“Surged At Me The Dragon Slowly” and Other Poetic Defiances

I’m working on a children’s picture book, for which the text is a poem.

I was trying to figure out the best way to write a certain line, and pursuant to our little dicussion on syntax (in the comments of the Poetry Challenge Three post) I decided to figure out how many ways I could arrange the words in the line without destroying the sense. I was surprised to find that when I split the line up into blocks of meaning, rather than into words, there were a limited but really large number of ways to say what I wanted to say, even given a strict menu of words.

In other words, I could have randomly mixed the words thus:

Dragon me surged at the slowly –

and that’s a tortured line. But when I broke the line up into four meaning blocks

“The dragon”

“Surged”

“At me”

“Slowly”

the whole map of possible arrangements became clearly visible. It was surprising mostly because I never realized what a large number of possibilities the English language makes available to us. Of course in classical languages it is possible to say “at me” as one word anyhow.

This discovery should help a lot with rhyming. Some possibilities are more obscure than others, but still.

Here they are.

Slowly the dragon surged at me.
Slowly the dragon at me surged.
Slowly at me the dragon surged
Slowly at me surged the dragon.
Slowly surged the dragon at me.
Slowly surged at me the dragon.

At me the dragon slowly surged.
At me the dragon surged slowly.
At me slowly surged the dragon.
At me slowly the dragon surged.
At me surged slowly the dragon.
At me surged the dragon slowly.

Surged the dragon at me slowly.
Surged the dragon slowly at me.
Surged at me slowly the dragon.
Surged at me the dragon slowly.
Surged slowly at me the dragon.
Surged slowly the dragon at me.

The dragon slowly surged at me.
The dragon slowly at me surged.
The dragon at me slowly surged.
The dragon at me surged slowly.
The dragon surged slowly at me.
The dragon surged at me slowly.

Each of these makes perfect sense, though some are a little awkward.

Neat, right?

2 thoughts on ““Surged At Me The Dragon Slowly” and Other Poetic Defiances

  1. Neat! Except that

    The second works only if there is a group, or at least one other person, facing the dragon. In this context, with emphasis is on the word “me” to identify the one who is being threatened, the six versions could sound reasonably clear and somewhat natural.

    The third set works (except for #6) as long as the the tone is melodramatic and the word “surged” is said (or heard) slowly and the “r” sound is stretched out for effect: “Surrrrged. . .” Otherwise verb-first statements just sound garbled–unless we’re talking poetry. ☺🔨

    In the final set of six statements, four work fine, but the middle two create a confusing picture. The dragon is already in front of the speaker

    (“at me” – not exactly how we use that preposition, but close enough to allow for meaning. Without this meaning of “at” the statement is just too forced, awkward, artificial.*)

    and has started to surge toward someone else. The final sentence of set #3 has the same problem.

    So there.

    Respectfully submitted,

    Detail Guy

    *There is another possibility, but it would have to work in a manner similar to set #3, except that this time there would be a dramatic pause after the first two words, them a strong emphasis on “AT ME” – with no need for imagined or real presence of others.

    (Oh man, what away to spend a Friday evening. I really need to get out more.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice analysis. OK, here’s what I’m thinking. First of all, the basic truth that underlies all the other things you can say is this: Each of these sentences denotes precisely the same thing. Regardless of different emphases, or different ways you imagine saying them, each of them has only one possible meaning and in each case it is the same meaning.

      The subject is “the dragon” in each sentence. The indirect object, in each sentence, is “at me.” The verb in each sentence is, “surged.” The qualifier “slowly” is an adverb that can only modify the verb “surged.” These relationships and the action they denote is exactly the same in each sentence. That is the important thing to grasp.

      When one grasps this, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as “inverted order.” Some kind of disgusting syntactical tyranny has been foisted on us. Why, why, why, is it that the whole spirit of the age is to limit as drastically as possible the ways in which it is allowable to say things, the words which it is acceptable to use? And why is this enforced nowhere so tyrannously as in the world of poetry – the exact place where liberty should be allowed most, because the constraints of casual conversation are least present?

      Ahem. Anyway…

      Yes, the emphasis on “at me” might possibly involve, in casual conversation, an overtone of “at me as opposed to at all of you.” But in poetry, that’s not natural. In poetry you read what is in the actual words of poem. You don’t read the poem-in-yourself or yourself-in-the-poem or something like that. Dramatic pauses and strong spoken emphases are not in the poem. They are the actions a reader may take in order to bring out what is actually present in the poem. The only things that is in the poem is the words of the poem, with their implications, and the limitations they place on one another.

      So it’s not true that the lines in the second group would “only work” if other people were present or if it were read in a certain way. It works because it’s grammatically correct and a clearly intended meaning is denoted.

      As for those lines in which “Surged” comes first, you can imagine reading it a certain way if that helps but again, the way it is read is not in the poem and the meaning of the poem does not depend on the way it is read. That said – yes, it is a long syllable. It takes up two beats. It would be bad poetic method to try to cram another syllable in the beat with it. So a good reader would indeed take his time pronouncing it. That said, a good poet would know that. In this case, putting a solemn, long-syllabled verb first in the line creates, not melodrama, but elevated and intense dramatic action. You see the surge first. Your feelings begin to move with the dragon even before you know it is the dragon moving.

      Which brings me to my final point. Although I have stated that one chooses word order for the sake of emphasis, a further conclusion is resolving in my mind. Poetry can be thought of (just a comparison) as drama. The mind of the reader is the stage. The order in which the words appear in the poem is like actors, scenery appearing on the stage. A poet must carefully calculate the effect of the order in which his words appear.

      What do you want your reader to feel, to hear first? Do you want him to be aware of a rushing before they make out that it is a dragon doing the rushing and that he is rushing at the character denoted by “me”? Or do you want the reader to be aware, first, of the persons feeling of having something come at him? Or, do you want to set up the actor, then name the action, then qualify the action, then give the idea of where the action is going?

      I don’t see that any of these choices is more natural, in an absolute sense, than any other. It’s very easy to get used to many word orders. I personally never notice syntax – each kind of word order reads as easily as any other to me, because I grew up reading the KJV and old books.

      Somehow we’ve gotten more comfortable with subject, verb, object, but surely that’s not due to anything prescriptive in the language – just with the fact that, in casual conversation that usually has to do with practical concerns, one wishes to have forms near to hand and not have to think about how to put things.

      Poetry is all about thinking how to put things.

      Like

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