Recognizing & Using Caesuras, Enjambment and End-Stopped Lines

the end-stopped line

I’ve noticed a number of searches on caesuras, enjambment and end-stopped lines.

Sir Thomas Sackville

Fortunately, these are easy to recognize. When English poets first began writing blank verse (unrhymed Iambic Pentameter) one gets the feeling they had their hands full just counting syllables. Their efforts were stiff, wooden, inflexible. The example I always like to use is Gorboduc, by Thomas Norton andThomas Sackville. The play was written in 1561, 3 years before Shakespeare’s birth. For all its limitations, the play was the first (as far as we know) to have been written using blank verse and stands as a template for all the great verse plays to follow, including Shakespeare’s. Two features that make the verse feel wooden, by modern standards, is the strict Iambic beat on one hand (there are practically no variant feet) and the heavily end-stopped lines. End-stopped lines simply means that ones thought ends with the line. If you see that the line’s end is punctuated with a period, comma, question mark, semi-colon, etc… then the line is end-stopped. The phrasal unit, the syntactic sense, ends with the line.

Interestingly, the on-line text of the play at Luminarium (linked above), doesn’t include much punctuation. This could be because their text is taken from a facsimile or because the scanner (OCR) didn’t pick up on or recognize whatever text they scanned. I put my money on their having transcribed from a facsimile or an earlier, public domain (and relatively unedited) edition. It also means that you can test your ability to recognize end-stopped lines. Imagine you were an editor. How would you punctuate the following verse? If you can correctly punctuate the verse then you can recognized end-stopped lines. (Most end-stopped lines are marked by punctuation but some aren’t. Remember, if you can finish the line without feeling as though some sense is missing, or if you can pause (as though there were a pause in the syntactic sense or comma), then the line is end-stopped.

Gorboduc:

Are they in Arms? would he not send for me?
Is this the honour of a Father’s name?
In vain we travail to assuage their minds
As if their hearts whom neither Brother’s love
Nor Father’s awe, nor kingdom’s care can move
Our Councils could withdraw from raging heat
Jove slay them both, and end the cursed Line
For though perhaps fear of such mighty force
As I my Lords, joined with your noble Aides
May yet raise, shall repent their present heat
The secret grudge and malice will remain
The fire not quenched, but kept in close restraint
Fed still within, breaks forth with double flame
Their death and mine must pease the angry gods. (Act III l. 93)

What follows is an edited version from Drama of the English Renaissance 1:The Tudor Period, edited by Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin.

Gorboduc:

Are they in Arms? would he not send for me? |
Is this the honour of a Father’s name? |
In vain we travail to assuage their minds, |
As if their hearts whom neither Brother’s love, |
Nor Father’s awe, nor kingdom’s care can move, |
Our Councils could withdraw from raging heat. |
Jove slay them both, and end the cursed Line! |
For though perhaps fear of such mighty force |
As I my Lords, joined with your noble Aides, |
May yet raise, shall repent their present heat, |
The secret grudge and malice will remain. |
The fire not quenched, but kept in close restraint, |
Fed still within, breaks forth with double flame. |
Their death and mine must pease the angry gods. |

I added red pipe marks at the end of each end-stopped line and a green one at the only enjambed line. There are 14 lines and only one of them is enjambed. Notice that every one of the end-stopped lines is also punctuated. In this tiny sample, over 90% of the verse is end-stopped. Is that representative of the play? I suspect it’s not far off. The actual figure probably hovers around 90% or less. That makes for very stiff verse. That ratio is typical for beginning poets who have a hard enough time thinking through the meter, let alone the line. Some mature poets never pull it off. (I’ve already named names elsewhere, no reason to beat the horse.)

enjambment

Enjambment is the opposite of the end-stopped line. There is a syntactic or phrasal pause which coincides with the end of the line. The simplest example:

Enjamb| ment makes | the read |er  read |beyond
The end |of a|ny giv|en line |of verse.

This blank |verse line| is not |enjambed |but end-stopped.

Don’t be fooled by the feminine ending in the latter line. It’s still end-stopped. By the time the Elizabethans, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, came into their own, so did blank verse. The judicious and skillful use of enjambment is what makes Shakespeare’s verse so elegantly flexible (and any verse for that matter). Among the loveliest examples is Florizel’s speech from the Winter’s Tale:

Perdita:

No, like a bank for love to lie and play on; |
Not like a corse; or if, not to be buried, |
But quick and in mine arms. Come, take your flowers: |
Methinks I play as I have seen them do |
In Whitsun pastorals: sure this robe of mine |
Does change my disposition. |

Mary Riley and Richard Baird in The Winter’s Tale.

Florizel:

·········································What you do |
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet, |
I’ld have you do it ever; when you sing, |
I’ld have you buy and sell so, so give alms, |
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs, |
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you |
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do |
Nothing but that; move still, still so, |
And own no other function: each your doing, |
So singular in each particular, |
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds, |
That all your acts are queens. |

The beauty of Shakespeare’s verse is that the enjambment nicely dovetails the passions of the speakers. In Florize’s case, when he is the most passionate and poetic, wishing his lover like a wave o’ the sea, the sense of the poetry washes over the ends of the lines like the wave he describes.

It’s a lovely effect.In the examples above, roughly 30% of the lines are enjambed. And just giving the verse of the play a cursory glance, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the play’s overall enjambment closer to 40%. Out of curiosity, I googled shakespeare, enjambment, and percentage to see if any scholar had actually done the work (I know they have), but I couldn’t find anything. I doubt there’s a single aspect of his plays that haven’t been written about – right down to the recipe for the ink on the manuscript of Sir Thomas More.  Who knows?

separating the boys from the men

Where the skill of a poet really shows itself is in the combination of meter and rhyme. The less capable poet will end-stop his or her rhymes. The skilled poet will enjamb their rhymes – not all of them, but enough of them to give their verse a more flexible and natural (unforced) feel. The poet who end-stops their rhymes is the poet who can’t think beyond the rhyme. The habit is typical of beginning poets, and to be expected, but the mature poet should learn to think beyond the line.  Here’s a poem by Dana Gioia, from his book Interrogations at Noon. I marked each end-stopped line with a pipe ‘|’ and left it at that.

Alley Cat Love Song

Come into the garden, Fred, |
For the neighborhood tabby is gone. |
Come into the garden, Fred. |
I have nothing by my flea collar on, |
And the scent of catnip has gone to my head. |
I’ll wait by the screen door till dawn. |

The fireflies court in the sweetgum tree. |
The nightjar calls from the pine, |
And she seems to say in her rhapsody, |
“Oh, mustard-bown Fred, be mine!” |
The full moon lights my whiskers afire, |
And the fur goes erect on my spine. |

I hear the frogs in the muddy lake
Croaking from shore to shore. |
They’ve one swift season to soothe their ache. |
In autumn they sing no more. |
So ignore me now, and you’ll hear my meow
As I scratch all night at the door. |

About 90% of these lines are end-stopped. We’re back to 1561. The lyric is charming enough, but the end-stopped rhymes give the poem a wooden feel. Gioia should have left this kind of verse behind long ago. By comparison, here are two stanza’s from the poet Robert Bagg, from a longer poem called Tandem Ride, a poet who I’ve reviewed elsewhere on PoemShape. Like Gioia, Bagg dispenses with meter but writes a regular, rhyming, verse.

