Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry Issue-1 2008

Measure 2008Here is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while – recommend Measure and a couple of poets within.

Measure is one of the few journals devoted to publishing poetry in meter and rhyme – published by the University of Evansville Press. In the name of supporting the journal, I’ve included address, subscription info and submission guidelines at the bottom.

The poetry, by the way, isn’t as fraught as their cover art. “Fraught” cover art seems to be all the rage among poetry journals these days – at least the ones I”m familiar with. I let a subscription to Poets & Writers Magazine expire when, for a year, every single cover had a distressed, pensive, burdened-by-the-weight-of-their-own-profundity, poet on it. Seriously.

Anyway.

All of the poets in Measure possess an enjoyable gift for language, can write elegantly, skillfully and succinctly within a form, but some of the poets offer more than a melodious line and exposition.

Some Poets to Watch

Peter Swanson: A Distant Figure P. 128

The poem is written in 5  sextains. Swanson uses off-rhyme which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t – being the nature of off-rhyme. (The rhyme scheme fades in and out.) Dickinson’s poems feel this way to me too.

The meter of the poem is Iambic Tetrameter – on the conservative side with just a handful of variant feet. No complaint – just observing. In addition to his skillful use of meter and phrasing, his poetry offers fresh imagery and figurative language.

Love this image:

…in her wake
The light, a thousand nickles, fall
As though each wheeling stroke unfurls
A broken sun upon the lake.

Swanson falls back on the all too metrically convenient upon – a usage I’ve criticized in Stallings’ poetry. It’s an antiquated word and, besides that, Swanson uses the word incorrectly (as many metrical poets do). On and Upon are not always interchangeable. “To indicate a relation between two things, however, instead of between an action and an end point, upon cannot always be used: Hand me the book on (not upon) the table.” – Random House Dictionary. I’ve probably been guilty of it myself at some point.

Here’s some nice figurative language:

So many girls like her…
…clambered up
Into the coddling air…

Coddling air is a nice example of catachresis and personification.

But it’s the aptness of his imagery I enjoy the most. This is a poet who thinks deeply about analogy, simile and metaphor. He doesn’t settle for just any metpahor, but the metaphors he chooses inform the matter of his poetry. There are other examples, but here is the final stanza of his poem in full.

That rock, he knows, will outlast us,
Will feel another century
Of girls declare its back their bed
On summer days. That rock will see
Them burn away to rainbow dust,
Like dragonflies, by winter dead.

The skill of the imagery reminds me of Richard Wilbur, though Swanson’s phrasing is rougher. Setting off rainbow dust with the simile, like dragonflies, by winter dead is a master stroke, capturing the brilliant and moist (rainbow’s are a result of water droplets) beauty of the girl along with the inevitable transient dessication of her beauty. That’s the beauty of a masterful metaphor. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a good metaphor can launch a thousand pictures.

Caki Wilkinson: Two Lullabies Page 150

Wilkinson offers up a pair of poems in ballad meter, two lullabies, one for the “precious child” and one for the “ugly child”. While the poems don’t plumb the depths of human existence, I was tweaked by her imaginitive imagery and acerbic wit. She writes of the precious child:

Tonight you’ll dream of open doors
and scoops of sherbet skies
while schooners sail from distant shores
led by your violet eyes

The imagery in the rest of this first poem to the precious child is comparatively conventional, but these four lines are imaginitive and wild. I liked them. This is a poet with an imagist’s bent. In the Lullaby for the Ugly Child she shows the same imaginative reach, she writes:

she’ll watch the nursury shadows bloom
as auspices of crows.

Dead Matter Page 152

A second poem by Wilkinson, a Shakespearean Sonnet, delights again.

…sycamores unroll their yellow sleeves,
when rust moves through the maple’s palmate veins…

or

…fruits of labor steep in garbage bags
cooked by the very juices of their birth…

My 0nly complaint, as concerns Wilkinson’s sonnet, is that all but one of her lines are end-stopped. The sonnet gives the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that it was studiously written line by line.

A.M. Juster: No Page 79

This sonnet was the winner of the 2007 Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award.

Of all the sonnets this one was the most expository.

There is no figurative language, no imagery or metaphor. (That the judges chose this sonnet over the others naturally reveals their own predilections.) But the sonnet is masterfully crafted. What I liked most was Justin’s flexible use of enjambment. When reading many poets who write formally, one gets the sense that they write line by line, foot by foot, rhyme by rhyme, until they’ve studiously erected their poem – as if they were painting by numbers. Juster’s thoughts move over the line and through them, and the rhymes give the illusion of sheer happenstance.

