in verse # 16 : rime royal

In “The horrors of the German language,” chapter 8 of his Words and rules, Steven Pinker reminds us that “no one is biologically disposed to speak a particular language.  The experiments called immigration and conquest, in which children master languages unknown to their ancestors, settled that question long ago.”[i]  After noting that linguists can’t “test hypotheses about cause and effect” in languages by synthesizing them in test tubes and culturing them, but are reduced to comparisons amongst those already synthesized in those great experiments, and available for study, he concludes:

We find different languages because people move apart and lose touch, or split into factions that hate each other’s guts. Continue Reading →

in verse # 13 : free verse, and bound

The observant amongst you will have had cause to wonder at Rolfe Humphries’ use of the term “free meters,” in the subtitle of his Green armor on green ground : poems in the twenty-four official Welsh meters, and some, in free meters, on Welsh themes,[i] especially those of you who have noticed how rigid the 24 official forms can be, once cynghanedd is added in.  So I have cause to answer your wondering awe in Gwyn Williams’s words: Continue Reading →

in verse # 12 : notes upon the staff

When I was quite young, I thought “certain” was a verb.  I was sure of this because I could think of no other reason that a choir of angels would tell a coven of shepherds that there was no well between them and the manger where the baby Jesus slumbered.  I could well imagine a clutch of shepherds — man and boy, old and young, fit and decrepit — stumbling across the rocky pastures and open fields surrounding Bethlehem and falling into wells.  I knew from Primary stories that the Holy Land was rife with wells, and figured that the greatest fear a shepherd might have was stumbling into one of those open pits in a mid-winter’s night that was so deep.  Had I asked my dad Continue Reading →

in verse # 11 : last of the awdl

To me, turkey has always meant dark meat — the leg and the thigh.  This may be because of an association I made early on between dark meat and the dark lady of the sonnets.  I had no idea who the dark lady was, nor how the lady was dark, nor yet how dark the lady was.  I really didn’t know what a sonnet was, for that matter.  But since dark meat was clearly darker than the meat of the far drier breast we were served — the so-called white meat — I concluded that the dark lady must be darker than another, hypothetical, light lady of the sonnets.  At that time I didn’t know about the fair youth of the sonnets, or I might have made the association with the dork laddy of the sonnets. Continue Reading →

in verse # 10 : aged in charcoal

Rolfe Humphries’s fine poem, “Winter, Old Style,” with which he illustrates the Welsh meter rhupunt, ends with these lines:

The trees are bowed in the bare wood; there is no shade in any vale.
The reeds are dry and a loud crying howls outside the horse’s stall.

The light is short.  Sorrow and hurt harry the heart with inward war.
So an old man does what he can, stares through the pane at night’s black square.[i]

Note how assonance echoes in these lines, and how the rhymes slant.  Perhaps because I am an old man, “Winter, Old Style” calls to mind another poem on the same theme, “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” which begins:

All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.[ii]

Though the meter of this poem is the iambic pentameter we call “blank verse” — because the lines don’t rhyme — notice how much internal alliteration and rhyme fills these lines.  But you have to look to notice; this is a fine example of Robert Frost’s ability to make blank verse seem as natural as a speaking voice.  Neither of these instances of verse is natural speech.  Each of the poems is a highly artificial construct from the materials of natural speech, words and rhythm and meaning, and neither sounds like the plain speech  Continue Reading →

in verse # 9 : for batter or for verse?

I just got home from a performance of the Chinese Opera Orchestra of Shanghai, which was founded in 2010 to preserve and popularize Chinese traditional music, according to the program booklet, and they do play Chinese traditional music and Chinese folk music — and certain hybrid compositions, part Chinese and part European.  And since the musicians include several cellists and bassists, you would expect that wide a variety.  After the first two pieces, “Celebration Overture” and “Dance of the Golden Snake”  Continue Reading →

in verse #8 : for good measure

“All early Welsh poetry is rhymed.  The word awdl, used for the work of a chief bard, is the same as odl meaning rhyme, and an awdl was rhymed speech” as Gwynn Williams informs us[i].  This is an old, old word in Indo-European languages, cognate with “ode” in English, which comes, already singing, into our language from the Greek.  But the hypothetical (and reconstructed) Indo-European root Continue Reading →

in verse # 6 : verse control

It seems like lately every time this post is due, I’m away from home.  In April, it was Pacific Grove; in May, Ithaca; in June, this month right here, yesterday, I was in Rock Creek Hollow.  That’s up in Wyoming.  In April, as I was right near Robinson Jeffers’ home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Continue Reading →

in verse #5 : green armor

It was in his first class at the University of Washington, and my first poetry class in graduate school, that I met Leslie Norris.  He walked into class that first day and said, in what we would all have surmised to be an Oxbridge accent, “I come from a country where poetry is honoured, a nation where poets are respected.”  Here he paused, looked around the room and smiled.  His accent, his confidence, had already won over most of the class, when he continued: “That is to say, I am not English.  I come from Wales.”  Having done some research before signing up for the class, I vaguely knew this, but considered it a mere accident of birth.  I knew nothing about Wales honouring poets.  I had read a couple of Norris’s poems and stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, and all the information the English Department had on him.  I even knew that Wales had its own language, Welch, but that everyone there spoke English too, like reservation Indians in Washington.  So I felt prepared to take a chance on this teacher.  What I was unprepared for Continue Reading →

in verse #4 : leafy teacups

Looking back, it seems that my first attempts at writing poetry were adventures in revision.  What I remember revising first were songs, specifically Primary songs — although my mother insists that I was at work on the hymns in Sacrament Meeting when I was three.  This is what I recall as my earliest effort, from one bright and cheery Tuesday, Primary being met in a recycled army barracks on the BYU campus:

In the leafy teacups, the bird mugs are girning.
They’re first the sun to spy, they start to wonder why,
In the leafy teacups, the bird mugs are girning. Continue Reading →