professional standards in verse-technique

There is so much to say about professional standards in verse-technique, that I shall confine myself to generalities. For instance, that though the muscular str and scr words: strain, strength, string, strangle, stretch, struggle, strident, extravagant, screw, scrape, scrawny and such easy skipping words as melody, merrily, prettily, harmony, fantasy match sense with sound, other words are not so onomatopoeic. A strangely striped strip of satin is far too emphatic in sound for the sense, and a terribly powerful Florida hurricane is not nearly emphatic enough. Yet to alter the spirit of an original poetic thought for the sake of meter or euphony is unprofessional conduct. So the art of accommodating sense to sound without impairing the original thought has to be learned by example and experiment. Under-emphasis or over-emphasis in a word can be controlled by playing other words off against it, and carefully choosing its position in a line, and making the necessary adjustments to neighboring lines until the ear at last feels satisfied. It is an axiom among poets that if one trusts whole-heartedly to poetic magic, one will be sure to solve any merely verbal problem or else discover that the verbal problem is hiding an imprecision in poetic thought.

I say, magic, since the act of composition occurs in a sort of trance, distinguishable from dream only because the critical faculties are not dormant, but on the contrary, more acute than normally. Often a rugger player is congratulated on having played the smartest game of his life, but regrets he cannot remember a single incident after the first five minutes, when he got kicked in the head. It is much the same with a poet when he completes a true poem. But often he wakes from the trance too soon and is tempted to solve the remaining problems intellectually. Few self-styled poets have experienced the trance; but all who have, know that to work out a line by an exercise of reason, rather than by a deep-seated belief in miracle, is highly unprofessional. If a trance has been interrupted, it is just too bad. The poem should be left unfinished, in the hope that suddenly, out of the blue, days or months later, it may start stirring again at the back of the mind, when the remaining problems will solve themselves without difficulty.

Robert Graves

Harp, Anvil, Oar

from The Structure of Verse

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