Pray. Comfort those
he lacerated. Keep him in your heart,
but use that grief to teach. When you compose
a line, it is a message, not just art.

Alan Sullivan: The Blighted Tree Page 89

This is a lovely sonnet marred only by the end-stopping of all its lines. Where Sullivan’s line lacks flexibility, however, the sonnet’s colorful and straightforward imagery recommends it:

I spare the tree to bear its sweetest fruit –
the last apples, stunted for want of sap,
their savor wrung from dying bough and root.

The Frostian language closes with a lovely couplet:

year after, I shall not tend trees at all
I too have fruit to bear before the fall.

The observation and careful detail make me curious to read other poems by Sullivan.

Info on Measure

Editorial Office

Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry
Department of English
University of Evansville
1800 Lincoln Avenue
Evansville, IN 47722

Publication

Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry is published in the spring and fall of each year.

Subscription

One-year subscriptions (2 issues) are $18, two-year subscriptions (4 issues) are $34, and three-year subscriptions (6 issues) are $50. Please add $6 per year for all subscriptions outside the US. Current and back issues are availalbe for $10 each.

Submissions

Manuscripts must be accompanied by an appropriately-stamped return envelope. Please see our website for complete submission guidelines.

High Fantasy & The Oratorical Style

[This ‘sort of’ belongs on this blog. It’s a college paper. The only one that was of any interest to me. The paper tries to draw a distinction between a high mimetic mode and a low mimetic mode. According to my reading, the majority of fantasy writers are unaware of the distinction and if they are, use the high mimetic mode clumsily. The paper will probably be of little interest to most people but I have posted it for those few who might enjoy it –  as well as for those who have an interest in Rhetoric as it is used (or not used) by modern writers. Naturally, it also applies to poetry. Since writing it, J.K. Rowling has written her series, Harry Potter, as well as Christopher Paolini, Eregon. Neither writer has adopted or possibly even recognized Tolkien’s rhetorical  techniques. With Rowling, the tone probably would not  be suitable, but Paolini’s prose seems flavorless for the lack of it. If you like this sort of discussion – then enjoy and give me your impression.]

High Fantasy & the Oratorical Style:
The Use of Style in the Creation of the Secondary World

jrr-tolkienAs early as the sixteenth century, Cervantes had killed the romance with Don Quixote, a novel which was both the culmination and the greatest parody of the romance form, and which introduced a new style of prose narrative in what Northrop Frye calls the “low mimetic” mode.  Low mimetic writing deals with the life of ordinary people, with the everyday life we live, seen from the inside, where the mythic and high mimetic modes treat the life of heroes and kings, seen from the outside.(i)

Style is not often discussed in its relation to the creation of a secondary world, or as Tolkien expressed it, in its contribution to the creation of literary(ii).  Yet the style in which narrative is written is the most tangible portion of any work and to disregard it is to disregard its most fundamental feature.
At the time when Cervantes wrote his narrative in prose it was an age of verse with strictly observed metrical patterns.  The choice was provocative and unmistakable.  He himself said of the work:  “It is so conspicuous and void of difficulty that children may handle him, youths may read him, men may understand him, and the old may celebrate him.”  It was as much a part of the work as the characters within it.  The twentieth century is the age of prose.  There are no major works in verse.  The closest a juvenile novel comes to verse may be discovered in Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff.  It is written, as it were, in broken prose — the purpose being, perhaps, to imitate the cadence of the characters’ speech.  There is, however, nothing to separate it from prose but line breaks.
But for such obvious diversions, the real stylistic difference between the high mimetic mode and the low mimetic mode (iii) is now far more difficult to pinpoint occurring within the confines of prose.  The “high mimetic modes [treating] the life of heroes and kings, seen from the outside” would seem to have, arguably in the twentieth century, a home in the genre of fantasy.  Yet how does the high mimetic mode, as found in the cantos of Spenser or the lofty blank verse of Milton, translate into prose — the century’s predominant mode?  The answer may be found in Rhetoric.  Rhetoric was first classified by the Greeks as a means of codifying the techniques by which an orator might sway his audience.  Rhetoric therefore has its origins in oratory.  It is only natural then that one should find those same devices used in the epic poetry of Homer, Spencer, or Milton.  The poet is addressing the audience, as it were, as an orator.  He is relating events and wishes to communicate them effectively and persuasively.  It is only natural then that the writer of High Fantasy, in his attempt to more persuasively relate the events of his world, would consciously or subconsciously utilize the rhetorical devices of the orator.  The oratorical voice, that is, will lend weight to the narrative.  This is a High Style which, for the sake of clarity, I’ll call the Oratorical Style.
The genre examined will be a narrow one — that wherein a secondary world is created.  Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising cannot be contrasted with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1) or Lord of the Rings because she does not attempt to create a secondary world. The more effective contrast is between The Wizard of Earthsea and Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown or Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three.

