HELLO, THIS IS PAUL CHOWDER, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know. Well, not everything I know, because a lot of what I know, you know. But everything I know about poetry. All my tips and tricks and woes and worries are going to come tumbling out before you. I’m going to divulge them. What a juicy word that is, “divulge.” Truth opening its petals. Truth smells like Chinese food and sweat.
What is poetry? Poetry is prose in slow motion. Now, that isn’t true of rhymed poems. It’s not true of Sir Walter Scott. It’s not true of Longfellow, or Tennyson, or Swinburne, or Yeats. Rhymed poems are different. But the kind of free-verse poems that most poets write now—the kind that I write—is slow-motion prose.
My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I’m a study in failure. Obviously I’m up in the barn again—which sounds like a country song, except for the word “obviously.” I wonder how often the word “obviously” has been used in a country song. Probably not much, but I don’t know because I hardly listen to country, although some of the folk music I like has a strong country tincture. Check out Slaid Cleaves, who lives in Texas now but grew up right near where I live.
So I’M UP in the second floor of the barn, where it’s very empty, and I’m sitting in what’s known as a shaft of light. The light leans in from a high window. I want to adjust my seat so I can slant my face totally into the light. Just ease it into the light. That’s it. If this barn were a prison cell, this would be the moment of the day that I would look forward to. Sitting here in the long womanly arm of light, the arm that reaches down like Anne Boleyn’s arm reaching down from her spot-lit height. Not Anne Boleyn. Who am I thinking of? Margot Fonteyn, the ballet dancer. I knew there was a Y in there.
There’s one droopy-bottomed wasp diving back and forth, having some fun with what’s available. I can move my head a certain way, and I feel the sun warming up the clear flamingos that swim around in my eyeballs. My corneas are making infinity symbols under their orange-flavored lids.
I can even do eyelid wars. Do you do that? Where you try as hard as you can to look up with your eyeballs, rolling them back in your head, but with your eyes closed. Your eyelids will keep pulling your eyes back down because of the inter-lock between the two sets of muscles. Try it. It’s a good way of passing the time.
Don’t chirp at me, ye birdies! I’ve had enough of that kind of chirpage. It cuts no grease with me.
WHEN I COME across a scrap of poetry I like, I make up a tune for it. I’ve been doing this a lot lately. For instance, here’s a stanza by Sir Walter Scott. I’ll sing it for you. “We heard you in our twilight caves—” Try it again.
It’s written in what’s called a ballad stanza. Four lines, four beats in each line, and the third line drives toward the fourth. Notes of joy can pierce the waves, Sir Walter says. In other words, notes of joy can cut through the mufflement. Notes of joy have a special STP solvent in them that dissolves all the gluey engine deposits of heartache. War and woe don’t have anything like the range and reach that notes of joy do.
And yes, of course, there are things that should be said about iambic pentameter, and I don’t want to lose sight of that. I don’t want to slight “the longer line.” I hope we can get to that fairly soon. My theory—I can’t resist giving you a little glimpse of it here—my theory is that iambic pentameter is in actuality a waltz. It’s not five-beat rhythm, even though “pent” means five, because five beats would be totally offkilter and ridiculous and would never work and would be a complete disaster and totally unlistenable. Pentameter, so called, if you listen to it with an open ear, is a slow kind of gently swaying three-beat minuetto. Really, I mean it.
And what romanticism did was to set the pentameter minuet aside and try to recover the older, more basic ballad rhythm. Somewhere along the way, so the Romantic poets felt, the humanness and the singingness and the amblingness of lyric poetry became entangled in frippery and parasols, and that’s because we stopped hearing those four basic pacing beats. That’s what Walter Scott was bringing back when he published his border ballads, and what Coleridge was bringing back when he wrote the Kubla Khan song and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” They were bringing back the ballad. “Where Alph, the sacred river ran”—four beats. “Through caverns measureless to man”—four beats. And it’s the basis of song lyrics, too, because lyric poetry is song lyrics, that’s why it’s called lyric poetry.
And you know? I’ve read too many difficult poems. I’ve postponed comprehension too many times. And I’ve written difficult poems, too. No more.
YOU’RE OUT THERE. I’m out here. I’m sitting in the sandy driveway on my white plastic chair. There’s a man somewhere in Europe who is accumulating a little flotsam heap of knowledge about the white plastic chair. He calls it the “monobloc” chair. A word I’ve never used. Monobloc, no K. And I’m sitting in one. Its arms are blindingly white in the sun.
