Layers: Poetry and my breakfast by Barbara Milne, ex-go higher student and current tutor

Go Higher literature students are sometimes asked to carry out a close reading of a text. One of the most frequently voiced questions, when this happens, is ‘How can I get xyz or even wxyz number of words out of a single line of written language? One way (inspired by my breakfast) would be…

Autumn: the season, the title of the Man Booker Prize 2017 shortlisted novel by Ali Smith, and a poem by the 18C poet John Clare.

As I was getting my breakfast ready this morning, I was reminded of John Clare’s poem. So, what’s the connection? Layers. Just as the ‘light and flaky’ description of a croissant evokes a feeling of a wafer-like structure, Autumn, the poem, is feathered with the raising agent of punctuation.

Pauses, non-pauses and end stops, plateau and plunge through the stanzas. To appreciate the varying pulses, it’s an idea to read this poem out loud. As there’s not enough space to look at the whole of the work, I’ll give you an idea where I’m coming from.

I’ll concentrate on the first two lines of the first stanza. ‘The thistledown’s flying, though the winds are all still,’ (line one). Six beats, or syllables, in the first half of the line, then a comma-induced pause, followed by another six syllables, followed by another comma. Each ‘set’ of six syllables is balanced by the pivotal inclusion of the central comma. On either side of this poetic seesaw, there’s a sense of indirect opposition: motion ‘flying’, countered by the definiteness of ‘the winds are all still,’. An uneasy balance, a sense of a suspension of natural movement, a feeling of challenge.

This concept of being challenged follows though into line two, ‘On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill,’. Here, the balance of the preceding line is tested. There are seven syllables, comma, five syllables. Still a total of twelve beats, the earlier, even allotment of beats has been disturbed. This disruption, I would argue, is caused by the use of punctuation.

By William Hilton (1820). Wikicommons

The first five syllables, buffered by a comma, at the beginning of line two, constitute a definite one-count syllable stream: ‘On’, ‘the’, ‘green’, ‘grass’, and ‘now’, all single beats. Bringing up the rear, though, through this carriage of sound, is a double beat of non-movement, the word ‘lying’. There’s an impetus of wanting to speed up your voice (please try it) when you say this word, in this context- it’s short, two-syllabled and sharp. The insertion of the comma, almost as soon as you’ve got into your vocal stride, pulls you up, you have to pause.

This comma creates a kind of sandwich, separating as it does two instances of the word ‘now’, rooting us in the present. Here we have an imagined binary. Can there be two nows? Additionally, are we thinking here of the now of when the poem was written, or, published, or do we apply now to now?

This bisecting comma is proving to be troublesome. For ‘troublesome’ I read interesting. Five syllables remain, making their way towards another layering of sound, a comma, and to the line break. Where the first part of this line started with five single beats, followed by the double beat of ‘lying’, the second part is softly voiced, ‘now mounting the hill,’ and enclosed within a capsule of commas, a layer within a layer.

I’m running out of time… I hope that my attempt at close reading might encourage current and future Go Highers, to have a go…

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