Hobbit Footnote
The Figures of Oratorical style in Le Guin and Tolkien


Ursula K. Le Guin and J.R.R. Tolkien, it is broadly agreed, have both most successfully created secondary worlds — A Wizard of Earthsea and The Lord of the Rings.  Among the features the books hold in common is an achieved high mimetic style within the confines of prose.  This high style, the oratorical style, is achieved by the use of rhetorical figures historically common to the poetry of tragedy and the epic poem, themselves rooted in oratory.  The following contains the first, and perhaps the most important of the six figures to be examined.
A feeling of fear had been growing in [Fatty Bolger] all day, and he was unable to rest or go to bed: there was a brooding threat in the breathless night air.  As he stared out into the gloom, a black shadow moved under the trees; the gate seemed to open of its own accord and close again without a sound. iv

ProsopopoeiaThe figure prosopopoeia v, personification, is found in the poetry of Homer, medieval sagas and epics, and naturally enough in Milton; though which, in the serious poetry of the twentieth century has all but died out vi.  It is telling that it is alive and well in the literature of high fantasy, which “[treats] the life of heroes and kings.”
In the example above, the night is breathless and the night air is brooding.  Tolkien is, perhaps, unique in the way in which he uses prosopopoeia to effectively create an elemental force that both threatens and sustains the characters within it.  The landscape contains the same elemental force as the good and evil that struggles to control it.  Adding to the impression of the animate within the inanimate, the gate seems “to open of its own accord and close again”.  The world itself becomes, as here, a character within its own universe.
AmplificatioA second figure, perhaps less common today, found in epic poetry is amplificatio viiThe Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms provides the following definition:
The elaboration or, sometimes, the contraction of a statement (as in Meios).  Cicero considered this device of enlargement and ornament “one of the highest distinctions of eloquence.”  Quintilian listed four types of a.: 1.) by augmentation (incrementum), 2) by comparison, 3) by reasoning, and 4) by accumulation (congeries).  The device is prominent in epic and tragic poetry.

The figure of amplification is one often confused by rhetoricians.  It is, for example, treated by some as its own figure and by others it is treated as a category of figures.  The term amplification shall be used for the category and amplificatio as the figure.  The figure may be seen in the following:
When he joined Ged and Serret for supper he sat silent, looking up at his young wife sometimes with a hard, covetous glance.  Then Ged pitied her.  She was like a white deer caged, like a white bird wing-clipped, like a silver ring on an old man’s finger…viii

Syntactic parallelism is used — a series of similes — to elaborate upon the nature of Serret.  It may also be observed more fully in the following paragraph:
As their eyes met, a bird sang aloud in the branches of the tree.  In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the waterfalling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves…ix

Examples like these are far less frequent, as shall be shown, in the writings of Robin McKinley and Lloyd Alexander, revealing a concerted effort by Le Guin to recreate in the realm of prose the techniques previously reserved for the poetry of the epic tradition.  This figure may also be found in Tolkien.  The following example of amplificatio is achieved by the parallelism of anologia (analogy) which in A Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, is described by Quintillion as a figure “used for amplification, [that] seeks to rise from the less to the greater…”
The hobbits ran about for a while on the grass, as he told them.  Then they lay basking in the sun [1] with the delight of those that have been wafted suddenly from the bitter winter to a friendly clime, or [2]of people that, after being long ill and bedridden, wake one day to find that they are unexpectedly well…x

TropeThe third figure which will be considered in the creation of the oratorical style is called the Trope.  Again referring to The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms the following definition is offered:
A general term for FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE, that is, language whose semantic meaning must be taken in a metaphorical or figurative sense rather than its literal sense.  Poetic devices such as METAPHOR, METONYMY, SIMILE, and SYNECDOCHE fall under the categories of tropes.

We will concern ourselves only with Metaphor, and at that, only with Verbal Metaphor (2), as it is considered the most potent form of metaphor.  The paragraph following provides two examples:
Once more she lifted her strange bright eyes to him, and her gaze pierced him so that he trembled as if with cold.  Yet there was fear in her face, as if she sought his help but was too proud to ask it. xi

Verb Metaphor Footnote

When Le Guin writes that “once more she lifted her strange bright eyes to him”, the use of the verb lifted is an example of Trope — figurative language.  It is a figure which, among other effects, can add a tremendous degree of weight and formality, can elevate the prose idiom by introducing a primarily poetic affect.  The formality introduced further reinforces the presence of the fictive narrator, the orator, mentioned earlier.  Compare this with a comparable passage from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown.

