Don’t run away: it’s metrics!

So here you have it, my heart,
shut up with a key so tightly.
Now open it up and come in
for you will fit in and you only.

I’m sending my heart to you
with the key to open it up;
There’s nothing more I can give
And you can ask for no more.

These two little verses come from the Cancioneiro Popular Galego collected by Álvaro de las Casas and published in Chile in 1939. The edition I am using has an excellent introduction by Armando Requeixo (Santiago de Compostela: Libros de Frouma, 2005).

I am going to run the risk of being a bore by talking metrics. Metrics is not everyone’s favourite subject and a good deal of contemporary poetry has so far done away with traditional structures and forms that it could seem an entirely unnecessary discipline. However, I am enthusiastic because I was given a great little book by Antonio Quilis, Métrica Española (Barcelona: Planeta, 1984) last Christmas. I had already spent a morning with a battered old paperback in Avilés library and was delighted to have my own copy.

“This will make a difference,” I said to myself.

Truth be told, the book has been sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to do something with it. Reading it is all very well, but metrics doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless you put them to work. Let’s see if we can examine these two verses.

From the start we have to follow Quilis in getting our terminology right. He defines the line as a verse and the verse as a strophe. This is a little confusing for English-speakers, but let’s follow him in this. He says that “a verse on its own is not really anything, not even a poetic line: it is a sentence or statement of any kind. For a verse to really be considered as such, it has to be joined to other verses, forming a part of a whole greater than each separately, which we call a strophe.”

I chose these two strophes because, although they are part of a longer poem, they stand by themselves. First of all we should look at the accentuation of the lines:

-     ^      ^     –     –   –  ^
Aquí está meu corazón
^       –     –  ^  –   –        ^ -
ben pechadiño con chave,
^    –    ^        ^ – –      ^    -
ábreo xa e métete dentro
–    ^  – ^ –    –     ^   -
que tí soíña ben cabes.

As Quilis says, Spanish words can only have one accented syllable. Depending on where that accent lies, a word may be defined as oxitonic- with the stress on the last syllable, like corazón here- or paroxitonic- with the stress on the penultimate syllable, like chave, dentro and cabes here.  Oxitonic and paroxitonic words make up 97% of all Spanish words according to Quilis so it is nice that we have an example of esdrújula or proparoxitonic here in “métete”:  accent on the pen-penultimate syllable.

In Spanish verse an oxitonic line like the first one here, where the last word in the line ends in an oxitonic word, counts an extra syllable. This is not an arbitrary rule but a function of the rhythmic sense on the ear because paroxitonic words make up 79% of all Spanish words and, therefore, an oxitonic word at the end of the line has a special force. This also means that the lines in this strophe are all eight syllables. Notice that “está” in the first line loses its first syllable by ellision, and “e” in the third line is subsumed into “xa”.

I am used to scanning English verse into feet. As James Fenton observes the iambic pentameter, with its ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum rhythm, is the flexible standard of English versification. The ti-tum is a iamb. Quilis observes that this doesn’t work in Spanish:
in our metrics the fundamental unit of the verse line is the syllable, and not the foot, but the Latin classification has been adopted, substituting the opposition of long/short for tonic/atonic.
There are two other words in this Latin classification we need to know here: trochee (tum-ti) and spondee (tum-tum).

Let’s have a look at these lines and see if we can scan them using this system.

Aquí está: you could read that as ti-tum ti-tum, reinstating the syllable I cut out before. It depends on who you are listening to. Fenton says that spondees are unusual in normal language, that normally one syllable logically assumes more weight than the other. In Galicia, however, there is a tendency to reduce “está” to just “sta”. If you want to pay the bill, your friend might say, “Ya sta.” It is assertive and direct. It is a spondee. In this case I think we can do the same.

“Here it is, my little heart” in English would reflect something of the rhythm of the Spanish words, little replacing those two unstressed syllables in corazón:
Aquí está meu corazón                ti tum tum / ti ti ti tum
ben pechadiño con chave            tum ti ti tum ti // ti tum ti
ábreo xa e métete dentro            tum ti tum / tum ti ti tum ti
que tí soíña ben cabes                  ti tum ti tum ti // ti tum ti

That is my more informal Fenton-esque analysis. Here it is following Quilis:

Verse 1              _ _´ _´ // _ _ _ _´
Verse 2             _´ _ _ _´ _ / _ _´ _
Verse 3             _´ _ _´ // _´ _ _ _´ _
Verse 4            _ _´ _ _’ _ / _ _´ _

From this schematic representation of the rhythms of the language you can see a kind of structure, which is reinforced by the rhyme of “chave” and “cabes”. Here you need to know that “v” is almost indistinguishable from “b” in Spanish pronunciation: chA- bay. cA- bay; a true rhyme. You can also see the assonance in line one and line three on the third syllable: ábreo xa- open it now- is also a command and therefore echoes the direct assertiveness of “aquí está”.

