NABOKV-L post 0006876, Sun, 6 Oct 2002 08:55:42 -0700

Fw: The double dactyl, with its fascinating rule ...
----- Original Message -----
From: Sandy P. Klein

To villanelle and back

James Fenton on grappling with varieties of form, serious and not serious, major and minor

Saturday October 5, 2002
The Guardian

Some forms are simply not serious. There is no such thing as a serious clerihew:
George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.

(EC Bentley)

To take this seriously would be seriously to miss the point. And I doubt there could be such a thing as a serious limerick:

When Gauguin was visiting Fiji
He said, "Things are different here, e.g.
While Tahitian skin
Calls for tan, spread on thin,
You must slosh it on here with a squeegee."

(Robert Conquest)

What the reader or listener wants to know is how the poet is going to come up with the rhymes for Fiji - we do not go to this text for information about Gauguin or his art, or indeed for a witty observation about Gauguin, since the poem isn't about him. It is about rhyming.

The double dactyl, with its fascinating rule that the second part should contain a line consisting of one double-dactyl word, is another form that forbids a straight face:

Higgledy piggledy
Vladimir Nabokov -
Wait! Hasn't somebody
Made a mistake?

Out of such errors, Vla-
dimir Nabokov would

Paragraphs make.

(New Statesman competition)

I suppose however this has utility as a mnemonic, if one wants to remember how to pronounce the novelist's name. (The form requires that the first line be nonsense words, the second a name, and that the single-word double dactyl appear in the second part.)

Auden thought the triolet was too trivial a form to bother with, as most examples amply prove. But here is Wendy Cope's triolet, "Valentine":

My heart has made its mind up
And I'm afraid it's you.
Whatever you've got lined up,
My heart has made its mind up
And if you can't be signed up
This year, next year will do.
My heart has made its mind up
And I'm afraid it's you.

This gives us a sense of an appropriate idiom for the form.

What restricts the usefulness of a form is not the absolute difficulty of pulling it off once. It is the difficulty of doing it again, and again, and again. John Fuller, in response to a competition challenge, set out to write a poem consisting only of three-letter words. And in order to add to the interest, he decided on a form in which there were three three-letter words per line, and the lines came in groups of three. The resultant poem is beautiful, but it is the only beautiful poem in this form. It is called "The Kiss":

Who are you,
You who may
Die one day,

Who saw the
Fat bee and
The owl fly

And the sad
Ivy put out
One sly arm?

The example tells us that a very difficult form (in this case, next to impossible) does not automatically become funny or light. Here the poem is serious or it is nothing.

Some forms are difficult and major (the sonnet is one of these) and some are too specialised in their difficulty to occupy any but a minor part in the great scheme of things. One must never say that, in order to learn the art or the craft of poetry, it is necessary on the way to master the art of the villanelle. Great poetry does not have to be technically intricate.

Often coupled with the villanelle is the sestina, in which the final words of each line of the first stanza are repeated, in given variations of the sequence, in another five stanzas, before a final three-line envoi, employing the same words in their last combination. Because it is not a rhyming form (although Swinburne and others have tried adding rhyme to the mix), it is not technically difficult to pull off. The awkwardness is in making it interesting.

Two ways have been tried. One uses somewhat inconspicuous words, on which it is easy to improvise variations. Kipling's end-words in the sestina below are of this kind: all, world, good, long, done, die. The other approach takes very noticeable and characterful words, which tax the ingenuity of the poet, but which play to the distinctive strength of the form. Auden, in "The Orators", wrote a sestina using the end-words country, vats, wood, bay, clock and love. Every time the word "vats" comes up, you wonder how he's going to handle it.

Here is the first stanza of Kipling's "Sestina of the Tramp-Royal":

Speakin' in general, I 'ave tried 'em all -
The 'appy roads that take you o'er the world.
Speakin' in general I 'ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get 'ence, the same as I 'ave done,
An' go observin' matters till they die.

The point in this vernacular poem is to get across a convincing picture of a personality, or philosophy of life, and to make the portrayal as natural as possible. Although the title announces a sestina, the poem conceals its method of construction. The effect of the repetitions is subliminal.

╥ This is an edited extract from James Fenton's book An Introduction to English Poetry (Viking, ё14.99)

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