CONVERSATIONALISTS

poetry conversationalistsIntroduction

I have termed conversationalists those poets who use traditional forms to give a semblance of conversational ease in writing. Art conceals art, which here demands:

  • 1. maintaining a metre (stress-syllabic or stress-metre) while the verse reads naturally, as though an excerpt from intelligent prose or a contemporary novel.

  • 2. natural word order: no inversions or elliptical syntax.

  • 3. words appropriate to the occasion, which also yield much of their sense on a first reading.

Additionally, the piece has to gain by being written the form chosen (generally in lines, sometimes with rhymes). To check, run the lines together:

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits: hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish. {1}

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones, are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes with their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath, a secret system of caves and conduits: hear the springs that spurt out everywhere with a chuckle, each filling a private pool for its fish.

No, this is not a conversation so much as a monologue in an elevated tone, but the passage runs naturally, the stress-verse of the lines (alternately 6 and 4) pushing the interest on:

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly

Rhymes, if used, can certainly intrude, segmenting any prose rearrangements, though the conversational ease remains:

God bless the lot of them,
although I don't remember which was which:
God bless the USA, so large,
So friendly, and so rich. {2}

God bless the lot of them, although I don't remember which was which. God bless the USA, so large, so friendly, and so rich.

And a rhetoric {3} of emotive prose is generally needed to shape the lines, however arranged:

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers. {4}

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself, an afternoon of nurses and rumours. The provinces of his body revolted, the squares of his mind were empty, silence invaded the suburbs, the current of his feeling failed: he became his admirers.

And there are the extended metaphors, somewhat contrived in the current of his feeling failed, but apt and moving in the concluding conceit: he became his admirers.

Practitioners

Many poets aim towards an unobtrusive fluency in their verse, and the term "conversationalists" does not characterize any particular mentality, outlook or movement in poetry. To varying extents, the same facility can indeed be seen in:

W.B. Yeat's Lapis Lazuli
T.S. Eliot's The Journey to the Center
Philip Larkin's Home is so Sad
Richard Wilbur's Love Calls Us to the Things of the World

and countless others. These four are not entirely conversational, however: they don't read as such, and their meaning is not yielded on a first reading. Yeats has his deeply-pondered symbolism. Eliot's poem still employs the critical intelligence, extended conceits and lacunae of his earlier work. And in Wilbur's poems the sheer cleverness of the shaping calls attention to itself. Even this example, set without its lineation from the middle section of Little Gidding (Eliot: Four Quartets), is clearly not normal prose, being repetitious and indeed incantatory (to ignore the symbolism dragged along):

If you came this way, taking the route you would be likely to take from the place you would be likely to come from, if you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges white
again, in May, with voluptuous sweetness. It would be the same at the end of the journey, if you came at night like a broken king, if you came by day not knowing what you came for, it would be the same, when you leave the rough road and turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade and the tombstone.

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden (1907-19) was prodigiously gifted, turning out a great mass of poetry, plays, essays and journalism throughout the thirties. {5} {6} Three things struck contemporaries: his abilities to 1. simply accept the modern world and use it in his poetry, 2. write fluently in a wide variety of voices and forms, and 3. create striking lines/phrases/images that were intriguing, apt and telling. {7} Examples of the last:

I'll love you until the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry

In the nightmare of dark
All the dogs of Europe bark

Simple but difficult to do.

Example

The segment I'd like to look at is Section Two from In Memory of W.B. Yeats {4} It is written in a loose syllable-stress metre, perhaps best called stress-metre, generally with six stresses to the line:

You were silly like us;|your gift survived it all:| (6)
The parish of rich women,| physical decay,| (6)
Yourself.| Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. | (6)
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, | (6)
For poetry makes nothing happen:| it survives | (6)
In the valley of its making | where executives (6)
Would never want to tamper, |flows on south | (5)
From ranches of isolation | and the busy griefs, | (6)
Raw towns that we believe and die in; |it survives, | (6)
A way of happening,| a mouth. | (4)

Generally stress-metre because we can phrase the lines differently:

Raw towns that we believe and die in; |it survives, | (7)

The English hexameter is a difficult line to handle, tending to constantly break into 3 | 3 divisions, a failing Auden prevents by skillfully varying the caesuras (|).

Next note the rhyme and pararhyme, also shown above, shaping by a a b b a c d e d c e scheme. Then the alliteration and assonance:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

This is not some casually-constructed piece, though it runs easily enough as prose:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all: the parish of rich women, physical decay, yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, for poetry makes nothing happen: it survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper, flows on south from ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, a way of happening, a mouth.

A conclusion emphasized if we note:

  1. the lexis or word choice: consistently everyday, not calling attention to itself.

  2. taxis: word order or syntax is quite normal.

  3. Taxis: the structure of the argument follows the classical tradition, and makes very full use of its tropes:

exordium or introduction:

You were silly like us

confirmatio (supporting examples)

The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself.

refutatio (anticipating objections)

your gift survived it all.

antanaclasis (repetition of a word in an altered sense)

Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still

epanorthesis (recall of a word to suggest more appropriate expression)

For poetry makes nothing happen:

confirmatio (supporting examples, precedents, etc.)

it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in;

peroratio (graceful withdrawal)

it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

In many ways, for all his arresting imagery, Auden was a classical poet, which may explain his reaction to the High Modernism of Eliot, and his more ready acceptance by the reading public.