I have placed the markers // where it seems to me there is a natural break in the line. Of course you can put pauses into spoken language and exaggerated pausing will destroy the natural sense of the phrasing and make you sound pompous. You can work out where the natural pauses are by lengthening them to the point where they sound absurd: this means they are genuine pauses. If you put a pause in and it ruins the sense it is not a natural pause. You can say: with the key/ to open it up; with the/ key to open it up, would be ridiculous.

You can see that the verbal architecture is reinforced by these natural breaks, so that lines two and three end // ti tum ti. Notice how “pechadiño” and “soíña” in the second and fourth lines also echo, slowing the lines down to a warble. Lines one and three hurry along; lines two and four are gentle and slow. This follows the sense. The strophe starts with the lover saying, “Here it is: my heart”. It is a romantic outburst. When he says “open it now and get inside” that esdrújula we noticed before really does its work making the line stutter along with impatient urgency.

The second strophe was used by Rosalía de Castro in her Cantares Gallegos:

O meu corasón che mando                         I send you my heart
cunha chave para o abrir.                          with a key to open it.
Nin eu teño máis que darche,                  I have nothing more to give you
nin ti máis que me pedir.                      And there is nothing more you can ask.

Whereas the folk verse is happy and optimistic with “tí soiña” being a girl, so that we have to imagine the speaking voice as male, here the speaker is sad Rosa addressing her faithless lover Mauro. This makes the declaration of these closing lines particularly heartbreaking: the echo of a familiar song of courtship calling out the peculiar pain of a despairing girl.

Is metric analysis a waste of time? Quilis says it is “not an end in itself, but one more component that helps us get to a deeper understanding of the poem and its meaning.” That seems right to me. Call me strange but I also enjoy observing things about poems.



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Moribund Stomach

Moribund stomach,
burnt ornito root,
always green in the calcareous room,
representing the crime of murder
the offence of fratricide,
pusillanimous between swift steeds,
fast in the sustained windiness of D minor.
Yes! It is absolutely true,
and I say it without shame,
true, and also certain,
the fiercely tight shorts impel the concrete man to eternalize himself.
Torrents of satisfaction sprout from the multi-coloured stirrup,
the degeneration of a cornered premolar,
afloat in the pan of absurdity.
It is true that two and two make five,
but also, it is true, that two times two make five,
so that my bed will always have five consolations,
five consolations wing to wing;
it seems that the five consolations
even when the stay is not the same
are always born,
reproduce and die in the same house.
-The operation is indifferent-

Juan Vidales
Morir en tu calma (Antología poética 1988-2010)
(Santiago: Follas Novas, 2013)

This book popped out of my book pile when I was transferring it to some new shelves in the room where I paint and write. I must have bought it in Santiago at the end of a Camino but I have no memory of the act: it appeared in a gesture of surreal magic.

Surreal magic describes the creative process of Juan Vidales. The word play makes me think of a domesticated Kurt Schwitters: the use of numbers, the absurd metaphors, the rhythmic flow. It also made me think of a young rock musician, Javi, who stayed at our house in Asturias as a volunteer: he also wrote songs that flowed down the page in torrents.

The poem I was looking at yesterday was also forcing against formal constraints. Blas Otero does not obey poetic conventions in rebellion against the Garcilasan strain in post-war Spanish poetry. Garcilaso de la Vega was the sixteenth-century poet who introduced the Petrarchan sonnet to Spain: a model of classical restraint, concision and balance. The revival of rule-bound poetry following a poet from the glorious past of Spain, clearly appealed to fascists. Breaking moulds and renouncing formalism became the sine que non of democrats.

Vidales was born in the same year as I was: 1965. Although I am not Spanish I have a gut-level sense of the cultural background to his work: he has studied the same art, read the same books and listened to the same music as me. It is no coincidence that he makes me think of Javi: there is a clear line from Dada through the Happenings of the Sixties to the rock spectacular, anthemic love songs, lyrics that adolescents puzzled over in their bedsits, the culture of the album cover, poetry performance. You might even say that Vidales was “trippy”.

