Syllabic Poetry – 1 (Herrick)

Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

AG: So in order to strike a “second heat/ upon the Muse’s anvil”, using Robert Herrick as a model, I want now to enter onto the whole subject, not of length of syllables in a line, but the count of syllables in the line (because that’s something we haven’t really gone over, except, I think I’ve refered to it with Marianne Moore). And (Robert) Herrick is real interesting on that, and real simple. Once you pick up the hang of what he’s doing, you realize that that’s another way of getting your lines to have a really interesting lilt and training your ear to have a constancy of rhythm. You get a funny constant rhythm with, even, or, a specific arrangement of the number of syllables in the line (known as count of syllables). Has anybody ever tried or practiced that at all? writing poems using syllable count as one of the major… [to Student] – You have? When?

Student: I had a teacher that was really interested in syllabics . She wanted us to…

AG: Syllabics, yes, syllabic verse. French is syllabic, I believe, basically. Yeah, French alexandrine, I many? eleven syllables?

Student: Fourteen.

AG: Fourteen? That’s the basis of, or was the basis of, most French verse, and here you’ve got, I think, one of the first times.. With (Robert) Herrick, you’ve got someome who’s totally conscious of syllables and introduces the notion of syllable count as one of the basics in his organizations of the poems. And it’s something you can do for free verse as well as rhymed verse, and it’s something you can do for crazy jagged stanzas as well as even column stanzas (short or thick or thicker or thickest, at the end of the page). And it’s something that you can develop an ear for real easy. It’s something… like you read about ten poems with syllabic count and you count the syllables, do the work of counting the syllables and writing the number of syllables at the end of each line and then repeating it once over, and forever after your nervous system is, slightly altered and you’ve got it in you. It’s about as fast as taking an aspirin (in other words, it’s not hard, it just requires, well, as fast as waiting for an aspirin to act – twenty minutes). But you can absorb syllable count into your nervous system very rapidly, it’s a real easy thing, just that you have to notice it once, clearly, and then it’s always there as a possibility when you don’t know quite what you’re going to do, or how to do it, or what to do with a piece of mess, or you’ve got a piece of writing (that you) don’t know what to do with, it’s there, but it doesn’t look right, it’s all slobbish-looking, you can always .refer to the syllables as one way of organizing, re-organizing it.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately twenty-nine minutes in and concluding at approximately thirty-two minutes in]

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