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.
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
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"
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"
RHYTHM and METER. In a couple of earlier
In a couple of earlier posts, I referred to favoring "roughed-up" meter. In this poem, I use pentameter that is — 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
Let's look at another scansion, this time of line 3:
This is probably as close to true iambic pentameter as you'll find in this poem
× barbed / wire || × a / bay- | × o- / net | × and × gre- | / nades / tied
And here's line 7, another interesting example. First off, note the two caesuras (caesurae?):
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.
/ ar- × my || / phil- × ip- | × pine- / scouts || / death × march × in | × ba- × ta- / an
And finally the ending line of the poem, which features three caesuras:
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
× of / bree- | × es × in / trees || × soft / rain || / sun × shine || / nev- × er | × a- /
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
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