I captured this impromptu photograph whilst out among the hills, late yesterday afternoon, and shared it with a friend. “It complements your art,” he said. The inverse, however, is true: my art seeks to complement it—indeed, the Overberg1 inspires the Theme (Wonder), Subject (Natural Beauty) and Style (Simple Lyric Poetry) of my work. Here, every resource must be husbanded, and the minimalism of the landscape is the result of drudgery. Both shape my attitude to words when I extol this region in verse.
A rural region of the Western Cape province of South Africa.
A few days ago, I was ready to abandon the alternating refrain approach of the “Autumn” poem’s 2012 draft—where every second stanza is a couplet with the same starting phrase and internal and end rhyme—in favour of regular end-rhyming couplets.
My chief criticism of the refrains was that they felt, at times, contrived—forced and engineered—not so much contributing to as stunting the unfolding of the poem, wherefore I experimented with the regular couplet format as a more natural—spontaneous and fluent—alternative.
Yesterday, I decided to keep the refrains. In the original version, they emerged from the cadence of the stanzas—dum-di dum-di dum-dum, dum-di dum-di dum repeated in two successive lines—which I sought to emphasise with recurring starting phrases and internal and end rhyme.
At the time, it was perhaps an indulgence—“Autumn” was my first lyric poem—now, I embrace it fully. Already, it demands all my poetic ingenuity to make it work, but I am hopeful that I shall overcome the challenges and achieve an elegant outcome.
I compose lyric poetry in the traditional style with verses presented in conventional stanzas, sets of lines neatly aligned to the left. This has served me well, thus far, as my poems are simple creations, but “Autumn”, which I am currently revising, is an outlier. The third and fourth lines of each of its quatrains are refrains. Reading the poem anew, they seemed to me lost in the verses. It was, in my view, necessary to split the stanzas into couplets to separate the refrains and so make their purpose clear.
I had another concern. In the refrain couplets, there is strong internal rhyme; having these rhyming words in the midst of the lines, I thought, was unfortunate—ideally, the rhyming words should be accentuated—and so I split the lines of each refrain couplet at their rhyming words, thereby turning the couplets into quatrains with shorter lines. The result was an alternating pattern of a couplet followed by a quatrain—pragmatic but visually jarring. I solved this by also splitting the non-refrain couplets.
Only, now I had a formidable column of stanzas uninviting to the reader’s eye; moreover, splitting the lines interrupted their flow in many instances in the non-refrain stanzas1. To solve the former, I staggered the stanzas, indenting the refrains (every second quatrain); but this only made things worse. The poem had become a precarious stack of stanzas one dared not recite lest one’s voice collapses it all—what is more, it was ugly. As for the latter, I saw no solution. I had to reconsider my approach.
I did so by deciding what was important, namely accentuating the refrains and maintaining the fluidity of the lines in a visually consistent and elegant design. This translated into eight couplets with the original line lengths and staggered (indented) refrains—an aesthetically pleasing arrangement in which form follows function. Though the layout is an anomaly—“Autumn” is the first and, thus far, only composition formatted in this way—it is a fitting distinction perhaps for the poem that started it all2.
The shorter lines also had an overly enlivening effect at odds with the musing tone of the poem, which seemed to require longer lines.