Playing by Ear

Portrait of Keats, listening to a nightingale on Hampstead Heath

I have, at last, finished my Belle Dame poem.

Well, for a given value of ‘finished’. It’s made it to printout-draft stage, been primped and prodded, and has been through the scrutiny of my beta-readers. The interesting thing is that none of them agree on the bits that they query, and none of the queries are especially definite. Which could be good, if it means that the queries are there more or less for the sake of having something to say. Or could be a bad sign, if they indicate that there is something fundamentally flawed about the poem, and which everyone responds to slightly differently. Time will tell. And that’s what I’m going to do now – put it aside and not even look at it for six months or so, so that I can look at it without being swayed by all the things I wanted it to do, all the plans and motives and hopes that have been bound up in it for the last three months. (Three months. God, I’ve had romantic relationships that lasted for less time!) Actually that’s not quite true – I am going to read an excerpt from it at the Festival of Ideas “Putting Words to the Feelings” session next month. Given that we’re supposed to be talking about how the earthquakes have touched our writing, it seems appropriate. So those of you who are feeling curious, there’s your chance for a sneak peek!

The revising of the thing for rhythm was every bit as messy and convoluted as I’d feared. Part of it is that I am rubbish at scansion – how do you decide that line X is iambic tetrameter with a trochaic substitution in the second foot and an acephalous first foot, rather than two spondees, an anapest and a concluding iamb? (Ok, not the best example. But you know what I mean.) Last year I spent a very frustrating three days diligently trying to work through Mary Kinzie’s scansion exercises in A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, and got nearly every one wrong. Repeatedly. Mind you, she was using a three part notation system that I haven’t come across before. The sod of it is that her system strikes me as very sensible and helpful. I just don‘t seem able to put it into practice.

I suspect it’s the same as my issues with music. I used to play clarinet – I was pretty good too. But I play by ear, which is great most of the time. Play me a passage from a new piece of music, and I could play it back to you pretty accurately. Which is all very well and good, but did mean that my sight reading skills didn’t ever get the polishing they needed. It came back to apply forcible mandibular pressure to my gluteal muscles one day when the band leader asked me to stand up and play the first solo section of the piece of music he’d just handed out to us … and yes, it was every bit as embarrassing as you’re imagining. No-one – including me – had realised quite how poor my sight reading was until that moment. (Hello hours of study and two more years of scrutiny …) And I think it’s the same thing going on with my writing, and which this poem has really highlighted. I don’t have the faintest idea what I’m doing most of the time when I write. I’ve cultivated a very good ear for things like the rhythm of a line and how sound and pitch and emphasis serve to speed or slow or even stumble over each other. But until fairly recently, I’ve been doing it all by feel. It’s only been the last couple of years that I’ve started looking at things like the scansion of a line, to work out why a particular pattern isn’t quite flowing, or is letting things slip too quickly over an area that needs more consideration. Working on Fare has made me really pay attention to things like the different emotional characteristics of anapestic versus trochaic versus iambic lines. The way they lighten mood, or darken it. And which ones you need to have following each other.

It’s actually been fun. Sitting down with the stanzas that didn’t quite work, working out what their scansion was, and what it needed to be. Although I suspect only another poet would see the interest in things like ‘argh, to hit that word right I need that line to begin with an iamb, so the preceding line has to end trochee-iamb’† … But it’s important. Otherwise you end up doing what Toto did, and rendering an otherwise lovely song painful to hear. I swear my body tenses up as they approach it: that horrible, boxed-in, cramped and barely intelligible line:

Sure as Kil-i-man-ja-ro ris-es like O-lym-pus above the Se-renget-i …”

Ugh. To make ‘Serengeti’ sound more like a place name and less like an attempt to gargle tapioca, they need to respect its actual rhythm. Ser-en-ge-ti. Trochee, trochee. Rather than doing a Cinderella’s step-sisters number and trying to stuff all the final three syllables into a size two slipper, they needed to shift the weight backwards, give the third syllable (‘ge’) the three note glide: Se-ren-ge-eh-eh-ti. Yes, they’d have to shuffle things earlier in the line a bit, maybe cut some words in order to get to that note at the right time, but in such a lovely song, wouldn’t it have been worth it‽

(This digression brought to you by For the Hell of It (Pty Ltd) and I’ve Got to Get Out More Co.)

† An actual quote from my work book, although I’ve omitted the swearing.


10 thoughts on “Playing by Ear

  1. A great post, it feels like getting into the bowelly workroom of poetry. And to bring together Toto & trochee? Amazeballs.