Emotive Appeal

We have noted some of the superlative craft of this piece, and Auden was often seen as too much the technician, not sufficiently committed to Freudian ideas, communism and other nostrums of the thirties — an indifference that allowed his later verse to ebb out into the commonplace. In this piece, however, we still have Auden's ability to create striking phrases that poignantly condensed the concerns of his time. We have:

ranches of isolation

Why ranches? Auden was safely across the Atlantic at the time, but Yeats never visited America, and would have been wildly out of place in any ranch at all. But the phrase creates separation: we remember the cold, the death of Yeats in a far country, that the isolation, which everyone feels to some extent, has become final.

the busy griefs

A complex image that reminds us that we suffer grief while still continuing with our everyday lives, that indeed our mundane concerns carry on that grief, giving it an authenticity and extension it might not otherwise possess.

Raw towns that we believe and die in

Not only the effective rhythm with its 3 real or virtual spondees — raw towns, believe (in), die in — but it underlines the remorselessness of fate, that, what or wherever we are, we are obliged to believe in something, and continue in that belief until we die — beliefs which in Yeats's case constituted some very odd notions: spiritualism, astrology, Celtic mythology, moral superiority of the aristocracy.

Byron

The greatest 'conversational' poem in the English language is Lord Byron's Don Juan, an irrepressible medley of narrative, satire, burlesque, and anything else that came into his head. The poem was looser in form and technique that Pope's verse (which Byron greatly admired) but something Auden himself learnt from and partly imitated. Auden's loss was in not using Byron's technique of assembling several comparisons around a single theme, which allowed Byron to be entertaining and serious at the same time. {9} The examples assembled around sweet in the passage below are entirely conventional, and the verse is unremarkable, but the build-up gives first and passionate love an overwhelming force: {10}

We 'll talk of that anon. — 'T is sweet to hear
At midnight on the blue and moonlit deep
The song and oar of Adria's gondolier,
By distance mellow'd, o'er the waters sweep;
'T is sweet to see the evening star appear;
'T is sweet to listen as the night-winds creep
From leaf to leaf; 't is sweet to view on high
The rainbow, based on ocean, span the sky.

'T is sweet to hear the watch-dog's honest bark
Bay deep-mouth'd welcome as we draw near home;
'T is sweet to know there is an eye will mark
Our coming, and look brighter when we come;
'T is sweet to be awaken'd by the lark,
Or lull'd by falling waters; sweet the hum
Of bees, the voice of girls, the song of birds,
The lisp of children, and their earliest words.

Sweet is the vintage, when the showering grapes
In Bacchanal profusion reel to earth,
Purple and gushing: sweet are our escapes
From civic revelry to rural mirth;
Sweet to the miser are his glittering heaps,
Sweet to the father is his first-born's birth,
Sweet is revenge — especially to women,
Pillage to soldiers, prize-money to seamen.

Sweet is a legacy, and passing sweet
The unexpected death of some old lady
Or gentleman of seventy years complete,
Who've made 'us youth' wait too — too long already
For an estate, or cash, or country seat,
Still breaking, but with stamina so steady
That all the Israelites are fit to mob its
Next owner for their double-damn'd post-obits.

'T is sweet to win, no matter how, one's laurels,
By blood or ink; 't is sweet to put an end
To strife; 't is sometimes sweet to have our quarrels,
Particularly with a tiresome friend:
Sweet is old wine in bottles, ale in barrels;
Dear is the helpless creature we defend
Against the world; and dear the schoolboy spot
We ne'er forget, though there we are forgot.

But sweeter still than this, than these, than all,
Is first and passionate love — it stands alone,
Like Adam's recollection of his fall;
The tree of knowledge has been pluck'd — all 's known —
And life yields nothing further to recall
Worthy of this ambrosial sin, so shown,
No doubt in fable, as the unforgiven
Fire which Prometheus filch'd for us from heaven.

Pros and Cons

Why should Auden or anyone else want mimic an easy, colloquial style through the demanding requirements of verse? Because:

  • though hardly sensed, the verse forms a pleasing undertone to the content.

  • the verse enables the rhetoric to evoke and control the emotional appeal.

  • The striking phrases sit better in verse than prose.

Notice how much poorer a poem becomes when rhetoric and novel phrasing are inhibited or banned, as in William Carlos Williams's Landscape With The Fall of Icarus compared with Auden's Musée des Beaux Arts : {8}

The downside is that a conversational style is inappropriate for many poems — those dealing with the raptures and despairs of love, epic themes, the profundities of religion, etc. — and its light touch may not only prevent us from dealing with experience properly but serve to trivialize that experience.

References and Resources

1. W.H. Auden. Collected Longer Poems. 1969.
2. From On the Circuit. Another Time by W.H. Auden (Random House, 1940). http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15552.
3. Generally parison and epanorthesis. See rhetoric approaches.
4. From In Memory of W.B. Yeats. Another Time by W. H. Auden (Random House, 1940). http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15544.
5. W.H. Auden. 2000. http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/whauden.htm NNA. Life and book list in Books and Writers series.
6. Auden's poetry and his last years Later Auden by Edward Mendelson (Farrer, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1999). http://www.wsws.org/articles/1999/nov1999/aud-n20.shtml. World Socialist Website book review by Margaret Rees 20 Nov. 1999.
7. David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Belknap Press, 1987), 148-69.
8. Neither is perhaps the best work of their authors, but the closest comparison I could find for Internet-listed examples.
9. M.K. Joseph, Byron The Poet (Gollancz, 1964), 212-37.
10 Lord Byon. http://www.photoaspects.com/chesil/byron/djcanto2.html NNA. Full texts of Don Juan and other poems online.
11. W.H. Auden Society. http://www.audensociety.org/. Lists of books on and about Auden, links to online poems, and news of current scholarship.
12. International Byron Society. http://www.internationalbyronsociety.org. Includes texts with helpful comments in pdf format.

 

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.