Roman Armies, men and words, were structured, highly structured. Poetic structure can take many forms: external structure, the sonnet, for example, with its 14 lines and its 4+4+3+3 verse form which can also be 4+4+4+2 or 5+5+4, or 5+4+5 or 2 x 7 or 3+3+3+3+2. I have experimented with all of these sonnet forms, and many more, at one stage or another in The Nature of Art. Milton Acorn, the Governor-General’s Poetry Award Winner for poetry, wrote a book called Jackpine Sonnets. His Jackpine Sonnets are wild and beautiful, growing this way and that, totally individual and out of shape, just like wind-swept jackpines of Tara Manor in St. Andrews on the East Coast of New Brunswick, Canada, where I penned some of these poems.
In the same way that poems can be given a formal structure, so can lines. Structure can be external, flowing from line to line in an unbroken sequence, or it can be internal, limited to each line. Some of my poems include stanzas where the individual line flows into the stanza and the result is an amalgamation of both the individual and the whole. Individual lines can be structured by syllable count, 10, 11, 12 or more per line. They can also be structured by stress, the stress of normal speech or the stress of forced rhythm. Structures can have Greek or Latin names, English ones too. Or it can be the structure of simple, everyday speech. Fray Luis de León, (1527-1591) wrote that he counted his syllables when he spoke and he wrote prose and poetry the same way he spoke. Syllables, a strange term nowadays, not understood by all. Try the ‘beat’ of music: “You can’t always get what you want” (Rolling Stones) or “All you need is love,” (Beatles). Simple really, but it is all too easy to complicate these concepts.
Comment: Clearly this is a simplification of what can be an intensely scientific and academic subject. We have only to think of the books of rhetoric, with their long lists of Greek names for the different syllables, long and short, and the different line lengths that run from Iambic Pentameter to Hymns Ancient and Modern. However, the purpose of these thoughts is to simplify and not to complicate. More important, perhaps, rhythm, in one form or another is akin to structure and many of us have an innate sense of verbal rhythm, whether we count our syllables on our fingers, as I do, or count them not, as is the modern trend in some poets. Think daisy petals: she loves me, she loves me not, I count them, I count them not. Yet still the rhythm is there and that, in many ways, is one of the key secrets of our unique poetic voices: we all speak and write in different fashions and that is one of the things that makes us unique.
The Musicality of Words Wednesday Workshop Bastille Day 14 July 2021
The Roman armies marched all over Europe and, as they marched, they sang marching songs, traces of which lingered, along with the Latin language, everywhere they went. Think of the poems in his book as songs, each with its own special rhythm. You can find music in a single word, in a group of words, in a single line. You can hear and feel it too when you follow the punctuation and move with the words across adjoining lines. Unfortunately, far too many of us have become used to slogans and advertisements: three words repeated incessantly, two verses of a song that loop continuously. Many of us have forgotten how to read anything other than newspaper headlines and simple sentences. We have also forgotten how to listen to words, how to gain multiple meanings beyond the simplistic message of slogan, sound byte, scandal, and news. Diversity of meaning is what you learn when you read poetry, for poetry is more, much more, than the delivering of a simple message. To read a poem is to set out on a personal journey of exploration, into your own memories and mind, as mediated by the poet’s words. It is also to explore the vast treasure trove of our personal relationship with our language. Remember: a poetry book is a dream you hold in your hands.
Comment: Words have meaning, but they also have music and the musicality of meaning must never be forgotten for when music an meaning combine, a new set of meanings is formed that depend as much upon the ear as they do upon the decoding mind. This is all a part of what we refer to as the poet’s voice and remember this style of poetry is not to be found in newspaper headlines nor on the radio and television news, scaled down as they are to the lowest common denominators of language.
Look carefully at the painting that heads this Wednesday Workshop. Look at the movement and the musicality of linked forms and colors in a still, silent, two-dimensional space. Meaning takes on different meanings and becomes something different when we look at these words of color, these soundless sounds, these rhythmical movements of color. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed it is, and in poetry, it is also in the musicality of the words and the flow of the ideas that bind the words and change their meanings.