She looked up at him and smiled: a lover’s smile, sweet and brilliant, but it was directed at him; her eyes looked at something invisible that she herself did not recognize, and yet his heart stirred in a way he did not recognize. xii

We perceive the character’s actions directly.  It may be said of it that it is less poetic and therefore more immediate.  It is stylistically compatible with the low mimetic mode which “deals with the life of ordinary people, with the everyday life we live, seen from the inside.”  We do as the character does and the division between narrator and character is blurred.  The reader’s initial impression is not of an oratorical delivery.  It may be argued that “her eyes looked at something” is an example of prosopopoeia, however it is not.  Prosopopoeia relies upon catachresis (3), of which this is not an example.  Le Guin’s “Her gaze pierced him” is an example of catachresis as is McKinley’s “his heart stirred,” although McKinley’s verbal metaphor is so overused as to be more readily considered a dead metaphor.

Catachresis Footnote
antisagogeAnother figure, antisagoge, especially with the conjunctive FOR, is ubiquitous especially in the prose of fable and fairy tale but is also found in fantasy.  It is rarely found, significantly, outside of these genres.  It is often over-used by clumsy writers because of its feeling that it elevates prose.  The Longman Dictionary offers the following definition:
A logical figure dealing with cause and effect, or antecedent and consequence.  In a., the antecedent and consequence are linked together in a logical dimension: “Do as your father commands / and you will inherit his lands…”  A. Is often used in discursive as well as poetic PROSE.

The following is an example which follows immediately on the paragraph already quoted from page 119 and so some of that paragraph will be included.
He saw… how they had used his fear to lead him, and how they would, once they had him, have kept him.  They had saved him from the shadow, indeed, for they did not want him to be possessed by the shadow until he had become a slave of the Stone.

The bolded portion is the consequence and the italicized portion is the antecedent.  In this construction the antecedent and the consequence are reversed.  The figure may also be found in Tolkien, though with less frequency than with Le Guin.
Many eyes turned to Elrond in fear and wonder as he told of the Elven-smiths of Eregion and their friendship of Moria, and their eagerness for knowledge, by which Sauron ensnared themFor in that time [Sauron] was not yet evil to behold… xiii

PolysyndetonThe next figure, one of the most common of the six figures considered here, found especially in the prose of high fantasy, and especially in the writing Le Guin, is Acervatio or, as it is more commonly known in Greek, polysyndetonThe Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms again provides the definition defining it as “a grammatical device of rhythm and balance in rhetoric that employs the repetition of conjunctions to effect measured thought and solemnity…” (Bold by Author)  It should be noted that Quintillion includes adverbs and pronouns as characteristic connecting particles. xiv It is a rhetorical device which, if we are to use Milton’s Paradise Lost as a model of the high mimetic mode, finds its home most clearly in this mode.  The following example will suffice as the figure is so frequent as to need no further examples.
Now what Pechvarry and his wife and the witch saw was this: the young wizard stopped midway in his spell, and held the child a while motionless.  Then he had laid little Ioeth gently down on the pallet, and had risen, and stood silent, staff in hand. xv

I have only bolded those conjunctions which are grammatically unnecessary, serving rather stylistic concerns.  The figure of polysyndeton, that is, describes the use of conjunctions which unnecessarily connect words or phrases in a series.  As an extension to this is Le Guin’s polysyndetic use of and and but between phrases and sentences.  The following paragraph illustrates Le Guin’s extensive use of the technique, — an uncommon feature, significantly, in the low mimetic style; and which illustrates the writer’s conscious effort to recreate oratory.  The polysyndetic conjunctions have been bolded.
To Petchvarry it seemed that the wizard also was dead.  His wife wept, but he was utterly bewildered.  But the witch had some hearsay knowledge concerning magery and the ways a true wizard may go, and she saw to it that Ged, cold and lifeless as he lay, was not treated as a dead man but as one sick or tranced. xvi

HyperbatonThe final figure, hyperbaton, is such a frequent figure in the realm of fable, fairy tale, and high fantasy as to need little explanation.  It is a “generic name for rhetorical figures that work through a reorganization of normal word order.”  A specific type of hyperbaton, for example, is anastrophe (involving only two words), a “grammatical construction in which an INVERSION or reversal of the normal word order takes place for the sake of emphasis in meaning, rhythm, melody or tone.” xvii Tolkien uses hyperbaton and its various types throughout The Lord of the Rings where it heightens the tone of the language.  “Like a deer he sprang away.  Through the trees he sped.  On and on he led them, tireless and swift, now that his mind was at last made up.  The woods about the lake they left behind.” xviii It is also especially frequent where the intent of the author writing fantasy is to obsolesce the language spoken by the characters.

