writing the political poemPoints Illustrated

1. Evaluating and rewriting.

2. Alternate expansion and reduction into tight forms.

3. Avoiding the predictable.

Starting Point

On a Starting a Poem page we redrafted a poem along traditional lines:

Again I have come at the year's decease,
With the blue air singing and the green grass spreading,
Bending to read under the familiar heading
Words, which are final, yet give no peace.

A lot is wrong with this. Decease suggests winter, only we have the blue air singing and the green grass spreading. Headstone or inscription is probably what is meant by heading. The rhyme scheme of abba will create self-enclosed stanzas, suitable for lyrics perhaps but not a prolonged meditation. The rhythm, augmented by the feminine rhymes, is much too 'loud' and insistent. The core meaning — how can nature be so indifferent to human feelings? —  is not sufficiently brought out. Try again:

Lie deep and be peaceful in this shadowed spot
All you who were militant under barracked stones,
Who spoke much, did much, who reached out and got
A small box, of cardboard, for your sheared  bones.

There is nothing but a fragrance, as though warm air breathed
Of summers incandescent over heavy loads
Piled up in junkyards, as though factories seethed
Vast and arterial by wind-smoothed roads.

We've got the poem into the twentieth century, just about, but not beyond the nineteen-thirties if the Audenesque imagery of the second stanza is left portentously undeveloped. Where's the connection  (if the country churchyard has now become a military cemetery) between burial and the industrial world to which the conscripts would otherwise have returned? Soldiers are not brought back in boxes of cardboard, however neat the alliteration of that line.  And why fragrance?  Military cemeteries are places of immense sadness, but fragrance is not what springs to mind at the wastage of young lives.

Before rewriting, consider shadowed. If simple description is intended, the better word is shaded. But shadowed — with its connotations of impending events, of depth and the afterlife — contrasts vividly with militancy and the barracked stones. Dwell a moment on this last conceit. It's the nature of traditional verse to turn up intriguing possibilities, and barracked stones suggests that it is the stones themselves that are barracking, i.e. shouting and jeering. But more importantly, it also suggests that death came because living men were turned to automatons, were drilled, confined and regimented as we see them now in their mass graves. Should we develop this? And if so, recall that soldiers are returned from the battlefield in body-bags, and such bags contain dead bodies rather than bones. What can we do to avoid the associations of the immemorial rhyme bones/stones? If we change the third and fourth lines to something like Who laughed much, lived much, reached out and got / A zipped bag, and sealed, for their scored limbs, we're left with rhyming possibilities of hymns/trims/rims/brims/ swims/whims/bedims — none of which will take barracked. For the present, we make the rhythm more trochaic, correct some errors, and continue:

Lie deep and be peaceful in this shadowed spot
You the once militant under barracked stones,
Who spoke much, did much, who reached out and got
Cut words in marble for unmade  bones.

Nothing you can speak of has a clamour now.
The great wars are done with. Our occasional lives
Drift and resettle. We do not question how
Legacy can be the passing of what survives.

There is nothing but a fragrance, though the warm air breathes
Of summers incandescent over heavy loads;
Piled up as junkyards, the long factory seethes
Vacantly by arterial, wind-scudded roads.

Where now? First make some corrections. Cut words in marble for unmade bones is too neat, too pat, suggesting to the reader that the alliteration is leading the sense. And what exactly is meant by: We do not question how / Legacy can be the passing of what survives

Let's work on the first stanza by removing some of the glibness, and then muting the rhythm.

Lie deep in the shadow of this sure place,
You that were militant, and under barracked stone
Speak now in silence and unshamed grace
With short words chiselled into the marmoreal bone.

Note first how the stanza is built. The first line is end-stopped, but the sense carries on to the end of the fourth line. The rhythm is varied accordingly, and an iambic meter only vaguely sensed.  Lie deep in the shadow of this sure place is a pentameter if the last three words are stressed. With short words chiselled  into the marmoreal bone is practically a hexameter, with a pauses after words, chiselled and marmoreal. Alliteration in m, b and sh  ties the lines together.

