all sorts of add on connotations to us, nowadays. Anything pretty, or sublime, is often called a sort of “poetry”, you have poetry in motion, programmers call elegant code poetry, I could say of a particularly elegant girl “she’s pure poetry”
Interesting, that we don’t creatively re-construe and reify the word “verse” as much. Perhaps this is because “poetry” sounds prettier than “verse” and it certainly almost alliterates with pretty.
To me Meter is important, because of its immense power and beauty, and to throw it out without understanding it is to make a mistake. But so too, to worship it without understanding is a mistake.
T.S. Eliot once wrote that a poet’s duty was to “purify the language of the tribe” at best this is what we seek.
Contrary to delusions perpetuated by some pseudo-occidental-philes [pseudo because do they really love the Occident? Or is it their love of an imagined construction of the occident, in their imaginings, their phantasm] Westerners have always been very open to artistic and cultural forms from other cultures, and much of Western high art is built using others forms as building blocks.
This was one of the strengths of Western societies after the High Middle Ages, the curiosity of a young culture coming out of barbarism growing into real civilization, and the willingness to examine the new, the exotic, and the foreign. The West only became a civilization by openness to the Orient, moving beyond the closed, the particular, the provincial.
When I say the West I exclude Greece and Rome, Western civilization may have been heir to the Hellenic civilization, and the Hellenes may have civilized the Westerners, but for most of Europe to claim the legacy of the Greeks and Romans as theirs is demonstrable plagerism. Why more Greeks and Italians do not press this home is beyond me. Western civilization grew out of the remains of a Europe molded by classical antiquity.
Every civilization is like this, at first, you inherit, or adopt, or plagiarize and steal, or are inspired by, and you make it your own unique and molded to your ethos.
And over time, pedantic and sentimental fools will misconstrue your experiments and make them into established canon, and the process repeats in which one generation’s rebels become another generations undisturbed canonical saints.
I believe that writers like Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and other modernists of their ilk were rebels. But not rebels for rebellion’s sake, they were seeking a greater freedom and ability to find and express truth. Yes they felt suffocated by the current artistic scene of their age, but unlike little Emo kids in high school slitting their wrists to “make a statement” they aimed at something heavy and deep. Making a statement isn’t an end in itself, it is a means to an end.
Previously, we looked at meter a little bit, and the idea of metre being a codification of rhythm in verse. I personally feel that good poetry, and good verse, must have rhythm. Otherwise, what is the point?
If we want to write pretty, interesting, ugly, or beguiling prose, we should write, respectively, beguiling, ugly, interesting, pr pretty prose – and call it prose.
There is more to poetry and verse than just rhythm, but it’s to be noted that most good free-verse is already so rhythmic that calling it free-verse is really just a stance, and statement made. It’s really just highly irregular verse. If it were true “free verse” it would basically be prose. Like a textbook. In which case our little conversation would be over.
But the Modernists, and even some post-modernist poets (many of whom are not just being silly for silly’s sake, but are actually trying to make a point, and I respect this) are right in pointing out the problems with traditional English prosody, or versification.
For one, English prosody was never truly traditional to begin with.
It’s always been contentious.
Alan Holder demonstrates this, strongly, in his “Rethinking meter: a new approach to the verse line” – professor Holder wrote this as a serious critique of the entire notion of English meter and prosody. It’s one of those books that the formalist in me wishes I could dislike.. but can’t, because frankly the guy throws a rock through a house made of glass.
English prosody, mainly since the 1500s, has basically been based on a convoluted set of abstractions taken from classical Greek and Roman poetry. The Romans appropriated the concept of the verse foot, the iamb, the trochee, the dactyl, hexameter, and pentameter, etc. from the Greeks.
However, just as their later heirs, the English, had to adapt a foreign system to their own dissimilar native language, so too the Romans had to clobber Greek ideas of prosody to fit their own language. The same thing happened when the Persians and Turks encountered Arabic prosody, they had to re-work the affair into their own native rhythms.
The result worked, in both cases, and well, some may say. Roman poets used the Greek system of prosody (as they understood and were able to adapt it) for centuries and its forms are still the bane of many a Latin student’s existence.
The English did the same, under a triple influence. Two they acknowledge, and one they keep as the poor malnourished step-daughter hidden up in the attic of history. Let’s deal with this poor waif first, for it’s high time that she be, at least, acknowledged.
It is a fact that Arabic verse powerfully affected European verse in general. It’s indirect influence hit English poetry both in the matter of rhyme – for ancient Celtic and Germanic peoples didn’t use end rhyme, though they did alliterate – which is a sort of front initial consonant rhyme, and the Celtic genius made significant use of assonance, a vowel rhyme sound – something that much old Irish and Welsh poetry is rich in. True Rhyme arrived to Christian Europe via the troubadours, who learned it from the Muslims of Andalusia.
Meter as well shares part of this heritage, English versification without a doubt owes most of it’s structure to Graeco-Roman antiquity. However there was an Arabic influence as well that pre-dated the borrowing of Hellenic structures.
The system of al-Arud with its Bahar of meters, 24 in all (give or take) is very similar to the Greek and Roman system of quantitative prosody, though in some ways it is far more complex. It works well in Arabic, and it worked well in Hebrew, when Spanish Jews adopted its use. Persian poets somehow, by some amazing feat of genius manages to fit its feet fittingly into their own poetry. Hindustani poets adapted the Persian modified system, as did the Turks.