His name is Jens Thiel. God, I love Europeans. Jens. Especially the ones from smaller countries. Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium. I love those places. And of course: Amsterdam. What a great name for a city. Paul Oakenfold has a piece of trance music called “Amsterdam.” His name is Paul, and my name is Paul. Paul: What is that crazy U doing there? Paw—U—L.
A woman is walking by on the street. Ah, it’s Nanette, my neighbor. I knew it was her. She’s carrying a garbage bag. She’s picking up trash, I guess. Nan does that. She has an early-morning stroll sometimes, and I’ve noticed she takes along an empty trash bag tucked into her back pocket. I’m going to wave to her. Hi! Hello! She waved back.
Yes, she’s picking up a beer can and shaking it out, and now she’s putting it in that trash bag. The beer can is faded to a pale violet color. I think I can almost hear the soft rustle of the bag as things fall into it. Pfft. Pfft. Sometimes maybe a clink.
Nan is or soon will be divorced from her husband, Tom— Tom, who every weekend went windsurfing in a blue-armed wetsuit. She has a son named Raymond, a good kid who plays lacrosse. And she now evidently has a new boyfriend, a curly-haired man named Chuck, annoyingly handsome.
OF COURSE YOU already understand meter. When you hear it, you understand it, you just don’t know you understand it. You, as a casual reader of poems, and as a casual listener to pop songs, understand meter better than the metrists who misdescribed it over several centuries understood it. Even they understood it better than they knew.
My neighbor Nan seems to be fully committed to her new flame, Chuck. His car is in the driveway again. I suppose that’s a good thing. She deserves to be happy with a good-looking man like Chuck.
Roz, the woman who lived with me in this house for eight years, has moved away.
My dog is shedding because it’s summer, and then the birds, that keep chirping and chirping, make nests of the dog hair. It’s good for that.
I wish I could smoke pot. What would that do? I don’t even know where I would get pot around here. Somebody said the wispy dude with the pointy sideburns who works at the pet-food store. Could I maybe offer some to Roz, as a dramatic gesture? I’ve never bought pot in my life. Maybe it’s time. No, I don’t think it is. Too involved. But I think I will step in from the driveway for a moment to get a clear glass bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. I do love a palate cleanser of pure Newcastle Brown.
Roz is kind of short. I’ve always been attracted to short women. They’re usually smarter and more interesting than tall women and yet people don’t take them as seriously. And it’s a bosomy kind of generous smartness, often. But she’s moved out, so I should stop talking about her.
I’m a little sick of all the bird chirping, frankly. They just don’t stop. I mowed the lawn yesterday so I wouldn’t have to hear their racket. “Chirtle chirtle.” It’s constant. And as soon as I started mowing I knew this was the best thing I could be doing. Walking behind this armful of noise, going around, turning the corner I’d already turned, circumventing the overturned canoe. I ducked under the clothesline that Roz strung last year between the barn and the box elder tree. The white rope is now a lovely dry gray color. She used to hang many beautiful tablecloths and dishtowels on that clothesline. I should use it myself, instead of the dryer, which is making a thumping noise anyway, and then if she drove by she’d see that I was being a responsible person who dried my clothes in the sun. I wish I’d taken a picture of that clothesline with her faded shirts on it. No bras that I remember, but you can’t expect bras necessarily on a clothesline. You have to go to Target to see bras hanging nobly out for the public gaze.
I got in bed last night and I closed my eyes and I lay there and then a powerful urge came over me to cross my eyes. I thought of tragic people like Don Rickles, Red Skelton, people like that. Broken professional entertainers who maybe once had been funny. And now they were in Vegas, on cruise control, using their eye-crossing to allude to their early period of genuine funniness. Or they were dead.
So I crossed my eyes with my eyes closed. And I saw something in the dark: two crescent moons on the outside of my vision, which were the new moons of strain. I could feel my corneal pleasure domes moving, too. And as my eyes reached maximum crossing I felt an interesting blind pain of wrongness. I decided that I should hold on to that.
SO NOW, you’re waiting. I’ve promised something. You’re thinking okay, he’s said he’s going to divulge. Your hope is that I, Paul Chowder, have some things that I know that you don’t know because I have been a published poet for a while. And maybe I do know a few things.
