Poetry: Major Methods 2B of 3 :: Blank Verse MMO

Blank Verse:  Old Masters and New

Remember, we’re examining the poems using MMO:  Means, Methods, Opportunity (Aristotle’s Kairos).  This time we won’t have three different forms to analyze.  Blank Verse only has one form.

Old Master 1:  William Shakespeare

Macbeth’s Famous Speech

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
Till the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Patrick Stewart delivers the best version of this speech in a modern adaptation of the play.  Some prefer Michael Fassbender, but I think that one drags too much (Fassbender taking direction from the word “creeps”, just as his whole 2015 film does.  That thing is slooooooow) while Ian McKellan seems too insouciant.

Shakespeare’s MMO

Means: 4 sentences, each expressing the futility of life.  Remember, this is Macbeth talking, not Shakespeare.  Never consider a character’s words as the writer’s personal philosophy.

Method:  alternating lines of 10 and 11 syllables, with the next to last hitting 12 syllables and the last line hitting 6.  Not for nothing is Shakespeare called genius.  In the world of symbols …

  • 10 represents completion (the completion of Macbeth’s life is drawing close).
  • 11 represents transition (and the greatest transition is death, doubled here as Lady Macbeth to whom he speaks is dead and his own death is rapidly approaching).
  • 12 equals man’s relationship with God (and Macbeth will soon be judged for his crimes).
  • 6 represents doubled mystery (and the greatest mystery is Death, again for Lady M and himself).

Opportunity:  Shakespeare is reminding the audience that everything we do in life will have consequences far reaching into our deaths.  Time may seem to pass slowly … until our own death approaches.  We may never understand our lives;  they may seem no more than a shadow or an idiot’s tale with no meaning ~~ but we must still answer for the sins we commit.

Old Master 2: William Cowper, who brought about a revival of Blank Verse in the late 1700s, just in time for the English Romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Byron.

A few lines from “Winter Morning Walk”, Book V of The Task:

’Tis liberty alone that gives the flow’r
Of fleeting life its lustre and perfume,
And we are weeds without it. All constraint,
Except what wisdom lays on evil men,
Is evil; hurts the faculties, impedes
Their progress in the road of science; blinds
The eyesight of discov’ry, and begets,
In those that suffer it, a sordid mind
Bestial, a meagre intellect, unfit
To be the tenant of man’s noble form.

Cowper’s MMO

Means: You can hear the intellectual conversation the poet is having in the rhythm of his words.  While Cowper is writing strict Blank Verse (count the syllables, every line is 10), he avoids the rocking-chair beat.  In this section we hear the conversations of the coffee salons of the 1700s, when people discussed the role of man in society and the ills of society in harming man’s soul.

Method: pure Blank Verse, unrhymed which allows the conversational tone.  Only one line appears to have more than 10 syllables, but if we pronounce “bestial” as “beast-al”, we achieve 10.

Opportunity:  Look at Cowper’s theme:  Liberty/Freedom gives life its beauty.  Only those restrictions which prevent evil should be allowed (as in “no murder”).  Cowper believes restrictions hurt us and hurt progress while those who impose those restrictions are narrow and base.

That’s an interesting juxtaposition to Macbeth’s Famous Speech, isn’t it?

New Master 1: Robert Frost

From “Birches”

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.

Frost’s MMO

Means: “Birches” is a long poem, 60 lines, another one of those poems that high school students hate and adults remember with confusion.  This section is the poet addressing his audience:  Remember when you were a child and had fun ~ until Truth broke into your life.  In this, Frost is like Cowper:  restrictions restrict us.  Where’s our freedom, the freedom we had in childhood, the freedom we have lost and dream of regaining?

Method:  Primarily 10 syllables per line, with others that reach 11 and 12.  Curiously enough, the two lines about Truth are 11 and 12 syllables;  check back up to Macbeth for the meanings of those numbers.  See a sly point by Frost?

