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Linking Letters:
A Poet's Guide to Alliterative Verse


Part II : The Lay of the Land

    There are two major approaches to poetry in English: traditional, and modernist.

    Traditional poetry carefully regulates the rhythm of its language, and feels free to use rhyme schemes and other formal devices. A traditional poem could never be mistaken for prose. Its structured form sets it apart from ordinary writing or spoken conversation. The sonnet, the ballad, iambic pentameter -- these are the molds into which language and experience are poured.

    Modernist poetry (and by this I include a very wide range of styles and schools) tries to get very close to the natural sound of the speaking voice. It eschews any obvious use of rhyme, is careful to avoid what it considers over-regularity of rhythm, and avoids "poetic language" like the plague. Its trademark is a concern with authentically presenting the poet's inner experiences as directly as possible.

    Two examples, both well known poems, might help to pin down the difference. Consider William Blake's "Tyger":

      Tiger, tiger, burning bright
      In the forests of the night,
      What immortal hand or eye
      Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

      In what distant deeps or skies
      Burnt the fire of thy eyes?
      On what wings dare he aspire?
      What the hand dare seize the fire?

      And what shoulder and what art
      Could twist the sinews of the heart?
      And, when thy heart began to beat,
      What dread hand and what dread feet?

      What the hammer? What the chain?
      In what furnace was thy brain?
      What the anvil? What dread grasp
      Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

      When the stars threw down their spears
      And watered heaven with their tears,
      Did he smile his work to see?
      Did he who made the lamb make thee?

      Tiger, tiger, burning bright
      In the forests of the night,
      What immortal hand or eye
      Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

    Now, contrast the opening lines of William Carlos Williams' "The Mental Hospital Garden" --

      It is far to Assisi,
        but not too far:
          Over this garden,
      brooding over this garden,
        there is a kindly spirit,
          brother to the poor
      and who is poorer than he
        who is in love
          when birds are nesting
      in the spring of the year?
        They came
          to eat from his hand
      who had nothing
        and yet
          from his plenty
      he fed them all.

    This is free verse, and it is marked by an absence of rhyme, a rhythm so flexible that it threatens to disappear, and a very straightforward voice, a voice you could easily imagine hearing whispering in the back of your mind ...

    One could say that the difference between formal and free verse, at its most extreme, is the difference between incantation and meditation.

    Arguments between proponents of free verse and formal verse usually focus around issues like the following:

    1. Proponents of free verse argue that formal verse tends to constrain the phrasing in ways that make it unnatural and artificial; that overuse of mechanisms like rhyme and regular rhythm makes for verse but not for true poetry. Ultimately, formal verse simply seems overly artificial, a game as it were, to those who favor "freer" uses of language.

    2. Proponents of formal verse, on the other hand, argue that the discipline of writing within a form improves the poem, by forcing much greater care in the choice of words; they celebrate the texture of rhyme and rhythm, the way the careful organization of sound and sense strikes the ear. For them, the apparent loss of freedom in word choice is overbalanced by the beauty of rhyme and rhythm and the subtle effects of carefully structured artistry.

    Now, if I had to choose, I would side with the formal poets. I have little sympathy with the modernist aversion to artifice and structure. And yet ... the wholesale abandonment of traditional poetic form reflects something more than a fashion, in my view. It is as if there were a dissatisfaction with the traditional rhythms, and a groping toward something different. Some of the rhythms that work well in the best free verse poems would be hard to achieve in traditional iambic pentameter.

    This is where alliterative verse comes in. Alliterative verse is poetry which uses repetition of consonant sounds -- alliteration -- as its primary organizing principal. It is the style of much older poetry, from the Middle Ages back. There has been a small revival of interest in alliterative verse in the past century, but most people do not even know what it is, much less appreciate its potential. Alliterative verse, done well, offers much of the rhythmic freedom of free verse (without dissolving into prose as free verse tends to do) and yet it is a strict form, offering pleasure to the ear and pattern for the poet to exploit for effect.

    The following example illustrates what I mean. It is from C.S. Lewis' poem, "The Nameless Isle":

              ... ahead, far on
      Like floor unflawed, the flood, moon-bright
      Stretched forth the twinkling streets of ocean
      To the rim of the world. No ripple at all
      Nor foam was found, save the furrow we made,
      The stir at our stern, and the strong cleaving
      Of the throbbing prow. We thrust so swift,
      Moved with magic, that a mighty curve
      Upward arching from either bow
      Rose, all rainbowed; as a rampart stood
      Bright about us. As the book tells us,
      Walls of water, and a way between
      Were reared and rose at the Red Sea ford,
      On either hand, when Israel came
      Out of Egypt to their own country.

    This is verse; it has a powerful, beating rhythm; yet the rhythm is amazingly flexible. We have lines that can be read as a simple one-two beat:

      like FLOOR unFLAWED the FLOOD moon BRIGHT

    and lines that switch rhythm halfway through:

      MOVED with MAGic, that a MIGHTy CURVE

    and lines with what is called clashing stress - two strong stressed syllables in a row, something that is generally avoided in traditional English poetry.

      the STIR at our STERN, and the STRONG CLEAVing

    And this flexibility means a lot: it means that the poet can stay close to natural rhythms, and natural phrasings, without drifting into prose.

    In other words, it's potentially the best of both worlds: a form of poetry that is unmistakeably verse, rhythmic, a music in the ear, yet which has much of the flexibility of free verse.

    In succeeding instalments, I will try to explain in detail what alliterative verse is, and how to write it.

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Copyright ©2000, Paul Deane