Sing-Song in “Lament For The Makers”

Allen continues his observations on William Dunbar’s “Lament For The Makers– see also here)

AG: The other thing that I was digging in this poem (Dunbar’s “Lament For The Makers”) was..this is, I guess, the first that we’ve had of.. basically..iambic, right? – [Allen moves to the blackboard] – “No state in Erd here standis sicker” – basically, iambic (light and heavy symbols) – Is this iambic?…yes…I was picking it up as basically iambic (which is light-heavy, light-heavy, light-heavy, light-heavy) tetrameter (four beat line, four accents to the line). So this is the first time we’ve come onto the real big.. the big number in English lyric and ballad, which is the iambic tetrameter – totally four-square, you know, one hundred percent solid, the basic line. The only thing more basic that you could get is tending on more to conversational, or more heroic maybe, that is iambic pentameter (which is what Shakespeare used – he added one more foot) . So, we’ve got iambic tetrameter, and as we were saying the other day, when you’ve got a poem like this that has a very solidly-built structure (or, not solidly-built but let’s see.. ), that has a basic rhythmic structure that is built-in, that is solid, that is fundamental to the poem, there seem to be two ways of hearing it. One, you hear in the inner ear, the..what do you call it? jingle aspect to it, the metronomic or automatic, or.. what is it? – just the square way of hearing it – da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da..

Student: Sing-song

AG; Sing-song, (yes), sing-song, the sing-song way of hearing it. Then you also hear it the vernacular way as Pat (O’Brien) [his student] was pronouncing it. So there’s.. on one hand you’ve got the sing-song going on inside you and in the structure of the poem, (and) you also have the vernacular common-sense going on in your pronunciation of the poem and the tension between the two is kind of interesting, because, like, you’ve got this unheard music going along with the heard music, if you go and pronounce it aloud. And the tension..(ah, but, let’s see, tension is a word I don’t like, it’s over-used, but).. simultaneity? of the two, or the overlay of the two (one laid on top of the other), gives a funny kind of sound fullness in the inner ear. So you would hear a great and variable melody, or great variable rhythm, with its rhythm (great variable rhythm). So what I’d like to do is try and read that for the sing-song now, more or less (though my pronunciation of the words is probably not good enough to do it exactly, but this is one of the great sing-song poems, or could be one of the great sing-song poems, for the inner ear), and, since it’s the first example of iambic tetrameter that we’ve stumbled on, or that English poetry stumbled on, or this anthology stumbled on.
And this tetrameter gets.. is here very rough, because we don’t know the pronunciation too well and maybe it’s not exactly one-hundred-percent mechanical originally. But when we get further on, maybe another century or two, to Sir Thomas Wyatt, we’ll get perfect sing-song, almost identical with the vernacular pronunciation. Here it is like a big gap between the sing-song paradigm, sing-song basis and the pronounced-aloud talk basis. When you move up to Wyatt you get the verse so smoothed out, so refined, so sophisticated, it’s so slick, so be-boppy and so silvery, that the sing-song is like delicate to the ear, Anyone we can compare them with today maybe? – But.. I was going to try and read that, as more or less a sing-song

[Starting at approximately twenty-and-a-quarter minutes in, Allen attempts to read William Dunbar’s “Lament For The Makers” in its entirety (reading concludes at approximately twenty-seven-and-three-quarter minutes in)]

So it’s like really bounces along, sort of in the ear, and then, so, from that real strict bounce (then pronouncing aloud), from strict bounce to loose pronounce, you get a greater syncopation. Because the bounce is there in the pronunciation, built-in to the vernacular pronunciation of his day, but if you pronounce it a little looser, then you get what (Bob) Dylan gets when he varies the pronunciation or singing of his songs from performance to performance, according to whatever inflection or significance he wants to put on, what stress, or what word, or what accent, what syllable (he can vary it around) – he can vary it around – he can vary it around – he can vary it around. So, according to your vernacular intention, the day-by-day talk intention, you get two rhythms going at once, in a sense, or rhythm and sub-rhythms, you get back-beats, as well as the regular iambic meter march forward on the foot.

{Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately fifteen-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at aproximately twenty-nine-and-a-half minutes in]

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