Iambic Pentameter’s “neutrality” & Annie Finch’s defense of non-Iambic Meters

double-troubleRecently, I got into an email discussion with the poet Annie Finch concerning my scansion of Robert Frost’s Birches. I added some of that conversation to the post itself simply because I thought it might be interesting to other readers. Unlike me, Annie Finch has actually made something of herself. She teaches in Maine and has published several books of poetry, one of which I reviewed here, and has also published a guide to poetry: A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. She’s even earned her own entry in Wikipedia. The opening paragraph, as of December 2016, says of her: “Dictionary of Literary Biography names her ‘one of the central figures in contemporary American poetry’ for her role, as poet and critic, in the contemporary reclamation of poetic meter and form.”

So, she has some very definite opinions concerning meter and how poems should be scanned. And just as human beings can’t agree on so much as boiling eggs, we disagreed  on the scansion of Frost’s Birches.

But an interesting upshot of the conversation was her mention of an article she wrote for a book called After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative, and Tradition, a compendium of essays she curated and edited. Her own essay is entitled “Metrical Diversity: A Defense of the Non-Iambic Meters”. What she’s “defending” non-iambic meters from is the generally accepted assertion that the cadence of the English language is predominantly, and in the most general sense, iambic, and that all non-Iambic meters are therefore ‘unnatural’ or counter to the prevailing cadence of English.

And I agree with this latter assertion.

I favor keeping things simple. Take any sentence in the English language in which there is only a monosyllabic subject and  verb and it will normally always be iambic.

I am. I think. I love. You drink. You ate. We sing. We dance.

Likewise, any  monosyllabic noun in combination with a definite article will normally always be iambic

The stick. The house. The beer. The hope. The dream.

Any combination of indefinite and definite article with a monosyllabic noun is assumed to be iambic.

My road. His house. Their beer. Our hope. Her dream.

Now combine these basic patterns, the most elemental building blocks of the English language, and you have a language that is, at root, naturally iambic.

I love my house. You drink a beer. We dance the dream.  I think therefore I am.

If one accepts that the grounding cadence of the English language is iambic, then all other accentual patterns can be understood as variations on that basic pattern.

I love my red house. You drink a warm beer. We dance a happy dream.

The anapest can be understood as fulfilling the iambic cadence with an extra syllable. The same can be said for the amphibrachic ‘I whittled’, in which the extra syllable follows the iamb. And though the absorption of French and Latin vocabulary added more variety in the cadence of our language—I contrived, she unraveled, they capitulated—the monosyllabic and iambic roots of English encourage us to hear the iambs in these combinations, rather than the trochees. We instinctively emphasize the second syllable in each verb, turning each example into an anapest or, as above, an iamb with extra syllables.

  • By contrast, in the Finnish language, words are normally accented on the first syllable  and so the writing of the Finnish Kalevala in a trochaic meter as as natural (or neutral) to their language as Paradise Lost’s blank verse is to English.

But watch what happens if I do this:

My road. His house. Their horse. Our hope. Her dream.

Suddenly the patten is no longer iambic but trochaic. At which point the devil’s advocate might interject: “Ah ha! You see! The iambic rhythm isn’t intrinsic, only contextual.”  However, the very fact that the articles need to be italicized (in order to be read as trochaic)  proves the rule, and that’s that the building blocks of all English sentences are iambic. One might endlessly quibble over trochaic, cretic and amphibrachic patterns, but the fact remains that the most basic syntactic units of the English language are far and away iambic and if they’re not iambic—emphatic formulations like Stop it! Hit me! Catch her !—they are emphatic precisely because they disrupt English’s normal iambic cadence. In short, anapests, trochees and amphibrachs are best understood as variations on an iambic ground. Even when reading non-iambic meters, the English speaking ear looks for iambs.

And this is why most audience members will listen to a recitation of Robert Frost’s Mending Wall and never realize that it’s relatively strict Iambic Pentameter. The basic building blocks of blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) and the English Language are one and the same, the ear finds nothing immediately unusual about Frost’s blank verse (the only meter that can pull this off). And setting aside differences in Elizabethan and Restoration English, the same can be said for Shakespeare and Milton’s iambic verse, or Keats or Wordsworth.

