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July 25, 2010 / johnoliversimon

11-syllable lines: La Selva

Here’s a brief poem I wrote to my granddaughter Tesla Rose Simon Moyer, on the occasion of her arrival in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica.

TESLA ROSE 26¾ MONTHS: LA SELVA

You’ve scrambled down to the jungle of the world
where every creature has a different language.
Capuchin monkeys start talking at sunrise
and Howlers weirdly yowl all night in your sleep.
Clever serpents slither through the weeds at dawn.
All noon-time insects chatter talk radio.
You’re naked as if God never set up Eden.

5/23/10 (2) N219.93-95
rev. 5/29/10 N219.110-111
typed 5/30/10

Code at the bottom: the poem was written in two drafts on May 23, 2010, on pages 93-95 on my 219th blue notebook, a string of National Brand Chemistry Notebooks (43-571) dating back to 1973. It was then revised on May 29, on pages 110-111 of the same notebook. Finally, it was typed May 30. This poem, then, is a fourth draft.

This is the 90th poem (by a count already obselete but not yet superseded) of 103 I have written to Tesla Rose in the 28+ months since her birth. In all of them, she is addressed as “you.” All of them, after some initial stutter that works anyway, are written in eleven-syllable lines. That’s my assignment for now, at least I fugure till she starts making up her own. She’s getting close.

I’ve translated contemporary Latin American poetry from Spanish for nearly thirty years and have developed a fondness for the endecasílabo. The flexible line of eleven syllables does in Spanish what blank verse — iambic pentameter — does in English. The greatest Mexican poem, Piedra de sol by Octavio Paz, is written in 584 supple endecasílabo lines, the whole one unfinished sentence whose end is its beginning, river of a serpent’s tail flowing into its own mouth.

As the estimado Sandro Cohen (New Jersey/Mexico, 1953) reminds me, I don’t know the rules of the endecasílabo in Spanish. There are perhaps seven permissible variants of the line, and my querido hermano Jorge Luján (Argentina/Mexico, 1943) can reciote them to me chapter and verse, but I can’t hear them. Nor, as dear Annie Finch reminds me, do I know the metrical rules of the hendecasyllabic in English.

But I’ve been writing poetry for going on 54 years, I’ve written over a hundred of these elevenses, and I have been listening. I read the poems out loud to myself between and among all those drafts, endlessly tinkering, The syllable limit gives me rules for creative revision. For instance, if I decided I didn’t like the verb “scrambled” in the first line I would look for another two-syllable verb.

You’ve scrambled down to the jungle of the world

First line:  clear syntactical units 4-4-3 or 4-7 syllables. Rough pentameter (5 beats). O and U sounds that that weird long flat A of “scrambled.” Mildly end-stopped.

where every creature has a different language.

Second line: 5-6. Classic iambic pentameter/ feminine ending. E and A sounds. Full stop.

Capuchin monkeys start talking at sunrise

Line 3: again 5-6, but completely different trochaic > dactylic tetrameter (4 beats) rhythm, impelled by the C alliteration “capuchin” with “creature” in line 2. A lot of A sounds on accented syllables. Mildly end-stopped.

and Howlers weirdly yowl all night in your sleep.

Line 4: I hear this one as 6-5, and pentameter. One of the virtues of a syllable line is that you can stick units anywhere. The onomatopoeic verb “yowl” (obviously rhyming with “Howl”) can particularly go anywhere. It could go at the end of the line, as in Latin. The OW sounds dominate. End-stopped.

Clever serpents slither through the weeds at dawn.

Line 5: going down from trees to grass, as diurnal time keeps rotating. Again 6-5, quite parallel to the last one, but with a trochaic meter in the 6 resolving to iambic in the 5. Hexameter (6 beats)! SS’s, obviously. End-stopped.

All noon-time insects chatter talk radio.

Line 6: well, honestly, they do. Have you ever heard insects in the jungle? Or maybe baseball broadcasters doing play-by-play. 5-6, ar maybe 7-4. Onomatopoeic again. Pentameter. End-stopped.

You’re naked as if God never set up Eden.

Last line: 6-5, or maybe even 3-8. Pentameter. A and E. Full stop.

When Tesla Rose’s mommy read her that poem in Costa Rica, she paid complete silent attention and then queried the last line. “Eden?” She has a friend named Eden who lives across the street in Oakland. And of course that’s the punch-line: Eden was a set-up.

La Selva is not exactly a good sample being so short: all the lines are more-or-less end-stopped. In slightly longer pieces, I’m not afraid to break a line on a “but” or “to.” One parameter, however, is never to break up a word. Clearly, I’m writing in dominant pentameter, with brief modulations into tetrameter and hexameter.

So there you have it. The 11-syllable line: La Selva.

Tesla Rose and Grandpa on the beach at Puerto Viejo

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