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“Rhythmically Formed”: Creative Poetics in the Manuscripts of some Early Twentieth-Century British Poets

Wim Van Mierlo, School of Advanced Studies, University of London

The process that leads to poetic creation has since Shelley's Defence of Poetry been divided into two distinct stages: inspiration and craft. What is the place in this distinction of form? And of such formal procedures as rhythm and prosody?
    In my view, it cannot be that form is simply a secondary matter in poetic creation; after all, Renaissance poets seemed to think in iambic pentameter. Robert Graves, who has defined the difference between inspiration and craft most acutely in the twentieth century, agrees that at least certain aspects of form are more than craft alone when he locates the emergence of rhythm in the first stage of poetic creation.  Creation happens during the supra-logical reconciliation of conflicting emotional ideas, but interestingly the unconscious workings of emotion that produce poetry-in-the-rough is rhythmically formed in the mind of the poem.  Everything else is technically unformedthe phrasing [is] eccentric, the texture clumsy, the syntax rudimentary, the thought-connections ruled by free-associationand must be subject to revision and refining during the secondary phase of composition using common-place principles.
    Graves's statement, of course, is a statement about poetic practice, not that practice itself.  While creation is largely something that happens in the mind, one can find the traces of the creative process in any surviving drafts and manuscripts.   It is against the manuscripts of a select number of poemsprimarily by W.B. Yeats, with some brief allusions to the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Graves himselfthat I want compare these statements.   My aim in this paper is not to draw generalizations about the rhythmical inculcation during the composition process, but to look at a few samples to see how the rhythmical and prosodic practices of individual poets emerge during composition.
    What one can readily observe is that even the roughest draft of a poem is rhythmically formedat least to a degree.  No poem comes into being that does not have a sense of rhythm, and in that respect Graves was right.  (In Sailing to Byzantium, for example, the rhythm of lines that are metrically regular echo through the draft stages, even in some early segments whose imagery and themes proved to be an unfruitful starting point.)  Yet rhythm changes during composition, as it is refined and adapted, but also as the poet discovers the functionality of the rhythm and varies it to good effect.  In that respect Graves, perhaps, was not right.  The composition methods of Yeats, Owen and others (essentially of all poets who compose on paper rather than in the head) reveal that writing is very much exploratory: it is a process of discovery as much as it is a process of realizing intention or inspiration.  To reverse a common-place, writing a poem is not an attempt to recreate the ideal poem first apprehended in a vision (the so-called flash of inspiration), but to create something coherent out of a series inchoate, fragmentary elements.  When the poet begins to write, he does not yet knowhe cannot foreseewhat the final poem will look like. He achieves that final poem one step at the time.  As to rhythm, this is demonstrated in the trajectory that the metre follows in composition: the rhythm from a line in an early draft of Sailing to Byzantium (All in this landmy maker at his play) establishes the base pentametric pattern that supports the poem (compare with the line The salmon-falls, the mackerel crowded seas), but during composition the metre increasingly becomes more daring, agitated (Helen Vendler's description).
    Form (in general) and rhythm (in particular) thus do not merely belong to the domain of craft, but to the domain of invention proper. When I read poetry, T.S. Eliot said, I put myself in a kind of trance and move in rhythm to rhythm of the piece in question.  Yeats is famously known for canting his poem into existence, and as his drafts show, as well as those of Wilfred Owen, the poet is trying to move to a rhythm while he is writing, a rhythm intuitively felt and expressed.  In this paper, therefore, I will aim to demonstrate what important role rhythm plays the creation and shaping of a poem ab initio.
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