Opportunity:  It’s an ice storm that bends the trees down, Truth reminds the speaker, but he would rather it were a boy at play.  And while Frost describes the childhood event, he zings us with two truths:  “He learned all there was / To learn about not launching out too soon” and “So was I once myself a swinger of birches / And so I dream of going back to be”.

New Master 2: Wallace Stevens

The Plain Sense of Things

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

Steven’s MMO

Means: 5 stanzas, each presenting an idea: literal, vacuum, need, silence, potential ~ the great flashiness set aside for a time, we have a chance to think and peruse and rebuild, focused on the essentials rather than the amendments.

Method: This is a loose Blank Verse, meaning that most but not all of the lines are 10 syllables.  “Plain Sense” is not conversational, not philosophical.  It is introspection, one of the few times we can point to master poetry and say, “This is what the poet is thinking.”

Opportunity: “Plain Sense” was published in 1954, a year before the poet’s death.  Is he discussing the loss of his imagination, his creativity with poetry?  Is he discussing the drained feeling of every person who has poured every bit of self into a project and sits back after its completion with a sense of emptiness rather than success?  “After the leaves have fallen”, after the work is finished, what do we have?  Is Stevens capturing that moment before the next project seeds itself?

The Irony of Blank Verse

Most writers launching into poetry as a career will avoid the Blank Verse and Pure Verse methods of expressing themselves.  They seek the freedom of Free Verse without realizing that Free Verse is actually bounded by more rules of structure than Blank and Pure Verses are.

Robert Frost shares with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edna St. Vincent Millay a great benefit that is also a detriment:  all three poets make writing poetry look easy.  Their lines are easily understood and accessible.  They don’t find it necessary to twist the words or show off their snobbery.  They make it look so easy that sometimes we don’t really see what they are doing.

And all three poets, along with Wallace Stevens, work in very structured poetic forms, both line and stanza—and rhyme scheme, as we will consider next month.

Free or Blank or Pure?

While I have a great love of Free Verse, especially the challenging poems by e.e. cummings, writers working in poetry make a great mistake in thinking Free Verse is the best method for their writing.

Let me quote Andrew Hamilton in his review of Robert Shaw’s “Blank Verse”, a review you can find here: link opens in a new window.

“In ‘The Problem of Form’, poet J.V. Cunningham spoke in 1962 of the exhaustion of modernism:  “We have lost the repetitive harmony of the old tradition, and we have not established a new.  We have written to vary or violate the old line, for regularity we feel is meaningless and irregularity meaningful.  But a generation of poets, acting on the principles and practice of significant variation, have at last nothing to vary from.  The last variation is regularity.”

When modern poets abandon the structured verse methods and consider themselves edgy and avant-garde by doing so, they forget the very point that Cunningham made in 1962.  Modernism has created a curious situation in which breaking the rules is considered establishment and following rules is considered anti-establishment: rebellious.

So, if you want to be one of the avant-garde poets, you need to write structured verse.

Walt Whitman is laughing at the irony.

Join us in December as we take our last looks at poetry, the method of Pure Verse.  We’re on the 5ths!

Poetry: Major Methods 2A of 3 :: Blank Verse

Blank Verse

Poets who want to appear “intellectual” (cue the snobbish accent) will use Blank Verse.

See, I’m already limiting my readers who are turning off because I’m using the jargon of educational poetry.

“**”

Okay, first, let me talk about “professors” and “educators” of higher content learning.  (I am using “**” here so you will know I am being sarcastic about these terms.  These people aren’t teachers.  Sorry, back to my point.)

These people run the Advanced Placement level courses in high school and many of the higher level college & university courses (for several years, as an adjunct professor, I had to bow to their strictures).  Some of these “people”—not all of them—act as if the knowledge they have is arcane, open to only the privileged few.  They want to keep their content secret.  They present the information in dribs and drabs wrapped around by multiple distractors, so that only a special few will understand it.

Grrr.  These “people” make me mad.  They made me mad when I was part of them;  they still make me mad.