    I am a big Manic Street Preachers fan, & realise this is why some of their songs are so damn hard to listen to – squeezing in a million words into space meant for ten is cramping.

    • Glad you enjoyed it Donna! (I’m trying not to think too much about the ‘bowelly workroom’ … ;-))
      And always nice to be reminded of the Manics. Alanis Morissette is even more inclined that way. (Slightly surreal to mention both of them in close succession …)

  2. I stand in awe of your dedication and persistence. And add that when I was in my school orchestra the music teacher was driven crazy by the fact that I wrote the names of every note under the stave. Always a verbal person, I still can’t look at a note and ‘see’ it’s a B or a G, though I eventually got the hang of Middle C. Learned every piece of music we played by ear, and finally got booted out for my lack of musicality, LOL. Strangely, I find scansion relatively easy. But then I haven’t gone into it in quite your depth.

    • Hi Laurice, what instrument did you play?
      Even now my sight reading is painfully slow, although if I don’t think about it too long my fingers seem to know what position on the instrument corresponds to which symbol of the score. So instead of reading the score, recognising the note and then playing it on my clarinet, I tended to read the score, ply the note, and then try and remember what it was called when my fingers were in that particular placement.
      Much less helpful when I’m trying to sing …

  3. Great post: fascinating, illuminating, ever-so-slightly intimidating. My musical career ended with Grade 1. A year of reporting to the Dominican convent for piano lessons (Sister Metronome?) was all that my nine-year old psyche could endure! As regards scansion: I’m currently obsessing over the subtleties of punctuation, and the effect on poetic rhythm of a comma here, a colon there. All counterbalanced by the intricacies of end-stopping versus enjambment. Trouble is: I’m so easily influenced. Some days, I want to join the gang of poets who forego punctuation altogether, in a flight of syntactical rebellion. Other days, I’m sold on the virtues of precise annotation. I guess the fun is in the exploring…

    • Greg, intimidating? Me?! Oh well, it’s an improvement from ‘neurotic’ … 😉
      Really strongly recommend you get your hands on a copy of James Longenbach’s “The Art of the Poetic Line”. It’s amazing, and will give you the strongest possible grounding in line breaks. Even when you don’t agree with him, he makes you think.
      Punctuation is less easily defined – I just feel that they are such useful things, and I like their absence to really mean something. You can’t easily get your line breaks to do all the work of punctuation as well as their own job, so one thing or other will tend to fade out a little. Actually I’m reviewing a book at the moment that does some funky things with omitting full stops. I don’t think the choice always works either – leaving off a full stop should be something really significant, rather than just a whim. But then I am a punctuation Nazi … it just reminds me of what Chris Mansell said in her Masterclass last year – roughly “Some people don’t use commas, presumably because they can’t afford them”. Then she gave us an exercise where we had to create a poem with (I think) no verbs or nouns, although we could use pronouns. It was all about punctuation and lineation to create meaning. Fascinating. Alien and hard, but fascinating.

      • Joanna, don’t you dare set that as the next giveaway challenge! Thanks for your pointers: as savvy as ever. And I’d love to read your reviews, if you can advise where to find them…

  4. I have great trouble with scansion too. Lewis Turco says that whatever remains most constant is the prosody of the poem, which strikes me as a logical approach. Then you read everything else as deviations from that metrical pattern. My trouble is when two syllables are very close in level, e.g. the second syllable slightly louder than the first, do I call them an unaccented-accented or accented-accented — where do I draw the line? I think there is room for some subjectivity here, also when things are close, I think differences in the speaker’s accent could make a difference to how it’s read. Maybe that’s why you get a different result to Mary Kinzie, neither of you is wrong, but each of you speak slightly differently. I kind of think that any scansion is always going to be a simplification and by that nature full of inaccuracies. Great post 🙂

    • Ah! Which Lewis Turco do you have? I’ve got the second edition of “The Book of Forms” (technically ‘The New Book of Forms’), and have been holding off on a new copy until the fourth edition comes out. (Which assumes there will be a fourth edition…)
      And the question that I always ask – how long did it take you to work out who ’Wesli Court’ was? (Me, a looooooong time.) (Ok, I had to be told.)

  5. Same as yours and it was my first ever book about poetry. I was pretending to have a keen interest in the Philosophy section, with the man behind the counter silently cheering me on as I bravely read some long winded tract from the 17th century, when I spotted it.
    It was a long time ago but I think I remember getting suspicious and looking up that name on the internet, and the internet did the rest. It is a very clever way of including your own work in a general book and not looking pompous (well, too pompous).

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