Words are formed from a combination of letters and sounds. Join them together and they will march like Roman soldiers, in groups of meaning. A cohort, ten words, ten men, commanded by a Decurion. One hundred words, a century, commanded by a Centurion. Six thousand words, a legion with six thousand possible implications attached. I use the image of the Roman Legion because meanings in poetry are Legion and our Western Poetry tradition, of which I am a part, goes back more than two thousand years to Roman times and beyond. Tolle, lege: Latin for take and read. Sortes Virgilianae: fortune telling by chance words drawn, originally, from Virgil’s Aeneid and now from this poetry book. Choose your words and sentences at random. Interpret them as you will.
While each word has an individual dictionary meaning, words are much more powerful than the dictionary. Each word is surrounded by a network of associations, called an associative field, and those connections are different for every reader. This means that each word and its associative field have very personal emotional strings attached. When you understand this, you will also understand that each reading, each interpretation, is your own and nobody else’s. This is not a grade school classroom. Here, there are no poetry thought police to tell you that you are wrong, that you are mistaken, that you do not understand what the teacher is telling you.
Take the word ‘grandmother’. The dictionary meaning is clear. Your grandmother is the mother of your father or the mother of your mother. Each of us has, if we are lucky, two grandmothers. Some of us have more than two. The emotional ties between you, as reader, and your own ‘grandmother(s)’ will determine your own personal version of the word’s emotional and poetic tones. Now you must apply these individual meanings to each word you read. Reading poetry in this fashion will allow you to create your own personal world of tone, meaning, associations, and emotions. This is what poetry brings to you, not a handful of information to be scanned for knowledge, but a series of sights, sounds, memories, all personal, that are triggered in your mind by the impact of the poet’s words.
Comment:Wednesday Workshops are my attempt to express some of my ideas and theories on writing in general and on poetry in particular. Hopefully, the will encourage other writers to think about their writing and to deepen their knowledge and understanding of what we do best: think and write. By all means add your own thoughts to what I have written here.
The Nature of Art and the Art of Nature is a book of poems each one of which celebrates humanity’s relationship both with the natural world and the way that world is recreated by artists in so many different forms. In order to read these poems and receive full value from them, it would help to know how to approach them.
Preparing to Read
First, de-clutter the mind. Poetry cannot be hurried or rushed. Remember, it is better to read one poem a hundred times than to read one hundred poems once. Prepare yourself mentally and physically for your reading. Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. Close your eyes. Concentrate your mind on something you find peaceful: a sail on Passamaquoddy Bay, a rose in Kingsbrae’s Rose Gardens, a butterfly in the Butterfly Garden, or a fine white cotton cloud in a cerulean sky. Breathe in and then breathe out. Now slow your breathing down. Breathe in, count up to four, slowly, breathe out, counting up to six. Breathe in, count up to six, slowly, now breathe out, counting up to eight. Breathe in, counting up to eight, and breathe out, also counting up to eight. How long will you sit there? When your breathing has slowed and your mind is clear, you will be ready to start. You will know when that is.
Open your eyes. Take your book and begin to read. Don’t start on page one and rush through. Dip in, here and there, find a title or a first line that you like, and read that poem. Read it two or three times. Then move on, randomly to another poem. Select individual lines, phrases, sentences. Savour the words. Roll them around in your mind. Read them to yourself, quietly. Then read them out loud. Try to capture their essence, their rhythms. Taste them, as you would a fine Spanish Manzanilla wine. Select another word, another line, another poem. Seek and you will find some sequence that you like. Return to it often.