XIX
We search the boathouse on Paradise Pond; |
the window lights of the state asylum
dominate the sweeping skyline beyond, |
radiating a contagious gloom
as if the campus were its anteroom. |
Sensing the madness in our enterprise
we abandon our foundering tandem, |
exhaustion having (at last) made us wise. |
Who’d pump a symbol seven miles but two Amherst guys? |

XX
She pushes a glass door open a crack, |
emerges form a tropical greenhouse, |
shoes squishing, then pauses–almost goes back– |
aware her sweat-drenched translucent blouse
would amuse us, or might even arouse
us more than her breasts did normally. |
She’d never say, Come on to me, guys, now’s
the right time!
–but I sensed viscerally
she wasn’t the same girl we had chased up that tree. |

Roughly half the lines are enjambed, giving the stanzas a nice ebb and flow. The  enjambment doesn’t overly emphasize the rhymes. Take a look at Shakespeare’s sonnets and you will notice the same freedom between end-stopped and enjambed lines. The thing to notice, most of all, is how Shakespeare (and other skillful poets) use end-stopping and enjambment to add emphasis to certain lines and thoughts. For instance, the vast majority of his sonnets’ closing couplets are end-stopped. This puts added emphasis on the rhymes which, in turn, brakes the sonnet’s momentum and emphasizes the finality of the couplets argument – the end-stopped lines emphasize the feeling of the epigrammatic sting.

Sonnet 63

Against my love shall be as I am now, |
With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’erworn; |
When hours have drained his blood and filled his brow
With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn
Hath travelled on to age’s steepy night; |
And all those beauties whereof now he’s king
Are vanishing, or vanished out of sight, |
Stealing away the treasure of his spring; |
For such a time do I now fortify
Against confounding age’s cruel knife, |
That he shall never cut from memory
My sweet love’s beauty, though my lover’s life: |
··His beauty shall in these black lines be seen, |
··And they shall live, and he in them still green. |

The best poets will, instinctively, fully exploit end-stopping and enjambment when the opportunity calls for it. Lesser poets won’t.

Tom O’Bedlam

Caesuras

Caesuras are essentially nothing more than breaks in rhythm, thought, or syntax that occur anywhere between the beginning and end of a line. In other words, they’re the same as an end-stopped line except that the “end-stopping” occurs in the middle of the line. That said, they can be trickier to spot. They aren’t associated with the end of a line and aren’t always matched by punctuation.

Caesura’s were a fixture of classical Greek and Latin poetry but Anglo Saxon was the language in which the Caesura came to glory. In the book Creative Poetry by B. Roland Lewis  one finds this little gem tucked away in a footnote:

William Ellery Leonard’s two studies, “Beowulf and the Niebelungen Couplet” and “The Scansion of Middle English Alliterative Verse,” in The University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, for an entirely untraditional view about Anglo-Saxon prosody. Or see is Introduction to his own metrical translations of Beowulf. He holds that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf; and his modernized version of Beowulf is in that meter. Professor E.W. Scripture’s new (1929) Grundzuge der Englischen Verswissensschaft has some closing chapters in Old English and Middle English alliterative verse in the light of laboratory analysis.

So, if we were to lineate Sing a Song of Six-Pence as Beowulf’s author might have, it might look like this  (caesuras marked):

Sing a song of sixpence, || a pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds, || baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, || the birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish, || to set before the king?

The king was in his counting house, || counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour, || eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden, || hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird || and pecked off her nose.

If you click the link to Leonard’s translation, you’ll see how this translates when applied to Beowulf. You might get an idea as to how the Anglo Saxons would have “heard” the great poem (and how the caesura was an integral part of the poem’s rhythm and structure). I always favor translations which try to capture, not just the sense, but the sound and structure of the original — something which is altogether too rare with the near total dominance of free verse.

The caesura’s importance to English poetry faded with the language’s modernization.  Still, examples can be found. Wikipedia offers an example from the ballad Tom O’Bedlam. I’ll give another from the same poem (which you can read in its entirety in Harold Bloom’s book The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost):

When I short have shorn my sow’s face
·······And swigged my horny barrel,
At an oaken inn || I impound my skin
·······In a suit of gilt apparel.
The moon’s my constant mistress
·······And the lovely owl my marrow.
The flaming drake || and the night-crow make
·······Me music to my sorrow.
While I do sing || “Any food, any feeding
·······Feeding, drink or clothing?
Come dame or maid, || be not afraid:
·······Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Notice that only the final caesura coincides with any sort of punctuation. (Is the rhythm of the ballad a faint echo of the ancient Anglo Saxon poetry? Possibly.) The caesura, in the stanza above, indicate rhythmic pauses. Also, all of the caesuras would be masculine caesuras. They each occur after a stressed syllable. Here are the first two stanzas from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.

Once upon a midnight dreary, || while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious || volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, || suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, || rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ || I muttered, || `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.’

Ah, distinctly I remember || it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember|| wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; – || vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow – || sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden || whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

Once again, some of  the caesura are marked by punctuation, some aren’t. Most native English speakers will instinctively pause mid-line, even without punctuation. The combination of the internal rhymes (dreary/weary, napping/tapping) and the trochaic meter encourages us to read the lines as bipartite. Normally, for example, one wouldn’t pause between curious and volume in the second line, but the poem’s rhyme and meter strongly encourage us to divide the line (if only to reinforce the rhythm of the others). Try it. See if you agree. Conversely, we want to read through pauses that we normally wouldn’t. For instance, the heavy mid-line caesuras make us want to ignore the syntactic breaks in the first stanza’s third, fifth and last line::

While I nodded, nearly napping

`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered…
Only this, and nothing more.

We might be more hard-pressed to ignore the natural break in ‘Tis some visitor,‘ I muttered…, but we could. In Poe’s poem, unlike Tom O’Bedlam, all the Caesura are feminine caesuras because they each occur after unstressed syllables.

In the following, another passage from Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, you will find caesuras and what’s called an epic caesura (generally in reference to a feminine caesuras within an iambic line – I highlighted the epic caesura in red.

It is for you we speak, || not for ourselves:
You are abused || and by some putter-on
That will be damn’d for’t; || would I knew the villain,
I would land-damn him. || Be she honour-flaw’d,
I have three daughters; || the eldest is eleven
The second and the third, || nine, || and some five;
If this prove true, || they’ll pay for’t. || By mine honour. (Act II, sc. I :142-148)

The fifth line contains the epic caesura. The unstressed syllable -ers at the end of daughters is hypermetrical (because the line immediately continues with the unaccented ‘the’ instead of an expected strong accent.). In other words, it’s an extra unaccented syllable. Below, the blue represents an anapestic foot and the green represents a feminine endings (the colors I use in all my scansions). Notice how Shakespeare, ever the dramatist, uses the unusually frequent caesuras and end-stopped lines to denote an agitated mind. Not all uses of caesura create the same sense of agitation. Context is everything and a good poets uses whatever tools are available.

I have | three daugh |ters; the eld| est is | eleven

The other way to scan it is to treat the epic caesura as its own feminine ending within the line.

I have | three daugh ters; |the eld| est is | eleven

My habit has been to use the second scansion (having learned to read and write Iambic Pentameter with George T. Wright’s book Shakespeare’s Metrical Art). Shakespeare’s line, therefore, has twelve syllables, unlike the expected ten of iambic pentameter, but nevertheless falls within the graces of standard practice.

A second kind of feminine Caesura would be the lyric caesura. This is probably the most obscure of all caesuras (and the one you’ll forget the quickest). Give something a name for the sake of giving it a name. This term refers to a caesura which occurs after an expected unstressed syllable. Got that? Four examples can be found in Dickinson’s poem Because I could not stop for Death–. I’ve highlighted them in red.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess || – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather || – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet || – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice || – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

free verse

The use of enjambment and end-stopping can be very useful to the free verse poet and for similar reasons. T.S. Eliot, in his poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night, skillfully uses a combination of enjambment and end-stopping to control the ebb and flow of the verse and thought. Writing free verse, he could have broken his lines anywhere, but clearly manipulated the lines in such a way that they suggested a kind of rhythm.

