Archive for the ‘Sylvia Plath’ Category

I Lift My Lids

May 7, 2022

I lift my lids and all is born again.
—Sylvia Plath, Mad Girl's Love Song

So many dreams
Inside my head
Treasure and triumph
And beauty and dread
I lift my lids
To you instead

What disappeared 
Is born anew 
My moon-struck songs
Are all of you
Drops of bliss
Like morning dew

Rise and roar
And meet the world
Music until now
Unheard
My dream my life 
My thunderbird

by Richard W. Bray






Seven Ways of Looking at a Line of Poetry

November 6, 2016

zzwaking

Anthropologists tell us* that “some time between 75 thousand and 60 thousand years ago” homo sapiens underwent a remarkable change (194). This event occurred “somewhere on the African continent (most likely somewhere in its eastern or southwestern regions)” (193). Suddenly, our already impressive brains developed the capacity for symbolic thought. Our ancestors, who heretofore merely consisted of roving bands of uppidy carnivorous weapon-wielding bipeds, were transformed into artists, shamans, scientists, and engineers. World-domination was now only a matter of time.

These new-and-improved brains rendered representational art, handicraft, metaphor, music, dance, language and poetry essential to our existence.

As Kurt Vonnegut notes, this spectacular transformation gave us not only the capacity and the inclination to produce Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; it also gave us the capacity and the inclination to

burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities.

I’m seriously into words. I have argued that it’s ultimately impossible to separate language from poetry because our ancestors began playing with words as soon as they began to invent them. Uttered phonemes are automatically poetic just like every basket and every arrowhead homo sapiens produce is a work of art.

Death and disruption at an early age hurt Theodore Roethke into poetry, as W. H. Auden suggests “mad Ireland” hurt W.B. Yeats into poetry. And oh what prodigious poetry Roethke did make! I’m going to spend a little bit of time talking about how to say the third line of a villanelle Roethke wrote called “The Waking” because my brain spends a lot of time thinking about such things.

A villanelle is a nineteen-line Italian form in which the first and third lines are each repeated three times. (I’ve written a few of them myself.) (A smartass once wrote on this blog that “the cool thing about villanelles is that once you’ve written the first three lines, you’re 42% finished.”)

Here’s the first stanza of Roethke’s “The Waking.”

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I told you the dude was prodigious, right? Anyhow, the first and third lines of a good villanelle must be firm and flexible as much heavy lifting is expected of them. Here are some examples:

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

(First line of Auden’s “If I Could tell You”)

(I think I made you up inside my head.)
(Third Line of Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song”)

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(Third Line of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”)

Now back to “The Waking.” If a reader must read the same lines four times in a nineteen-line poem, the poet should provide her with options about which words to stress. Here are seven ways to say line three of “The Waking”:

#1 I learn by going where I have to go

Learning is about destination rather than free will.

#2 I learn by going where I have to go

The essential lesson is in the destination

#3 I learn by going (pause) where I have to go

The journey, so to speak, is the destination.

#4 I learn by going where I have to go

The lesson is in the doing.

#5 I learn by going where I have to go

The important thing is that the experience is educational.

#6 I learn by going where I have to go.

It’s imperative to take a certain route that is nonetheless educational.

#7 I learn by going where I have to go.

I find out what I’m supposed to do only by doing it.

by Richard W. Bray

*Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet

I Wanna Hear

November 12, 2010

Carl Sandburg

I Wanna Hear

I listen to poetry on my ipod while I stretch at the gym before a workout. Guess what? England (Caedmon, BBC, etc.) really kicks our ass when it comes to recorded poetry. It’s easy to find poets like Dylan Thomas available on CD in addition to actors such as Boris Karloff reading Kipling or James Mason reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There are also many recordings of fine stage performers reading just about every major British and Irish poet.

But it’s slim pickins for recorded American poetry. Poetry Speaks is a nice project, but it’s only four CDs. And even the excellent Voice of the Poet series has only one female poet available on CD (Adrienne Rich) and nothing on CD from Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke or Sylvia Plath.

