Five Poetic Experiments

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One afternoon I decided to write some poems that had unusual qualities, and these are the results.

TO SAPPHO

Let us far away from this land of strangers,
Seek the hope and peace that this world refuses—
Turning each to each find our hearts’ sure refuge
Loving and tender.

Sappho was a famous Greek poet who often wrote in the Sapphic form, which bears her name.  Classical Greek poetry did not depend on weak and strong stresses, as we do (which can see in the first line of the Ode to the Dark Satanic Mills, which is the third poem given below: (the FIELDS) (are GONE) (as IN) (a DREAM).”)  In Ancient and Classical Greek some syllables took twice as long to say as others, and that is the basis of their poetry.  (English syllables also have different lengths, but our stress accent makes it very hard to hear them, especially since we add stresses for emphasis pretty much as we wish.)  The Sapphic had three lines with the pattern (— ·   — ·    — · ·   — ·   — ·), where the dashes are long syllables, and it ended with a short line (— · ·   — ·).  These can be written out like this,  where the underlined syllables should take more time to say than the other syllables with no attention to stress:  [let us][far a-][way from this][land of][stran-gers], [seek the][ hope and][peace that the][world re-][fus-es], [turn -ing][each to][each find our][hearts’ sure][ref -uge][lov-ing and][ten -der).  Readers should also know that the Greeks were more liberal than we are in some regards (as were the Jews and other Ancient peoples) and Sappho lived with a colony of women on Lesbos, the island that gives us the word “lesbian.”

DEVORO, ERGO SUM
(I eat, therefore I am)

A shepherd consumed with ambition,
With his sheep shared his deep erudition:
With Descartes they would eat . . .
At Voltaire they would bleat . . .
And he thought this a sign of cognition.

Devoro, Ergo Sum is based on the well-known statement, “Cogito ergo sum,” (I think, therefore I am) which Descartes offered as a foundation for knowledge —absurdly in my view.  (An old joke is:  “I think therefore I am . .  . I think.”)

ODE TO THE DARK SATANIC MILLS

The Past                                  The Present

The fields are gone as in a dream,

In hashed, gashed slag-mounds cinders lie;

No longer flows the limpid stream

In sickened pools red waters die;

Gone like the morning’s gentle mist

Now smoke-choked forges, fumes, and fire;

Green copses where young lovers kissed

Give way to shacks that sink in mire:

No more is heard the Parson’s Sunday bell

Praise Mammon, now our God, and this—his Hell. 

Ode to the Dark Satanic Mills pays homage to William Blake, who gave that name to the uncontrolled industries of the Industrial Revolution in England.  This is unusual in that there are two-poems-in-one, one of them starting its lines at the left margin, the other starting its lines after the indentations, and of course, they are a single poem when all lines are read in sequence:  three poems in one . . . sort of.

THE CLOCK

(Press your ears shut and read this slowly, perhaps separating the words with a slight pause while you listen to the “musical tones made by the vowels.

Come hear this bell—
Please hear my bell—
Please sing with me:
My time I tell.

The Clock takes advantage of the fact that the vowel sounds have been mapped by linguists into tonal diagrams, as have the consonants.   The vowel sounds are formed at the front, back, and middle of the mouth, and the openness of the mouth and the position of both tongue and lips play an important role.  As you listen to the vowel sounds produced at the front of the voice, you can see that they have musical pitch and are produced in a sequence from high to low (ee, ay, eh, ah), and this is heard more clearly when the ears are covered.  Of course, some consonants also have pitches as well.  If you open your mouth slightly with your tongue pressing the back of your lower front teeth and produce the [l] sound, you will hear a distinct pitch.  We can write simple tunes by choosing the sequence of the words, and that’s what this experiment has to do with.

 HAUNTINGS

Vague auras of the past requite
Imagination, and affray
Our senses sharpened by the night.

Old houses’ ghosts are recondite,
Devoid of substance until they
Vague auras of the past requite.

They reach inside us where our tight
Heart grips the hidden truths, and flay
Our senses sharpened by the night.

For barren, empty rooms excite
Deep echoes of the hurt these fey
Vague auras of the past requite.

And if not marred by pain we might
Reject the tumult and belay
Our senses sharpened by the night.

These ghosts are ours, there is no flight
From them—they hold our hearts in sway
Vague auras of the past requite
Our senses sharpened by the night.

Three of the words used in this poem have almost vanished from use:  “requite,” “affray,” and “recondite.”  “Requite” means “to pay back” or “make retaliation,” among other things.  The OED cites Macaulay in 1854: “His civility was requited with cold contempt.”  “Affray” means “to disturb, startle.”  The OED cites Keats in 1820, “The kettle-drum and far-heard clarionet affray his ears.”  “Recondite” is somewhat more often used, and means “hidden from view.”  The form of this poem is original: it resembles a villanelle but the repeated lines are handled in a very different way.  If a letter is assigned to each different sound at the ends of the lines, we have a rhyme scheme, which is ABA for the first five tercets (three-line groups) and ABAA in the concluding quatrain (four-line group).  And if we want to see the role played by the repeated lines, we can assign a lower-case a and b to them and an x to all of the others.  This gives us xxa, xxb, xxa, xxb, and the concluding tercet is xxab.