Twelve o’clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Half-past one,
The street lamp sputtered,
The street lamp muttered,
The street lamp said,
“Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin.” (….)

Notice, in the second stanza above, how the first four lines are end-stopped, emphasizing and slowing down the verse with a kind of childlike, mother goose-ish feel. Then notice how, when the street lamp speaks, the lines are enjambed and the verse has the feeling of spaciousness. The voice feels different.  The effect is accomplished both through enjambment and the lack of rhyme.

It’s an effect, however, that the vast majority of free verse poets are unaware of or have chosen to ignore. The result is that their poetry is nothing more than lineated prose. While their lines may be end-stopped or enjambed, the effect feels completely arbitrary.

The caesura loses all it’s effect in free verse. After all, if the verse is regular enough to make the reader aware of such a syntactic feature, then the verse by definition isn’t free. If the verse has structure, then it’s not free. I’ve had this argument with practitioners of free verse and they either get that glazed look of breathtaking denial or they lose the ability to speak. Free verse can’t be both free and “structured” (in the sense of a regular pattern). Can’t happen.

Anyway, that’s that. If the post has been helpful, let me know. If not, I’m always ready to improve.

up in Vermont • March 26 2011

Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

  • May 14, 2009 Tweaked & corrected some typos.

mount-everest-colored-edgeBecause it wasn’t there.

During the sixteenth century, which culminated in poets like Drayton, Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, and Shakespeare, English was seen as common and vulgar – fit for record keeping. Latin was still considered, by many, to be the language of true literature. Latin was essentially the second language of every educated Elizabethan and many poets, even the much later Milton, wrote poetry in Latin rather than English.

Iambic Pentameter originated as an attempt to develop a meter for the English language legitimizing English as an alternative and equal to Latin (as a language also capable of great poetry and literature). Encyclopedia of Spenser - ExtractSince meter was a feature of all great Latin poetry, it was deemed essential that an equivalent be developed for the English Language. But poets couldn’t simply adopt Latin’s dactylic hexameter or dactylic pentameter lines. Latin uses quantitative meter, a meter based on  alternating long and short syllables. English, on the other hand, is an accentual language – meaning that words are “accented” or stressed while others are, in a relative sense, unstressed.  (There are no long or short syllables in English, comparable to Latin.)

False Starts

But this didn’t stop Elizabethan poets from trying. A circle of Elizabethan poets, including Sidney and Spenser, all tried to adapt quantitative meter to the English language. Here’s the problem. Even in their own day Latin and Classical Greek were dead languages – dead for a thousand years. Nobody knew what these languages really sounded like and we still don’t. Imagine if all memory of the French language vanished tomorrow (along with any recordings). French uses the same alphabet, but how would we know how to pronounce it? Americans would pronounce it like Americans, Germans would pronounce like Germans, etc… The French accent would be gone – forever. The same is true for Latin. So, while we may intellectually know that syllables were spoken as long or short, we have no idea how the language was actually pronounced. It’s tone and accent are gone. When the Elizabethans spoke Latin, they pronounced and accented Latin like Elizabethans. They assumed that this was how Latin had always been pronounced. For this reason, perhaps, Adopting the Dactylic hexameters of Latin didn’t seem so far-fetched.

The  Spenser Encyclopedia, from which I obtained the passage at right, includes the following “dazzling” example of quantitative meter in English:

Quantitative Verse (Sample from Spenser Encyclopedia)

The symbols used to scan the poem reflect Spenser’s attempt to imitate the long and short syllables of Latin. The experiments were lackluster. Spenser and Sidney moved on, giving up on the idea of reproducing long and short syllables. The development of Iambic Pentameter began in earnest. (Though Sidney continued to experiment with accentual hexameters – for more on this, check out my post on Sidney: His Meter & His Sonnets.)

Those were heady times. Iambic Pentameter was new and dynamic. Spenser adopted Iambic Pentameter with an unremitting determination. Anyone who has read the Faerie Queen knows just how determined. (That said, each Spenserian Stanza – as they came to be called – ended with an Alexandrine , an Iambic Hexameter line – as if Spenser couldn’t resist a reference to the Hexameters of Latin and Greek.)

Why the Drama?

Just as with Virgil and Homer for Epic Poetry, the Classical Latin and Greek cultures were admired for their Drama – Aeschylus, Terence, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles. Classical drama was as admired as classical saga.

As Iambic Pentameter quickly began to be adopted by poets as an equivalent to the classical meters of Greek and Latin, dramatists recognized Iambic Pentameter as a way to legitimize their own efforts. In other words, they wanted to elevate their drama into the realm of serious, literary works – works of poetry meant to be held in the same esteem as the classical Greek and Latin dramas. Dramatists, especially during Shakespeare’s day, were held in ill-repute, to say the least. Their playhouses were invariably centers of theft, gambling, intoxication, and rampant prostitution. Dgorboduc-title-pageramatists themselves were considered nothing better than unprincipled purveyors of vulgarity – all too ready to serve up whatever dish the rabble wanted to gorge on.

There was some truth to that. The playhouses had to earn a living. The actors and dramatists, like Hollywood today, were more than willing to churn out the easy money-maker. Thomas Heywood, a dramatist and pamphleteer who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, claimed to have had “an entire hand or at least a main finger in two hundred and twenty plays”.

That said, aspirations of greatness were in the air. This was the Elizabethan Age – the small nation of England was coming into its own. The colonization of America was about to begin. The ships of England were establishing new trade routes. The Spanish dominance of the seas was giving way. England was ready to take its place in the world – first as a great nation, than as an empire. The poets and dramatists of the age were no less ambitious. Many wanted to equal the accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans – Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, Middleton…

Ben Jonson, in his own lifetime, published a collection of his own works – plays and poetry. This was a man who took himself seriously. The Greeks and Romans wrote their Drama in verse, and so did he. The Romans and Greeks had quantitative meter, and now the Elizabethans had Iambic Pentameter – Blank Verse. Serious plays were written in verse, quick entertainments, plays meant to fill a week-end and turn a profit, were written in prose – The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Shakespeare, was written to entertain, was written quickly, and was written in prose.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Sackville and Norton were the first dramatists to write Drama, the play Gorboduc, using Iambic Pentameter or, as it came to be known, blank verse. For a brief sample of their verse you can check out my post on The Writing & Art of Iambic Pentameter.

Poets and Poet/Dramatists were quick to recognize the potential in blank verse. Early Dramatists like Greene, Peele and Kyd were quick to adopt it. Their efforts bequeathed poetry to the new verse form, but it was First Part Tamburlaine the Great & Christopher MarloweChristopher Marlowe who upped the ante by elevating not just the poetry but the verse form itself. Suddenly Iambic Pentameter was given a powerful new voice all of its own.

Hair standing on end, other poets soon referred to Marlowe’s blank verse as Marlowe’s Mighty Line. Reading Marlowe’s verse now, with 500 years of history between, the verse appears inflexible and monochromatic. It was Shakespeare who soon demonstrated to other poets the subtlety and flexibility that Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) was capable of. Shakespeare’s skill even influenced Marlowe (who had earlier influenced Shakespeare). Shakespeare’s influence is felt in Marlowe’s Faustus and Edward II, by which time Marlowe’s verse becomes more supple.

The passage above is spoken by Tamburlaine, who has been smitten by Zenocrate, “daughter to the Soldan of Egypt“. Up to meeting Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s sole ambition had been to conquer and ruthlessly expand his empire. He’s a soldier’s soldier. But his passion for Zenocrate embarrasses him. He feels, in his equally blinding passion for her, that he “harbors thoughts effeminate and faint”.