As Finch herself concedes, “all but a tiny portion of poetry in English has been written so far in iambic pentameter” [p. 117]. That’s not sheer coincidence. However, Finch immediately tries to reframe that inconvenient fact. She continues: “…it is important to recognize that the iambic pentameter is not a neutral or essentially ‘natural’ meter. It’s connotations are distinct and culturally defined.”

And with that assertion Finch apparently considers her work done. She provides no explanation as to what she means by “distinct and culturally defined”. Apparently the obviousness of her assertion doesn’t merit an explanation. And that academically imperious phrase, “it is important to recognize“, does nothing to lend validity.

For me, at last, the entirety of her essay falls apart with this assertion. One either accepts what she thinks the reader should recognize, or one doesn’t. And I don’t. I’m really not seeing any room for debate: the basic syntactic building blocks of the English language are iambic. Try it for yourself. See if you can come up with a monosyllabic subject/verb or definite article/noun combination that isn’t iambic.

Finch then goes on to observe that when iambic pentameter was first being established “it was characterized by no substitution at all, clumsy substitution, and ‘forcing’ the meter.” She asserts that “perhaps the early history of non-iambic meters is developing analogously with the early history of the iambic pentameter”.

What Finch fails to mention is that this early history of Iambic Pentameter barely lasted two decades—if that. Sackville and Norton’s Gorboduc, the poster child for stiff Iambic Pentameter, was written in 1561. Between 1582 and 1592, Kyde produced The Spanish Tragedy and modern blank verse was underway. By comparison, as Finch herself states, non-iambic verse has “only”, quote-unquote, had “the past two centuries” to become “a barely accepted presence in English-language written poetry”. In what world are two decades in Elizabethan England analogous to two centuries?—and counting? I think, rather, what this firmly argues, once again, is that non-iambic meters are not “neutral”. Secondly, the reason for iambic pentameter’s initial strictness wasn’t because the ear was unaccustomed to the meter but because there was no history of blank verse when Norton and Sackville, for example, were writing. They were making it up and so, naturally, wrote a strict meter. After two centuries (and three or four centuries of metrical poetry in general), the same argument can’t be made for non-iambic meters.

The more traditional argument against non-iambic meters being “neutral” is that non-iambic meters don’t fare well with “substitution” (and by substitution we mean variant feet). Finch writes:

“Of the many questions that have yet to be answered about the nature of non-iambic meters, perhaps the most essential is the question of their hospitiality to metrical substitution. The prosodist Martin Halpern formalized in 1962 the idea, now a truism, that iambic meter is different from all the other meters because it alone can absorb substitutions with varying degrees of stress.”

This simply means that introducing a variant foot in an iambic pentameter line is less disturbing to the meter than doing so in a trochaic or dactylic line. For example, a dactylic poem:

And | where’s there a | scene more de | lightfully seeming
To | eyes like to | mine that is | blinded wi love
Than | yon setting | sun on the | steeple point gleaming
And | blue mist deep | tinging the edge | of the grove.

~ Song by John Clare p. 87 from Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters

Now let’s put in some “substitutions” (italics) and see how it works:

And |where’s there a scene more delightfully seeming
To |eyes like both of mine each blinded wi love
Than yon setting sun on the |steeple point reflecting
And |blue mist deep |tinging the edge |of the grove.

So, how distracting were the substitutions in the rewrite? If you say very, and most do, that (in a nutshell) is the argument against non-iambic meters being “neutral”. Because blank verse is built on the same iambic building blocks as the English language, it’s rhythm isn’t quite so easily undermined by so many substitutions/variant feet (italics):

To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

To read dactylic meter is a deliberate act in a way that reading blank verse isn’t. This is because no sustained dactylic meter is ever going to sound like normal speech and this is because dactylic meters aren’t “neutral”. The same is true for anapestic meters and trochaic meters. And contrary to Finch’s vague assertion, this isn’t just a matter of cultural distinctions and definitions. This is why readers, when confronted with more  ambiguous lines (than mine above) are tempted “to force the pronunciation of certain words to fit the meter”. For instance:

“All the wild-fowl sang them to him,
In the moorlands and the fen-lands,
In the melancholy marshes;
Chetowaik, the plover, sang them,
Mahng, the loon, the wild-goose, Wawa,
The blue heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
And the grouse, the Mushkodasa!”