For example, Math “people” hate John Harold Saxon Jr. :: Saxon biography on Wiki  For years they decried his methods.  Now that he’s dead, they’re stealing his methods.  Oh, I thought those methods were worthless.  Guess not!

Poetry

I want you to understand and enjoy poetry as more than mindless words set to music.  From January of this year to now, I have attempted to present various ideas about poetry in a challenging but not a complicated manner.  I’ve truly enjoyed several of these blogs:

“Tigers to be Tamed” about Coldplay’s “Clocks” :: http://writersinkservi.com/2017/01/21/tigers-to-be-tam…wer-of-inference/

“4 Requirements of Song” about Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers” :: http://writersinkservi.com/2017/03/15/4-requirements-songs/

“Riddling Allegories” with Carole King’s “Tapestry” :: http://writersinkservi.com/2017/03/15/4-requirements-songs/

“Poets & the Three Unities” :: http://writersinkservi.com/2017/08/15/poets-three-unities/

And I still love my blog about Symbolic Colors from 2016 and repeated during September :: http://writersinkservi.com/2017/09/25/using-color-symbols-writing/

My point:  Well, it’s simple.

Don’t be intimidated.

Actually, don’t let anything intimidate you.  If you’re struggling, ask for help.  If certain “people” (there’s those “**” again) won’t help, they are not worthy;  move to someone else.  If you’re not struggling, well, have fun!

And with these lessons, I won’t keep it simple, but I will tell you what you need to know.

Okay, here we go.

Blank Verse

Don’t panic.

Part One:  Blank Verse is called “blank” because it doesn’t rhyme.

See, regular poetry rhymes at the end of the line (it’s called “end rhyme”.  That’s not hard.)  Blank Verse doesn’t.

Part Two: Blank Verse has a regular beat.

What?

Regular poetry follows a regular beat:  Remember “Roses are red / Violets are blue / Sugar is sweet / And so are you.”  Hear the rocking-chair beat?

Now, I could go all “English teacher” on you and talk about pyrrhic meter or iambs and trochees or anapest and dactylic . . . but I won’t.  I will say that most people will tell you that “Blank Verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter.”  There, that’s out of the way.

All we need to know—unless we’re studying to be English teachers ~ and I worked for years with people who don’t know this and didn’t care to learn it—is that Blank Verse will usually and predominantly have 10 syllables per line.

This is how we distinguish Blank Verse from Free Verse.

Free Verse will NOT have a certain number of syllables on each line.

Caveat:  Shakespeare liked to mess with his syllables to prevent that rocking-chair beat of “Roses are red”.  I don’t blame him.  He was writing some serious stuff, there.  You have to avoid a rocking chair when you’re writing philosophy.

So, Blank Verse is different from Pure Verse because it doesn’t rhyme AND it is different from Free Verse because it will have 10 syllables per line.

Blank Verse in Practice

Now, old-timey poets working in English (they come after Shakespeare, not the decrepit ones before him, ya know) liked to use Blank Verse to give their poetry an “intellectual snobbery”.

And they wound up all their words to sound “intellectual”, too.

Here’s an example:  “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant.

If you can make it through the first 72 lines, good for you.  You don’t have to.  Basically, drop over to this link and count the syllables per line on the first ten or so lines, and you’ll see that the majority of lines run about 10 syllables per :: poetry of intimidation

You can take my word for it, if you want to.  With students, we count the syllables out for a bit to prove the point.  Invariably, one will go on looking for more or less syllables than 10 to prove me wrong and wind up proving me right.

Here’s how WCBryant is intellectual:  He says “Thanatopsis” so only a few will know what he’s talking about.  Thanatos is the Greek god of Death;  he’s the one you didn’t want touching you.  (Hades ruled the Land of the Dead;  he wasn’t Death.)  “Opsis” means “looking/seeing”.  So the poem is about looking at death.