Tamburlaine, with Marlowe’s inimitable poetry, readily rationalizes his “crush”. Utterly true to his character, he essentially reasons that beauty is a spoil rightly belonging to the valorous. He will subdue both (war and love), he pointedly remarks (rather than be subdued).  After all, says Tamburlaine in a fit of self-adulation, if beauty can seduce the gods, then why not Tamburlaine?  But make no mistake, it’s not that Tamburlaine has been subdued by love, no, he will “give the world note”, by the beauty of Zenocrate, that the “sum of glory” is “virtue”. In short, and in one of the most poetically transcendent passages in Elizabethan literature, Tamburlaine is the first to express the concept of a “trophy wife”.

Not to be missed is the Elizabethan sense of the word “virtue” – in reference to women, it meant modesty and chastity. Naturally enough, in men, it meant just the opposite – virility, potency, manhood, prowess. So, what Tamburlaine is saying is not that modesty and chastity are the “sum of glory”, but virility. The ‘taking’ of a beautiful women, in the martial, sexual and marital sense, fashions “men with true nobility”. It’s no mistake that Marlowe chose “virtue”, rather than love, when writing for Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine’s only mention of love is in reference to fame, valor and victory, not affection.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist interpreting the passage just a little. So many readers tend to read these passages at face value – which, with Elizabethan poets, frequently misses the boat.

As to the meter… Notice how the meaning sweeps from one line to the next. Most of the lines are syntactically unbroken, complete units. This is partly what poets were referring to when they described Marlowe’s lines as “mighty”.  what-you-doNotice also that that the whole of the speech can be read as unvarying Iambic Pentameter and probably should be.

By way of comparison, at right is how Shakespeare was writing toward the end of his career. The effect he produced is far different. The iambic pentameter (Blank Verse) doesn’t sweep from one line to the next. The most memorable and beautiful image in this passage is when Florizel wishes Perdita, when she dances, to be like “a wave o’the sea”. And any number of critics have seen, in this passage, a graceful equivalent in the ebb and flow of Shakespeare’s blank verse. The syntactic units halt, then resume, then halt again, variably across the surface of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. The overall effect creates one of the most beautiful passages in all of Shakespeare, and not just for its content and imagery, but also for its supple verse. The Elizabethans, in Shakespeare, bettered the Greek and Romans. In 1598, Francis Meres, fully understanding the tenor of the times, wrote:

“As the Greeke tongue is made famous and eloquent by Homer, Hesiod, Euripedes, Aeschilus, Sophocles, Pindarus, Phocylides and Aristophanes; and the Latine tongue by Virfill, Ovid, Horace, Silius Italicus, Lucanus, Lucretius, Ausonius, and Claudianus: so the English tongue is mightily enriched, and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and respledent abiliments by Sir Philip Sidney, Spencer, Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Shakespeare, Marlow and Chapman

As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras : so the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds, &c…

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines : so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.
As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin : so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.”

Finally, the English were creating their own literary heritage. Up to now, if the English wanted to read great literature, they read Latin and Greek.

But Not Latin Enough

The Elizabethans and Jocabeans firmly established Iambic Pentameter as the great Meter of the English language. But the youth of each generation wants to reject and improve on their elders. George ChapmanThe Elizabethans and Jacobeans were old news to the eighteen and twenty year old poets who would found the restoration. They wanted to prove not just that they could find an alternative to quantitative meter, they wanted to prove that they could write just as well as the great Latin poets – English verse could be as great as Latin verse and in the same way. And so English poetry entered the age of the Heroic Couplet.

Poets had written heroic couplets before, but they were primarily open heroic couplets. The restoration poets wanted to reproduce the Latin distich – a verse from in which every rhyming couplet is also a distinct syntactic unit. This meant writing closed heroic couplets. If you want a clearer understanding of what this means, try my post About Heroic Couplets.

Anyway, the meter is still Iambic Pentameter, though the verse form has changed (Heroic, when attached to couplets, means couplets written in Iambic Pentameter). In other words, it’s not Iambic Pentameter with which the restoration poets were dissatisfied, it was unrhymed Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) which  restoration poets found inadequate. Alexander PopeLike the Elizabethans, they wanted English literature to be the equal of Latin and Greek literature. Blank verse wasn’t enough.

One of the best ways, perhaps, to get a feel for what restoration poets were trying to accomplish is to compare similar passages from translations. Below are three translations. The first is by George Chapman (Chapman’s Homer), an Elizabethan Poet and Dramatist, contemporary of Shakespeare and, some say, a friend of Shakespeare. Chapman writes Open Heroic Couplets – a sort of cross between blank verse and closed heroic couplets. The second translation is by Alexander Pope, a contemporary of Dryden and, with Dryden, the greatest poet of the restoration. He writes closed heroic couplets.

odyssey-book-12-chapman-pope

And now compare Pope’s translation to Robert Fitzgerald’s modern translation (1963). Fitzgerald writes blank verse and his translation is considered, along with Lattimore’s, the finest 20th Century translation available. I personally prefer Fitzgerald, if only because I prefer blank verse. Lattimore’s translation is essentially lineated prose (or free verse).

odyssey-book-12-pope-fitzgerald

Which of these translations do you like best? Fitzgerald’s is probably the most accurate. Which comes closest to capturing the spirit of Homer’s original – the poetry? I don’t think that anyone knows (since no one speaks the language that Homer spoke).

All three of these translations are written in Iambic Pentameter but, as you can see, they are all vastly different: Open Heroic Couplets, Closed Heroic Couplets, and Blank Verse. The reasons for writing them in Iambic Pentameter, in each case, was the same – an effort to reproduce in English what it must have been like for the ancient Greeks to read Homer’s Dactylic Hexameters.  Additionally, in the case of Chapman and Pope, it was an effort to legitimize the English language, once and for all, as a language capable of great literature.

Enough with the Romans and Greeks

Toward the end of the restoration, Iambic Pentameter was no longer a novelty. The meter had become the standard meter of the English language. At this point one may wonder why. Why not Iambic Tetrameter, or Iambic Hexameter? Or why not Trochaic Tetrameter?

These are questions for linguists, neuro-linguists and psycho-linguists.  No one really knows why Iambic Pentameter appeals to English speakers. Iambic Tetrameter feels too short for longer poems while hexameters feel wordy and overlong. There’s something about the length of the Iambic Pentameter line that suits the English language. Theories have been put forward, none of them without controversy. Some say that the Iambic Pentameter line is roughly equivalent to a human breath. M.L. Harvey, in his book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning (if memory serves) offers up such a theory.

Interestingly, every language finds has found its own normative meter. For the French language, its hexameters (or Alexandrines), for Latin and Greek it was dactylic Hexameter and Pentameter). Just as in English, no one can say why certain metrical lengths seem to have become the norm in their respective languages. There’s probably something universal (since the line lengths of the various languages all seem similar and we are all human)  but also unique to the qualities of each language.

Anyway, once Iambic Pentameter had been established, poets began to think that translating Homer and Virgil, yet again, was getting somewhat tiresome. English language Dramatists had already equaled and excelled the drama of the Romans and Greeks. The sonnet sequences of Drayton, Daniel, Shakespeare, Sidney and Spenser proved equal to the Italian Sonnets of Petrarch – in the minds of English poets at least. The restoration poets brought discursiveness to poetry. They used poetry to argue and debate. The one thing that was missing was an epic unique to the English language. Where was England’s Homer? – Virgil? Where was England’s Odyssey?

Enter Milton

Milton, at the outset, didn’t know he was going to write about Adam & Eve.