~ The Song of Haiwatha [Italics mine.]

Finch writes:

“As Timothy Steele puts it, ‘trochaics and triple meters… haven’t the suppleness and the capacity for fluid modulation that iambic measures have, not do they tolerate the sorts of variations (e.g. inverted feet at line beginnings or after mid-line pauses) that the texture of iambic verse readily absorbs.’ Steele gives as an example a line from Longfellow: ‘The blue heron, the Shuh,shu-gah,’ and comments ‘it is unlikely that we would emphasize the two definite articles… but that is what Longfellow wishes us to do since he is writing in trochaic tetrameter.’ This line of reasoning constitutes a tautological trap in which to catch non-iambic meters; because the meter is trochaic, we assume the pronunciation is meant to be unnatural; then we damn the trochaic meter for forcing unnatural pronunciations. According to this common conception, “substitutions” in a non-iambic meter  do not substitute at all, but actually demand that we “force” the pronunciation of certain words to fit the meter. Non-iambic meters are held to be so overbearing that they can’t allow word-stresses an independent and counterpointing rhythm.” [pp. 119-120]

Once again Finch’s argument seems to fall apart. On what basis does a reader “assume” the pronunciation “is meant to be unnatural”? Before reading the poem? How would they know? And why would a reader “force the pronunciation” unless their assumption (if they made one) was confirmed?—in which case it’s no longer an assumption. The problem is in the way Finch frames the argument. She implies that the reader imposes the idea of “unnaturalness” on the meter. But since the reader normally has no way of knowing the meter before reading the poem, on what basis would a reader make such an assumption? The meter itself is what imposes expectations on the reader as they’re reading. This is Steele’s point. This isn’t about retrospectively “catching” non-iambic meters. This is a recognition that a trochaic meter, because it’s in tension with the English language’s normal iambic cadence, all the more forcefully shapes a reader’s expectations.

And as far as that goes, Steele is mistaken in asserting that “this is what Longfellow wishes us to do”. In fact, Steele has no idea. It’s quite likely, as Finch argues, that Longfellow didn’t intend us to read the lines as trochaic. But what Finch doesn’t acknowledge is that it’s the meter itself that creates this expectation (perhaps despite Longfellow’s intentions). That said, if the adjective “blue” and the first “shuh” is sufficiently demoted (un-stressed) I can almost hear the lines as trochaic. To be honest, the  first line of the extract troubles me more than the line quoted by Steele and FInch. The meter wants us to read it like this:

All the |wild-fowl |sang them| to him

I read it this way:

All the |wild fowl |sang them| to him

And if I’m trying to read the poem as trochaic, I definitely feel the variant feet much more so than if the line were iambic.

Lastly, Finch’s statement that “while some student poets write metrical poetry most easily and happily in iambs, and equal number (in my experience) write it most easily and happily in dactyls and trochees,” has nothing whatsoever to do with whether a non-iambic meter is “neutral”. With enough practice one may skillfully walk backwards, but no one would conclude that walking backwards is as natural as walking forwards. Our bodies have evolved to walk a certain direction and all the evidence thus far (including several centuries of metrical practice) argues the evolution of the English language has and continues to favor an iambic cadence.

But the most intriguing question, to me, is why Annie Finch is even making the argument?

Why does it matter, to her, that non-iambic meters be seen as neutral? Does she think students are discouraged from writing non-iambic meters? Does she think it will change how non-iambic meters are written? Is it because she thinks her own poetry, which is often non-iambic, suffers neglect?

One answer she herself gives:

“Prosodic systems which maintain that only iambs can form a metrical base for substitution deny these students who might enjoy non-iambic meters the chance to develop skill in modulating them.” [p. 121]

This reasoning, of course, reflects her belief that 600 years of metrical practice is solely due to connotations “that are distinct and culturally defined”. In other words, our favoring of iambics has nothing to do with the language but is solely arbitrary—nurture rather than nature. Given that set of beliefs, it’s no wonder she’d blame “prosodic systems” for discouraging metrical experimentation. I’m not buying it though.

