USING FOREIGN POETRY

starting a poem 3Objective

Using a poem in a foreign language to generate a form unrepresented in English poetry.

Original

We use Léon-Paul Fargue's (1876-1947) well-known lines: {1}

Et puis les houles du vent d'automne, des frissons d'arbres sur les remparts, l'odeur de la pluie dans les douves, et bien des chansons de Paris passerent sur elle.

For which a literal translation is:

And then the surge of autumn wind, | shiverings of trees on the ramparts, | the smell of rain in the moats, and many | songs of Paris passed over her.

First Draft

Even in translation, Léon-Paul Fargue's lines are so evocative of a certain period and area of Paris that anyone who can't respond to them should perhaps give up writing. But if we set out the fragment as four-stress lines, some of that magic disappears:

And then the surge of autumn wind,
Shiverings of trees | on the ramparts,
The smell of rain in the moats | and many
Songs of Paris | passed | over her.

If we were writing, say, a sentimental journey, a nostalgic look at childhood love and its aftermath, we would need a longer and more flexible line, one capable of expressing a greater range of emotion. Let's start with And then the surge of autumn wind. Its very rhythm echoes a gust of wind, which is admirable for a short line, but would be limiting and difficult to handle for longer passages. We'll need to extend the line:

For afterwards what is there but the surge of wind through trees.

which we can then rearrange as:

For afterwards what is there but the surge
of wind through trees.

Continuing in this vein:

For afterwards what is there but the surge
Of wind through trees, the languor of the autumn
Hard rain upon the streets, a habitat
Of melancholy, dark lights on water —
All to be denied, put aside
As with a smile, like an old suit, a song
We knew the words of once, and shall forget
Completely, even that we knew them, you
And I, in the long days that must slowly, despite
All assurances and observances, fade from sight.

What have we got — a loose dactylic pentameter?

For áfterwàrds what ís there bút the súrge
Of wínd through trées, the lánguor òf the áutumn
Hard ráin upón the stréets, a hábitàt
Of mélanchóly, dàrk líghts on wáter —

Yes, but one of the stresses is always minor, a common practice of couplet writers, but here used to create a stress metre, four beats to the line:

For afterwards what is there but the surge
Of wind through trees, the languor of the autumn
Hard rain upon the streets, a habitat
Of melancholy, dark lights on water —
All to be denied, put aside
As with a smile, like an old suit, a song
We knew the words of once, and shall forget
Completely, even that we knew them, you
And I, in the long days that must slowly, despite
All assurances and observances, fade from sight.

Or something like that. Strictly speaking, these are wavering rhythms, with many foot substitutions, that provide an elegiac note.

Second Draft

That falling, elegiac note is probably what we need to follow in rewriting:

And afterwards what is there but the harsh
Upbraidings of the wind, high trees, the surge
Like autumn languidly through streets, a sense
Of melancholy, of lights on water, all
Things to be denied, laid aside
And with a smile, like an old suit, a song
We knew the words of once, and shall forget
Completely, even that we knew them, you
And I in the long days following that pass
Unmarked as footsteps through the summer grass.

Once the rhythm is established, the poem largely writes itself: the completed piece is here

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

References

1. Léon-Paul Fargue. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%E9on-Paul_Fargue.

 

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