He was deeply familiar with Homer and Virgil.  He called Spenser his “original”, the first among English poets and a “better teacher than Aquinus“.  John MiltonBut Spenser’s Faerie Queen was written in the tradition of the English Romance. It lacked the elevated grandeur of a true epic and so Milton rejected it. He was also familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy. But the reasons for Milton choosing the story of Adam & Eve are less important, in this post, than the verse form that he chose. At first, writing in the age of the heroic couplet, Milton’s intention was to use the verse of his peers.

But Milton was losing his eyesight. That and the constraints Heroic Couplets placed on narrative were too much for him. He chose Blank Verse. In the end, the genius of Milton’s prosody and narrative conferred on blank verse the status it needed.  Blank verse became the language of epic poetry – not heroic couplets; Milton’s blank verse was the standard against which the poetry of all other epic poems would be measured. From this point forward, later poets would primarily draw their inspiration from the English poets that had come before (not the poets of classical Greece or Rome).Paradise Lost Book 8 [Extract] Paradise Lost successfully rivaled the Odyssey and the Iliad.

The extract at right is from Book 8 of Paradise Lost. Adam, naturally enough, wants to know about the cosmos. Since reading up on Cosmology is one of my favorite pastimes, I’ve always liked this passage. The extract is just the beginning. Milton has an educated man’s knowledge of 17th Century Cosmology,  but must write as if he knows more than he does. In writing for Raphael however (the Angel who describes the Cosmos to Adam), Milton must  write as though Raphael admits less than he knows. The effect is curious. At the outset, Raphael says that the great Architect (God) wisely “concealed” the workings of the  Cosmos; that humanity, rather than trying to “scan” God’s secrets, “ought rather admire” the universe! This is a convenient dodge. Raphael then launches into a series of beautifully expressed rhetorical questions that neatly sum up Cosmological knowledge and ignorance in Milton’s day. It is a testament to the power of poetry & blank verse that such a thread-bare understanding of the universe can be made to sound so persuasively knowledgeable.  Great stuff.

With Milton, the English Language had all but established its own literature; and Iambic Pentameter, until the  20th Century, was the normative meter in which all English speaking poets would measure themselves.

The Novelty Wears Off

After the restoration poets, the focus of poets was less on meter than on subject matter. Poets didn’t write Iambic Pentameter because they were thirsting for a new expressive meter in their own language, but because it’s use was expected. Predictably, over the next century and a half, Iambic Pentameter became rigid and rule bound.  The meter was now a tradition which poets were expected to work within.

John Keats: The Fall of HyperionThis isn’t to say that great poetry wasn’t written during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Keats’ Hyperion, short as it was, equaled and exceeded the masterful Blank Verse of Milton (perhaps some of the most beautiful blank verse ever written) – but the beauty was in his phrasing, imagery and language, not in any novel use of Iambic Pentameter. Wordsworth wrote The Prelude and Browning wrote an entire novel, The Ring & the Book, using blank verse. There was Shelley and Tennyson, but none of them developed Iambic Pentameter beyond the first examples of the Elizabethans.

The Fall of Iambic Pentameter

By the end of the Victorian Era (1837-1901), and in the hands of the worst poets, Iambic Pentameter had become little more than an exercise in filling-in-the-blanks. The rules governing the meter were inflexible and predictable. It was time for a change. The poet most credited with making that change is Ezra Pound. Whether or not Pound was, himself, a great poet, remains debatable. Most would say that he was not. What is indisputable is his influence on and associations with poets who were great or nearly great: Yeats, T.S. Eliot (whose poetry he closely edited), Ezra PoundFrost, William Carlos Williams, Marriane Moore. It was Pound who forcefully rejected the all too predictable sing-song patterns of the worst Victorian verse, who helped initiate the writing of free verse among English speaking poets. And the free verse that Pound initiated has become the indisputably dominant verse form of the 20th century and 21st century, more pervasive and ubiquitous than any other verse form in the history of English Poetry – more so than all metrical poems combined. While succeeding generations during the last 100 years, in one way or another, have rejected almost every element of the prior generation’s poetics, none of them have meaningfully questioned their parents’ verse form. The ubiquity and predictability of free verse has become as stifling as Iambic Pentameter during the Victorian era.

But not all poets followed Pound’s lead.

A wonderful thing happened. With the collapse of the Victorian aesthetic, poets who still wrote traditional poetry were also freed to experiment. Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens: Idea of Order at Key WestWallace Stevens all infused Iambic Pentameter with fresh ideas and innovations. Stevens, Frost and Yeats stretched the meter in ways that it hadn’t been stretched since the days of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatists. Robert Frost’s genius for inflection in speech was greatly enhanced by his anapestic variant feet. His poems, The Road Not Taken, and Birches both exhibit his innovative use of anapests to lend his verse a more colloquial feel. The links are to two of my own posts.

T.S. Eliot interspersed passages of free verse with blank verse.

Wallace Stevens, like Thomas Middleton, pushed Iambic Pentameter to the point of dissolution. But Stevens’ most famous poem, The Idea of Order at Key West, is elegant blank verse – as skillfully written as any poem before it.

Yeats also enriched his meter with variant feet that no Victorian poet would have attempted. His great poem, Sailing to Byzantium, is written in blank verse, as is The Second Coming.

Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Pound all came of age during the closing years of the Victorian Era. They carry on the tradition of the last 500 years, informed by the innovations of their contemporaries. They were the last. Poets growing up after the moderns have grown up in a century of free verse. As with all great artistic movements, many practitioners of the new free-verse aesthetic were quick to rationalize their aesthetic by vilifying the practitioners of traditional poetry. Writers of metrical poetry were accused (and still are) of anti-Americanism (poetry written in meter and rhyme were seen as beholden to British poetry),  patriarchal oppression (on the baseless assertion that meter was a male paradigm),  of moral and ethical corruption. Hard to believe? The preface to Rebel Angels writes:

One of the most notorious attacks upon poets who have the affrontery to use rhyme and meter was Diane Wakoski’s essay, “The New Conservatism in American Poetry” (American Book Review, May-June 1986), which denounced poets as diverse as John Holander, Robert Pinsky, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost for using techniques Wakoski considered Eurocentric. She is particularly incensed with younger poets writing in measure.

The preface goes on to note that Wakoski called Holander, “Satan”. No doubt, calling the use of Meter and Rhyme a “Conservative” movement (this at the height of Reaganism), was arguably the most insulting epithet Wakoski could hurl. So, religion, nationalism and politics were all martialed against meter and rhyme. The hegemony of free verse was and is hardly under threat. The vehemence of Wakoski’s attacks, anticipated and echoed by others, has the ring of an aging and resentful generation fearing (ironically) the demise of its own aesthetics at the hand of its children (which is why she was “particularly incensed with younger poets). How dare they reject us? Don’t they understand how important we are?

But such behavior is hardly limited to writers of free verse. The 18th century Restoration poets behaved just the same, questioning the character of any poet who didn’t write heroic couplets. Artistic movements throughout the ages have usually rationalized their own tastes at the expense of their forebears while, ironically, expecting and demanding that ensuing generations behave.

Poets who choose to write Iambic Pentameter after the moderns are swimming against a tidal wave of conformity – made additionally difficult because so many poets in and out of academia no longer comprehend the art of metrical poetry. In some halls, it’s a lost art.

blank-versePart of the cause is that poets of the generation immediately following the moderns “treated Iambic Pentameter more as a point of departure than as a form consistently sustained.” Robert B. Shaw, in his book, Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use, goes on to write, “the great volume and variety of their modernist-influenced experiments make this period a perplexing one for the young poet in search of models.” (p. 161)

Poets like Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell were uneven poets – moving in and out of Iambic Pentameter. Their efforts aren’t compelling. Karl Shapiro brought far more knowledge to bear. Robert Shaw offers up a nice quote from Shapiro:

The absence of rhyme and stanza form invites prolixity and diffuseness–so easy is it to wander on and on. And blank verse [Iambic Pentameter] has to be handled in a skillful. ever-attentive way to compensate for such qualities as the musical, architectural, and emphatic properties of rhyme; for the sense of direction one feels within a well-turned stanza; and for the rests that come in stanzas. There are no helps. It is like going into a thick woods in unfamiliar acres. (p. 137)

And some poets like to go into thick woods and unfamiliar acres. (This is, after all, still a post on why poets write Iambic Pentameter. And here is one poet’s answer.) The writing of a metrical poem, Shapiro seems to be saying, forces one to navigate in ways that free verse poets don’t have to. The free verse poet must consider content as the first and foremost quality of his or her poem. For the poet writing meter and rhyme, Shapiro implies, there is a thicket of considerations that go beyond content.