The whole first 72 lines basically say
  1. everybody is afraid of death,
  2. we don’t need to be afraid of death,
  3. our bodies are simply manure for plants and everything that comes after us,
  4. everybody is going to wind up the same way:  dead, and
  5. Dead will look just like Life, with people of all ages and professions and economics.

It’s the last stanza that’s important, and I used to have my students memorize it:  “So live that when thy summons comes / To join the innumerable caravan….”

Okay.  Wait.  Let me not punish us all.

Here’s the nutshell:  Live your life in such a way that you are not afraid to die.  Cuz you’re going to, okay?  Okay.

Bryant takes 81 lines to say all of that.  This classic of American literature is the reason high school students hate poetry.  It’s the reason adults look back at high school English classes and say, “I don’t understand poetry.”

Well, geez, slaving through things like WCB’s “Thanatopsis”, none of us understand anything.

I Got Your Back

Not all Blank Verse is like WCBryant, thank God.

Here’s one by Robert Frost, “For Once then, Something” about looking into a deep well, trying to see beyond literally and figuratively, and being mocked for doing so but still trying: Frost and a well

And one really recent, political and accusatory, by Terrence Hayes.  I’m not talking politics;  I just want you to see how Blank Verse is still in action: His title uses “assassins”.

And from Seamus Heaney, “Storm on an Island,” (Now.  This one I like.  This one I think is important.  This is the one that I want people to remember.)  “Storm” speaks to all of us about the elementals of life that dwarf us and give us fear but which we still bow our heads and walk into.  This link provides annotations which provide an interpretation:  No intimidation

Sources

If you go looking for modern blank verse, avoid Poetry Foundation.  They have misidentified pure blank verse, and you’ll find a lot of poems that don’t fit.  PF is usually very good, but they let us down here.

And I stumbled upon a review of a book that I would like to put in my ToBeRead stack, which never seems to go down: a book examining our topic, past and present

Next blog, some Old and New Masters of the Blank Verse form.  Shakespeare, of course.  Who else?  Well, join us on the 25th and be surprised.

Poetry: Major Methods, parts 1B of 3 :: Free Verse

Free Verse:  Old Masters and New

We’re having a brief concentration this time on the MMO of free verse:  the poet’s means, method, and opportunity, or kairos, as Aristotle called it.

Shaped Verse

The Old Master: Roger McGough, “40 Love”

MMO

Means:  lobbing the words back and forth, just as a tennis ball does.

Method: the shape of a tennis game.

Opportunity: the couple stays together, even though they may bicker, even though they may no longer love each other, they have lost the connection between them (a barrier is there, invisible to us but relevant to them).

The New Master: well, this is an interesting problem.

It’s hard to find contemporary shaped poetry that doesn’t devolve into sentimentality or juvenile wish fulfillment.  Let’s try the Prose Poem.

Carolyn Forché’s “Ancapagari” (found on Poetry Foundation)

In the morning of the tribe this name Ancapagari was given to these mountains. The name, then alive, spread into the world and never returned. Ancapagari: no foot-step ever spoken, no mule deer killed from its foothold, left for dead. Ancapagari opened the stones. Pine roots gripped peak rock with their claws. Water dug into the earth and vanished, boiling up again in another place. The water was bitten by aspen, generations of aspen shot their light colored trunks into space. Ancapagari. At that time, if the whisper was in your mouth, you were lighted.

Now these people are buried. The root-taking, finished. Buried in everything, thousands taken root. The roots swell, nesting. Openings widen for the roots to surface.

They sway within you in steady wind of your breath. You are forever swinging between this being and another, one being and another. There is a word for it crawling in your mouth each night. Speak it.

Ancapagari has circled, returned to these highlands. The yellow pines deathless, the sparrow hawks scull, the waters are going numb. Ancapagari longs to be spoken in each tongue. It is the name of the god who has come from among us.

MMO

Means: four paragraphs.  Fragmented sentences alternated with complete ones.

Method: It looks like any other prose;  however, it reads as poetry, compact ideas with rhetorical repetition and climatic ordering.

