Poetry, power, prayer: Part 1

Poetry, power, prayer: Part 1

Over the next few weeks I’m going to be talking about poetry—and about what makes it a very special kind of discourse, one that reaches spots that other kinds of language find difficult to reach. I shall then be talking about the ways poetry can address politics and power, and finally I shall discuss the relationship between the language of poetry and the language of prayer.

First a barrage of technical stuff (and apologies for this, readers, but it’s a necessary starting-point). When I was at the NUL one of my duties was to teach a final year course on Advanced Poetry Analysis. This involved getting students to acquire the appropriate technical vocabulary through which to record such analysis: tricky for them, as the terms derive from ancient Greek and from Latin and for reasons that baffle me these languages are not taught in Lesotho schools (OK, readers, don’t panic—that was a joke. I’m not really suggesting that they should be).

I prided myself at being rather good at handling the technical terms, but when I taught the course for the first time, half-way through I realised I had muddled the term “anadiplosis” with something else. I apologised, red-faced, and asked the students to revise their notes. One very pleasant but cheeky female student said “don’t worry, Chris, doubt if we’ll get around to using ‘anadiplosis’ anyway.” Next time I saw her in the corridor I greeted her: “Hi, Anna.”

She looked puzzled and said “but that’s not my name, Chris.”
I frowned and replied: “But I thought you were Anna Diplosis.”
The major task on the course was to teach the students how to analyse rhythm and how to describe different kinds of rhythm. It doesn’t pass muster in an assignment or in an answer to an exam question to define a line of poetry as “dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum.” Rather, you should say it’s “trochaic trimeter with catalexis.” Difficult stuff for the students, as Sesotho words don’t have weak and strong syllables in the way English words do, and because the technical vocabulary is so unfamiliar. But they coped heroically.

A couple of examples now. Shakespeare’s Macbeth begins with the three witches chanting “Fair is foul and foul is fair”—trochaic trimeter with catalexis. Or, if you insist—because this isn’t an exam paper — “dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum.” A little later in the play we see Macbeth on his way to his first meeting with the witches (though he doesn’t yet know he will come across them). Because the weather is awful, but because a battle has just been won, he says to his friend Banquo “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.”

The rhythm here is different from that of the witches’ chant: much closer to the (basically iambic) pattern of everyday speech (“di-dum-di-dum-di-dum”). But an alert audience will pick up on the words “fair” and “foul” and realise (the alliteration—the repeated “f”— helps) that the words are those used by the witches. It’s very important that the audience grasps this because it’s one of the ways Shakespeare tells us that the witches don’t cause Macbeth to commit terrible crimes; the wickedness is already built into him and the witches exploit this (at one point, realising he is on his way, they cackle: “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes”).

Another example now, always assuming I still have a readership left. One of Wole Soyinka’s poems (“Death in the Dawn”) begins:
“Traveller! You must set out at dawn, and wipe your feet upon the dog-nose wetness of the earth.”
These lines begin with a command — sounded “dum-di-di”, or in other words an amphibrach. After that the rhythm imitates plodding feet, until we get to “dog-nose”, etc., when the rhythm slides all over the place, evoking the slipperiness of the dew-sodden ground. Brilliant stuff.

I shall be coming back to Soyinka in a few weeks’ time as, at the age of 86 the great man has just produced a 500 page-long novel, which I shall be reviewing. Next week, though, I shall be talking about poetry as a very special kind of discourse.

Chris Dunton

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