Saturday 1 May 2010

Shakespeare's Working Practices, Lou Reed And Me

This may seem to be a long and meandering post on verse form but it will get somewhere. I believe it will get into Shakespeare's method of writing poetry. However, the post has to be unutterably long, so if you have anything better to do, do it instead.

The other day I was ambling along the street singing quietly to myself. The song I was singing was Berlin by Lou Reed. The words start like this:

In Berlin
By the wall
You were five foot ten inches tall.
It was very nice: candlelight and dubonnet on ice.

We were in
A small cafe.
You could hear the guitars play.
It was very nice: it was paradise

And then, because I wasn't really concentrating, I got mixed up and segued into a different song, namely Post-War Dream by Pink Floyd. The reason I had shifted was that the rhythm is similar:

Tell me true,
Tell me why
Was Jesus crucified?
Was it for this that daddy died?

Was it you?
Was it me?
Did I watch to much TV?
Is that a hint of accusation in your eye?

So I stopped my ambling and pondered. The verse forms were terribly similar and it occurred to me that it might work for poetry. Now on the whole I'm rather sceptical of the pop lyrics as poetry idea. Song lyrics are given a rhythm and a tune, whereas in poetry the words themselves have to contain and suggest the cadences and the rhythms that should form themselves in the reader's mind. That's what poetry is. Words with music built in. Poetry should be like powdered soup and the reader like hot water.

But I thought I'd give it a go and made a hybrid based on the two songs. The form was quatrains composed of two lines of one anapaest each, an iambic trimeter and an iambic pentameter; all rhyming ABBC ADDC. If that confuses the bijesus out of you, it means this:

te-te-Toh   [that's an anapaest]
te-Tum te-Tum te-Tee
te-Tum te-Tum te-Tum te-Tum te-Tay

te-Tum te-Tum te-Tie
te-Tum te-Tum te-Tum te-Tum te-Tay

My method for mastering a verse form is to start off by composing doggerel. It doesn't matter how bad or how little sense it makes. I force myself to improvise verse after verse of nonsense until I am comfortable with the form. After a while the rhythm is so firmly in my head that I can talk in it without hesitation, I can settle down and try to produce something worthwhile. So my first efforts will go:

I believe
That a man
Who's eating bacon flan
Is sitting on the rooster in the park

To deceive
The police
And maybe shoot his niece
And wait until the time that it gets dark

As I say, value doesn't matter. It's not even meant to be passable nonsense verse. It is merely rhythmic practice. Then I move onto trying to make sense - describe what's outside the window or somesuch - and only then do I attempt something serious.

The verse form turned out to be much harder than I had thought. The problem was the three-syllable line. I realised that though I knew to pronounce them te-te-Tum (I believe/ That a man) a reader might pronounce them Tum-te-Tum, which would change the whole rhythm of the poem.

'The police' is all right because nobody would ever stress 'the'. But 'I believe' is awkward because 'I' quite naturally takes a stress and make it Tum-te-Tum (a cretic). And that would ruin everything*.

So I started mucking around with different ways of starting a line without a pronoun. Would it be all right, I thought, to put I as the second word? 'If I sit' has to be read as an anapaest. What about shalls?

Shall I fly?
Shall I die?

And then I realised I hadn't made that up. I was quoting something and I couldn't, for a second, remember what. Then I hurled myself at a Complete Shakespeare and turned to the catchily titled Song from Rawlinson Poetry Manuscript 160. This is an odd poem. It was only discovered in the 1980s in the Bodleian. A chap found a manuscript with a bunch of poems each with the author's name at the end. All the other attributions were correct and then there was this one, previously unknown poem with the name William Shakespeare at the end. However, not everybody is convinced it's by Bill for reasons that will become obvious. The first verse goes like this:

Shall I die? Shall I fly,
Lovers' baits and deceits,
   sorrow breeding?
Shall I tend? Shall I send?
Shall I sue, and not rue
   my proceeding?
In all duty her beauty
Binds me her servant for ever.
   If she scorn, I mourn,
I retire to despair, joining never.

Two things ought to pop straight out at you. First: the poem is complete shit. It's doggerel. I have farted better poetry. Second, the verse form is intensely complicated: just about every third word rhymes. The lines are so short that there is no leeway for anything and this is kept up for eight more verses.

Now have a look at the seventh line. In all duty her beauty. There's no other way to scan that than in anapaests. In all duty her beauty. You can't make it cretics. Therefore it may well be that the whole thing should be scanned in trisyllables. Shall I fly? Shall I die? etc etc. But the equivalent line in the next stanza is "Suspicious doubt, O keep out", which makes me pause, but see below.

Rawlinson Poetry Manuscript 160 is fantastically controversial. On the one side are the cloth-eared scholars, who say that it's a reliable manuscript from soon after Shakespeare's life and that all the other attributions are correct. On the other side are the gourmets and connoisseurs who point out that Shakespeare was the greatest poet who ever breathed and that this is doggerel.

Now I've been pondering this for several days and, though I can offer no more proof than what is given above, I believe that Shakespeare was doing exactly what I was. This is not a poem. This is a practice before writing poetry. It is what I would call the second stage: makes some sense but isn't meant to be good. That explanation would satisfy the scholars, console the connoisseurs, and tell us something about how Shakespeare approached writing poetry.

So where is the finished product? If this was a practice run where is the final poem?

Well, I haven't written anything good in my verse form yet. Sometimes practice dies in the desert.

*What I like about the form is that the first three lines constitute a sort of mangled pentameter, which is then answered by the smooth iambs of the last line.

P.S. Many of Shakespeare's plays contain a musical number. I would also be open to the possibility that he was using my method in order to master a form required by a melody. That melody would then have been dropped from the play, and the form forgotten.


  1. Reading this was like reading Stephen Fry's book 'The Ode Less Travelled' and just as enjoyable. I love these poetic meanderings. Your first paragraph, far from putting me off, made me want to read it all!

  2. Are you the one who borrowed my Berlin CD? I think I vaguely remember this now...

  3. I believe, Dr Lapel, that I borrowed it loaded it onto the top of my lap and returned it. I certainly don't have it now, if that's what you're insinuating.

  4. It was the authentic 1970's edition of that CD, in the original fiberglass jewelcase...

  5. Like Fran, I just had to keep reading. And marveling. You are another species altogether.

  6. Is this the origin of your poem about the plinth?

  7. No, as I recall I was merely hungover to the point of mortality and the Song of the Plinth was what emerged from the customs checkpoint between breath and death.
    I think it was in Chutney's in Oxford.

  8. Impressive, but I'd like to see you write doggerel or nonsense verse in Sapphics ...

  9. Sapphics? They’re just thingummyjigs in Greek verse.
    Theoretically they ought to work fine.
    Swinburne tried them: never achieved a good line,
    And my effort’s worse.