This rejection of metrics is no longer unconventional. The poems in this collection have a curiously conventional range of themes and images in spite of all the wordplay and invention: romantic love and sex washing around in recurrent images of waves, surges, billows and blows. I read the poems as wildly fantastic courtship display. This is what gives them their contemporary tinge: the feeling that they belong to the same world as rock lyrics, advertising campaigns and non-stop imagery jittering across a screen.

Anyway I like the fiercely tight shorts. It makes me think of Charles Olson.

By the way I have no idea what ornito root is. Ornitorrinco is a duck-billed platypus, but that doesn’t make any sense…IMG_1654.JPG


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The Cold Solitude of Statues

imageOn the Cold Solitude of Statues
Expect me
in the empty streets
of this silent nocturnal hour.
Inside the thick fog
which wraps up the statues,
on their useless lips.

Expect me
on the cold frost
caressing the stone of their chests,
in the sculpted time of their auras.
In the eternal stillnes of their arms
condemned to the body.

Expect me in the hands
covered with hollows,
with no pulse in the veins, nor cartilage,
with no joy raising in the flesh
the soft hair that lives in the pore.

Expect me
in the concave mirror
of their blind pupils,
that cannot dream whilst they watch you.

Maybe when the shadows
stop mating in the corners,
and the roar of the wind
does not drag in its assault
the echoes of your name.

Perhaps when the rain doesn’t bite
unexpectedly the dusty leaves,
and I do not drink into my skin uncertainty,
and disgust dilutes the ashes
that cover the shelves.

When the glass pours out the sour-sweet
juice of ochre
over my eternal hangover,
and the image stops walking about
grainy and shameless,

Only then, maybe,
I will no longer love you.

On the sheets
I look at your seduced torso
for an instant that now
is made ancient.
The satisfied gesture of your lips
stained by the ochre
of a cigarette.

But night, love,
still is not gone,
and passes over the cornices, and licks
the rooftops
promiscuous games that mix up
the sexes. A spasm of bodies
in pain.

And my hands return to your
to your anointed thighs, the rains
of my tongue.

María Teresa González
From Con húmedos lamentos de felino (1990)
María Teresa González was born in Tremañes, Gijón in 1950. Her mother died when she was just 13 years old and her father when she was 16 leaving her with the responsibility of looking after herself and her brothers. She worked for twenty years in an electrical appliance business until, in 1987, she was made unemployed and retrained as a nurse in mental health care.

She began writing in her thirties, stealing time from work to sketch out the broad themes of her work: the exploitation of working women; memories of childhood; love poetry; elogies to the sea; friendship; and meditations on dying. Besides poetry she wrote short stories and essays.

She died after a long illness in 1995.

This three part poem is like a pop song: strong on imagery with powerful lines to remember. The first first line that I have translated as “Expect me…” can also be “Wait for me…” in Spanish. What is the writer saying? It seems clear to me that her lover will find her in the “concave mirror” of the statues’ pupils, not the reverse. That is where the lover should expect to find her.

This is bleak. Cold frost, stillness, and hairless pores all symbolise the deathly postures of stone, with no passion, no blood in the veins, no lust. Lust is a good word to use with María Theresa González who is openly physical in her love poetry. You can see this in the next part where things start to dissolve. If the first part was all solid certainty the second part is modulated by the subjunctive. Wind and water, shadows and ashes, roaring sound and grainy images: you can feel the lines shake with a different life. Here the pores open so that she can drink uncertainty into her skin.

The resolution in the last part combines the two. Her lover’s body becomes a torso, as if it were the statue made ancient in a moment. Yet its lips are stained with the ochre of a cigarette: the same ochre as the liquid in her glass in the previous part; an earth colour. Night itself is the animating spirit which walks over the cornices and licks the rooftops. It reminds me of the London fog in Prufrock, but here it is an animating fog that brings about passionate coupling. The fog turns to rain.

All images evocative of Asturias.

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I Ask For Peace and Permission to Speak

I write
in defence of the kingdom
of man and man’s justice. I ask
for Peace
and permission to speak. I have said
I say
“of man and man’s justice”
“pacific Ocean”
whatever they let me say.
I ask for Peace and permission to speak.