I personally think there’s more promise in asking whether non-iambic meters have been, or ever were, in any sense subversive. One of the earliest and most famous examples of trochaic meter, interestingly enough, comes from Thomas Middleton’s addition (as modern Shakespearean scholars assert) to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The cant of the three witches:

1 WITCH.  Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
2 WITCH.  Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d.
3 WITCH.  Harpier cries:—’tis time! ’tis time!
1 WITCH.  Round about the caldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH.  Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
3 WITCH.  Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg’d i the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,—
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingrediants of our caldron.
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH.  Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

The whole archetype of the witch is nothing if not subversive—both in accusation and practice. And I think it’s cool as all get out that Shakespeare/Middleton flipped the meter. Is there another example like this in other plays of the era? Right now, I can’t think of any. And what’s really cool is that the witches continue to address Macbeth and Banquo in trochaics, and also later in Act 4.

But why would the playwrights continue to have them speak in trochaics?

The answer is that the meter was distinctive and immediately recognizable to Elizabethan audiences. Finch will write:

“Few if any poets in our own century have written non-iambic meters that are subtly modulated and meant to be read aloud with natural speech stress, according to our twentieth-century preference. The fact, however, does not necessarily mean it cannot be done.” [p. 118]

Despite the hedging and wishful “few”, we can safely say that no poets have done so. Either Finch knows of an example or she doesn’t. So while I would be hesitant to say it can’t be done, we do know that it hasn’t been done; and I would bet against it simply because the witches’ cant is just as startling, hair-raising, and memorable today as 400 years ago. Our perception of trochaic meter hasn’t changed.

Finch’s desire to make metrical substitutions in non-iambic verse “natural” is essentially an effort to normalize non-iambic meters. To which I say: Why? The beauty of trochaic verse, among other non-iambic meters, is precisely that it can’t be normalized, that it’s difficult to pull off, and that that’s what makes the meter immediately recognizable.

And I would think, given Finch’s use of non-iambic meters and her self-identification with Wiccan practices, she would want to explore their potential disruptiveness. Have non-Iambic meters ever been actively exploited politically? Has trochaic meter, beyond Shakespeare’s Macbeth, ever been purposefully identified with the ‘witch’, the magical being, the disruptive female?

I don’t know.

Interestingly, and as an aside perhaps, Longfellow wasn’t the first American poet to tell a story about native Americans using trochees. The poet Schoolcraft wrote a romantic poem called Alhalla, or the Lord of Talladega, also in trochaic tetrameter. In the preface:to the poem Schoolcraft wrote:

“The meter is thought to be not ill adapted to the Indian mode of enunciation. Nothing is more characteristic of their harangues and public speeches, than the vehement yet broken and continued strain of utterance, which would be subject to the charge of monotony, were it not varied by the extraordinary compass in the stress of voice, broken by the repetition of high and low accent, and often terminated with an exclamatory vigor, which is sometimes startling. It is not the less in accordance with these traits that nearly every initial syllable of the measure chosen is under accent. This at least may be affirmed, that it imparts a movement to the narrative, which, at the same time that it obviates languor, favors that repetitious rhythm, or pseudo-parallelism, which so strongly marks their highly compound lexicography.”

With Schoolcraft’s preface in mind, Longfellow was to write:

“Your article . . . needs only one paragraph more to make it complete, and that is the statement that parallelism belongs to Indian poetry as well to Finnish… And this is my justification for adapting it in Hiawatha.”

22 responses

    • Hey, that’s cool. I wrote to her concerning the question of subversiveness and trochaics, but she never responded. Doesn’t surprise me she’s thought about it. I have to wonder though, what constitutes “a conscious tradition in African American poetics”? I’ve noticed that Finch tends to make non-specific/generalized assertions without really backing them up.

      Based on her Poetry Foundation article though, I just ordered some Gwendolyn Brooks from Amazon. :)

      Liked by 1 person

    • So I’ve been thinking about the Brooks example on Finch’s Poetry Foundation article:

      Think of sweet and chocolate,
      Left to folly or to fate,
      Whom the higher gods forgot,
      Whom the lower gods berate;
      Physical and underfed
      Fancying on the featherbed
      What was never and is not. . .

      Really beautiful poetry, but is it really trohaic? One could just as easily call these iambic tetrameter with a headless first foot. It strikes me as purely arbitrary to call these lines trochaic — in which case they’re trochaic tetrameter with a truncated final foot or, more formally: Trochaic Tetrameter Catalectic; which is just another name for: Headless Iambic Tetrameter.


