Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Top tips for student success

1. Everything is more complicated than it looks at first glance.
2. Everything is more interesting than it looks at first glance.

If you accept these two maxims, you'll thrive, because you'll find that the hard things are also the most rewarding. There are quick wins, but they won't get you far. The stuff you struggle with is likely to be the most important: but if you learn to enjoy working at it, you'll succeed.

I've been trying - an annual event here - to think of new ways to explain poetry, metre, verse and scansion.

This year's analogy is soccer, and the offside rule. Here goes:
Sports have rules and if you play, you have to accept this.
If you stick rigidly to the rules, you'll be OK, but you won't be great.
If you ignore the rules, nobody will play with you.
If you understand the offside rule, you can bend it in creative ways, which might lead to the rules being changed.

Take the sonnet: 14 lines about love in three quatrains plus a final rhyming couplet which contains the kiss-off, in iambic pentameter. You could do that in your sleep. Count the syllables, makes sure the last syllable rhymes with the right previous one, off you go. There's even a 'How To Write A Sonnet For Dummies'. Just like sport: I could read about goals, pitch size, offside and throw-ins on Wikipedia, then head down to the park to give it a go. I'd be rubbish. My version of soccer would be as awful as the poetry attempted by the Dummies' Guide reader. Silky skills, ambition and audacious moves aren't mentioned.

Poetry, like football, becomes beautiful when the rules are bent and outrageous variations are attempted. You can spot the dull stuff: it sticks to the rules and says nothing new. I won't insult anyone by posting their sonnet, but you can tell that it ran out of steam in a big way by reading Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 130'. He's bored. He's fed up with the equivalent of birthday-card poem sentiments and the same tired old clichés. It's too familiar to adequately express love - it's become an exercise rather than an evocation of passion - it's boring boring Arsenal all over again:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Likewise Edna St. Vincent Millay, who takes issue with the sonnet's assumption that men are active and women are the passive recipients of love and poetry,
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply;
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands a lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet know its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone;
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
and its denial of our fickle natures:
and with the sonnet's high-flown romantic notions.

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And vows were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far,
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.
It's a sonnet, but it's more than the basic rules: it's a new twist which grows from the rules but does something better with them. It's Rory Delap's long throw.

4 comments:

Emma said...

Does this mean as Man U fan I can write a poem of 16 lines and still consider it a sonnet?

Sue's Blog said...

Ahh – happy times. Those poetry classes were very enlightening. I discovered the delights of John Wilmot and learned that ‘pussy’ was not necessarily the family cat!

The Plashing Vole said...

Emma: yes, the rules are different for MUFC poets.
Sue: Ahem. The idea was to get away from the common misconception that poetry is prissy and pretty. Did it work?

Sue's Blog said...

I did not like poetry at all before taking that module – probably because no one had ever really explained anything properly or made it interesting.
The module explained the mechanics clearly and simply and it gave me the confidence to know a sonnet form a sestina and a leonine rhyme form a limerick.
The choice of poems was excellent and the ‘entertaining’ ones certainly helped me to overcome my resistance to something I saw as elitist and stuffy.
I actually enjoy poetry now and went on to purchase the complete works of John Wilmot and have been very keen on T.S.Eliot since Modernisms.