Opportunity: the resurgence of life once gone yet never departed, the power of the cyclical eternal to influence us when we allow ourselves to open and “speak it”.

Catalog

The Old Master:  Walt Whitman again. “I Hear America Singing”.

MMO

Means: a list of common people going about their work.

Method: extended lines that briefly describe an array of everyday jobs.

Opportunity: celebration of the everyday worker that makes America great.

Two New Masters: Let’s starT with Maya Angelou’s “Women Work”

MMO

Means: a list of jobs that every married mother must do.

Method: short lines listing the jobs, one after another, until they are all done and the persona can sing / enjoy the free things of life.

Opportunity:  Getting the chores done, the good and the bad, often leaves little time for reflection.  Slow down and enjoy the free things of life: good and bad, sunshine and rain, dew and storm, all necessary to know we are living.  The only things that we can truly call our own are the moments we take to enjoy.

Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry”

MMO

Means: presenting the reactions a poet wants to hear from the audience.

Method: the catalog across stanzas.

Opportunity: Collins wants students to enjoy the poem, not analyze it to death.  Literature classes often over-analyze.  As Archibald MacLeish says, perhaps the poem “should not mean / But be.”

Simple Form

Old Master: Carl Sandburg’s “Bones”

MMO

Means: a dramatic monologue of someone who died at sea.

Method: the speaking voice contrasts the mundane grave with the “song of thunder, crash of sea”.

Opportunity:  if we cannot live an extraordinary life, we can give our bones an extraordinary death.

New Master: Charles Simic’s “Stone”

MMO

Means: a simple imagining of the life of a stone.

Method: three unrhymed stanzas, repetition, anaphora and other devices.

Opportunity:  Like Sandburg’s “Bones”, this poem is about transformation.  Simic, however, imagines the serene existence of the stone only to wonder if it hides a more volatile existence beneath a cold, hard covering ~ as we often encounter with people, the difference between their exterior and interior lives.

Wrapping Up

Coming in November: We look at Blank Verse. Part 2A will introduce considerations with Blank Verse; part 2B will provide more examples.

We’re on the 5ths!  Join us.

More old-style poetry, but with Pure Verse, we can return to SONGS!

Poetry: Major Methods Every Poet Should Know, Free Verse, part 1A of 3

Poetry is SOUND before it is SIGHT.  This is especially true of songs.

Yet in special cases Poetry is SIGHT before it is SOUND.

The typography of the words can capture us visually before the ideas capture us.  If the “shape” of the letter ensnares us, we will stay to read the ideas.

With free verse, it is the SIGHT, the typography, that captures our attention.

Divide to Conquer

The realm of poetry can be divided in two different ways:

1st, the purpose of the poem: lyric (songs of emotion, virtually everything we hear in music), narrative (story songs, lot of the hits by the Eagles: “Lying Eyes” and “Hotel California”), and dramatic (story without exposition, folk ballads like “Lord Randall”).

2nd, the method of the poetic structure:  pure verse, blank verse, and free verse.  It’s these 3 methods that we’ll examine in this series of blogs.

Pure Verse = Rhyme and rhythm:  that’s the poetry we are conditioned to accept.  The poems of childhood and the songs of our everyday life fall into this method.  Even rap music has an expected rhythm (beat, cadence, meter) as well as rhyme.  This is Dolly Parton’s “I will always Love You” or George Harrison’s “What is Life”.

Blank Verse = rhythm without rhyme.  This poetry is usually intellectual.  Think Shakespeare, especially the major dramatic speeches:  Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” and Hamlet’s “What a piece of work man is”.  Think Robert Frost at his best and most unexpected, in “Out, Out—” or “Once by the Pacific”.

Free Verse = no rhyme, no rhythm (but plenty of reason).  The poet controls the line in other ways than the expected.

A Word on Line Structures

Songs become memorable when key elements are emphasized.  Emphasis through unusual punctuation and capitalization are not acceptable means for our minds unless our minds truly love puzzles.

