Lowering the Tone
Andy Croft talks to Poetry News about Pushkin sonnets, George Orwell and lowering the tone with award-winning cartoonist Martin Rowson.
It is probably fair to say that the verse-novel is a rare, not to say wilfully eccentric, form in contemporary English poetry. Fiction and poetry parted company a long time ago. Since the Romantic privatisation of feeling in the early nineteenth-century, English poetry has not often been interested in the shared, public possibilities of narrative. As a consequence, poetry has effectively conceded dialogue, action, character, plot and time to fiction.
This always seems to me to be an unnecessarily heavy price to pay for the individual ‘voice’ of the poet. At Smokestack I have published a number of verse-novels, notably by Ellen Phethean, Alan Dent, Bob Beagrie, Michael Shepler, Malcolm Povey and Alan Morrison. As a reader, I have always enjoyed the ambition and the narrative architecture of long poems like The Iliad, The Rape of the Lock, Don Juan and – above all – Pushkin’s Evgeniy Onyegin. A few years ago I tried my hand at writing a comic novel in Pushkin sonnets, Ghost Writer (2007).
If you don’t know the Pushkin sonnet, it is the verse-form invented by Pushkin when he imported the sonnet into Russian (the Russians call it Onyeginskaya strofa, or the Onyegin stanza). It consists of fourteen lines in iambic tetrameter (de-dum, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum).
The strict rhyme-scheme is ABABCCDDEFFEGG.In other words, it is three different kinds of heavily rhymed quatrains, followed by a rhyming couplet.
If this doesn’t sound hard enough, you also have to have pairs of feminine rhymes at lines 1 and 3, 5 and 6, 9 and 12. For some reason, single-syllable rhymes (eg ‘bright/white/bite’) are called ‘masculine’ rhymes, while two or three syllable rhymes (eg ‘oyster/cloister’, ‘dentist/
apprenticed’) are called ‘feminine’ rhymes.
The four beat line is unnecessarily abrupt for readers familiar with the more leisurely and spacious tradition of English pentameters. Eight syllables is a very short space in which to complete a phrase in English. And while Russian grammar permits syntactical variation, English word-order is non-negotiable.
Moreover, the feminine rhymes are completely disruptive to the musical expectations of English ears. Since the early twentieth-century, poets in Britain have more commonly used half-rhymes or consonant rhymes, or abandoned end-rhyme altogether. Feminine rhymes are unavoidably comical in English. Whether they are embarrassingly contrived or dazzlingly original, they distract the reader away from the meaning of a poem and towards its technique. In the opening quatrain, we might expect feminine rhymes at the end of lines 3 and 4, but not at the end of lines 1 and 3. Because the feminine rhymes carry the comedy, you don’t want to throw away the punch-line before the end of the quatrain. Line four is always an anti-climax. After such an unbalanced beginning, after which the rest of the sonnet is always struggling to recover its poise:
Though you may say that I’m a dreamer
It seems to me that on the whole
This idiotic rhyming schema
Requires some quality control;
Without it you get clumsy verses
Like this (than which there not much worse is).
Thalia is a funny Muse;
She gets the blues when writers choose
To use techniques she thinks insult her,
eg employing third-rate rhymes,
(Although, of course, there can be times
When rhyming badly’s difficulter),
Or making sure a sentence fits
By rearranging order its.
Although after writing Ghost Writer I vowed never to touch another Pushkin sonnet again, I have since found myself returning again and again to the form, several long sequences including a series about Moscow Metro stations in Three Men on the Metro (written with Bill Herbert and Paul Summers). The above stanza is taken from another Pushkin-sonnet novel, 1948, due out in May.
They may be killers to write, but they can be bloody funny to read. A stanza-form that demands so much full-on, in-your-face rhyming is a wonderful vehicle for literary pantomime. Somehow the Russian music of tragedy somehow becomes in English a circus soundtrack for clowning and satire, not so much Tchaikovsky as Laurel and Hardy’s Dance of the Cuckoos. It is not, I think, a coincidence that Pushkin-sonnet novels in English – notably Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, Harry Keating’s Jack the Lady Killer, Ben Borek’s Donjong Heights and John Fuller’s The Illusionists – are all essentially comic works, the poetic equivalent of a Martin Rowson graphic-novel.
I have been a fan of Martin Rowson’s cartoons ever since I came across his joke about Lenin and the trained seal in the New Statesman sometime in the early 1980s. We share a taste for lowering the tone with bad puns and dodgy rhymes, for mixing Low Comedy and High Seriousness. We also share a liking for Pushkin. As Martin has written, ‘While Britain was waiting for DICKENS / We mustn't ignore the rich pickin’s / To be found off in RUSSIA! / Behold PUSHKIN usher / In RUSSIAN LIT! How the pulse quickens!’ And we share some of the same politics; Martin has a blistering cartoon every Saturday in the Morning Star, for which I write a monthly poetry column. I like to think that the fourteen lines of a Pushkin sonnet are a kind of literary equivalent to the compressed rage and restrained violence of a Martin Rowson cartoon. Martin provided a brilliant cover for Ghost Writer, based on Goya’s The Sleep of Reason. Martin’s comic literary history, The Limerickiad, is one of Smokestack’s all-time best-selling titles. When I asked Martin if he would draw a cover for 1948 he insisted on drawing cartoons for the inside of the book as well.
Set during the 1948 London Olympics, the novel offers a radically alternative history of the Cold War. The Second Front never happened, the Red Army liberated Paris, Britain has a Lab-Comm coalition government and the royal family have fled to Rhodesia. George Orwell is compiling lists of suspected American-sympathisers, TS Eliot is broadcasting on Radio Free Europe from Franco’s Spain, and the USA is about to impose an economic blockade on Britain. When DC Winston Smith is asked to investigate the black-market, the bloody clues lead him across London to Red Horizon magazine and the set of Passport to Pimlico. Then Smith finds an unpublished novel, depicting a truly horrible future:
It opens with a gruesome picture
Of Britain, 1984,
A future where the rich get richer
By stealing from the nation’s poor.
It’s like those bad B-movie features
In which a race of evil creatures
Have turned the nation’s hearts to stone;
Their leaders are an evil crone
Like Hash-a-Motep (Helen Gahagan)
The empress who must-be-obeyed,
And some old brain-dead zombie played
By ‘George the Gipper’ Ronald Reagan!
Smith lights a cig and wipes his brow.
Then carries on. He can’t stop now...
Can History be stopped? Is it an Ealing Tragedy? Or is it just a counterfactual Cold War joke in Pushkin sonnets?
1948 by Andy Croft and Martin Rowson is published by Five Leaves, price £7.99 on 1 May.
Andy Croft’s books of poetry include Nowhere Special, Just as Blue, Great North, Comrade Laughter, Ghost Writer, Sticky and Three Men on the Metro. He lives in Middlesbrough and runs Smokestack Books.
Martin Rowson’s cartoons appear regularly in The Guardian, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mirror and The Morning Star. His books include graphic adaptations of The Waste Land, Tristram Shandy and Gulliver's Travels. Among his other books are Snatches, The Dog Allusion, Fuck and Stuff.