Comment: I will restart my Wednesday Workshops. The Nature of Art, the manuscript on which I am currently working, has an Introduction on The Nature of Poetry. I will put this up in installments. The handwritten opening page comes from an online video on Creativity and Writing Poetry during the Pandemic. This poetry video is the first one in the series. Click here for link. Other workshops on writing can be found by searching Writing Workshops on the Blog search (top right hand corner) or by going to this link Poetic Creativity and Thoughts on Writing
He who would true valor see, let him come hither. One here will constant be, come bad or fair weather. No line length can him fright, he’ll with a paragraph fight, and he will have a right, to be a writer.
Those who beset him round with dismal stories, do but themselves confound: his strength the more is. There’s no discouragement will make him once relent his first avowed intent, to be a writer.
Rejections nor bad critics can daunt his spirit. He knows he at the end will a book inherit. So critics fly away, he’ll fear not what they say, he’ll labor night and day to be a writer.
Comment: John Bunyan tempted me and I fell into temptation. In fact, as my good friend Oscar Wilde once said: “I can resist anything except temptation.” So, ladies and gentlemen, change the he to a she or the pronoun of your choice, turn the writer to a sculptor, stoneist, poet, playwright, painter, novelist, dramatist, comedian, song-writer, singer. Breathe deep. Believe in your own artistic talent and remember: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” Remember this too: “You’ll never get to Vancouver by bus, if you get off the bus at Montreal or Toronto.”
Our minds absorb words as blotting-paper soaks up ink. Phrases carve beehives deep in our inner circuits. No te preocupes / don’t worry. Yet tone and carry are different in each language and the comfort-blanket serenity of note preocupes does not translate easily from Spanish to English. The verbal vibes are just not the same. Nor do the catcalls from the soccer, aimed equally at opponent and referee, and tumbling raucous from the stands where people sit. Shrill whistles sound in the bull ring: a matador who seems afraid to approach this particular bull for reasons only known to him, yet his shakiness visible to all who watch and understand what they are seeing. The Cordobés answers the telephone he places on the bull’s nose, yet fails to approach between the horns and his sword rebounds off bull bone: pincha hueso. Each one wounds, the last one kills. El Viti, stately, graceful, an elderly churchman proud of his vocation and always willing to perform to perfection the weekly ceremony of the sacrifice. The boos when the bull enters the ring, stumbles, and comes up lame and limping. The cheers that accompany the arrival of the seventh bull. The refusal to eat meat that has been slaughtered in the bullring, even though it is advertised outside the butcher’s: tenemos solomillo de toro de lidia / we have tenderloin steaks from fighting bulls. Bulls who have led the best of lives, fed on the tenderest pastures, watered by flowing streams. Bulls grown for slaughter and public sacrifice.
Guernica. The bull fight in the sand-filled square. Except it wasn’t a fight, it was more a circus. The slippery pig. The hens and chickens. The rabbits and hares. All the animals running scared. The animals released, one by one, and the spectators jumping into the ring, really a sand-filled square, one by one, and chasing down the animals, taking them home for dinner, if they could catch them. Then the bigger beasts. The mule, ferocious, jumping into the air, kicking four tormentors, one with each leg, and biting a fifth with his teeth. No fearful, clucking chicken this, nor the cow who came after with her padded horns. Participants moved more carefully now. She watched them from her querencia, the where she chose to fight, not die. She knelt, scraped off the rubber balls that covered her horns. Re-armed, she charged and the crowd scattered, all but one young kid, caught, falling to the ground, the cow standing over him, ready to gore again. Sixteen years old, an outsider, I jumped with others over the barrier, twisted this away and that, thumped the cow’s side, smelled her fury, her fear, the whole soured being that emanated from her. Together, we hustled her, bustled her, dragged her kicking, butting, from the ring, backwards, pulled by the tail. Visible scars of damaged animals. Scars of the participants. That young man who broke his leg. That old man, inebriated, stuffed with food and drink, who loosened his belt to move more freely. We watched as his pants slipped from his waist to fall