I don’t think Americans will ever crave poetry the way people in other countries do. And I don’t expect to live to see a time when it is common to find people reciting poetry in front of large audiences in parks and amphitheaters.

But wouldn’t it be cool if, once in a while, instead of presenting music from some no-hit wonder, maybe Dave/Jay/Jimmy/Conan/George could feature:

CCH Pounder reciting If I Should Die by Emily Dickinson

Brad Pitt reciting Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot

Martin Sheen reciting Samurai Song by Robert Pinsky

Sigourney Weaver reciting Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers by Adrienne Rich

Holland Taylor reciting Bohemia by Dorothy Parker

James Earl Jones reciting anything by Carl Sandburg

Rosie Perez reciting Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath

Kelsey Grammer reciting Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden

by Richard W. Bray

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

May 27, 2010

Thomas Hardy

Archibald MacLeish

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

The poem’s meaning is evoked by the structure of words-as-sounds rather than by the structure of words-as-meanings. And the enhanced meaning, which we feel in any true poems, is a product, therefore, of the structure of the sounds.

–Poetry and Experience
by Archibald MacLeish (23)

Scansion records units of rhythm, not units of sense

–All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing by Timothy Steele (530)

Vocabulary

Meter: The basic rhythmic structure of written and uttered words (not simply poetry)

Iamb: A unit of language consisting of an unstressed syllable and a stressed syllable, in that order.

I once began a lesson on meter to a group of eighth-graders by exaggerating (both verbally and bodily) the inherent iambic rhythms of the following lines of poetry:

“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Pegg-y Ann McKay
I have the measles and the mumps
A gash, a rash and purple bumps*

A girl in the class looked at me in utter recognition and blurted out,
“I get it:

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH
nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

I was happy that this student immediately picked up on the main point of my lesson, but I was really thrilled because her description of iambic poetry was, in my opinion, superior to the one that is commonly offered in textbooks, a depiction with a musical correlation which mimics a snare drum:

ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum
ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum

Here are some examples of iambic meter:

Iambic Monometer–One Beat (nuh-NUH)

Upon His Departure Hence by Robert Herrick

Thus I
Passe by
And die:
As one,
Unknown,
And gone:
I’m made
A shade,
And laid
I’th’grave:
There have
My cave.
Where tell
I dwell,
Farewell.

Iambic Dimeter–Two Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH)

The Robin by Thomas Hardy

When up aloft
I fly and fly,
I see in pools
The shining sky

Iambic Trimeter–Three Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH)

Touring a Past by Dick Davis

There is no boat to cross
From that ill-favored shore
To where the clashing reeds
Complete the works of war
Together with the grass,
And nesting birds, and weeds.

Iambic Tetrameter–Four Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH,
nuh-NUH)

Now I lay me Down to Sleep

If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take

Iambic Pentameter–Five Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH,
nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH)

Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born a-gain
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

One Final Thought


…”scanning” a line is not a dramatic, or poetic reading of a line. Scanning a line is reading it in a special, more or less forced, way, to bring out the meter and any definite derivations or substitutions. Scanning will not bring out the other parts of the tension; it will tend to iron them out. On the other hand, a good dramatic, or poetic, reading will tend to bring out the tensions–but note well that in order to do this it must be careful not to override and completely kill the meter. When that is done, the tensions vanish. (Another reason why the meter must be observed is, of course, that if a line is truly metrical, a reading which actually destroys the meter can only be an incorrect reading–by dictionary and rhetorical standards.) A good dramatic reading is a much more delicate, difficult, and rewarding than a mere scanning. Yet the scanning has its justification, its use. We would argue that a good dramatic reading is possible only by a person who can also perform a scansion.


The Concept of Meter by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley
from The Structure of Verse, Edited by Harvey Gross (163-164)

Suggested Further Reading:

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry

The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky

Versification: A Short Introduction by James McAuley

by Richard W. Bray

* Sick by Shel Silverstein