One useful tip I can pass on is: Copy poems out. Absolutely top priority. Memorize them if you want to, but the main thing is to copy them out. Get a notebook and a ballpoint pen and copy them out. You will be shocked by how much this helps you. You will see immediate results in your very next poem, I promise.
Another tip is: If you have something to say, say it. Don’t save it up. Don’t think to yourself, I’m going to build up to the truth I really want to say. Don’t think, In this poem, I’m going to be sneaky and start with this other truth over here, and then I’m going to scamper around a little bit over here, and then play with some purple Sculpey over here in the corner, and finally I’ll reach the truth at the very end. No, slam it in immediately. It won’t work if you hold it in reserve. Begin by saying what you actually care about saying, and the saying of it will guide you to the next line, and the next, and the next. If you need to arrange things differently later, you can do that.
And never think, Oh, heck, I’ll write that whole poem later. Never think, First I’ll write this poem about my old orange life jacket, so that I’ll be more ready to confront the more haunting, daunting reality of this poem here about the treehouse that was rejected by its tree. No. If you do, the bigger theme will rebel and go sour on you. It’ll hang there like a forgotten chili pepper on the stem. Put it down, work on it, finish it. If you don’t get on it now, somebody else will do something similar, and when you crack open next year’s Best American Poetry and see it under somebody else’s name you’ll hate yourself.
Another tip: The term “iambic pentameter” isn’t good. It isn’t at all good. It’s the source of much grief and muddle and some very bad enjambments. Louise Bogan once said that somebody’s enjambments gave her the willies, and she’s right, they can do that to you. You shudder, reading them. Most iambic-pentameter enjambments are a mistake. That sounds technical but I’m talking about something real— a real problem.
And finally, the really important thing you have to know is: The four-beat line is the soul of English poetry.
PEOPLE ARE GOING to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’re going to say, Oh ho ho, iambic pentameter! The centrality of the five-stress line! Because “pent” is five in Babylonian, and five is the number of fingers on your hand, and five is the number of slices of American cheese you can eat in one sitting. They’re going to talk to you about Chaucer and about blank verse—which is another confusing term—and all this so-called prosody they’re going to shovel at you. And sure—fine—you can handle it. You’re up to whatever mind-forged shrivelments they’re going to dish out that day. But just remember (a) that the word “prosody” isn’t an appealing word, and (b) that pentameter came later on. Pentameter is secondary. Pentameter is an import from France. And French is a whole different language. The real basis of English poetry is this walking rhythm right here.
Woops—dropped my Sharpie.
Right here: One—two—three—four. “Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill. We think so then, we thought so still.” I think that was the very first poem I heard, “The Pelican Chorus,” by Edward Lear. My mom read it to me. God, it was beautiful. Still is. Those singing pelicans. They slapped their feet around on those long bare islands of yellow sand, and they swapped their verb tenses so that then was still and still was then. They were the first to give me the shudder, the shiver, the grieving joy of true poetry—the feeling that something wasn’t right, but it was all right that it wasn’t right. In fact it was better than if it had been right.
Hear that? Another four-beat line. My mother read that one to me, too. And “Johnny Crow’s Garden.” And A. A. Milne and his snail and his brick. Milne was a metrical genius. And Dr. Seuss, of course, the great Ted Geisel. Who probably was, if I really want to be truthful and honest—and I do, of course—the poet most important to me until I was about twelve. You remember the little intense guy with the hat on, who’s on his stool in the Plexiglas dome, counting the people all over the world who are going to sleep?
And it scans. “Two Biffer-Baum birds are now building their nest.” It rhymes—it relies a fair amount on silly proper names, but it rhymes—and it scans perfectly. Dr. Seuss was a stickler for scansion. He was part of a lineage that runs back through Punch and Lear and Gilbert and Sullivan and Lewis Carroll and Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends. He uses the four-beat line in the great old way. In fact, I’d say almost all the poems that I heard as a child were classic four-beat lines.
Hell, let’s get into it. Where’s my Sharpie again? Okay:
See those four numbers? Those are the four beats. Four stresses, as we say in the meter business. Tetrameter. Four. “Tetra” is four. Like Tetris, that computer game where the squares come down relentlessly and overwhelm your mind with their crude geometry and make you peck at the arrow keys like some mindless experimental chicken and hurry and panic and finally you turn your computer off. And you sit there thinking, Why have I just spent an hour watching squares drop down a computer screen?