around his knees and trap him, just as the cow charged. He survived but will bear the scars forever, some visible, many not. Long summer days, on the Sardinero, the Segunda Playa, playing soccer. Different rules, different skills, different swear words: I carry a dictionary tucked into my bathing trunks and refuse to play while I look up the words spat at me by my opponent. Good heavens, I think, is that anatomically possible? The ball bounces away on the hard, sand ridges. I chase it and steadily dehydrate under the hot sun. A sea-salt wind desiccates my body. My mouth fills with salt water when I swim out to retrieve the ball from the sparkling sea. My tongue sticks to the inside of my mouth. When I spit, I spit dry and everyone laughs. Now I am totally dry, shiver, and no longer sweat. On the way home, we get off the trolleybus early, at Jesús del Monasterio and enter the long string of bars that lead past Numancia towards Perines. Red wine in glasses, in porrones, with tapas and raciones to soak up the alcohol, morcilla, mariscos, callos, patatas bravas, wine consumed until our blotting-paper bodies are ready once more to sweat. Bread soaks up the wine that relieves the oil that now filters through our skins and who needs suntan lotion when the oil is inside us and bodies are oiled, well-oiled, from the inside out? These excursions are all male, just like the soccer teams. I have four friends and I know them by their nicknames and the way they play soccer. I also know them from the way they try to trick me and laugh at my mistakes, or the way they treat me as a human being and help me to understand this new world into which, sink or swim, I have been thrust. Total immersion in another culture does not come with a set of instructions and the rules of soccer change from grass field to beach sand. Pedro plays centre-half, loves heading the ball, even when it’s laden with sand. I watch him playing field hockey one day, out at La Albericia, and when a low shot heads for the corner of the goal, he dives and heads it away. They carry him off on a stretcher, blood everywhere, and you wonder if his scars will ever heal. Tennis on the clay courts, also at La Albericia. I play so slow but they play so fast. I learn top spin, side spin, back spin, cutting the racket beneath the ball and learning to bend it sideways off the clay that is not clay really, but a fine-packed Italian sand on which I can slide and glide, and commit to a shot running one way then turn and commit to another in the opposite direction. I try it on a hard court, after the immersion period ends, when I get home, and my foot sticks on the tarmac (or whatever that hard, non-slip surface is) and over I go, skinning my knees, creating more scars.
Comment: Another Golden Oldie reclaimed from the reject file. I remember the scenes so well, even though I have moved deliberately in the piece from Elanchove and Guernica (Basque Country) to Santander (now Cantabria). I got lucky and was able to attend a series of workshops on memoirs run by Brian Henry of Quick Brown Fox. Taking his workshops, I realized that most of what I write is more akin to Creative Non-Fiction (CNF), rather then memoir, though much of what I write is rooted in memory. What thrills me in this style of writing is the rhythm that emerges, the word patterns I knit with my pen and a skein of ink, the remembered brightness of the Spanish sun, the sparkle of the waves, the warmth of a people, still grieving after their losses in a bitter civil war, their willingness to accept me, a foreigner, and take me to their hearts. The Other: we talk so much about The Other. But when we ourselves have been That Other, have been dependent on Other Others for food, drink, warmth, care, and love it is so much easier to understand what The Other is lacking and what we can give. Warmth, not scars; a hug, not a punch; open arms, not a fist… so easy to say. I have been there. I know. But can we, deep in our hearts, find it in ourselves to make the sacrifices for The Other that other others have made for us? Only time will tell.
I am currently thinking and re-thinking the titles to my books.
Clearly, the title is of the utmost importance. The title should draw the reader in while offering some information on the content. Alas, my earlier titles rarely did this.
Monkey Temple, for example, really doesn’t say much about what the book contains. Nor does its subtitle: A narrative fable for modern times. Those who have read poems from the book or who have heard me read excerpts from it, know what it is about. However, deep down the title really says little about the life and times of Monkey, the protagonist who works and suffers in the corporate Monkey Temple.
