We tend to think narrowly about poetry. Open most anthologies of English poetry and you’ll find a ubiquitous feature – it rhymes. Specifically, it rhymes at the end of each line and in consecutive or alternating patterns (ie. AABB or ABAB.) You could also rhyme within the line, or rhyme the end of the line with the beginning of the next line, both of which I’ve seen done. But those don’t make it into the anthologies.
That is far from the only way to do poetry. You may have heard the simplified accounts of far-Eastern poetry being about syllable counts (eg. Haikus) and Hebrew poetry being about “rhyming ideas/images.” And you can do even more. Classical Greek and Latin poets seem to love their meter.
And, long ago, poets of old Germanic tongues mastered alliteration! I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with alliterative poetry, reading the Alliterative Morte Arthure and some of Tolkien’s modernizations of Middle English poetry. I’ve been trying to teach myself to write in this ancient English form and I figured I’d share one of my earliest attempts (I hope one of the first of many).
I’ll add a couple comments at the end, but first just one quick note. When reading conventional rhyming poetry, you anticipate the rhyme at the end of the line. So how does alliterative poetry work? What do we expect? What gives it its form? It’s quite simple.
You got two half-lines we call hemistichs (like Hemisphere and Stick). The first hemistich has two alliterating stressed syllables. They can be at the beginning, middle, or end of a word but they gotta be stressed. The second hemistich (separated by a little space called a caesura) gives you one more alliterating syllable to round it off. Once you know what to look for, it gives each line a nice sense of resolution. Like with rhyming poetry, the poet can then subvert those expectations for varying effects. So here’s what that looks like in action.
The Wool-Ward – by Aaron Wilkinson
He who all holds in His hand is my herdsman.
I grasp not for gold, my gullet to bloat with,
My needs are nothing, I am never without.
I’ll want for no wealth, never wish for more.
By freely flowing waters refreshing,
And bath-worthy brooks, bending rivers,
Clear courses bright, falling through fields,
There I am found, reclined by the banks.
I graze on green grasses, enough on the ground,
In the Wool-Ward’s shade through warmth of noon.
When my throat hisses for thirst and hunger,
He finds where to feed refreshing me fully.
When days grow dark as though dawn was never
And hot sun is hid by high mount peaks,
Down in the dark dale, death’s dismal den,
I follow and fare well knowing no fright.
My courage’s cause is only your closeness.
I am rallied and righted by your crook and rood.
In faces of foes you fill up my table.
The froth of the mead falls from my mug.
Fate has me followed by favour and faith
All this loaned life in the length of days.
The hall of the Holy I will call home
And sit with the saints in the seats of that hall.
A few end notes. Many will recognize this as the 23rd Psalm. Most of my experiments in alliterative poetry have been with biblical poems so far. It presents a series of interesting challenges and opportunities. What I’m trying to do is take a Hebrew text replete with Hebrew images and ideas and then describe it with language and images from the medieval English tradition. I’m not yet sure if the result is a funky fusion or a disharmonious mess.
In either case, what I think a new (or rather ‘forgotten’) genre of poetry allows us to do is innovate. Some of those innovations will be victories, others disasters.
A major occasion for such innovations is within the restrictions of the genre. You can’t just state something directly if the words don’t alliterate. I can’t use words like “Shepherd” or “Lord” if it doesn’t fit the context. So I have to invent new ways of describing things, sometimes speaking around or circumlocuting the subject of the line. This can give us all sorts of fun results like “Wool-Ward,” which is my favourite part of this little experiment.
And as a side note for those already in love with medieval English poetry, I do want to admit that I directly imported some language just for fun. Rood (a word related to “rod”) recalls The Dream of the Rood, the mead hall is a common setting especially in Beowulf, etc.
Kay, now go write your own. If you wanna get a better feel for this love-lorn genre, read Tolkien’s modernization of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.