The imagery is an elaborate conceit. Bones and marbles crosses are fused in a vision of whiteness attacked by conventional phrases. Marmoreal means marble-like, but evokes immemorial, which adds a darker connotation. Convention is further questioned by the paradox of silence speaking, and the unsubtle irony of sure and unshamed. Very sure is their resting place, and nothing they can do will detract from the social statement. Death was perhaps even preordained. Shadow is linked by alliteration and stress to sure, and implies more than the old commonplace of death and taxes being the only certainties. Barracked implies confinement and parade-ground discipline. Casualties are what soldiers are trained to inflict and to suffer. The tone is dignified, not questioning, but still angry. The paths of glory lead but to the grave, as a better poem put it.

Before moving on, is anything worth improving? One howler is unashamed grace. It's effeminate, and unnecessary with averted face such an obvious alternative. Then there's the statement of the fourth line, which goes nowhere, ending literally with the words being chiselled into the bone. Unless we want to develop a bone-carving theme — which is macabre or has Icelandic connections — we should return to the earlier theme of shadows and vain things. The rewritten stanza

Lie deep in the shadow of this sure place,
You that were militant, and under barracked stone
Retreat into silence and averted face
In the short words that fade into marmoreal bone.

now has two layers variously represented —  surface and depth, present  and past, loud parade grounds and silence, expectations and the horrors of war, dreams of youth and the enfolding experience of man: which provides a theme to justify and develop in the next stanza:

Nothing you can tell us has a clamour now.
The great wars are done with. Our occasional lives
Withdraw and resettle. The mute question 'how?'
Is at peace with such bodies, and yet survives

A Modernist poem would probably have left the third stanza as it was, with its striking imagery unintroduced and unexplained. A traditional poem needs surface clarity, however:

In the absences, fragrances, in the things that breathe
Beyond summers that flame around the airless roads,
In the wrecks, new barriers, the tire-marks that leave
The routes we scud past with our pressing loads.

This allows us to expand the ideas of the previous third stanza into a separate fourth stanza:

The factories you'd have worked at rust into air;
Women have their albums but have made other ties.
The past is but a season of some held otherwhere —
Crying, still crying, out of these bare lies.

A few points. Poetry is a means to thought, not of clothing preexisting thoughts in appropriate language. Notice how the imagery is shifted through the lines, simplified and dispensed with once the point is made. And how readily the polysyllabic metre will drift into the jog-trot of a ballad measure unless restrained by sense and syntax. And then there is the declamation in the last line. Where does that go?

Poems need to viewed periodically with fresh eyes. Returning to our piece after a decent interval we rewrite the phrases that don't immediately work:

Lie deep in the shadow of this still place,
You that were militant, and under barracked stone
Retreat into silence and averted face
In the short words that fade into marmoreal bone.

Nothing you can tell us has its clamour now.
Great wars are done with. Our occasional lives
Drift and resettle. The mute question 'how?'
Is at peace with the bodies, and yet survives

In absences, fragrances: things that breathe
Beyond summers that flame on airless roads,
In the wrecks, new barriers, the tire-marks that leave
The routes we scud past with our pressing loads.

The factories you'd have worked at rust into air;
Women keep their albums but have made new wives.
The past is but a season of some vast otherwhere:
Crying, still crying, from these crushed lives.

Then we ask about the overwhelming insubstantiality. The poem is continually retreating into silence, absence, the air itself. We don't have to believe all that Poststructuralists tell us to know that texts can write themselves, and in the course of its creation our own poem has moved far from evoking the emotions usual in a military cemetery: the destruction of youth and its hopes, the futility of war. As it stands we seem to be making some comment on the unreality of life, that the greater part is unseen (an oriental poets might put it). We can round the poem off on this note by simply changing the word crushed to closed:

Crying, still crying, from these closed lives.

Nothing very ambitious has been attempted, but the meanings and their overtones reverberate to create an autonomy that is neither hermetic nor vacuous. Some balance has been achieved, and the reflections are not trite.

But suppose we feel more than a desolating sadness. We are angry, and reject any philosophical musing. One way of opening out the poem is to change crushed to culled, and develop its bitter implications:

Crying, still crying, from these culled lives.

The world must move dreamily. In the selfsame sun
We rose to manhood, and our heart's thonged knots
Held to your purpose; we have nothing done,
To be levelled and scattered into these small plots.