In similar fashion, Though Lovers Be Lost is a wonderful title, taken from Dylan Thomas, and illustrating his theory that “though lovers be lost, love shall not, and death shall have no dominion.” If readers have these lines on the tip of their tongues, as most people from Wales do, then they will have a fair idea about the contents of the book. However, without that intimate knowledge of one of the great Welsh poets … many readers will be lost and the title will lack meaning, check my post on Intertextuality.
Bistro is a collection of flash fiction. I am not sure that the title suggests that instead of a standard and expected table of contents the book has a menu that refers to the 34 pieces of flash fiction are contained within its pages. The pieces are so varied, rather like a meal of sashimi or sushi, that it is difficult to describe the contents (or menu) in such a short thing as the title. Does the one word, Bistro, draw the reader in? The cover picture might and the combination of title and picture and cover may go further. However, I have my reservations.
Empress of Ireland, on the other hand, is a book of poems about a specific event: the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the St. Lawrence River in May, 1914. Here, title and event are closely linked and hopefully the title is rather more indicative of the contents. Even here, as in the cases of the books mentioned previously, a brief description of the book is necessary.
Sun and Moon is a great title, provided you have lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, and know that Sun and Moon are the official symbols of the state of Oaxaca. Without that knowledge, the sub-title, Poems from Oaxaca, Mexico, is essential. The cover photograph with the state symbol of Sun and Moon is intriguing, but it is still necessary to read the description to find out what the book is about. Are title and sub-title enough in themselves? I’m still not sure.
Obsidian’s Edge is a tricky title. I thought everybody knew that obsidian is the shiny black glassy stone produced in volcanic areas. Further, I thought most people knew that the edge of obsidian is used in weapons and knives that cut. By extension, obsidian knives were used by the Aztecs and others in their human sacrifices … so much knowledge that is clear to the writer but unclear to the reader who may not realize that we all live at Obsidian’s Edge with the sacrifice of our own lives hanging by a thin thread on a daily basis. Oh dear, I have been to workshops and readings recently where people knew nothing about obsidian and its properties … my title gives so little information.
Land of Rocks and Saints has yet to be revised and rewritten. Few English readers will associate it with the old Spanish saying, Ávila: tierra de cantos y santos / Avila, Land of Rocks and Saints. The tragedy of living a life in more than one language is that the cultural knowledge so easily understood in one does not necessarily transfer readily into a second or third language. Some of my readers write me to say that they Google all these terms and learn a tremendous amount from the books. Alas, I have to improve my titles. I need to sharpen them and use them to draw my future readers in.
Ávila: cantos y santos y ciudad de la santa, the Spanish translation of Land of Rocks and Saints that I put up on Amazon / Kindle, is a better title. Avila is both the province and the capital city of the province. The rocks and saints are clearly linked to the name and the city itself is the city of the saint, St. Teresa of Avila, of course. Hopefully, this title, in Spanish, will attract some Spanish readers. I can only hope.
The book on which I am currently working was originally called Iberian Interludes and had no sub-title. In my revision, I am selecting poems about Spain from various earlier collections and placing them together in one large compendium. I have selected poems from two collections Iberian Interludes and In the Art Gallery (oh dear, I never mentioned that it was the Prado and that all the paintings could be found there). To these I have added a selection of individual poems either published in reviews and literary magazines or taken from other collections.
I am still working on a title for this collection, hence today’s post. I have rejected Iberian Interludes as too vague (how many of my potential readers know that Spain is Iberia) and I am now looking at a bold assertion: Spain. If I do this, I will need a sub-title. The evolution of the subtitle looks like this: Bull’s Blood and Bottled Sunshine, ¡Olé! > Bull’s Blood and Bottled Sun > Bottled Sun and Bull’s Blood. I wonder if Spain: Bottled Sun and Bull’s Blood will be catchy enough. Will it draw readers in and attract them?
Post Script: By the way, I thought long and carefully, and went with Iberian Interludes anyway. The cover picture shows a modern stone sculpture of a traditional bull. Lovely!