      I would call Brooks’s meter trochaic in name only, and the same with Cullen’s verse.

      Once one starts reading Brooks’s lines, it’s almost impossible not to read them as Iambic (with their firmly Iambic endings). I guess I’m already questioning the assertions in Finch’s Poetry Foundation article.


  1. Another thing I’ve thought to mention: Keppel-Jones, in The Strict Metrical Tradition makes some comments of his own as to what he believes the reasons to be that iambic meter more readily accommodates metrical variation than trochaic meter: pages 35-36, and Note 1.


    • So as soon as I read your comment I got my copy of Jones’s book. I’m on board with his explanation—sort of. The only thing he doesn’t do is explain why readers read pairs of syllables as iambic units more “easily”, if that’s the right word, than trochaic units. He claims he does with his discussion of “resolution points” but Jones’s explanation wouldn’t work in the case of Finnish poetry (for example) where a trochaic meter is more natural. In that case Jones’s explanation would have to be turned on its head, which reveals his reasoning to be entirely arbitrary. What he doesn’t say, for some inexplicable reason, is that it’s the English language itself that is Iambic. Not sure why he’s so reluctant. As long as one isn’t willing acknowledge that, any other explanation will be arbitrary.


    • So the relevant question then is, how readily does Finnish trochaic meter accommodate metrical variation, compared to English iambic meter? I know nothing about Finnish poetry! Is this a question you have information on?


    • A first rate question and I don’t have information on that, though it would be easy enough to find a Finnish poet online.

      I’ll try that.

      This caveat though: If one is really going to compare English and Finnish in this manner, it wouldn’t be enough that Finnish is a “trochaic language”. We’d also want to know whether Finnish vocabulary, syntax and grammar makes substitutions as necessary (or possible) as in English. However, all else being equal, I would expect that trochaic meter would be as amendable to substitutions as iambic meter in English.

      But off I go, looking for a Finnish poet. :) And I have an in: My wife’s cousin/kind-of-like-a-brother is getting married in Finland to a Finnish girl.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that’s a happy coincidence! And it would also be interesting to find out if iambic meter is used at all in Finnish, and if so, how it compares in flexibility to it’s own trochaic meter. I certainly admire your diligence!


  2. Interesting. I was writing in iambs before I knew what iambs were. In fact sometimes in my political blogging I have to go back and revise out the iambs, alliteration, and assonance. I put this down to my genes interacting with the language I was raised in. But emotional investment does seem to contribute to it. Guess if I had grown up in Finland I’d be a trochee sound machine.


    • Ha! A trochee sound machine. :) That made me smile. I hear Finnish women are quite attracted to trochee sound machines; but not iambic. Such men are considered defective. It’s a cultural thing. Kind of like trying to impress a female cardinal with blue, tail feathers.


  3. Many thanks for your article.

    Derek’s Attridge chapter called “Enduring Form” in his book “Moving Words: Forms of English Poetry” (Oxford, 2013) was a great help to me in dealing with these questions. He describes a form he calls the “dolnik” (from a Russian term), which is based on a strong rhythmic pattern of (usually) four beats per line. The spaces between the beats may be blank or filled with one or two (or sometimes more) syllables. “(B)eats can be omitted and experienced silently…” The form is pervasive in English poetry, from its earliest days to the present. It was particularly well-exploited by some Romantics and many Victorians: Scott, Browning, Swinburne, Tennyson, and many more. It is common in poetry per se as well as song. Attridge argues that it makes no sense to try and analyze this form in terms of iambs, trochees, etc., and other accentual-syllabic principles; “there are no feet.” He says, “Although the ear finds dolnik verse the easiest metrical form to grasp, we have seen that the prosodist working with the traditional tools finds it highly problematic.” (p. 175)

    A few examples from his chapter, identified by their first lines:

    Scott: The feast was over in Branksome tower

    Tennyson: Break, break, break

    Swinburne: Here, where the world is quiet;

    Kipling: Oh, East is East, and West is West

    de la Mare: ‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller

    Wendy Cope: Bloody men are like bloody buses

    Auden: As I walked out one evening


    • Thanks Pohaku, another name for that would be accentual. Its the “meter” of Mother Goose. I suppose one could call the “form” dolnik, but I’m not sure I see the reason (unless Attridge is referring to something more than just the accentual beat)?


