Damn you, Belle Dame

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1855, pen and pencil

I thought on Thursday (last week) that I had finally, in the words of Sir Ed, “knocked the bastard off”, and got a completed first draft of my Belle Dame poem.

But no. It became quite obvious as I was preparing a printout to take to my crit group, that it was going to need at least one more stanza, as the ending does pretty much leap out and smack you. I need to give it a couple of breaths more before the final twist. Which sucketh most mightily, as I am no longer in love with it. Trust me when I tell you that it isn’t just the sedge that has withered from this particular lake.

Part of the trouble is that it is extremely narrative. Possibly excessively so. It currently stands at a whopping 29 stanzas long, and I am absolutely dreading the work of editing it. But I’ve invested so much time and effort into it already that I can’t afford not to do everything I can to get it truly finished. (Which is presumably why I’m writing this post, rather than working on the poem!) What on earth I will do with it, when and if I get it completed, is anybody’s guess.

A Female Study - John William WaterhouseOne of the things that may cause me issues in editing is the form. Ketas used the classic ballad structure for his version – four stanzas of eight, eight, eight and four syllables respectively, rhyming ABCB. For reasons that I hope made sense at the time, I’ve modernised the structure as well as the subject matter, and so have quatrain stanzas of ten, ten, ten and four (or five, or three) syllables respectively, and no regular rhyme. The trouble is that I really don’t write comfortably in pentameter, iambic or otherwise. I guess it’s partly why that ten syllable line does function so well as a neutral length – just too long to swing, but too short to quite ramble. So I’m going to have to decide how much I want to keep my pattern going. The easiest option would be to decide to treat it as scaffolding, and to let the poem now break where it wants to, rather than where the pattern dictates. But … I do like the idea of retaining that link with the original. So maybe I go the other way, and cut the lines back to tetrameter? That alone should help to tighten things up. But … again, I like having that little nod to modernity. And it would certainly be a good exercise in poetic discipline to make myself work in a rhythm I don’t naturally use. Which leaves me with the third option (shades of Thomas the Rhymer … see lines 41 to 52): work on it, sticking to the pattern.

Some stanzas work quite nicely in pattern:

I listened to the plinking as it cooled,
the rain in fretful handfuls on the roof.
I heard her sigh, and drew a ragged breath
and closed my eyes

although it mainly does so because of the end-stoping. This one is less end-stopped (to the point of being thoroughly enjambed), but does still work as pentameter:

Now, she said, it’s time. Her voice was gentle
and so soft I half expected that her
lips would brush my ear, her breath my cheek. Back
to the city.

But then I have stanzas that just spill outwards and are going to need some serious massaging to get them to fit:

I drove. Across the sleeping city, streets
with the names of fallen saints, dissolved to
rivers in the rain, flowing south between
the solemness of trees.

Yes, I know, the last line is too long. And that I’m allowed to have more than ten syllables on some lines, if they are still part of one of the five feet. I can see another week /month /year spent working stanza by stanza through this damn thing, teasing the syntax to make this line stretch and that one contract. (And part of me is relishing the challenge. But the other parts would just like to get their life back, thank you.) I can read the whole thing and make it sound reasonably musical, but only because I know where the stresses are going to have to go. When I got another person to try reading it out loud, the result was both comic and painful. Sigh!

But first, I still have to get the [insert preferred level five invective] thing finished properly.
(Sound of forehead hitting the desk, accompanied by diminishing wails of “why me? why, god, whyyyyyyyy? etc.)

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7 thoughts on “Damn you, Belle Dame

  1. Hi Joanna, do you find writing in a form to be just frustrating, or does it drive you toward invention?
    Personally I’ve found that the necessity of rhyme can drive me towards figures of speech like the kenning, which I wouldn’t normally use, which then becomes my favorite part of the poem — although others tend to look askance (WTF), when I’ve shown them.
    Remember that with Keats you can be happy, happy, happy and more happy, more happy, if you need to make up a few syllables.

    • I’m a formalist by inclination, so I do quite like the rigors of following a set pattern. The first poem I ever had published was a terzanelle (combination of villanelle and terza rima – actually quite a pliable form). And it does force me to be more inventive than I would otherwise be, which I love. The trick is working out when the form has ceased to be a good thing – some poems just need more space, or at least more elasticity than the strict form permits. Which is why being a formalist these days is so great – you’re allowed to stretch the rules as far as you need to, or even abandon them altogether if that serves the poem.

      A poem that really exemplifies all of these things for me is The Damaged – it was initially written as a sonnet, but also following a Welsh form to create the web of internal rhymes. (Yes, I’m a glutton for punishment.) Making myself follow the patterns was hard, but there’s no way I would have come to some of the imagery without it. But when it came time to do the hard polishing on the poems for my MPhil, it became apparent that my second line was redundant … and so I cut it. I tried for a while to rework the line so that it could stay, but in the end it just didn’t need to be there. I think the poem still feels very sonnet-esque, and most people don’t notice that the count isn’t right.

  2. Joanna – thank you so much for generously letting us into the process of your writing what looks to be an astonishing poem, I am hooked already. I am also hooked on what you’re doing – I haven’t written anything quite so ambitious but I still think back to the pleasures and pains of writing a sestina last year. It was tough and I spent at least 20 hours on it – but it was great to have a challenge, and so satisfying when I finished. The corset of an unadapted formal poetic structure feels like an anachronism these days on first sighting… but it is a fantastic discipline for a poet isn’t it? It also brings with it so much poetic history which gives the modern language a welcome echo … and can lead to such felicities. If were you I’d persist with the structure you’ve set yourself and not be tempted to adapt it further. ‘The solemn trees’ is not quite ‘the solemness of trees’ but almost. … Btw, I love the rain in fretful handfuls on the roof…

    • Thanks Mary, glad you find it interesting. (Although now I’m starting to feel a certain amount of performance anxiety … 😉 )
      Even if the poem never sees the light of publication, I am grateful for the experience.

  3. Yes it is good to know that other people think form is a strength not a weakness, and I admire your commitment — I don’t think I’d have the stamina for 29 stanzas. If I were you I would keep ‘the solemness of trees’, as I like those sorts of expressions.

  4. Hi Joanna.

    I think this will be a great poem once it is “done” (we both know a poet never considers a poem finished).
    In the stanza that starts with “I drove”, why is there such a hiatus in the first line?
    Why not connected the whole line, and not leave “I drove” dangling?
    Is there a special effect you’re trying to evoke. I just don’t see it, but maybe
    I need to more familiar with your poems and your quirks.

    • Hi Henry,

      there was a rhythmical reason for the hiatus in that draft (left over from the previous stanza, which isn’t shown), but in the most current drafts I’ve shifted the stress pattern backwards and the line does now read straight. It’s less one of my quirks and more a quirk of showing a fragment of the poem.

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