Saturday, April 5, 2008

Between words

Read poetry aloud ... that's the general cry. Because it's in the phonetics. So much doesn't properly live when the words stay on the page. Look at the gaps between words, and how the pace of a line can be slowed or its flow interrupted by the choice of consonants that bracket those white space characters. Listen to this line from Yeats:

In this blind bitter land

'blind' and 'bitter' slow us down; it is not so easy to end one word with 'nd' and start the next with 'b'. The mouth has to take it carefully; put 'bitter blind land' and the line is utterly changed.

Tennyson provides well known examples such as:

On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Of course the alliteration of 'b's plays its part, and of course the monosyllables, but the broken flow caused by bald + street and then street + breaks and finally blank + day is a significant element of the technique. And again of course there's

Break, break, break

which echoes Milton's

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon.

Of course there are other ways to slow a line down, putting long quantities on metrically unstressed syllables ("what dark days seen"), or using monosyllabic words:

Times past, what once I was, and what am now.

But the selection of consonants that end one word and commence the next is a more flexible instrument. Think of Bunting and his repetitions of the same consonant: 'sweet tenor' ... you have to pause if you are to say each word clearly and correctly. In the following excerpt each line contains one such pair of repeated sounds across a word-gap:

Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave's slot

'Painful lark', 'solemn mallet', & 'grave's slot' ... the repeated consonant serves as a mini caesura to help mark each line.

I can't finish without an example from one of the greatest technical show-offs, Alexander Pope; in one line he includes rs+r, f+v, s+sh, d+l, and k+th, almost now two consecutive words can be said smoothy:

The hoarse, rough verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.

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