Blas de Otero

I have been reading American poetry recently, particularly Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. This arises from my interest in Black Mountain College, North Carolina, where Olson was the presiding tutorial presence in the fifties. He invited Creeley to come and join him from Mallorca, where the younger poet was struggling along in Bohemian poverty as a writer and editor.

The Olson/Creeley correspondence documents the arrival of a new kind of poetry. Olson is magnificent, leonine, prophetic. Creeley is sharp, incisive and actual. They both embody a vision of what it means to be an artist: a man who refracts the whole culture through his artistic persona.

Yes: a man. Robert Graves was in Mallorca at the same time, crooning about his White Goddess. Picasso was over in the south of France painting out his erotic fantasies. There was something decidedly male about fifties aesthetics, even when it was Purist, Concrete or Abstract. The heroic aspiration of it was to be the great commentator, with a beautiful muse (or two) and the arrogance to talk of universals.

Yet there is a mis-match here. In what sense was Creeley in Spain? In the same sense that his hero, D.H. Lawrence was in Mexico? Was there any possibility of communication? Does this say something about the Modernist project?

I was talking to Carmen about this.
“Is there a Spanish equivalent?” I asked
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I know Picasso is Spanish, but he is a visual artist. Is there a Spanish poet who you might think of as the equivalent of Olson? You know, big fat book of poetry, takes in the whole of western civilization, macho chauvinist, eye for the women.”
“Hmm, I don’t know. Neruda?”
“But Neruda isn’t Spanish.”

We batted the ball backwards and forwards a few times but couldn’t come up with anything. Could this be the effect of Franco?

Blas de Otero was born in Bilbao. He went to live in Paris in the early fifties but returned to Spain to tour around the country. This was a poet going down to the grassroots, if you like. Pido Paz y la Palabra
(1955) is the result of the poet’s reflections on this experience. You can see it doesn’t translate well into English. P-P-P: how do you render that? Palabra means word, but pedir la palabra is what speakers do in parliament when they ask permission to speak. For a poet to be asking for the word is powerfully evocative.

The poem does not dress itself up in difficult words, but its meaning is elusive. He asks for permission to speak and then says whatever they let him say. It is paradoxical. Peace is like the pacific Ocean, huge and encompassing, purposefully not capitalised to show that pacific is an adjective not a proper noun. Yet, still he has to ask for Peace.

And what has he said? Silence, shadow, emptiness. What a peculiar little poem this is! It is frequently printed out for High School students in Spanish schools. In fact, when I was checking the original online I came across a number of pdf versions in study packs. “I ask for peace and permission to speak” is a memorable line and sounds positive, doesn’t it? It depends how long you spend with the poem whether you find it uplifting or depressing: you can’t go away with the P,P,P alone.

I can’t get past thinking that there is something desperate about the poet writing in “defence of man and man’s justice”. Is he being ironic? The poem seems to vacillate between the public and the private, the private showing through as something desolate and bleak.

Here is another poem from the same collection:

In the beginning

If I have lost life, time, everything
I threw away, like a ring in the water,
If I have lost my voice in the undergrowth,
I still have permission to speak.

If I have suffered thirst, hunger, everything
that was mine and it ended up being nothing
if I have reaped shadows in silence,
I still have permission to speak.

If I opened my lips to see the face,
pure and terrible, of my fatherland,
if I opened my lips so far as to rip them off,
I still have permission to speak.

This poem has the crude force of a propaganda woodcut. The formal structure is dull and repetitive. The first two lines of each stanza set up the loss and suffering, the third line gives a metaphor and the last line the incantation.

It works because the poem destroys itself with its own violence. He rips his own lips off!

This has given me something to think about when I go back to Olson and his “limits”. We all live within our limits, but there are moments of communication when you can reach across the existential gap between people and attempt to understand. I find it particularly evocative that the Modernists did not do this in fifties Spain.

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Gloria Fuertes: Historia de Gloria

aa4If you feel like a dishcloth
Like a butt
Like a husk.
Don’t water your sadness,
Your failure doesn’t exist
(The failure is his!)
Of the man who used you to clean himself
And threw you away like an old dishcloth,
Who sucked out your energy,
Enjoyed you then trod on you like a dead butt;
He bit into your fruit
And threw away what was left of you,
The pure and simple velvet shell.

If you are a dishcloth,
Or husk
Sow your seeds inside yourself!
Then flower again in a painting,
A poem,
Or if a husk,
In food for a starving child.
(That’s what I did.)