    • First, I’ve discovered that Attridge’s article is found in what looks like much the same form in “The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry,” edited by Matthew Bevis. That may be more accessible if you wish to read the article.

      What I find about “accentual” verse applies the term to Old English verse and nursery rhymes, for the most part. Attridge says that the dolnik is different from “accentual” verse and cannot be analyzed with the traditional tools of prosody. He gives nine characteristics of the dolnik and says, “Although this metrical form is highly familiar to any reader familiar with the tradition of English verse…it is not mentioned in Stallworthy’s essay in the Norton Anthology, nor in most other introductions to English versification” (p. 153 in “Moving Words”). He is pointing out a huge realm of English poetry which is simply not amenable to the usual analyses, which depend on thinking of poems as made up of feet. “The student is left to struggle with the Procrustean task of mapping feet with Greek names onto resistant lines of verse, or manhandling sequences of elementary rhythms based on a simple prindiple of doubling into the complex abstract grids provided by traditional prosody.”


    • So… here’s an article I found, online, by Attridge, which argues for the introduction of the term dolnik:


      The thing I don’t get (and maybe this article is different from the one you’re referring to?) is that the descriptor “accentual verse” isn’t mentioned once! It can’t be true, but one is tempted to think Attridge has never heard of the term? In reading Auden’s poem (he gives as an example) I see no reason why one couldn’t call it accentual? And when Attridge concernedly observes that the poem isn’t amenable to accentual-syllabic scansion—Captain Obvious?

      That’s why we’d call it accentual (and the term was never limited to Old English or nursery rhymes). With accentual verse we dispense with the kind of scansion we’d apply to accentual-syllabics. So I still don’t see why Attridge thinks we need to the term Dolnik? Strikes me as a solution without a problem.


      Not trying to be a jerk, just sayin’ though.


    • I am no expert in what prosodists have meant by accentual verse, but Attridge’s definition of the dolnik is far different from the Wikipedia definition of accentual verse. Terms aside, the reason I brought this to your attention in the first place is that it opens another line of inquiry regarding the idea that English is somehow an iambically-inclined language. Dolniks, which pop up everywhere once the form is understood, are not iambic; they aren’t put together with feet at all.


    • Accentual Verse: A regular number of accented syllables per line in any given poem or stanza.

      Now you’re an expert.

      Here’s Attridge’s definition of a Dolnik:

      1.) It derives its characteristic rhythmic swing from the four-line, four-beat structure;

      2.) It increases that rhythmic swing by employing a variety of offbeat types, including single unstressed offbeats, double unstressed offbeats, single stressed (that is, demoted) offbeats, and implied or virtual offbeats (where the absence of a syllable demands compensation from the reader). Occasionally, double offbeats may include a stressed syllable, but such is the insistence of the metre that in performance these will usually lose most of their stress.

      3.) It may avail itself of the particular freedom of the opening of the line, beginning without an offbeat, or with any of the types of offbeat just mentioned. Depending on the choices made at this point, it can feel like a version of iambic or of trochaic verse, or neither.

      That’s an accentual poem.

      Okay, so, getting to the bottom of this: It seems that Attridge has recognized (or claims) that many accentual poems have 4 beats per line and a four line “structure” (as opposed to stanza?). He discovered that this “form” was described by the Russian metrist Tarlinskaja (one of whose books I read when I was younger) as ” four-beat verse with extensive variation in the offbeats”—and she called it a “Dolnik”. Attridge apparently decided, like a Mormon baptizing the dead, that he would retroactively baptize all such poems, regardless of when they were written, as “Dolniks”.

      Personally, I won’t be doing that. And the reason is that it gives the false impression that any given poet sat down and thought to himself: “Today I shall write a Dolnik.” I’ll still be calling such poems accentual poems that have four beat lines within a four line “structure”. If a 21rst century poet, having read Attridge or Tarlinskaja wants to call his poem a Dolnik, I have no problem with that and will happily call it such.

