3A Hyde Park Terrace, LONDON W2 5ZZ
January 25 2000
I have just been asked to run a poetry workshop in the Green Edge Arts Centre (located, as the name suggests, in the hinterland of west London). And I am wondering if I am up to it and, further, will be able to deal with the mysteries of a white board and associated paraphernalia.
I am further wondering how I will be able to come up with suitable content for this half-day session . . . My initial thoughts have centred upon what kind of ‘ice breaker’ I might use to soften the atmosphere, and I have hit upon the possibility of ‘nose rubbing’ . . . This may sound a little risqué, but I think people might enjoy the opportunity of practising a number of international greetings upon each other?
And I think I have decided to offer a definition of poetry. This may indeed be a rash move, as I can imagine that any such definition might be hotly debated. I have decided to suggest that poetry is ‘a composition for performance by the human voice’ and that, further, ‘it is emotion expressed as sound.’ I think I may well have to ask people to suggest other ways in which poetry differs from prose. The obvious comes to mind of course: there are the shorter lines and the increased tendency to rhythm and rhyme, for a start. And whether people realize it or not, poems are intended to carry a strong emotion – love, grief, and anger come to mind – and, as such, they are written in heightened states of mind and not in the every day state of mind in which one compiles a shopping list or writes a note. The poem, working in concentrated and allusive language, also poses a question to the reader; it asks the reader to discover what it is about. And this can be absorbing.
Am I waxing too lyrical Mum? I need to continue working out my plan. Next in my evening offering of poetic activities, I think I will write a diagrammatic representation of a poem on the white board (just the lines without words) because this will be an opportunity to discuss commonly-used techniques occurring within a poetic line. I am thinking of the ‘caesura’ and ‘enjambement’ here, but also I would like to include a consideration of the meaning of the ‘envoi.’ Envois, which occur as the lines ending a poem, function as the poem’s reprise; in other words they act to sum up its meaning.
And, inevitably, we will talk about metre, metre being defined as regularly occurring units of sound running sequentially along a line. Metre supplies the rhythm of the poem and occurs, particularly, in the traditional verse of previous centuries. For example, Shakespeare wrote in a metre called ‘iambic pentameter.’ The iamb is a unit of sound comprising an unstressed syllable (x) followed by a stressed syllable (/). And when you have five of these units following each other in a line, this is described being a line in ‘iambic pentameter.’ Actually, Shakespeare wrote in unrhymed iambic pentameter and the common name for that is ‘blank verse.’
I think I know enough, don’t I Mum?
I would like to use samples of poetry within the workshop, so that we can look at it from the above points of view. However, the topic of copyright is on my mind somewhat. It transpires that a work is out of copyright once the poet has been dead for 70 years, and this does limit the field. It looks like I can only engage in the photocopying of poems of poets who have died prior to 1946! Of course, I can always use some of my own.
What do you think of the excerpts from the one I enclose? I wrote it in my twenties (when I was still practising the art of prosody) and these are the first two stanzas – ‘stanza’ meaning ‘room’ by the way. It is set in a hospital.
MEDITATION OF A WIFE
I abide, as relative outsider
here within this long bland space
where ceilings are so high
and walls drab-painted with magnolia
Such abundant busyness
quite blots me out
as up and down the thoroughfare
swishes bright ebullience
I overheard a patient, whispering, say
‘Oh nurse, I think I’ll die today
And I heard superiority essay
‘No. I don’t think so; you look okay’
Gaily, gaily, she walked away
She did as well; she died that day
The nurse’s face displayed dismay
Oh wisely, wisely with us play
I like this poem Mum. I have written it to be musical to the ear. And I was experimenting with perfectly-rhymed line endings. (It is more common for line endings to be part-rhymed nowadays.)