There is also John Ciardi, Howard Nemerov and, perhaps the greatest of his generation, Richard Wilbur. Wilbur writes:

There are not so many basic rhythms for American and English poets, but the possibilities of varying these rhythms are infinite. One thing modern poets do not write, thank heaven, is virtuoso poems of near perfect conformity to basic rhythms as Byron, Swinburne, and Browning did in their worst moments. By good poets of any age, rhythm is generally varied cleverly and forcefully to abet the expressive purposes of the whole poem. (p. 189)

By rhythms, Wilbur is referring to meters. Wilbur is essentially stating that when the good poet chooses to write meter, (Iambic Pentameter let’s say), he sees the rhythm (the metrical pattern) as something which, when cleverly varied, “[abets] the expressive purposes of the whole poem”. It’s a poetic and linguistic tool unavailable to the free verse poet. Period.

Robert Frost, who lived into the latter half of the 20th Century, famously quipped in response to free-verse poet Carl Sandburg:

“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Rebel AngelsAs free verse asserted an absolute domination over the poetic aesthetic, writing meter and rhyme increasingly became an act of non-conformity, even defiance. It’s in this spirit that a small group of poets, who ended up being called “New Formalists”, published a book called Rebel Angels in the mid 1990’s – the emphasis being on Rebel. The most recognizable names in the book were Dana Goioia, R.S. Gwynn,  and Timothy Steele. The preface, already quoted above, attempts to frame its poets as revolutionaries from word one:

Revolution, as the critic Monroe Spears has observed, is bred in the bone of the American character. That character has been manifest in modern American poetry in particular. So it is no surprise that the most significant development in recent American poetry has been a resurgence of meter and rhyme, as well as narrative, among large numbers of younger poets, after a period when these essential elements of verse had been surpressed.

The word “American” turns up in each of the three (first three) introductory sentences. Lest there be any mistake, the intent was to frame themselves not as Eurocentric poets beholden to an older European tradition, but as American Revolutionaries. So what does that make the poets and critics who criticize them? – un-American? -establishmentarian? – conformist? – royalist conservatives?

So it goes.

If the intent was to initiate a new movement, the movement landed with a thud. The book is out of print and, as far as  I know, few to none of the books by those “large numbers of younger poets” have actually made it onto bookshelves. The poems in the anthology are accomplished and competent, but not transcendent. None of the poets wrote anything for the ages.

The rebellion was short lived.

Modern Iambic Pentameter

Nowadays, I personally don’t notice the fierce partisanship of the previous decades. Most of the fiercest dialectic seems to be between the various schools of free verse poetics. Traditional poetry, the poetry of meter and rhyme, is all but irrelevant even as all the best selling poetry remains in meter and rhyme! – Robert Frost, Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Stevens, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Millay, Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose and the thousands of nursery rhymes that are sold to new parents.

The Green Gate: ExtractBut why do poets write Iambic Pentameter nowadays?

As far as I know, I am one of the few poets of my own generation (Generation X) writing in form, along with A.E. Stallings and Catherine Tufariello. And why do I write Iambic Pentameter? Because I like it and because I can produce effects that no poet can produce writing free verse. I’ve talked about some of those effects when analyzing poems by Shakespeare, his Sonnet 116, John Donne’s “Death be not Proud”, and Frost’s Birches. I use all of the techniques, found in these poems, in my own poetry.

I write about traditional poetry with the hope that an ostensibly lost art form can be fully enjoyed and  appreciated.

One of my favorite moments in the Star Wars series is when Ben Kenobi kills General Grievous with a blaster instead of a Light Saber. Kenobi tosses down the blaster saying: “So uncivilized.”  Blasters do the job. But it’s the Light Saber that makes the Jedi. There are just a few poets who really understand meter and rhyme.

But enough with delusions of grandeur. At right is an extract from one of my own poems. You can click on the image  to see the full poem. One of my latest poems, written in blank verse, is Erlkönigen.

To write poetry using meter or rhyme, these days, is to be a fringe poet – out of step and, in some cases, treated with disdain and contempt by poets writing in the dominant free verse  aesthetic.

There has never been a better time to be a fringe poet! It’s usually where the most innovative work is done.

  • Note: There are critics & poets who deny that meter “exists”. I tend to group them with flat-earthers and moon landing denialists. Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica, is one of them. If you’re curious to read my response to some of his writing, read Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real.

One Last Comparison

Going back to Homer’s Odyssey. One of the genres in which iambic pentameter still flourishes is in translating, suitably enough, Latin and Greek epic poetry. Here is one more modern Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) translation by Allen Mandelbaum, compared to Robert Fitzgerald’s (which we’ve already seen above). Mandalbaum’s translation was completed in 1990 – Fitzgerald’s in 1963. Seeing the same passage and content treated by two different poets gives an idea of how differently Iambic Pentameter can be treated even in modern times. The tone and color of the verse, in the hands of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum, is completely different. I still can’t decide which I like better, though readers familiar with the original claim that Fitzgerald’s is more faithful to the tone of the original.

odyssey-book-12-fitzgerald-mandelbaum

  • Here’s a good article on blank verse, mostly because of it’s generous links: Absolute Astronomy.

Afterthoughts • August 7 2010

With some distance from this post, I realize that I never discussed meter’s origins. And it is this: Song. In every culture that I’ve explored (in terms of their oldest recorded poetry) all poems originated as lyrics to popular songs. Recently discovered Egyptian poems strongly suggest  that they originated as lyrics to songs. If you read Chinese poetry, you will discover (dependent on the translator’s willingness to note the fact)  that a great many of the poems were written to the tune of this or that well-known song. Likewise, the meter of ancient Greek poetry is also said to be based on popular song tunes. Many scholars believe that the Odyssey was originally chanted by story tellers though no one knows whether the recitation might have been accompanied.

The first poems from the English continent are Anglo-Saxon. The alliterative meter of these poems, as argued by some, are a reflection that they too were written to the tune of this or that song. The early 20th century critic William Ellery Leonard, for example, held “that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf” [Creative Poetry: A Study of its Organic Principles p. 252]. Though none of his poetry survives, Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), is said to have performed his secular songs while accompanied on the harp. None of Aldhelm’s Anglo-Saxon poetry remains. What is known to us is related by the ancient English historian Willliam of Malmesbury.

In short, meter is the remnant of music’s time signature.

The roots of Iambic Pentameter are in song (just as meter in every language and culture appears to be rooted in song and music). And it’s for this reason that the twaddle of a Dan Schneider is so misleading. Likewise,  poets like Marriane Moore who postured over the artificiality of meter, were ignorant of meter’s origins. Arguments over the naturalness of meter are irrelevant. Iambic Pentameter is no more natural to the English language than the elaborate meter and rhyme of a rapper. It’s an art.

And it’s this that separates Free Verse from Traditional Poetry.

  • Image above right: Fragment of an ancient Greek song.

