Friday, November 18, 2011

Ruff Crossing

"I shall be telling this with a sigh"of disappointment? of happiness? of nostalgia?"somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and II took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." - Robert Frost, c.1920.

There are two things I don't like about that stanza. First: duh. If two roads diverge, taking one instead of the other will make all the difference. If I'm at the crossroads of I-70 and I-95 in Baltimore, and I take I-70, I will never reach Miami or Boston or New York. But if I take I-95, I will never hit Indianapolis or St. Louis Kansas City or Denver. Those are completely different experiences, and those differences result from taking a different road.*

*You may be interested to note that I-70 is probably less traveled by than I-95.

Second, the rhythm gets awkward. The words "hence" and "difference" are only imperfect rhymes. Poetry, for me at least, is all about rhythm and sound. That last line is something like the last note of a song being slightly sharp. Your ear picks it up, even if your conscious mind doesn't. I don't like it.

That said, I like the poem. It's one of two I (currently) have committed to memory. The poem has an interesting irony to it. He claims to have taken the road less traveled by, but says that "both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black." The first stage of the irony is the "equally" part: neither road was particularly less traveled than the other. The second stage is the "no step had trodden black" part: both roads were pretty untraveled. So, really, he didn't take the road less traveled, at least among the two that diverged in the yellow wood. Is he lying to himself?

But then there's the other part, the growing up part, the part about how "way leads on to way" and the slow realization that living involves making choices and regretting them and wondering what might have been and realizing the full depth of not being able to go back. If I could go back, would I try out for football in seventh grade? Would I sign up for band in sixth grade? Would I choose Howard Payne over Mary Hardin-Baylor again? Or Baylor over Texas? Would I still major in political science instead of chemistry? Would I buy this car again or that phone? Would I try harder in calculus?

When I was 16, Hewitt Drive was a well-traveled road. When you hit Spring Valley Road, you could turn right or left. Left was more well-traveled than right. If you went right, you would eventually hit Old Lorena Road, which was a little more traveled than Spring Valley Road. But if you kept going, you would hit Cotton Belt Parkway, less traveled than Old Lorena, Spring Valley, or Hewitt Drive. Cotton Belt Parkway would take you to Church Road. Church Road, at the time, was so untraveled that it had a one-lane wooden bridge. And Church Road would take you to those unnamed county roads.

Maybe Frost started off on Hewitt Drive but ended up on County Road 314.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Silken, sad, uncertain

Real men resign in chess and real men read poetry.

There's almost something Jaws-like about reading "The Raven" out loud. Go now and do it. I'll wait.

First, Poe uses trochaic meter. That's not the dumDUM iamb we all loved so dearly in high school, but the DUMdum trochee nobody ever told us about. Then, he puts together eight of those dang trochees in a row. No matter how you slice it, octameter is always kind of awkwardly long in English. I always try to read it as two separate, bite-size lines. But Poe doesn't let you do that by using a combination of alliteration, drawn-out thoughts, and off-center breaks. For example:
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me--filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
The fourth trochee of the first line is "-certain." That should be the natural break. But we slip on the alliteration--"silken, sad, uncertain"--and slide right into the end of the thought. We dig in our heels after the fourth trochee, but the alliterative momentum and our own curiosity knocks us over into the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth trochees.

The second line has the off-center break I was talking about. Instead of giving us a nice comma after the fourth trochee ("-tastic"), Poe makes us take a breath after the first trochee: "Thrilled me." Even though the second line doesn't have the alliterative momentum, it has the thought momentum that pulls us forward into the second half of the line.

Finally, Poe uses an analog to the old idea of comic relief. After five lines of trochaic octameter, he gives us a bite-size trochaic tetrameter at the end of each stanza. For me, these serve as a sort of breather, but the bad kind, the kind of breather you take when you're swimming in from too far out in the water. You don't think you're moving, but you're slipping farther and farther out to sea. Only here, it's the hypnotic sea of The Raven.

Finally, the salt on the watermelon are the sprinkled in lines that are nearly comedic:
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore--
That is, lattice, and thereat is. The man was a rhyming genius.

PS--I just learned the ravens can talk. This poem just went from fantastical to dadgum.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Wright and Haiku

Good poetry involves the synergy of sound, rhythm, and connotation:
Standing in the field,
I hear the whispering of
     Snowflake to snowflake.
- Richard Wright (1968).

Out of all the photographs I've ever taken, this is one of my favorites:

There's just something beautiful about winter.