Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Dainty Touch of Caramelization

Hail, fellow devotees of the arts!

Yesterday’s poem came to umpety-ump lines and however many words, and I challenged you to cut it down to three and twenty-four. Well, here’s how Marianne did that very thing:

by Marianne Moore

[Vastly shorter poem removed because it’s still in copyright. But you should be able to find it on the Web with no trouble.]

That’s a tour de force, for sure. And it gains a lot in compactness and immediacy.

But it loses something as well. Specifically, it loses “real toads in imaginary gardens.” You can argue that this version has a real toad (useful insight) in an imaginary garden (the poem), but it doesn’t have those words: real toads in imaginary gardens. Those are good words. I know because I must have heard or read them quoted a dozen times before I finally encountered the poem.

Now let’s take a second look at yesterday’s poem: No rhymes, no poetic meter ... why this stuff is just cadenced prose! (Remember what Moore said about business correspondence and school-books.) She’s stripped away all the “poetic” stuff, the prettiness, the quaintness, the iambic pentameter in order to look at what a poem really is.

But there’s a lot of hidden craft there too. Moore refers to poetry as “all this fiddle” (nonsense), but a fiddle is also an instrument for making music. And if you count the syllables in each line (but why would you?) you’ll see that the first line of each stanza has exactly nineteen syllables, the fourth and fifth lines have five and eight, or eight and five syllables, and four of the five last lines have thirteen syllables.

What does all this structure mean to you? Not a lot. That’s why I rarely touch upon it. But the ear hears it and the subconscious appreciates it in the same way that the tongue tastes and the stomach appreciates a particularly subtle culinary concoction. When you’re in a restaurant, you rarely say, “Hey! I’ll bet this has been cooked eighty degrees hotter than usual – the surface has dainty touch of caramelization that can’t be achieved otherwise.” But when you say, “Hey, this is really good!” that factors in there.

All best,


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