worrying about stress

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Some time ago I read one of those ‘motivational quotes’ to the effect that you shouldn’t laugh at someone who pronounces a word wrongly, as the chances are it means they learned it through reading, rather than hearing it spoken, and no one should be mocked for trying to better themselves.

It’s true that I am still likely to laugh when I hear an American say someone made a “fox paw” when they mean a faux pas but, essentially, I think there is a lot of truth in the sentiment.

I left the UK in my twenties and although I’d been writing poetry all my life, I didn’t really start to be interested in the theory until I was living in Spain. That means that I learned a fair proportion of what I know from books, web forums and (mostly American) YouTube videos.

I remember travelling to the UK from Spain to teach on a poetry course; after the session that dealt with enjambment, a student took me to one side to tell me that, “Actually, it’s pronounced /ɒ̃ˈʒɒ̃bmɒ̃/.” I was too mortified to defend myself, although my rendering – /ɛnˈdʒæmmənt/ – is a perfectly acceptable way to pronounce the word in American English.

Fortunately, I didn’t try and teach the same group about the triolet verse form, as that’s a word where I automatically lose the final /t/ sound – /ˈtriːəʊleɪ/ – but which should, apparently, rhyme with violet.

Sometimes my mispronunciation is due to having become familiar with the word in Spanish. I must have used the word hiato – /’jætəʊ/ – far more frequently that I have spoken of a hiatus /hʌɪˈeɪtəs/, and even if I can remember that it’s a three syllable word in English, with a hiatus between the “i” and the “a”, I am liable to forget where the stress falls.

Recently at an open mike, a fellow poet objected to my use of the word dumpster, as he felt it was an Americanism. In fact the poem I’d used it in was written in the style of another poet and, anyway, I lived in California for several years, and sometimes the words that come to mind are the ones I used there. In poetry, of course, even in free verse, syllables and stress matter every bit as much as meaning, and skip didn’t have the right number of syllables for the line.

I’ve realised that there are words I avoid in my writing: I’ve actually changed chagrin for embarrassment just before a reading simply because I knew it would cause me problems. But in that case, chagrin really is the word I want and it’s a prose piece so the rhythm isn’t so important, which means I’m actually keeping chagrin in the copy on file.

But what if I write debris, for example, in a poem? If I am thinking in American, the meter will be one thing, where it will be completely different if I am thinking in British English.

This has all come to mind because I am doing a reading tonight and am hoping not to make too many mistakes. Fortunately I don’t need to have memorised all the pieces as I shall have the words in front of me. But one of the pieces is a bit of a tongue-twister, which includes these lines:

In the spread sheet lies are cushioned, crouching, couched in rows
of rows, the calumny of columns; borrow one and chase the missing sense
across the land of pain and counterpane.

I must remember that it’s /rəʊz/ of /raʊz/.
And in another piece that I’m reading:

[…]condensation tears the double glass
to drip on wipe-clean sills.

where I must remember that it’s tears /tɪəz/ not tears /tɛːz/.

So, here I am, worrying about stress, and stressing about pronunciation. But I guess that’s not unusual for a poet.

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Author: don't confuse the narrator

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

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