      It seems Attridge has also created a new method of scansion. Behold the wheel. Invented. Again. (Every 20 years or so.) Here’s what his new method of scansion looks like:

      To be, or not to be—that is the question:
      o B o B o B [o] B -o- B o
      Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
      B -o- B o b o B o B o
      The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
      o B o B o b o B o B o
      Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
      -o- B ô B o B o B o B o
      And by opposing end them …
      o b o B o B o …

      How this is an improvement over standard scansion is utterly beyond me. From here. Apparently Robert C.L. Crawford, who wrote the linked article, thinks it’s mighty fine kool-aid. He writes:

      Remarkably, in terms of prosodic understanding, meter was only set on its true basis in the late 20th century, with Derek Attridge’s theory and method of beat prosody. (The most accessible overview is Meter and Meaning by Attridge and Carper.) Attridge saw that in metrical poetry the stresses and unstresses give rise to the emergent property of beats, which is itself the fundamental basis of meter. This provides not only a new theoretic basis for meter but also an improved scansion method with new variables…

      Here are the symbols and their meaning:

      B = Stress
      b = Promotion
      O = Demotion
      o = unstress
      -o- = oo
      ô = (denoting no punctuation between beats)
      [o] – (denoting punctuation between beats)

      The “new and improved) scansion offers absolutely nothing beyond traditional scansion (and less since there are no foot markings).Anyone with enough interest to bother scanning a poem will know, with traditional scansion, when a word is being promoted or demoted. And besides that, who cares? Does the reader really need to know if a word was promoted or demoted? Why? And denoting when there is or isn’t punctuation? Seriously? You mean the reader can’t just, oh I don’t know, look at the actual line of poetry? Crawford seems to think this method of scansion better captures “the rhythmic movement as a whole”. But so what? The information is all but useless and meaningless. What conclusion does one draw by seeing “the rhythmic movement as a whole”? It’s no different than those screensavers that turn music into colorful geometries. The information might be remotely useful in authorship studies, in terms of pattern recognition, but beyond that? Meaningless. Of interest only to linguists and lab technicians.

      Traditional scansion is lovely and beautiful in it’s simplicity.

      It’s only use is, first, in giving beginning students a simple, visual representation of accentual-syllabic meter and two, giving linguists and scholars a scaffold on which to build tools like authorship studies.


    • Ha! Well, you know, not only have I read her but I just looked through my “library” and here she is. =) Shakespeare’s Verse: Iambic Pentameter and the Poet’s Idiosyncracies. She’s as dry as chalk dust in Death Valley after a 50 year drought — on Venus just after a super nova — lots of tables and statistics (she’s really more of a statistician). But you seem to be as weirdly obsessed with this stuff as I am, so I think you’d like her. She goes deep. And really, every book of hers is a ‘case book’ on how incredibly powerful scansion can be to precisely fingerprint the way this or that poet uses language—meter, syntax, grammar. Tarlinskaja shows how Shakespeare tailers meter and syntax between specific characters.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Cool! Her ‘Shakespeare and the Versification of English Drama’ looks like an interesting title as well. I’ll just keep checking for some cheap second-hand copies!


    • You might be waiting a long time. I just noticed it too, and ordered a copy. [Cough… ack… choke…] But it was just published in 2014 and that’s about what you can expect to pay for a University publication. And after just two years, that’s not the kind of book that shows up in used bookstores [edit: cheaply]. Wait ten years and it might be discarded by a Library in Topeka, Kansas. But I wouldn’t bet on it. And no used bookseller is going to give you a deal.

      My advice: Having a couple decades of experience with books like these.

      1.) Get it from the Library.
      2.) Get the Kindle Version — “only” $54.95.
      3.) Suck it up and get it now because one of two things will happen (again based on experience): A.) Because there are probably all kinds of tables and graphs in it (and frankly only a niche of the niche of the niche buy this book) Routledge probably didn’t print that many hard copies (and you’re paying for a hell of a lot of work). If you think it’s expensive now, you just wait. There’s already some twit on Amazon selling it for a thousand two hundred and fifteen dollars. B.) If every used bookseller decides this book is their retirement fund, then you’re at the mercy of the publisher and will have to wait until they deign to print another hard copy in the next twenty or thirty years.

      Take a look at ABE Books. I just ordered my copy from there. Got it for $86. (When it comes to expensive books, they’re almost always cheaper than Amazon.) But I just noticed a used book seller selling it at Amazon for the same price. The mid 80’s seems to be the bottom range for this book.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: