Saturday, November 15, 2008

Craft and Technique (1.0)


A couple of weeks ago, I posted my poem "Guard Duty" here, but the politics-oriented context of that post didn't really allow for discussion of poetics. Now and again, I get inquiries from students who are writing a paper on some poem of mine, and generally their papers end up covering meaning more than craft. In the interest of informing such seekers about my technique, I'd like now to unpack "Guard Duty" some. Here's the poem again.


Guard Duty


A young soldier squints into thick black night
hoping no hostile sapper is cutting through
barbed wire, a bayonet and grenades tied
to his waist . . . invisible. This mute scenario

lies at the heart of three generations' bedtime
stories: my Lolo and my Papa in the US
Army, Philippine Scouts, death march in Bataan,
my brother Pepito in the 'Nam, nightmares

of Agent Orange. That young soldier could have been
any one of them . . . or me, on guard mount at Fort Ord
during Vietnam. Almost dreaming machine gun
recoil in our hands. Screaming, an oncoming horde.

Never again . . . young women and men should dream
of breezes in trees, soft rain, sunshine. Never again.

Vince Gotera, from Poets Against the War (2003).
Also appeared in my 2003 collection Ghost Wars.

To begin, I should say I subscribe to Seamus Heaney's distinction between craft and technique; craft has to do with building-block approaches, like alliteration or rhyme; technique is the cooperation of craft and personality, one's individual, idiosyncratic use of craft elements. Craft is mechanics; technique is stylistic. Below, I'll be talking about craft; my technique is ultimately for you to decide (it's invisible to me, of course).

SOUND and MUSIC. I am a huge fan of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with his over-the-top sound play. Of course, today you can't use sonic devices like Hopkins did . . . contemporary ears find such sound play fascinating but really just too much. Nonetheless, you can emulate Hopkins to a limited degree. For example, alliteration in stanza one: /th/ in "thick" and "through," "/b/ in "black," "barbed," and "bayonet"; assonance: the short /i/ in "squints," "into," "thick," "hoping," "cutting," "his" . . . and the three instances in the single word "invisible"; consonance: the beginning /s/ and ending /r/ in "soldier," "sapper," and scenario." And all this just in the first stanza.

One of my favorite sonic devices is rhyme. As a faithful student of Emily Dickinson and Wilfred Owen, I tend more towards slant rhyme than full rhyme, thus I rhyme "been" with "gun," "dream" with "again." A là Owen, I even have an instance in this poem of consonant rhyme — what critics call "pararhyme" and Owen called "jump-rhyme" (probably the most famous examples are in his poem "Strange Meeting," where in the first four lines he rhymes "escaped" and "scooped," "groaned" and "groined"). Here in this poem, I rhyme "bedtime" with "Bataan" . . . I'm particularly happy that I was able to involve three consonants: /b/, /t/, and /n/ or /m/, in that order.

An important way to think about rhyme, other than in terms of sound, is to look at what words are rhymed. As a poet, one can hint quite a bit about theme through judicious use of rhyme pairs. For example, I'm quite proud of the pairing of "US" and "nightmares," as a bit of social commentary. Also, not using periods in the abbreviation — like "U.S." — allows the additional meaning of "us" . . . i.e., the plural first person pronoun, as in "you and I," thus extending the social commentary even more.

RHYTHM and METER. In a couple of earlier . . . wait, before we get deep into this topic, let me warn you that it might get a little technical. Don't worry. If you don't know what I'm talking about, see the Wikipedia articles on poetic meter and prosodic feet. Okay, let's get to it.

In a couple of earlier posts, I referred to favoring "roughed-up" meter. In this poem, I use pentameter that is &mdash you guessed it — "roughed up." What I mean by this is frequent substitution of feet; if my primary meter is iambic, I pepper the poem with trochees, anapests, dactyls, even some spondees and pyrrhics.

In fact, I'm not even sure if my primary meter in the poem is iambic. Look at a scansion of the first line:
×
a
/
young
|
/
sol-
×
dier
|
/
squints
×
in-
|
×
to
/
thick
|
×
black
/
night
So . . . iamb trochee trochee iamb iamb. I suppose because the first foot is iambic and three out of five feet here are iambic, you could say we've got iambic pentameter. Well, maybe. I suppose that's as good an argument as any. But I gotta tell ya, I'm not sure myself, really. When I count feet while composing, I pay attention mainly — no, only &mdash to how many stresses are in the line; I let the unstressed syllables sort themselves out. So when I wrote this poem, I bet I never once thought iambic or trochaic or whatever. I did know I wanted pentameter, but that's as much as I thought ahead, probably.

Let's look at another scansion, this time of line 3:
×
barbed
/
wire
||
×
a
/
bay-
|
×
o-
/
net
|
×
and
×
gre-
|
/
nades
/
tied
This is probably as close to true iambic pentameter as you'll find in this poem . . . and it isn't exactly that, either. We've got iamb iamb iamb pyrrhic spondee. And those last two feet are what's called a "double iamb," which count (say the experts) as two iambs . . . I like to think of this construct as a "super iamb" because there are two unstressed syllables followed by two stressed syllables, so you've got a fully unstressed foot heightened then by a fully stressed foot, to get the rising rhythm required by the iamb. In any case, although this line may seem to be straight-out iambic pentameter, it's still not your run-of-the-mill example, particularly because of the caesura (or break in the line, marked here by a comma) immediately after the first foot. And that first foot may not really be an iamb, it turns out; it could be scanned as a spondee: BARBED WIRE || a BAY- | o- NET . . . and so on.

And here's line 7, another interesting example. First off, note the two caesuras (caesurae?):
/
ar-
×
my
||
/
phil-
×
ip-
|
×
pine-
/
scouts
||
/
death
×
march
×
in
|
×
ba-
×
ta-
/
an
A noteworthy trick I use here is bringing together the unstressed syllables of two different feet, as in the second and third feet here. Perhaps more striking in tandem are the fourth and fifth feet, where we get four unstressed syllables together. A cool side effect is that you also get, in effect, a spondee where the third and fourth feet meet: SCOUTS, DEATH. It's very easy to do; you simply take two iambs and flip the second iamb into a trochee, or in the case of two dactyls, the second dactyl into an anapest. Though I'll admit that I don't do it that way, thinking about the feet per se; I simply try to get interesting texture into the rhythm by finding natural ways to bring a number of unstressed syllables together. Or, similarly, a number of stressed syllables next to each other.

And finally the ending line of the poem, which features three caesuras:
×
of
/
bree-
|
×
es
×
in
/
trees
||
×
soft
/
rain
||
/
sun
×
shine
||
/
nev-
×
er
|
×
a-
/
gain
Same device here as in line 7, bringing unstressed syllables together, as in NEV- er | a- GAIN. And then there is also the spondee effect with the stressed syllables RAIN, SUN. In fact, the foot "soft rain" could be read as a spondee as well, which would bring four stressed syllables together: TREES, || SOFT RAIN, || SUN- shine. One could get a similar effect in line 1 with THICK, | BLACK NIGHT if "black night" were scanned as a spondee. Oh, and the last line, by the way, is hexameter . . . an alexandrine, used here to evoke "the sense of an ending."

Anyway, that's how I "rough up" the meter, by (1) frequent substitution of feet, in order to really mix up rising and falling stress patterns, and (2) bringing together stretches of unstressed syllables or, similarly, stretches of stressed syllables. All meant to destabilize the singsong flavor of regular meter.

LINEATION. Just as I lean towards slant rhyme, I tend to favor enjambed lines over end-stopped ones. In this poem, there are only three end-stops: lines 3, 12, and 14. That means that there are 11 enjambed lines. This makes a hurried poem, always teetering forward at the line break . . . consequently there is a lot of tension in the poem, unresolved energy. And I trust this goes along with the thematic tension of constant fear in war . . . being continually on guard.

FORM. Of course, this is a sonnet, a Shakespearean one. Syntactically, though, the quatrains don't match the sentence structure, unlike Shakespeare's frequent matching of individual sentences to quatrains. The first chunk of language, from "A young soldier" to "invisible" doesn't reach the end of the first quatrain. The second chunk, from "This mute scenario" (line 4) to "of Agent Orange" (line 9) is too much for the second quatrain, leaking out of both ends. The third chunk, comprised of three sentences, from "That young soldier" to "oncoming horde," is too small again but neatly finishes out the third quatrain. Thus leaving the final couplet to deliver quite conventionally and deliberately, with the customary volta, or turn, at the beginning of line 13. So the effect I wanted is of language and feeling that breaks through the sonnet form, or perhaps more accurately, out of it, but is then resolved by the closing couplet, the double occurrence of "never again," highlighting effectively (I hope) the overall antiwar theme of the poem.

CODA. Well, that's it. That's all I know about this poem. Of course, there's more, much more, that I can't see. I hope you will share with me your insights about the poem and its poetics by writing a comment in response. Just click on the word "comments" immediately below this post. Then we can have a dialogue (or a multilogue) about poems and the writing of them.

One parting shot. While I was writing this poem, I knew none of what I'm sharing with you above (or, at least, precious little of it). I simply wrote the thing, trusting to my own inner "poetry machine" to produce the literary flair that might give this poem the apt tone and feeling to mark it as poetic language. I can't quite remember how much revision this poem went through . . . it feels to me now so much of a piece, so unified. But it seems to me that it didn't go through much revision; I think it pretty much wrote itself. Partly because of the occasion of writing it for the "Poets Against (the) War" movement, partly because it speaks so clearly to (and for) my family history, my sense of self, the overall feeling of being a Gotera, of being my father's son.

2 comments:

Ryan Longhorn said...

Okay, this is really fantastic and helpful and such a wonderful idea. Please keep this up.

Vince Gotera said...

Ryan, thanks for your comment. I'll be doing this kind of thing a lot, so keep reading! --Vince

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