Friday, 8 July 2011

Poet's Corner: Ubi Sunt

The phrase ubi sunt means "where are" and is used to describe a type of poetry that evokes a sense of nostalgia but also transience and fleeting nature of life. There are some very good examples of this in early poetry, especially in Anglo-Saxon* and Medieval literature. Some of these poems have made their way into other works; for instance, the line où sont les neiges d'antan! makes its way into The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Go to the wikipedia article for more information on this.

Last week I was in the process of moving houses. When you finally close the door of a house, having left your key behind, there is a strange eeriness. I think it's those sort of moments that ubi sunt poems capture.

Aberdeen Road

Where have the faces gone, between the walls?
Where are scolding mothers and teasing brothers,
the kettle hissing, the couple kissing?
Where are builders who put your bricks in place,
Where are the feet that first trod your creaking stairs?
Where are the men that went to war?
Where are the women that waited at the door
for news from the fields of France?
Where are the tears of infancy, of trips and bruises,
of loves lost and dreams fulfilled?
Where are the slumberers, the wakers,
the gorgers grabbing at the salt shakers?
Where is the man, who gave a last parting look,
closed the door, and as the lock clicked, sighed goodbye?

Give it a go yourself! Write your own ubi sunt poem.

*I wrote my own translations of some of them for a piece of university coursework. If you're interested, I'll see if I can fish them out.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Poet's Corner: the Villanelle

The villanelle is a seldom-used poetic form, and one that I really love. It's really rigid and somewhat constricting, even more so than the likes of the sonnet or even, perhaps, haiku. It is really hard to get right, as well, as it could end up being really repetitive and boring as the first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated throughout. It also has only two rhyming sounds. If done effectively it can create a rhythmic poem that rises to a climax in the rhyming couplet at the end. If done badly, it's, well, bad.

The form goes like this

Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 2 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 4 (a)
Line 5 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)

Line 7 (a)
Line 8 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

[etc. until...]

Line 16 (a)
Line 17 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Refrain 2 (A2)

One of the best examples is Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas. It is a poem about his dying father, and Thomas' reaction to it. The repetition creates a really passionate plea to his father to not accept death easily.

I thought I'd give it a go myself. I really like the theme of wanderlust, and I thought that this poetic form would give a sense of the relentless yearning to travel.

The wind, it rattles on my door,
In the depths a soulless night,
Calling me to some distant shore.

It comes howling over marsh and moor,
Sweeping like a flock in flight;
The wind, it rattles on my door.

The groans rise in a sudden roar,
As a beast in wild delight,
Calling me to some distant shore.

Day breaks but it cannot restore
The stillness with its timid light;
The wind, it rattles on my door.

Swelling as a symphonic score,
Peaking at its passion's height,
Calling me to some distant shore.

But I, a prisoner in this dull war,
Must stay to forever yearn despite
The wind: it rattles on my door,
Calling me to some distant shore.

I'll end with a rather humorous villanelle that mocks its restrictive form at the Cat and Girl comic: Sandwiches Cheap

Perhaps give it a go yourself and put a link in the comments below.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Wuthering Heights

Title page of original edition of Wuthering He...Image via Wikipedia

I began to read Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, in the hope it would live up to the Kate Bush song. Unfortunately it didn't. I suppose Kate Bush is hard to live up to and the book wasn't entirely bad.

Wuthering Heights is about a vindictive lover, Heathcliff, that mourns relentlessly over Catherine Earnshaw. Heathcliff is a typical "Byronic hero", brooding and tortured by his own passions. After a lot of illness, swooning, sobbing and negligence on the part of Nelly Dean, the story comes to a rather satisfying end.

So what I liked:
  • The frame narrative: Wuthering Heights is set in a remote location on the Yorkshire Moors. The frame narrative is quite deep: Lockwood, our somewhat irritating narrator, is retelling a story as told to him by the surprisingly articulate housemaid, Nelly Dean. This distances the reader from the narrative, giving us a sense of this remote story that unfolds.
  • The ending: the ending really redeems the book. It saves two of the main characters from being petulant idiots and gives a sense of hope at the end of this cycle of misery.
What I didn't like:
  • How melodramatic it was. The blurb says it's "one of the most passionate and heartfelt novels ever written." I read "one of the most over-the-top and sappy novels ever written." The people swoon, have an attack of the spleen or get ill too easily.
  • The characters: they're all irritating to some degree. Nelly Dean is opinionated; Heathcliff, heartless; and Lockwood and Linton need to grow a spine.
  • Its repetitiveness: they fall in love, it doesn't work out, someone becomes a raging alcoholic, someone gets ill, they fall in love, it doesn't work out, raging alcoholic, get ill, fall in love...oh, it works out this time. It just seems like the same plot over and over again. Except the end that does do a bit of a switch and bait.

I'm glad I read it. The imagery is and descriptive writing is powerful, and Bronte uses some nice literary devices (e.g. the frame narrative).