Far more than you, famed patriots, who'd make
Of a party's preferment a sovereign pride —
Feckless appeasements in the shift and fake
We shall go elsewhere whom the weltering tide

Set down in waves of impregnable force.
We ask how you worked it since you would not go,
But laid out for others a protracted course
That drowns us like lemmings in this undertow. . .

And so on. No one supposes that the addition is acceptable — it's much too safe, muddled and oratorical — but the approach should be clear. Traditional poems, written properly, draw their protean natures from words imperfectly found. That is one difference between verse and poetry. No line or phrase in poetry really achieves what we hope for, but in pushing words to the brink of the unsayable, we create things that had not quite existed before. And the things are not mere words. Modernist poems, and those created by New Criticism approaches generally, accept truth as something not necessarily existing outside a particular arrangement of words. Traditional poems insist on a wider reference: we have to say, as cogently as we can, what we indeed mean.

Now the rhythm. Though the poem we've written seems to be in iambic pentameters, it certainly doesn't sound that way — a singing more than a speaking voice, as a little scansion shows. Syntax is not supported by the rhythm, and meaning is almost overwhelmed. What started as a lyric has shifted to social protest, and old rhythm is inappropriate. One answer would be to cut ornament and polysyllables:

Lie deep in shadow. In this still place
I hope you are militant. Under barracked stone
You retreat to silence, averted face:
To short words that fade in marmoreal bone

Now the emotional charge is stronger. Try something more drastic:

No one wants to know. Although we grew
Up like you, breathed the same air, kept
To the same promises, all we got
For our sacrifice were these marble crosses.

No intrusive rhythm here, but no poetry either. A Postmodernist might make something of these shapeless lumps, but here we are writing traditional verse, and to the traditional masters we look for guidance. Donne showed early Modernists how poetry can be made from closely textured thought, but we shall study his notorious "wrenching of accent". Donne aimed at a striking freshness with such lines as:

For I am every dead thing
In whom love wrought new Alchemy. 

I taught my silks their rustling to forbear,
Even my opprest shoes dumb and silent were.

No verse is entirely regular, but this juxtaposition of silence and sound creates a new (and very pleasing) urgency. An almost physical representation of the thought is thrust into the opening pauses. This is not speech — the underlying iambic metre is clearly sensed — but a facsimile of speech created by great metrical skill. If we 1. slow the lines into a falling rhythm, and 2. break the flow with change of accent and pauses, we get:

Armistice Day

I would you were militant in this still plot,
Past any comfort, where barracked stone
Is vaulted on nothing, and you are not
Wistful for words on marmoreal bone.

What is the solace in such preachings now?
The great wars are done with. Our vague lives
Drift and resettle. The mute question 'how?'
Is not for these bodies; it survives

In absences elsewhere, things that breathe
On the far side of summer, on unfenced roads,
In the wrecks, barriers, tire-marks that leave
The routes we drive past with heavy loads.

The schoolyards and factories return to air;
Memories to old maids or busy wives.
The world is but passing: we do not share
What is retrieved out of unformed lives.

"Spare us this moment: we were much like you,
Grew fast in the sunlight. The wealth of day
Returned us our friends, and to high hopes too,
Until all in a gunshot was thrown away

"For reasons we had noted: the vested stake
In setting us plumb on old Europe's side —
Continued appeasements, the shift and fake.
Yet we who shipped out on a downward tide 

"To spill, half at night, on shell-strewn coasts,
Battalions at risk where the tracers go
High over the conquering, inviolable hosts,
Became a statistic, whose numbers grow."

Returned are the regiments, and theirs to keep
The words for fit heroes. The crosses lie
Arm-linked across continents, and oceans deep
Sound barrages of silence through an empty sky.


To conclude with three commonplaces. 1. Rhythm is an inherent part of the content — on what is said, how the originating impulse is even generated. It helps to start off with something appropriate. 2. In any redrafting there are gains and losses. The poem is now tighter, but also less evocative, and therefore less pregnant with future developments. 3. Though redrafting never ends — poems are abandoned more than completed — the requirements of verse foreshorten the process. 

Less successful as verse, but harder-hitting, is Only Us At Last.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.




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