It is possible that both such quantitative systems could have been made to work for the Proto-Spanish Romance dialects of Andalusia, or Old French. After all they are based on Latin – Latin managed to adopt the system of the Greeks, with powerful effects. But for some reason known to posterity they didn’t. Perhaps this is because of the syllabic irregularity of the vernacular dialects in use – the Romance vernaculars from which Spanish and French evolved were an irregular mix of street Latin, and what little survived of Gaelic tongues, with a dose of Germanic Frankish and Visigothic.
But what the genius among early Western poets did was to take the notion of syllable counting. While the exact long and short sequences of Arud wasn’t implemented in a quantitative sense, and Spanish and French largely lack the sort of accent that would allow an accentual meter in their poetry (though Spanish is richer in accent than French, perhaps it could be pulled off in Spanish) simply counting syllables was more viable. So a poet adopted a line of 10, or 11 or 12 syllables.
This was the system that Italian sonnets used, when they were first developed in Sicily. Italian meter for sonnets tool 14 lines of 11 syllables each.
English prosodists took this idea, but married it to the native Strong Stress type of prosody. This is the native meter of Germanic poetry, a line, divided into two, with a certain number of stressed words, and an irrelevant number of unstressed ones. So the total number of syllables meant nothing to Old English poets, just the stresses. Some stresses were hyper-stressed through the use of alliteration. I’ll demonstrate this soon, to avoid confusion..
The line of verse itself is a Long Line, a distich – which is equivalent to the Arabic bayt, the Persian misrah, and the Urdu/Hindustani Sheer.
The two halves of the distich line are hemistiches, divided in the middle by a caesura, a pause. When written this pause is separated by a space. Readers of Arabic or Urdu poetry will sometimes see something similar.
What matters in this early English verse are lifts, basically beats.
The beats are created by stressed syllables. For the earliest Anglisc poets, each hemistich must have two strong stresses. So the whole line, the whole distich, has 4 strong beats
An example, in Beowulf:
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
The only unstressed word here is Oft (often)
Scyld, Scefing, Sceathena all alliterate there is a front Rhyme
monegum mægþum meodosetla ofteah,
Pretty easy to see. Line 11
gomban gyldan þæt wæs god cyning
Here gomban gyldan all alliterate with god, clever poet cyning is articulated from the same place of the mouth as cyning so this is a subtle playing with the rhythm.
From another Old English poem, the battle of Maldon
Hige sceal þe heardra heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare þe ure mægen lytlað
Some more complex examples can be found in other German tongues, the cousins of the Anglish and Saxons, in frozen northern Thule, developed this art of alliterative accentual meter to greater heights than the English. The Norse had many separate meters based on this system, that included syllable counting. In some of this the caesura dividing old English poems seems missing, the lines themselves become very short. The alliteration scheme is far more complex than in Old English, and all of this is essential to their prosody.
An example, from Glymdrápa – a poem written and dedicated to Harald Fairhair
Gerði glamma ferðar
gný drótt jöru Þróttar
hlymræks of tröð glymja,
Gerthi and glamma alliterate, gny in the next line almost does, helkannanda helenna, and in the next line hlymraeks alliterate.
This, then, is the essence of the Barbarian poetry of Northern Europe. What the Middle English did was to marry this, with a syllabic counting obtained from the South. Chaucer was the first, I think, to definitively write in Iambic Pentameter in English, the poets immediately before his generation were doing something like this
This is an example from a poem by William Langland, somewhere between the 1360s and 1390s
A feir feld full of folk fond I þer bitwene,
Of alle maner of men þe mene and þe riche,
Worchinge and wandringe as þe world askeþ.
Since the spelling is pretty close to modern English we won’t bother with a translation, the rough meaning should be pretty evident ( a fair field full of folk, found I there… of all manner of men, it’s not too complex and we needn’t waste time. Just stare at it funny for 60 seconds and the meaning becomes clear)
You can see the monosyllabic nature of English at its root here. A bit of Romance French slips in, but this is mostly cleaned up, or simplified, Saxon.
Now this strong stress prosody is essentially an accentual meter, the Celts used something similar – though more highly developed than the Anglo Saxon and the Norse poets (though some Norse skaldic poetry comes close to the Celtic brilliance)
The common thought is that Chaucer and others like him just decided to borrow Greco-Latin poetic feet, chiefly the iamb.
Holder shows that this is not quite the case, other writers also have clarified this. If you look at older English Iambic pentameter a few things jump out. In many cases, it’s not really pentameter. E.g. in many cases there are not 5 equal beats in a 10 syllable line e.g. ./ ./ ./ ./ ./
sometimes you have ./ ./ ../ /. ./
or another variation.
Later day prosodists take various other Greek feet, like the trochee or the dactyl and say “see, this is what they were consciously doing.” Others do something silly like blatantly mispronouncing the line to make it scan as even iambic pentameter. What some later critics, Holder amongst them but there are others, do is to point out that something more complex is going on here.
You may have an even number of total syllables, but when the stresses, the beats, vary in their placement do you really think the poet was just sticking in an amphibrach or a trochee or a spondee, or perhaps was he doing something much more… subtle ?
Let’s leave on this note. But let’s get more interesting, real sure.
Like Ghazals, and Arud for real.
-to be continued