*Emily Dickinson and e.e.cummings break the punctuation and caps “rule”, but they are purposeful with their rule-breaking.  It’s not communication anarchy.

Free Verse MMO

While free of rhyme and rhythm, free verse by master poets—and if we want our poetry memorable, we learn from the mastera—gives us Means, Motives, and Opportunities for structuring our poems.

Once we see the MMO in action, we discover free verse is as highly structured as the pure and blank verse forms.

Shaped Verse

The Old Master:  George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”

A first practitioner of shaped verse, Herbert did follow a rhyming pattern.  He worked in the early 1600s.  How’s that for age?

Our souls, in celebration of the Resurrection at Easter, are enabled to fly up to Heaven.

The New Master: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity”

Ferlinghetti reminds us that poets are performers, risking their public acceptance just as a trapeze artist does.  Both work without a safety net.  Ferlinghetti’s structure mimics the acrobatic performance as the words walk back and forth across the taut lines of verse.

Catalog

The Old Master: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself 26” (selected series of lines)

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronoun-cing a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streak-ing engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching car. . . .

The New Master: Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We real cool”

We real cool
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Simple Form :: Is anything ever simple?

The Old Master:  Stephen Crane’s “The Wayfarer”

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

The New Master: Arcelis Girmay’s “Elegy”

What to do with this knowledge
that our living is not guaranteed?

Perhaps one day you touch the young branch
of something beautiful. & it grows & grows
despite your birthdays & the death certificate,
& it one day shades the heads of something beautiful
or makes itself useful to the nest. Walk out
of your house, then, believing in this.
Nothing else matters.

All above us is the touching
of strangers & parrots,
some of them human,
some of them not human.

Listen to me. I am telling you
a true thing. This is the only kingdom.

Aracelis Girmay, “Elegy” from Kingdom Animalia. Copyright © 2011 by Aracelis Girmay.   From Poetry Foundation: poetryfoundation.org/poems/56716/elegy-56d2397a11e87

Wrapping Up

When we examine these poems, we see interconnections of ideas through the shape, through the catalog, through repetition, and through other rhetorical techniques.  In addition to other techniques, Whitman’s catalog uses anaphora, Brooks plays with alliteration, Crane writes a narrative, and Girmay uses repetition and typography and contrast.

Our next blog, 1B of 3, will provide another glimpse of old and new masters working in free verse.

Join us for Carl Sandburg, Charles Simic, Carolyn Forche, and others.

We’re on the 5ths!

Poets & the Three Unities

Three Unities

Sprawling tree roots support the central tree.

Action.

Time.

Place.

Writing can sprawl into unnecessary digressions.

The struggle for writers is to keep that sprawl focused so that every element seeds ideas relevant to the theme.

When relating the story of father killing daughter, wife killing husband in revenge, and son killing mother to restore a balance, any writer might be tempted to stray away from the central storyline.  Aeschylus managed to stay focused for his trilogy The Oresteia, and he didn’t have the Three Unities to guide him.

I am tempted, just from that previous sentence, to comment that The Oresteia wiped out every family relation or that killing doesn’t restore balance to the scales of justice, even in Greek myth with its differences between revenge and justice and its taboo on kin-killing.  See?  It’s hard to let things go.  Orestes had to argue with the Furies to get them to leave him alone for re-balancing the scales of justice.  And Aeschylus took three dramas to tell that one story.

Action. Time. Place.

Aristotle laid down the law about the Three Unities.  These three “laws” help structure any writer’s work.

To create the law of Three Unities, Aristotle looked at the most impressive dramas (tragedy and comedy) and classified the reasons for their success.

The story should focus on one action occurring over a tightly controlled time frame within a closely bounded place.  For ancient dramas, this meant one conflict occurring during one day and situated in one place, such as the front steps to a palace.

The law of the Three Unities, however, is not limited to ancient Greek dramas.

Novelists are similar enough to dramatists that no persuasive evidence is necessary.  Short stories maintain a tighter control on all three elements while novels might address one single conflict (with subplots) over several days yet still in a closely-bounded culture.

