Fire No Guns, Shed No Tears

It’s pretty obvious that I love repetition in my poetry. Every quatrain in “The Marian Lee” opens with the same line; the quatrains and the tercets are all mono-rhyme. Each quatrain in “Wear the Lightning” ends with the same phrase.

So I am delighted by the form of Stan Roger‘s “Barrett’s Privateers”.

The second line of every verse (in which all sing) is “How I wish I were in Sherbrooke now!” From the poet’s point of view this isn’t too bad a line to repeat, both from the stance of (1) having it accumulate meaning as the song/story progresses and (2) having only one line into which to get to the point where repeating it would make sense. In fact, in this case, there are a number of instances where the cognitive dissonance between the first line of the verse and “How I wish I were in Sherbrooke now!” is a wonderful frisson, which grows as you gain insight into the story (and listen to it repeatedly).

There are only three free, or variable, lines in each verse: the first one, and the two lines sandwiched between “How I wish I were in Sherbrooke now!” and the following:

God Damn them all! I was told
We’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns, shed no tears
Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s privateers.

Admittedly, Rogers gives away the whole story in the first verse when we get to this utterly huge repeton. But the point is, of course, to watch the tragedy unfold, and to ramp up the volume and the harmony along with the inevitability. Rogers is amazing.

From a poet’s point of view, I am gleeful: how does he manage to propel the story along with only two lines before we crash back into the whole group singing “God Damn them all!”???

It’s a reminder that you can probably say it in fewer words, that there is room in the form if you find the right words. Of course, it probably helps to have such an extraordinary repeton.