Conversely, free verse is not rooted in music but only imitates the typographical presentation (the lineation) of metrical poetry. Why make this distinction? Because it’s another reason why poets write Iambic Pentameter. Writing metrical poetry is an acknowledgement of poetry’s musical roots. Meter acknowledges our human capacity to find rhythm and pattern within language (as within all things). I won’t argue that it’s a better way to write poetry. However, I will argue that writing meter is to partake in a tradition of poetry that is ancient and innate.

Rhyme & Meter Online: March 22, 2009

  • A belated post this week. Not as much but I’ll add more if I find more (or by your recommendations).
  • Many discussions on various forums which, though interesting, are too changeable to reference.
  • If any readers would like to recommend sites or blogs please do! Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).
  • Search terms used to find these posts: Rhyme, Meter, Formal, Formalist, Poetry

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BennyThomas’s Weblog


Pen portraits-14

GEOFFREY CHAUCER (British)  (1340  –  1400)
Poet.

He was the fist poet to write in modern English. “He found his native tongue a dialect and left it a language”.
Son of a well to do wine merchant, he lived in the troubled times. He served in the army for some time. He was taken prisoner by the French and released only after the peace of Bretigny was signed in May 1360. He served as one of the valets of the King’s chamber and went abroad on embassies and missions. In 1366 he married one who was closely connected with the court. In 1372 he visited Genoa, Pisa and Florence. In 1382 he was appointed as comptroller of the Petty Customs and shortly after he left London for Greenwich, where he spent most of his remaining years, until just before his death, when he took a house near the Chapel of St. Mary in Westminister. In 1386 he was elected as a Knight of the shire for Kent in the Parliament. By 1389 Richard II appointed him clerk of the King’s works at Westminister...

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8th Annual Pleasanton
Poetry, Prose & Arts Festival Overview

Dana Gioia is a poet, critic and best-selling anthologist. He recently served as Chair for the National Endowment for the Arts. He is one of America’s leading contemporary men of letters. Winner of the American Book Award, Gioia is internationally recognized for his role in reviving rhyme, meter and narrative in contemporary poetry. He combines populist ideals and high standards to bring poetry to a broader audience…

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Poetics and Ruminations

The Poetry of Black Power and Black Mountain

Langston Hughes (1902-67) was among the first American Blacks to make a living as a writer.  Although he was associated with the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s and ’30s, he lived into the 1960s, “The Decade of Protest.”  As Richard K. Barksdale showed in Langston Hughes and His Critics (1977), Hughes’ output was enormous, and it covered the field; he wrote drama, fiction, autobiography, libretti for musicals, opera, and a cantata — but it is as a poet that he stood as a model for post-Modernist Blacks such as Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks (see elsewhere on this blog), Amiri Baraka, and Don L. Lee. Although Hughes was accused of being the next thing to a member of the literary establishment and of not writing enough consciousness-raising material, he was in fact the first to write civil rights protest poetry that was identifiable as such, and he did it when it was quite dangerous to do so, long before it was fashionable.

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PoemShape

John Donne & the Meter of Death be not Proud…

At the Poetry Foundation I’ve been involved in an interesting discussion on John Donne’s Sonnet: Death be not proud… As part of the discussion I started searching the web to see what others had written. (I especially wanted to find readings and performances.) But, to my astonishment, I saw that everyone was misreading the poem!

As it turns out, this Sonnet (like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116) is one of the most misread sonnets in the English Language.

Rhyme & Meter Online: Sunday February 15 2009

  • This is the first of what I hope will be a weekly Sunday post. I’ll be searching the net for whatever has been posted during the previous week – posts related to meter and rhyme in poetry. Hopefully the post will expand as I get better at it. If any readers would like to recommend sites please do so in the comment field. Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).

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Book & Reading Forums asks the Question: Is Shakespeare Poetry?


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Voices is a CD with original recordings of Icelandic folk music. The recordings were collected around Iceland in the homes of farmers, grandmothers and fishermen that still lived in the old tradition or could remember some of the old songs that had been sung in Iceland for generations. The CD contains chanting of rimur, hymns, ballads and nursery rhymes.

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Barrier of a Common Language
An American Looks at Contemporary British Poetry

About the Book

The latest offering in the Poets on Poetry series from acclaimed poet, critic, and National Endowment for the Arts’ chairman Dana Gioia, Barrier of a Common Language collects essays on British poets and poetry spanning the past two decades.

Gioia ignited a national debate on the relevance of poetry in 1991 when he published an essay in the Atlantic titled “Can Poetry Matter?” The essay was expanded into a book of the same name and went on to become one of the best-selling books of contemporary poetry criticism in the 1990s…

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The Road Not Taken

One of the loveliest poems in the English language is Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Part of the magic is in how Frost loosens meter to obtain a more colloquial tone. In one of the most enjoyable books I own (among books on Frost)  Lea Newman relates that according to a survey of 18,000 written, recorded and videotaped responses, this poem (along with Robert Frost) is America’s most popular poem…

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Between the Rhyme

Too often doing time
World is deaf and dumb and blind
Loss is less than fine
Walk between the rhyme…

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Things Fall Apart: A Guide to William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”
Notes on Form

By Bob Holman & Margery Snyder

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Able Muse Call for Submissions

Able Muse exclusively publishes formal poetry complemented by art and photography, fiction and non-fiction including essays, book reviews and interviews with a focus on metrical poetry. We are looking for well-crafted poems of any length or subject that employ skillful and imaginative use of meter and rhyme, executed in a contemporary idiom, that reads as naturally as your free verse poems. All forms of formal poetry are welcome. For an example of what we’re interested in, check the poetry of Philip Larkin, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, Derek Walcott, Marilyn Hacker, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht….

Able Muse seeks to publish established as well as new voices. We read everything and publish only the best. Send your best!

Send only previously unpublished poems. No simultaneous submissions, please. Contributions that have already been published or are being considered for publication elsewhere are not eligible to be considered for publication in Able Muse, unless a cross-publishing arrangement has previously been negotiated.



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Dr. Kim Bridgford wins prestigious NEA fellowship

Dr. Bridgford explained that a criticism of contemporary poetry is that it is too much like prose, hence the increasing appeal of the traditional form that employs rhyme and meter. Her favorite traditional form is the sonnet, a 14-line poem. “It sounds different with every little change. It appeals to my sense of detail,” she said.

Dr. Bridgford said she likes poems that are conversational, and wants readers to notice the form and rhythms. “I like to break the form and experiment with various parts of form,” she said….

The Poetry of Dana Gioia

interrogationsDana Gioia published Interrogations at Noon in 2001.

He is primarily known as an essayist and critic and is especially known for his defense of Formal Poetry. In his Notes on the New Formalism, he wrote: “the real issues presented by American poetry in the Eighties will become clearer: the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation.”

He was a contributing poet to the anthology “Rebel Angels”, which I hope to review at some later date.

Selections of his poetry can be found at his web site.

With Interrogations at Noon, Gioia is true to his preference for meter and rhyme and offers a variety of verse forms and rhyme schemes. The first poem, Words, appears to be an accentual poem. Whereas the number of syllables per line vary, one could read each line as having 5 stressed syllables. I think, to most readers, the poem would feel and read like a free verse poem. (Accentual verse is frequent in nursery rhymes, where the accentual rhythm is more easily discerned in the shorter line lengths.)

The world does not need words. It art-ic-ulates it-self
in sun-light, leaves, and sha-dows. The stones on the path
are no less real for ly-ing un-cat-alogued and un-count-ed…

The artfulness of writing accentual verse is not so demanding as accentual/syllabic, accentual verse being closer to free verse. So the poem succeeds or fails in its use of imagery, phrase and content.