The James Bond sagas focus on one antagonist to be defeated with a close-monitored ticking clock within the culture of the British spy game.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring saga seems to sprawl all across Middle Earth [place] as the Fellowship gathers allies in order to defeat Sauron [action] before he becomes too powerful [time].

When poets work with the Three Unities, something unexpected and extraordinary occurs.

Frost and the Three Unities

Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific” presents Aristotle’s Three Unities.

Action:  God considers re-making the world as he did with the Deluge.

Place: The great ocean crashes on to a shoreline saved only because it is “lucky in being backed by continent”.

Time: “A night of dark intent / Was coming”, and it could be that the dark night might turn into an age of destruction.

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the light was spoken.

Several of Frost’s poems use the Three Unities to control their meaning.
  • “Acquainted with the Night” and “Design” are examples of two sonnets controlled by Action, Time, and Place.
  • His narrative poem “Home Burial” reads like an ancient Greek drama. Husband and wife have lost their future together since the day (Time) she watched him bury their child in the family cemetery (Place).  He cannot express his emotions;  she cannot control hers. (Action)
  • Frost’s found poem “Out, Out—” is a Greek tragedy of futility and unexpected disaster. The son is cutting wood while the sister stands close by (Place).  Since the boy does not keep close watch on what he is doing (classic hubris:  challenging Fate), the chainsaw leaps out to take his hand (Action).  His death at the end of the day (Time) with the understated line of “little – less – nothing” has all the inexplicable mystery of Doom.
  • “My November Guest” reports the Action as a conversation between a man and his love: “My Sorrow when she’s here with me, / Thinks these dark days of autumn rain / Are beautiful as days can be . . . She talks, and I am fain to list”.  The Time is the unexpected beauty of November, and the setting is the simple beauty of the land:  “the bare, the withered trees” and “silver now with clinging mist”.
  • “Mending Wall” is another unexpected use. Two neighbors are in unexpressed disagreement over the wall between their properties:  one is instinct, delighting in the fairy shifts to the rock wall, while the other is plodding logic that dislikes sudden changes.  They meet on an appointed day (Time) and repair the wall (Place & Action).

Millay and the Three Unities

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Time Does Not Bring Relief” covers all Three Unities.

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

The conflict to resolve begins the poem:  her love is gone, and she must go about forgetting him so she can move on.

Time ~ Her entire existence is taken up with remembering him and their love.  Every day of her past year she has tried to forget him only to have her grief renewed:  the rainy season, last autumn, and winter have passed, yet her heartbreak remains acute.

Place ~ Typical romantic places have also served as reminders of him, therefore increasing her loss:  the oceanside, the mountains, country lanes.  We can assume the city from the “weeping of the rain.”

Left unmentioned is Action.  Since time and place have not eased her pain, the Bohemian Millay may move on to action to bring her relief.

More of Millay’s Structural Techniques

A Petrarchan sonnet without the stiff formality of the 19th century and earlier, Millay presents her mastery of the sonnet by providing rhyme we barely notice.  Only occasionally do we slow to read her meter-based lines, which lesser poets must twist to create.

Three coupled images tighten up her structure:  “I miss him / I want him” and “Last year’s leaves / Last year’s bitter loving” and “So with his memory / So remembering him”.  The first two sets are coupled together;  the last set is separated, for the couple is broken apart.

Wrapping Up

Millay constructs her poetry more tightly than Frost does, but both are masters of the poetic line reading like conversation.  With Aristotle’s Three Unities, we can see a bit of their approaches to writing.

The Three Unities become a device for writing.  Skillfully used, the audience doesn’t notice the framework for the poetic lines.

For novelists and dramatists, those Three Unities should also fade into the structure to become unnoticed.

Rhyme and rhythm help structure Pure Verse.  Rhetorical devices from Classical Antiquity structure Free Verse.

Join us August 25 for a reminder of unexpected devices that poets use to structure their works.