Random Poetry 3 – The Listeners

The Listeners

Walter de la Mare

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head: –
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Text via Public Domain Poetry

Another early favorite of mine. I don’t remember when I read it the first time, but I had to memorize it in 9th grade, and I’ve always loved it. de la Mare is a good example of a modern romantic, and much of his poetry is similar to this one. He deals extensively with mortality, the imagination, and supernatural mysteries.

The thing that stands out most to me in this poem is de la Mare’s use of silence and moonlight to create an almost Gothic atmosphere. And I’ve always wondered about the promise. Are the Listeners family members? Old war comrades? Or is something deep and dark going on here? The text provides no answer; we have to decide for ourselves, and that only makes this poem better.

I’ve added a couple of elements this week to make this series more useful to those of you either study poetry or are on the hunt for good stuff. The byline now links to an author biography so you can find more info about the featured poets’ lives. The credit at the bottom links to Public Domain Poetry’s author index so you can find more works by the same person.

Stop by next week for another random poem, and feel free to share your thoughts about this one on the thread.


A to Z Day 11: Kenning

“K” was a difficult day to find a writing-related word for. “Kenning” is just fun to say, so that’s what I went with.

A kenning is a very concentrated metaphor. It consists of a descriptive compound noun, with or without hyphen, used in place of a Kcommon noun. The best examples come from Icelandic, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon epics, and from contemporary poetry.

Perhaps the most well-known kennings are the use of “Swan-road” and “Whale-road” as metaphors for the sea in Beowulf. This not only livens up the poetry; it tells us something about how the culture which produced that poem views the sea – it’s a means of travel, and an avenue of expansion and exploration. Not all cultures view the sea that way. For example, in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, an ancient Indian book on statecraft, the author clearly views the sea as a boundary rather than a medium of travel (I can’t find that text online to pull the quote, and do not own it; but that view of the ocean is present in the text).

I’m not willing to call the Beowulf kennings the ur-examples, though. You can also find them in modern translations if the Iliad (“horse-tamers” and “shield-breakers” spring immediately to mind; but I’m not up enough on how the Greek texts work to know whether Homer used kennings, or whether this is just an artifact of the English translations).

Here’s a definition from poetryarchive.org, with links to a few modern poems that use kennings.

Here are a pair of childrens’ poems by Andrew Fusek Peters (Dad) and Polly Peters (Mum) which are constructed entirely of kennings. The links include audio files of Andrew F. Peters reading both.

A to Z Badge by Jeremy of Being Retro

A to Z Day 9: Images

I had the good fortune of taking a poetry writing workshop with Dr. David C. Berry in the fall of 1992. During the first meeting of that course, he laid out the first stanza of Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” on the chalkboard like so:

Nibblin’ on sponge cake

Watching the sun bake

Click for A-Z blog list

Click for A-Z blog list

All of those tourists covered with oil,

Strumming my six-string 

on my front porch swing,

Smell those shrimp, they’re beginning to boil . . .

Then he explained that the reason “Margaritaville” is fun, and memorable, and popular, is because the stanzas contain an image in every line (and even the chorus has that “lost shaker of salt”). I’ve put the images in bold; he underlined them.

He told us we needed to do only 3 things to get an A in his workshop:

  1. Turn in a poem per week;
  2. Give the other poets in the course civil and constructive comments on their work; and
  3. Include an image in every line until he told us we could break that rule.

I followed the rules because I wanted the A, and I wanted to improve my writing. Sixteen weeks later, the poems I was producing were more mature, more sophisticated, and above all (judging from the feedback) more readable.

If your goal is to give your readers an experience – to transport them, to engage their emotions – give them things to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.

I am not saying you should use this like a formula for everything you write; but I am saying that if you spend one day a week for a few months focusing specifically on improving the use of sensory images in your work, your writing is sure to improve.

If you already know this trick and see it as basic stuff, I do hope you are sharing it with less-experienced writers.  🙂

(Note – I posted an earlier draft of this 10 days after I started this blog, so almost no one saw it. I think it’s one of the best posts I’ve ever written, and I don’t think I can do any better with the significance of images. The basic principle applies to every form of creative writing. It’s the best single piece of writing advice anyone has ever given me. This one thing took me from novice to journeyman in 16 weeks, and Dr. Berry was one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had the privilege of studying with. He cared.)

Credits: A to Z Badge by Jeremy of Being Retro.  Tyler Knott Gregson poem pinned by Part Time Monster, via FrouFrouFashionista.tumblr.