This poem comes from Gloria Fuertes, Historia de Gloria, Amor, Humor y Desamor (Madrid: Cátedra, 1980).  You can see just from the title that she loves wordplay.  The title could be Story of Glory in English and I chose this poem because it shows just where Gloria finds her glory.

Gloria Fuertes is a well-known poet in Spain.  She has written some of the best-selling anthologies of poetry for children with delightful plays on words and meanings.  She has an engaging directness.  Historia de Gloria combines the wistful observations of her children’s poetry with a directness of sentiment and feeling that occasionally makes you feel awkward, like when someone you meet on the bus confides in you.  “Oh Gloria!” I found myself saying at times, struck by the painful autobiographical truth of what she was saying.

This poem is a good example.  “The pure and simple velvet shell” in Spanish is “la monda y lironda cáscara de terciopelo”.  Monda is part of an expression that means pure and simple but when it is used alone it means something like “stripped to the bone”.  That one line is the most lyrical in the whole poem, right there in the centre, seeding the poem like the advice she gives at the end.

And I imagine the food for a starving child refers to her poetry that has given food for thought to several generations of children now.


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Cespedes: Poem on Painting

aa3I’ll start out here, Painter of the World.
On the first and second days
Right up to the last day of rest,
From confused and shadowy chaos you brought
A happy face to light from out of the deep;
And the bright shining heavenly throne
Of most varied and perfect painting,

Which decks the sky with purple tints,
So distant from our human bustle,
And with different flaming lights
Adorns the shining sovereign enamel:
You show your skilful and mighty hand
When you so marvellously paint
The great signs of the ethereal cloister
On the western and the southern sides.


Here I offer you two verses from Pablo de Céspedes Poem on Painting from Teoría de la Pintura del Siglo de Oro edited by Francisco Calvo Serraller  (Madrid: Cátedra, 1991).

The Siglo de Oro is the Spanish Golden Age and there are many treatises in this collection that give valuable biographical and technical information about artistic practice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  I find the debate about the nobility of painting fascinating and, even after studying the period in depth, I am continually struck by the paradoxes.

For example, it is Velázquez’s work that makes him of interest to me, not his nobility.  I could really give a fig whether he was a knight of the Order of Santiago or not.  Yet painters were keen to make the point that they were not mere craftsmen and that their work should be considered alongside poetry, music and philosophy, not sculpture, ceramics and textiles.

This poem gives us the image of God painting the world.  It is a loose translation.  Although I generally prefer to stick closely to the original the involuted phrases just sounded pompous in English.  The Spanish is lively, varied and intriguing.  Maybe I’ll put some more of it up when I have the time.

I did the painting on a cold day at the weekend.  A wren came down and hopped in front of me contre-jour to provide me with the main motif!

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Always the Same

madeocebreiro1‘So my girl, did you see a wolf
To take the words from your mouth?’
A young lad said this to a girl
Because she went silently by
Without saying a thing to him
Or those he was walking with.
‘So it seems,’ she said,
Without even looking him in the face.
‘And did he get a bite of you?’
‘You really want to know, do you?’
‘Of course I do, my darling?’
‘Well, if you’re interested…  some other day
When we are out walking, if you happen
To meet me, I’ll let you know.’
And the poor girl was quiet… and sobbed.
Boys were always the same
And still are with the girls.
They go seven times around hell,
If necessary, to catch them.
Everything is to the point, as they
Not blind to all this, direct it.
So that touching up the fat
We’re talking about the hemlines
And when they talk of rolling
What they mean is on your back.

This is a poem in the vernacular by Manuel Leiras Pulpeiro.  I have to confess I struggle with him because he uses colloquial expressions in the local dialect of Galician from Mondoñedo.  He made a dictionary of some of these expressions but it wasn’t enough to give me a complete understanding of the double meanings in the last lines.

Why put the poem up then?  Well, I have been thinking about some other blogs I have been reading dealing with sexual relationships.  Leiras Pulpeiro was writing at the end of the nineteenth century in a world where the girl was very much the victim of the cocky young lad.  Rosalía paints a similar picture of peasant life in the Cantares.

The two worlds collide in my head.  Think, for example, of someone who is writing a blog about her experiences with a terrible set of boyfriends who are egotistical, demanding and transitory.  Have things changed?  I guess there was as much honour and good faith then as now.

What do you think?

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