That’s Lear again. Hear it? You can’t help but hear it. Four beats in each line. That’s the classic rhythm in poetry, and in songs, four beats. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
You’ve got to admit that’s good. That’s Kipling. Did you hear what he did? “When Nature in her nakedness defeats us every time.” Do you hear how he just drills that line right through your heart muscle? The “nay” of Nature and the “nay” of nakedness just push right through and screw you to the back of your chair. Oh, Rudyard, you were good in the 1890s. You were a nineties man.
But notice there that Kipling’s second and fourth lines have a rest. A rest on the fourth beat. Listen for the booms now.
And here’s kind of a curious historical fact. Nobody, for years and years and years, centuries even, was able to say that poetry had those obvious booms. Nobody paid attention to the rests. Well, not nobody. There was a poet named Sidney Lanier, a flute player who was dying of consumption. He gave some lectures at Johns Hopkins on the musical basis of verse, but he had a fever, and he would get tired out and have to sit beside the podium and cough horribly and catch his breath and then continue—and his way of scoring rhythms was unfortunately wrong and only added further confusion. But he did understand that poems could have rests at the ends of lines.
Besides Lanier there was really nobody of any significance talking about rests in the straightforward musical sense of a place where you tap your toe without speaking. Poets had to be hearing these rests in their heads, because they wrote a million poems with them, poems of great comeliness that you can prance around to—but they didn’t know that’s what they were doing.
Finally came Derek Attridge, a man with a sensitive ear who taught at Rutgers. In 1982 he introduced the idea of what he called “unrealized beats” or “virtual beats.” Quote unquote. In other words, rests. They’re rests. How hard is that?
That’s Christopher Morley. A light verser. Four beats in the line, the fourth beat being a rest. I hope you can hear it.
A good way you can scan something, by the way, is by saying it softly to yourself while counting with your fingers. Don’t look at the line. Memorize the line and look away from it and say it to yourself. Start with all your fingers in the air, and when you hear a beat, bring down your thumb, then your index finger, then the next finger, then the next. “I almost had forgotten, rest.” Like that. That’s how to do scansion like a pro. I don’t recommend the accent marks that some people use over syllables—they look so pedagogical. If you want to mark a line, use underlines.
Anyway, that pattern, the four lines together, four beats for each line—sometimes with rests and sometimes without rests, sometimes with a longer third line that has a stretched-out ending that leads you right in to the last line and sometimes not—that pattern makes up what’s called the common stanza or the ballad stanza, which is really the basis of English poetry. It was for Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Poe, Tennyson, Longfellow, all the way through to Yeats, Frost, Teasdale, Auden, Causley, Walter de la Mare, and James Fenton. Four beats is the key.
And within each beat there are subsystems of movement, duplets and triplets, waiting and breathing and sliding. It’s— well, there’s a lot more to be said. But we’ll get to that farther on down the line.
I WENT TO BUY a tablecloth to replace the one that Roz took when she left, so that I could wash it and hang it out on the clothesline. That way if she happened to drive by she might see it hanging there.
Inside the store many women were slowly moving sideways, looking at the glassware and the placemats and the bowls. There must have been thirty women in the store, and one couple in their seventies. I moved past the couple, who were looking at a square white serving bowl with a lid. “It would be nice for soup,” said the man. “Yes, true, for soup,” said the woman. The man said: “Or for stew, a big country stew.” And the woman said: “Yes, true, for stew.” And he said, “So what do you think?” And she said, “Well, it’s square. I think perhaps we should get the round one, and if they don’t want it they can return it.”
Finally I came to the tablecloths. There was one with a faint green viney pattern that looked like something that Roz would have possibly bought, so I grabbed it. It was heavy in my hand, and it pushed my fingernails into the soft parts of my fingertips as I held it out to the woman at the register.
When I got home I put the tablecloth on the table and had a late lunch/early dinner. I spilled some red sauce on the tablecloth, which I was happy about because I could wash it right away. I put in a load—the tablecloth, a pair of pants, a shirt, a towel, and two T-shirts, saving the underwear for another time—but by the time the load was done spinning the day was done, as Longfellow would say, and it was raining and the clothesline was swinging in the wind, so I couldn’t hang anything up on it. I had to use the noisy dryer.
© 2009 Nicholson Baker