In the Shape of a Hammock: Lyric, Flash, and Poetic Design

Elderflower Wave

  • Poetry occurs in both prose and verse. As does story, though nowadays the dominant fashion is for stories in prose, lyrics (expressing personal or private feelings) in verse. Flash fiction, though, is often both lyric and narrative.
      Here, for example, is a flash micro attributed (dubiously) to Hemingway:

      For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

      There’s no doubt this is a story. But its brevity makes it immediate for me. It cuts straight to the heart, which is a lyric effect.

      A hypothesis: brevity makes flash fiction live in the tension between story and lyric. I’d suggest that the longer the flash (or any other piece of literature), the more it inclines towards story. The shorter it is, the stronger the lyric element.

    Why not test this against your own examples?

  • We can distinguish prose from verse by the fact that in verse, the ends of the lines on the right-hand on the page are the responsibility of the writer. In prose, these ends are decided by the printer’s choice of type-face and point size. The prose writer’s line ends are not part of her composition: the verse writer’s are.
    I have thought about and struggled with this business of line endings in verse a lot. For me, the line ending is a kind of wild thing. Even in regular, metrical verse, where there are a prescribed number of syllables and strong/weak beats, and often a rhyme scheme, the wild element is present. By wild, I mean what is not contained by measure and syntax, but can be ‘tamed’ to the service of the poem.
    Through the composition/manipulation of the line, verse can achieve a subliminal level of meaning that plays against the syntactical form of the sentence. It’s as if syntax gives us (mainly) the conscious element, while the pattern of line endings gives us unconscious layers of association living below the surface.
  • About beginnings and endings. Words we place at either the beginning or end of a sentence make what they say more prominent. It’s as if the sentence were a hammock suspended between two points. At each end, the rope is held by a hook. Towards and away from the middle point, it sinks. You can create strong or subdued emphases by exploiting this shape, reinforced by the sounded, rhythmic dimension: you can create fanfares, uplift, a cliff edge, a creative void, a rich depression or build-up, a held breath by these means. I sometimes think of this as orchestrating the writing, giving implied instructions to the reader on how to read. This works because we are also drawing on a shared background of speech rhythms, natural punctuation by breath and by emotional expression. I’m going to focus here mostly on effects at the ends of verse lines.
  • Here’s an example of one of my own poems-in-progress with comments to illustrate some of the points above, and a few other things.
    Before you read the whole poem draft, you might like to consider, why I called my poem Here Always rather than Always Here. Is this even the right title anyway, or is my other current option – Flowering Elder, with its double reference to elder flowers and to the flowering of insight of the old man in the hammock, altogether better? What do you think?

    You might also, before reading my draft, like to try this experiment:
    Cover up all but line 1 with a blank sheet of paper. (You’ll get: From next door’s garden, elder flowers foam)
    b) NOW let yourself play with the question, Where does this line want to lead me? Any guess is a good guess, and if you have more than one, all the better. This shows you what imaginative/unconscious expectations the line as a unit provokes. You might like to write them down.
    c) Now reveal line 2 and follow the same procedure. Do this for each line in turn for as long as this is fun.
    d) Now read the whole poem, enriched by the associations you generated in the exercise.

    This poem started from my experience of lying in a hammock in the orchard of a weekend cottage we once had in a wild valley on the Welsh border. The only sounds were of birdsong, the wind, the occasional distant tractor. I didn’t know if the hammock was motionless, or gently swaying, and this gave me a sense of being outside time. It occurred to me I had had the same feeling near the beginning of my life, lying in a pram in the garden, not yet as a fully-defined person, but as a being that could still drift in and out of form, not yet limited by known roles and expectations. And now, as I grow old and let go of those roles, maybe I can have that shape-shifting ability again, and maybe that is how we move towards eternity. During isolation and lockdown recently, I have again lain in a hammock in my garden, and it is out of these thoughts and this more recent experience that the poem comes.
  • More about my title. By reversing the order of words, I give each of them more emphasis, a kind of resonance I think, in the reader’s mind. If you listen to the sounds, Always Here has a strong beat on Al- and a stronger one on Here, with -ways quietly sinking in the middle – aurally repeating the shape of me lying in a hammock.
    Here Always

    From next door’s garden, elder flowers foam
    over the wall. Against the blue, surges
    of cream are trying to impregnate
    our pink roses. At the heart of this,
    stillness – Zeno’s arrow/Hokusai’s version.

    An old man in a hammock, shifting
    with the breeze, I can’t tell
    if I’m in its sway, or way beyond
    motion. My field of vision shows
    no cloud drift marking time.
    It could be now or yesterday

    I was lying in my pram – quickening
    of finch and sparrow, shiver of rowan berries,
    me squeezing life in my fists, laughing, kicking off.
    Quiet now, I dissolve into sky.

    Here Always has two strong beats, but the stronger this time is on Al-. You might like to think, how does this affect the meaning of one title as opposed to the other? Ways at the end instead of the middle, to my ear, by being drawn out, drifts onwards without a firm limit. It thus anticipates the shape and significance of the whole poem.
    I’ll make a few comments on lines. The first line could break after flowers. By ending with foam I again want to give the sense of drifting out and expanding, like foam into the white space of the page. It’s a repeat of the effect of -ways in the title, and is the same as surges on the next line, to create that sense of flowing beyond limits, serving the overall main theme of the poem, and enacting, or mimicking, the fecund way the elder flowers escape the containment of the wall. Variants of this effect occur in many of the lines, via ending-words such as impregnate, shifting, beyond, quickening, kicking off. And in each case, I hope the sense of the word is heightened, an emphasis increased by the strong beats on im, shift, ond, quick, out, and the rush of syllables in quickening, and kicking off. Note also that whether or not there is a grammatical pause at the line ending, the word is almost always an important one in the statement: an action or a name.
    Finally, please look at the division of the poem into stanzas. In earlier drafts, there were three 5 line stanzas. I tend to like the archetypal effect of regular stanza lengths, like three movements, three acts, beginning middle and end. I’ve also tried two fives and a four – giving me a fourteen line poem, with a nod towards sonnet form (another archetypal form, by removing the current final line (I’m still mulling over whether to keep that last line. It now seems to me a creative move to separate It could be now or yesterday from the last stanza and move it to the end of stanza 2.  Maybe you can see – or feel – why: I want to capture that experience of the dissolution of the firm boundaries of time and identity. In its new position, the line both describes the experience of the old man in the hammock, and faces a gap of white space, then leaps over it to bring the reader into the yesterday of the old man’s early childhood, collapsing all the decades between then and now. This stanza ending illustrates perhaps more clearly than anything else what I’ve been trying to say about the use of line endings. It does the same work on a larger, more perceptible scale. Now the last stanza is in a different narrative time: I was lying in my pram. It’s as if the reader is transported into this other moment for three lines. The final line completes the action in both of the moments of the poem. Quiet now, I dissolve into sky, is what happens to the lively but unformed infant relaxing out of the immediate sensory impressions of quickenings and shiverings in the world and in its own body into becoming the sky. But it is also the report of the old man, part of his realisation of timeless being. And, as I mentioned, I might still prefer to end with the enrgy of the child kicking off into life.
    If you’ve followed me through this, you might like to take a piece of your own writing you’re currently working on – prose or verse –, and look at the endings of lines, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, stanzas, to see what possible increases in meaning and mimesis might be available to you by making small rearrangements in the order of words, or in punctuation, or in the relation of text to page. I hope this takes you deeper into the piece you are writing.

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