21 November 2008

“But I Have to Drop the Name ‘Bud’ in There!”

"Otherwise, how will everyone know that we're dear, dear friends?"

In today's New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reviewed Calvin Trillin's book of verse about the recent US election with rhymes of her own:

There once was a poet named Bud Trillin,
Who cast George Bush as his villain.
He sounded like a new Ogden Nash,
Writing doggerel with real panache,
Chronicling the reign of Bush Two,
And Rove’s quest to wipe out the blue.
Which illustrates my primary rule for writing verse: rhyme is easy, rhythm is hard.

My secondary rule is that you shouldn't write verse at all if you can't understand rule #1.


david elzey said...

Man, that sort of thing chaps my hide. And it astounds me how much off-meter I've found in recent picture books.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Drove me crazy. And told me more about the reviewer than about the book.

Bill S. said...

I just don't get how that doesn't bug the writers. Also, the beginning suggests a limerick, so that by the time I made it to the third line I was clawing at the arms of my chair.

J. L. Bell said...

I'll take this opportunity to thank my mother for teaching me that poetic metre isn't just a matter of counting syllables but checking the pattern of stressed syllables.

The result immediately sounded better, but I hadn't been able to spot it or figure it out on my own. Of course, I was only in junior high school at the time.

I suspect Kakutani and other people who write non-metrical verse haven't had the benefit of someone sitting them down and explaining that lesson. I suspect my mother would be available for tutoring lessons at a reasonable price.

david elzey said...

No one sat down and taught me the Limerick form, I picked it up on my own in the fifth grade. My teacher at the time (Don Mack, wherever you are, thank you) suggested that just like with music, poetry sometimes takes an ear to hear it.

That would suggests, with the singing analogy, that some writers are tone deaf when it comes to poetic form. I suspect that's what we're hearing here.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm dubious about the musical analogy, for a couple of reasons.

First, a fair number of writers of unmetrical verse that I see in critique groups have been misled by that analogy. They think they can slip extra syllables into a line as "eighth notes," or extend a syllable over two beats because composers can do the same. The lack of strict metre (and rhyme) in a lot of recent pop music reinforces that idea. Rap is thought to have a strong rhythm, but in fact it's all about the rhyme.

Second, my own experience indicates that simply listening wasn't enough for me. Even picking up from my reading that syllable count was important wasn't enough. Once I got the idea intellectually, then I could hear it much more easily, and I've never had that problem with verse again.

So some skilled writers may well have the ear to catch onto metrical verse naturally. Some of us need an intellectual biff alongside the ear to catch on. And there might be folks who'll never learn, though we won't know for sure until they try.

david elzey said...

Ah, I thought (after hitting publish) that might sound a wee arrogant. I may still.

Music and poetry, both can be taught, but it doesn't mean because someone knows how that they automatically can do so successfully. Writers who apply rules interchangeably, in my experience, don't really understand them well enough to break them. Thus, no "ear" to actually hear with.

It doesn't mean one cannot learn and apply these formats, rules, beats, meters successfully, or that only those with some innate ability can (or should) be allowed to do so. But what is more often the case, to bend the analogy further, those who sing or play flat often don't recognize they're off key, and in fact actually think they sound pretty good. To wit: All those who try out for American Idol.

Technically, yes, one could write a haiku using two polysyllabic words, breaking them at the appropriate points the way a composer can connect notes across the bar, but rules aside, if one cannot even hear how wrong that is then clearly the form is not understood.

Poetry isn't only about the words as written (the academic element), it's about the sound of the words and the rhythm they create (the aural). It requires both mind and body.