And in this first poem we are greeted by many of the traits that typify the poems that follow. Gioia does not possess the same gift for imagery & language as his contemporary, A.E. Stallings. His imagery, such as it is, is generally abstracted and literary, lacking sensuality, texture, smell, feeling. One very seldom wants to linger over a given image or combination of words. His imagery and language tends to be on average, pedestrian, sometimes verging on cliche.

Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping the shoulder, the slow
arching of the neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

There is the abstraction of “articulates itself/ in the sunlight”.

Such phrases as “glancing the skin”, “gripping the shoulder”, “slow/arching of the neck or knee” are the stuff of every day prose. The phrase “silent touching of tongues” flirts with cliché. The poem concludes:

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always –
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

The sun “piercing” anything is a stock image. We have some poetic language in “painting the rocks… then dissolving each lucent droplet..” but there is no color, sense of touch, motion, sound or even sensation in any of it. Neither does one see the world in new ways as when Frost writes: “But I had the cottages in a row/ Up to their shining eyes in snow.”  Such moments of transcendent imagery are a pale rarity in Gioia’s palette. Gioia’s imagery is straightforwardly visual and the language conceptual and intellectual: as in: “The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always…” which has an elevated, antique ring to it, though not so archly archaic as A.E. Stallings’ excesses. Gioia generally avoids the archaisms favored by Stallings.

Reading Gioia, one hears the voice of a skillful essayist writing poetry. What do I mean by that? Read Robert Frost’s essays and you will hear the voice of a poet writing essays. Frost’s essays are like his poems – indirect, playful, coy. He would write lines like the following: “”Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Gioia’s poetry is like his essays – direct, intellectual and explanatory. (When I was dating, I once played the piano for a girl I was trying to impress. Her friend sniffed: “He plays the piano like a typewriter.”)

Gioia, in a nutshell, frequently writes poetically, but does not write poetry.

~

The verse form I am most passionate about is blank verse. Gioia offers us a sampling of his skills in the poem Juno Plots her Revenge.  The poems first lines are as follows:

Call me sister of the thunder god.
That is the only title I have left.
Once I was wife and queen to Jupiter,
But now, abandoned by his love and shamed
By his perpetual adultery,
I leave my palace to this mistresses.
Why not choose earth when heaven is a whorehouse?

Even the Zodiac has now become
A pantheon of prostitutes and bastards.
Look at Callisto shining in the north,
That glittering slut now guides the Grecian fleet.
Or see how Taurus rises in the south,
Not only messenger of spring’s warm nights
But the gross trophy of Europe’s rape!
Or count the stormy Pleiades — those nymphs
Who terrorize the waves, once warmed Jove’s bed.
Watch young Orion swaggering with his sword,
A vulgar upstart challenging the gods,
While gaudy Perseus flaunts his golden star.

My first reaction is to find Gioia’s blank verse very conservative. For instance, most of his lines are end-stopped, 16 out of these first 19 lines, (meaning that the end of the lines are either marked by punctuation or reflect a normal pause in speech patterns or phrase). And this is a pattern which is representative. Not even pre-Shakespearean writers of blank verse were as conservative with enjambment. The attribute marks a poet who is either an inexperienced writer of blank verse or one who is simply very conservative. It marks a poet who isn’t at ease with the form. His thoughts don’t move freely through the lines, but instead march line by line, each thought fitted therein. His skills have not transcended the verse form.

In the first seven lines there is only one line, the first line, that disrupts the iambic rhythm, the first two feet being trochaic. Some might read the first foot of the seventh line as being trochaic, but it could as comfortably be iambic. The line ends with a feminine ending – one of the few variations. The next twelve lines, like the first seven, posses only one line which varies the iambic beat. All in all, when one also considers the end-stopped lines, the effect produced is stodgy and wooden. The natural rhythms of the language which skillful poets use to counterpoint the iambic rhythm, are missing in Gioia’s conception of the form. Too much efficiency.

Lastly, one meets with the same sort of imagery as in the first poem of the book. There is an over-reliance on adjectives and, inasmuch as he uses adjectives, they are repetitive (as in the 4 line proximity of “warm nights” and “warmed Jove’s bed” and they are unimaginative – gross trophy, stormy Pleiades, young Orion, vulgar upstart, gaudy Perseus, golden star. These adjectives all serve their purpose, but they are stale and overused. They evoke nothing. One feels, after a point, that they are more for metrical padding (making sure there are enough syllables in a given line). One hopes that if Gioia writes more blank verse, he eschews such adjectives. The effect might be to add more flexibility to his line, favoring enjambment.

A more successfully attempt at blank verse can be found in Descent to the Underworld. The Iambic Pentameter shows greater flexibility in its flow of thought – which more freely overlaps from one line to the next.

At first the way is not
Entirely dark. Some daylight filters down
And gives the cave that same bleak iridescence
The sun shows in eclipse. But gradually
The path descends into undending twilight.

The iambic pentameter is till relatively conservative (perhaps too much so) but by Gioia’s standards, even here, there is some loosening.

There are no grassy meadows bright with flowers,
No fields of tassled corn swaying in the wind,
No soft green vistas for the eye…

Goya probably means to elide the word swaying so that it is read as one syllable, but a trochaic fourth foot is a daring departure for Gioia.

~

Gioia’s rhyming poems give a similar impression – of the poet who writes line by line. In the two poems considered, The End of the World and The End of Time, all the lines in both poems are end-stopped.The former poem begins:

“We’re going,” they said, “to the end of the world.”
So they stopped the car where the river curled,
And we scrambled down beneath the bridge
On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.

This first poem is written in heroic couplets – though some prefer to reserve that term for longer, narrative poems. (It is written in rhyming couplets.) The latter poem follows an ABAB rhyming pattern. Because each phrase and grammatical unit ends neatly with the end of each line, the flow of the poems wants to pause with each line, as though each line were its own independent accomplishment. The natural ebb and flow of the language is overrulled by the demands of the form – the very sort of writing that prompts scorn from poets who prefer free verse.

Gioia is at his best in shorter, pithier poems. And he is at his best when writing in that indistinct syllabic poetry or accentual poetry that exists somewhere between free verse and formal verse. He is at his best when he doesn’t have to hew to a meter or rhyme scheme. Pentecost is just such a poem.

Neither the sorrows of afternoon, waiting in the silent house,
Nor the night no sleep relieves, when memory
Repeats its prosecution.

Nor the morning’s ache for dream’s illusion, nor any prayers
Improvised to an unknowable god
Can extinguish the flame.

We are not as we were. Death has been our pentecost,
And our innocence consumed by these implacable
Tongues of fire.

Comfort me with stones. Quench my thirst with sand,
I offer you this scarred and guilty hand
Until others mix our ashes.

This is the poetry of a direct and unpretentious voice. Freed from the constraints he imposes on himself in other poems, he speaks directly and simply. His thoughts move freely from one line to the next. The poem, written on the death of his son, is poignant in its directness. This is Gioia at his best. Other poems like this: After a Line by Cavafy, Accomplice, (and my favorite) Homage to Valerio Magrelli – a series of verses, each short, written in free verse, unpretentious, direct and well-turned. While his imagery is not transcendent, while there’s nothing that makes one want to pause with admiration, he can nevertheless be sensitive to just the right description:

…stranded in thought,
on the lonely delta of the spirit
as entangled as a woman’s sex.

Or

..in the equilibrium of their design
untouched and overlaid like the wooden pieces
in a game of pick-up sticks.

Gioia’s ability to hew phrase and thought to any given structure is skillful but not surpassing.

He is a poet able to shape his thoughts to the demands of whatever form he undertakes, but he fails to create the illusion that the form has grown organically from the unforced working-out of ideas. Writing formal poems successfully requires a flexible and creative mind able to both follow and lead the demands of the chosen form.

Gioia is at his best when writing just a little outside the constraints of formal verse.

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