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This month, building blocks: highlighting not a subject or form, but the oldest device used to organise poetry in English
Generally speaking, these Poster poem challenges are either topic-based or call on you to work in a set form. This month, we're going to try something a bit different; the focus is on a technique, but not a form as such.
Alliteration is, perhaps, the oldest device used to organise poetry in English, dating, as it does, from the very earliest appearance of verse in the vernacular. It lies at the very heart of Anglo-Saxon poem making, and lends a kind of solemn movement to the language of a poem such as Beowulf. However, this use of alliteration is not limited to Old English; it's a technique that is used in many more modern epic poems. For example, lines such as "Behemoth, biggest born of earth, upheaved His vastness" display Milton's mastery of alliterative pomp.
Of course, Anglo-Saxon poetry wasn't all gloom and grandeur; the riddles may not be side-splittingly slapstick, but they do display the more playful part of the poet's palette. This more light-hearted aspect of alliteration is a fine feature of many tongue-twisters, such as She sells sea shells by the sea shore. It is also frequently found in the efforts of Emily Dickinson and the genuinely brilliant Gwendolyn Brooks.
In the wake of the Norman conquest, the native alliterative tradition faced stiff competition from French and Italian rhyming verse forms, but it never fully disappeared. Indeed, the 14th century saw a fine flowering of poetry that drew heavily on the old order of things; poems such as Pearl, Cleanness, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Vision of Piers Ploughman echoed the earlier English poets, while introducing a new variety and freshness to the alliterative line.
One of the more striking aspects of Langland's Vision is the way in which he uses alliteration to produce instantly memorable phrases; his world is a "fair feeld ful of folk", of himself he declares "I have lyved in londe … my name is Longe Wille" and at the heart of the poem is the insight that "Whan alle tresors arn tried, Truthe is the beste". This characteristic of being memorable has long attracted poets to alliteration, and allowed, for instance, Tennyson to turn out one of the most easily recalled opening lines in English "He clasps the crag with crooked hands".
A lot of poets have used alliteration to introduce a mellifluous mode to their lyric lines; think, for instance, of Byron's She Walks in Beauty or Hopkins's Binsey Poplars, poems in which alliteration is amalgamated with all the artifice of Latinate rhyme to form a music that melds the best of both traditions. One result of this rapprochement is that the alliterative line of the Anglo-Saxon scop has been developed to the point where it runs across lines, weaving its way into the fabric of the entire stanza. It's a development that drives the syntax of a poem such as On Seeing the Wind at Hope Mansell by Geoffrey Hill.
And so, this month I invite you to invent alliterative odes. Be they sombre or singalong, epic or epigrammatic, riddles or – oh, enough, you get the point – your poems are welcome here, as ever.