Monday, 7 December 2015

Omeros: Drama and Form

 If we agree that both phonetic immediacy and formal cohesion are both key elements of the poem in how it strikes the listener when read aloud, should technical devices such as rhyme and metre be conspicuous to the ear and be active components in oral meaning? Or should they be implicit in the speech-act of the performance, "ghosts behind the arras" which register on a largely subconscious level? Perhaps many poems hover between these two "zones of proximal development"(Vygotsky) - especially if we already have knowledge of them on the page - and thrive both as static texts drawing attention to their own artifice through particular lineation and as mutable voicings following the momentum of speech-rhythms we hear around us all the time.
  What about the even more liminal form of poetic drama, with its added variables of character, stage-craft and fictive setting? Cleanth Brooks suggests that “all poetry, even short lyrics or descriptive pieces, involve a dramatic organization. This is clear when we reflect that every poem implies a speaker of the poem, either the poet writing in his own person or someone into whose mouth the poem is put, and that the poem represents the reaction of such a person to a situation, a scene, or an idea. In this sense every poem can be–and in fact must be–regarded as a little drama.”
   I went to see Derek Walcott's own dramatisation of his long poem Omeros at the Globe recently, having not previously read this book-length epic. My experience was that I was so drawn into the vivid spectacle of watching the two actors elaborate the coastal St Lucia of Walcott's beautifully evocative, sensuously alive poem and its mock-Homeric narrative-thread that I didn't take too much conscious account of its form. The actors wove between different characters and used the small, almost bare stage to remarkable imaginative effect, the "little drama" of Achille, Philoctete and Helen quite spellbinding in its potent universality.
     Yet when I opened the volume a few days later I was astonished to discover the whole 300-page work is composed in much the same tight metre and rhyme-scheme, a version of terza rima used probably in reference to the form of Dante's great epic but without the tripartite interlocking quality (itself a nested microcosm of the three-part structure of the Divina Commedia). Instead, like the all too human projects of its characters and in spite of the three-line stanzas which promise more, the lines of Omeros fall short into double-rhymes (usually ababcdcdefef etc), ultimately allowing a greater fluency and fidelity to speech-rhythms than terza rima and carrying forward the narrative with the propulsion of its rapid echoings, the oral resonance of its linked sound-patterns.

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