For me, it is vital to see how others read and interpret my work … what comes across, what doesn’t, how things are understood and read, sometimes in the same way, sometimes in different ways. It is always easy to pick out some favorite phrases. However, deciphering, interpreting, and then reacting to, a poem’s inner code, is a very different matter.
I love the cut and thrust of dialog … I was at our Tuesday night writing group meeting last night from 7-9:30 pm and we had a great time, back and forth across the table pecking, like wild birds perched on a literary feeder, at each others’ texts. My own texts are thickly layered and highly codified and I have become very interested in the theory of literary codification.
My own ideas are a development of those of Northrop Frye as he expressed them in The Great Code. When we lose our common code, to what extent do we need to explain a private one? This is of great import to Frye’s studies on William Blake, perhaps (in spite of his seeming simplicity in certain poems) one of the most difficult of English poets.
Perhaps the answer lies in Karl Jung’s theories on the racial subconscious: that we all share deep, (human) racial symbols that transcend words and often appear as symbols and images. If this is true, then we communicate, at a non-speech level, through metaphor and symbol, and that is more powerful and outreaching than linear language, however well and clearly codified it may be.
This emphasis on symbol, image, and metaphor leads us, of course, into surrealism, free writing, concrete poetry, sound poetry, and all those efforts to abandon the linear and reach into the subconscious roots of ‘that which binds us together as human beings’ … in my humanistic theories, to find the links that behind is more productive than the reinforce the fears and misbeliefs that separate. Alas, not everyone thinks that way in the literary world, and private codes can easily be used as wedges to force people apart.
We need codes, preferably codes that we can share. The question is, how explicit would we be, as writers, in explaining those codes? How closely should we imitate the writing codes of other people?
The eternal mystery of Aladdin’s Lamp: “New codes for old.” And don’t forget the magic words “Open Sesame.”
Ah, the joys of codification.
Commentary This is a golden oldie, a repeat of an earlier post. I am creating furiously at present and cannot always spend the time to create for the blog. Hence the repetitions and the golden oldies. Codification is something that has interested me for some time: the Biblical Code, The Western Tradition, Courtly Love, the Icy Fires of Petrarchism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Expressionsim, Surrealism, Existentialism, Modernism, Post-Modernism … the -isms, once started, are apparently endless. All of these -isms spiral round the ideas of verbal codes. In codification, I would like to start a discussion on what these codes are, how they affect us, what do they mean, especially when they can be so totally personal. By all means, join the discussion: what do you mean by codes? How do you use them? How do you interpret the codes of other people? By all means post here, but better by far, rech out and discuss these things with your friends and your writing or art groups.
The 2019 KIRA Boutique Writing Retreat will take place from October 6-12 at KIRA (picture and details below) just outside Kingsbrae Gardens in the beautiful New Brunswick town of St. Andrews. More information is available from email@example.com
The KIRA Boutique Writing Retreat, aka The Art of Writing, is unique in that it concentrates on Creativity: how we channel it, how we express it, and how it changes us. Geoff Slater (artist and line painter) and Roger Moore (award winning teacher, poet, and short story writer) concentrate on different forms of creativity with, in addition to the free time at the retreat, workshops on drawing and painting (Geoff) and poetry and prose (Roger). The morning talks and the evening readings allow each individual to explore themselves and their creativity in a unique setting.
Attendance is limited to five residents. This allows us to offer one on one time with each of the instructors if and when it is needed.
This is the new advertisement for the KIRA (Kingsbrae International Resdencies for Artists) Fall Session (October 6/12, 2019). Geoff Slater and I will be again facilitating a week of creative workshops, including drawing and painting (Geoff) and writing (Roger, both poetry and prose). These will take place in the KIRA Residence, just beside Kingsbrae Gardens. Residential enrollment is limited to five people. Just send us an e-mail if you are interested in attending this workshop. If you click on the KIRA link in the first line (above), be sure to watch the opening video. Pictures speak louder than words and the video will help you to understand what Creativity at KIRA is all about.