Marching and metres

Poetry, both the reading and writing of it, is among my many interests.  As I find so many things interesting, and time is finite, most of my interests enjoy occasional periods of fairly intense activity on my part, interspersed with quite long spells of more-or-less complete inactivity. If you’ve been following my blog for a while (or have looked back through some of the old posts) you will probably have, correctly, gained the impression that poetry has been one of the things that’s been occupying my time and my thought over the last few months.

I was interested to discover fairly recently that Stephen Fry has written a book about the fine art of writing poetry, entitled The Ode Less Travelled (and subtitled Unlocking the Poet Within).  It was published (by Hutchinson) back in 2005 but had escaped my notice until the other day, when I came across a reference to it somewhere or other.  Although I’m not exactly new to writing poetry I decided that this book could still teach me a few handy tips for improving my poetry (helping me to become a well-versed poet, you might say) and should at least be an interesting and entertaining read, so I lost little time in procuring a copy.

I have been working steadily through the book over the past few days.  As it is intended to teach the writing of poetry, and as learning is best achieved by doing rather than just reading, the book includes a number of exercises and I have decided that I’ll get much more out of the book if I take it fairly slowly and actually bother to do the exercises, rather than succumbing to my temptation to just read through it as fast aied quite a lot ofs possible.

The book, at least in the early chapters, focuses on fairly traditional metrical poetry.  I think that’s partly on the basis that a certain amount of structure is generally a good thing in poetry (certainly Stephen Fry seems not to buy into the idea that “anything goes” in poetry and I’m strongly inclined to agree with him) and also on the fact that even if you do want to write “free verse” it helps to have a good understanding of the basic rules before you start to break them (in much the same way that Picasso established himself as an excellent painter in a traditional vein before going on to pioneer several schools of abstract art).

I have just finished working through the first two chapters, which focus on iambic pentameter, the most widely used metre in English-language poetry; it was the staple of most of Shakespeare’s work to pick one, albeit particularly significant, example and is described by Fry as “the very breath of English verse”.   I’ve quite often used iambic pentameter in my own poetry (including my sonnet to coffee, which I posted recently).  However, the book has introduced me to (or at least increased my understanding of) several techniques that I was previously only peripherally aware of, which are used to break up the regularity of the iambic line.

I won’t go into detail here about the poetic devices used to spice up iambic pentameter, since you can read plenty about them on Wikipedia (or go out and get a copy of Fry’s book) if you’re that interested.  Suffice it to say that enjambment, caesura, feminine (or hypermetric) endings and substitutions (both trochaic and pyrrhic) are all handy techniques for enlivening a passage of iambic pentameter.  It isn’t necessary, of course, to use any of these techniques to write perfectly good poems.  My sonnet to coffee (which I think is a perfectly good poem, though you are free to disagree) has one or two possible examples of enjambment (although I think they are borderline at best, as the meaning of the individual clauses does stay pretty well within the confines of the lines), but I’m glad to know about the techniques both for helping my understanding of other people’s poems and giving me a broader palette to use for creating my own.

All this is really a very roundabout way of mentioning what I got up to last Saturday (apart from some of the poetry exercises from Stephen Fry’s book):  I took part in my first march with the Menai Bridge Band.  Apparently marches, like competitions, are a fairly standard part of the brass band world.  They are particularly fun if you play a large instrument such as a Bb bass (aka tuba, as they are usually called outside the brass band world).  Fortunately I discovered that we had some nice compact marching basses in our band room.  They sound at the same pitch as a standard bass but are only slightly bigger than a euphonium (which is an octave higher) and are therefore much easier to march with.  The downside is that you don’t get quite such a full sound and they only have 3 valves instead of 4, so the intonation isn’t quite so good on some notes, but that’s not a problem for marching.  This particular march was for the opening ceremony of Eisteddfod Môn (the Anglesey Eisteddfod), which this year is taking place in Holyhead.

You may be wondering what this has got to do with poetry.    After I’d got back from the march, I had a go at doing a poetry exercise which was to write some lines of (unrhymed) iambic pentameter using the techniques that I was referring to earlier.   I used the march as inspiration for the first few lines of the exercise.  Note that this isn’t, and isn’t intended to be, a polished poem.  I counted 5 pyrrhic substitutions (hint: it’s one per line), 2 trochaic substitutions, 3 feminine endings, 2 enjambments and a couple of caesuras in these lines.  You may like to see if you can spot them:

Today I went to Holyhead, to march
with the brass band.  We started near the station.
The rain held off until we started walking
and stopped again just as we reached the end.
That was my first experience of marching.

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