UK Birmingham Bullring bull statue

I’ve been thinking about the presidential inauguration and wondering if I might be able to work a neat pun into this post. Something based on the prefix in being combined with the root augur – that the inaugural can’t augur well.

But that seems a little contrived, so let’s move swiftly on and talk about poetry.

The last two inauguration ceremonies – and, frankly, the only two I’ve really paid much attention to, presumably because of the live reporting via the internet – have both included poets reading their work; but it turns out poems have featured in only five presidential inaugurations.

Of course the fact that no poet was invited to perform won’t stop people writing poems. I’m sure uncountable amateurs – both in favour of and against the new president – wrote their own pieces for the occasion, and no doubt more than a few professionals did, too. There was the scarily rousing piece published in The Scotsman earlier in the week. And now there are others, based on the speech and the ceremony, including one written using the words which were said yesterday for the first time in an inaugural address.

I wasn’t much impressed by Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, written for President Obama’s inauguration, and said so a the time in the blog post occasional poetry. But it did get me thinking about these poems that have to be written but kept secret until the event, so we get to hear the piece before we ever see its written form. Obviously how well such pieces work depends not just the quality of the writing but the reading as well.

I’ve often thought that poems that are best to read to an audience are often not the most profound and well-crafted, as they need to be readily understood at first hearing. Pieces with clear structure, rhyme and repetition are more easily followed by the listeners, but these techniques are all too often the ones that seem to trivialise the subject, so it requires skill to achieve the right balance.

I used Alexander’s Praise Song for the Day as the basis of a longer article about occasional poetry. This seems a good time to dust it down and publish it here on the blog.

On the page and off the page: balancing the written and spoken forms of a poem

Poetry composed to be read or to be performed at special events and ceremonies – “occasional poetry” – is primarily a spoken form. Since it’s usually the poet himself who does the reading, he may be tempted not to pay much attention to written formatting because he already knows how the piece should sound.

However, it can be pretty much guaranteed that somebody is going to want to see the piece in print, and so, like other poetry, it needs to work effectively both on and off the page. That’s where careful formatting (punctuation plus stanza and line-breaks) is needed to guide the reader and help him understand the pacing and pausing the writer intended.

Let’s take Elizabeth Alexander’s poem written for Obama’s inauguration as an example. The delivery was fairly prosy, with deliberate – although not always very natural – pauses. Once the ceremony was over, then, people started looking for the text to read the poem for themselves, and it was soon available on-line. However, at this stage, nobody could be sure where the line-breaks should be: it’s easy enough to transcribe words, but how could anyone be sure of punctuation and formatting?

Despite this, seeing it on the page, even as a simple text split into paragraphs, I found it began to make better sense as a poem. With the text in front of me, and reading it at my own pace, I could focus on the sounds and the rhythm of the words and begin to explore how they work together.

Now the poem is available in the layout Elizabeth Alexander intended, which should give us a better idea of how she envisaged it being read. A simple search for — Elizabeth Alexander inauguration poem — in Google will turn up many sites with the formatted text, showing that it was written in unrhyming, three-line stanzas, which appear as regular blocks on the page.

One problem with choosing a visual structure like this, however, is that there’s a temptation to make the poem look more regular than meaning, grammar and phrasing demand; instead of using the format to help the reader, the poet may waste the potential of one of the most important of the poet’s tools.

The first sentence (source CQ Transcriptions, via the LA Times online) – “Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other’s eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.” – corresponds to the first stanza of the formatted poem:

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

The desire to have a neat little rectangle on the page seems to have resulted in an awkward second line-break that really doesn’t help the reader.

Note how the first line is end-stopped – a complete phrase with a pause at the end – and how there’s a comma to emphasise that end pause. Sometimes, a line-break can serve instead of punctuation, so when you find punctuation at the end of a line, it’s worth looking to see if it’s really necessary.

Here, the comma may not be essential but it certainly helps to separate off that first phrase. This is particularly effective as the line essentially defines the theme of the whole poem.

When we get to the second line, though, it’s not a complete phrase.

In general, as a reader approaches a line-break, expectations are being formed of what is going to come next. Those expectations are then either contradicted or reinforced when he proceeds to the next line, allowing the poet to create interesting effects in the reader’s mind by manipulating the breaks.

In the inaugural poem, the phrase “catching each other’s” doesn’t leave many possible options for the reader: there aren’t very many things that we can catch like this, other than “eyes” or “attention”. The line-break encourages a slight mental pause for the reader but doesn’t allow him to do much within that pause.

If, instead, the phrase had continued one word further – “catching each other’s eyes” – the reader would have ended the line with a strong image of a positive connection between people going about their business. When he reached the next line, the “or not,” would have been a powerful contradiction, which would have also helped reinforce the hit-and-miss, unpredictable nature of jostling with strangers each day.

Of course, on the page, this would have created a very unbalanced – and much less visually-satisfying – triplet, with a far longer second line.

Layout and line breaks allow poets to help readers understand their intentions of pausing and pace. It is vital, though, to balance the written and oral needs of a poem, especially one that is likely to be printed and re-printed for years to come.

In case you’re wondering, the photo is there simply because it’s one of my favourite statues and I happened to be in Birmingham earlier in the week. It’s entirely up to the readers if they choose to take it as a comment on the current political situation.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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