The Analysis

The six rhetorical figures described above are not those most commonly found in the oratorical style of high fantasy.  Other figures are equally common within this style — simile, hypotaxis (subordination) and polysyndetic connectives in the writings of Le Guin and, hyperbaton and prepositional metaphor in the writings of Tolkien are so ubiquitous as to seem less a reflection of style than of an author’s habit of thought.  I have chosen the six figures above only because they were the first of the many I happened to isolate.
Nevertheless, these figures are common to all writers in whatever medium.  None of these figures are exclusive and so the distinction is one of degree.  The following table will compare the frequency of these figures in six books:  A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis xix, The Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander xx, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley xxi, Milton’s Paradise Lost xxii, and Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori xxiii.  The final two are a control.  The novel by Mori provides an example of contemporary realistic fiction.  If the suppositions concerning these figures are correct, that they are figures primarily associated with the high mimetic mode, with oratory, then they should occur with the least frequency in Mori — for there is no need to persuade when one writes realistic fiction — and with the most frequency in Milton.  The first fifteen pages from each book will be examined.  Narrative and dialogue will be treated separately.
Lastly, it ought to be said that these numbers only point to a larger pattern.  It might be argued that such a small sampling hardly argues for a consistent style.  Yet if all the rhetorical figures used by the writers of High Fantasy (those writing within the oratorical style) were tallied, they would prove this sampling to be an accurate indicator of a larger stylistic consistency.

Final Table

Conclusion


McKinley and Lewis use the least figures followed by Alexander.  Alexander and Lewis’ fantasies are clearly written for a younger audience and so the use of oratorical figures is restrained and of the most obvious type.  There is no sense of the orator.  Yet neither is the orator’s voice present in McKinley’s work, which, in tone, comes closest to the contemporary realistic fiction of Mori.  Depending on the experience and preference of the reader, the lack of the orator’s presence may produce a disjunctive affect and may even harm her attempt to create a secondary world.  She is, in effect, using a low mimetic style in a high mimetic mode; she is speaking of times past with a twentieth century voice.  As is apparent, Tolkien and Le Guin use the most figures of oratory, writers who are considered to have most successfully created a secondary world, no doubt, reinforced by the oratorical style.  The oratorical voice removes the narrator into the world which he or she is describing, and so helps to create a more self contained universe.

1 The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings offer two very different narrative voices. It wasnít until the Lord of the Rings, in fact, that Tolkien attempted and succeeded in creating a high style, in the same sense that Paradise Lost is written in a high style. The narrative of the Hobbit is a much more personable style. This is achieved primarily by the rhetorical figure Aversio, the sudden alteration from the third person to the second (which never occurs in The Lord of the Rings)p. 160, and by Digressio, or more simply digressions, lending to the narrative a certain home-spun confiding quality.

2“Some verb metaphors are derived from verbs, some from adjectives, and some from compressed noun phrases. The sentence ‘I have blinded myself with optimism’ could have been derived from either the verb ‘to blind’ or the adjective ‘blind.’ We can transform the noun simile ‘He ran away as fast as a rocket can fly’ into the verb m. ‘He rocketed away…’” (The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms. See Metaphor.)

3“…A figure of similarity and dissimilarity, which uses a word that belongs in one dimension of meaning in another dimension. ‘Her hands sniffed into the bag of candy,’ in which hands act as if they were a nose.” (The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms)

i “Literary Realism and Its Effects” 6.

ii J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in his Tree and Leaf, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1965, p.47.

iii Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 33.

1. If superior in degree to other men and to the environment of other men, the hero is a divine being, and the story about him will be a myth in the common sense of a story about a god.

2. If superior in degree to other men and to his environment the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale, m‰rchen, and their literary affiliates and derivatives…

3. If superior in degree to other men but not to his natural environment, the hero is a leader. He has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than ours, but what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature. This is the hero of the high mimetic mode, of most epic and tragedy…

4. If superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us: we respond to a sense of his common humanity, and demand from the poet the same canons of probability that we find in our own experience. This gives us the hero of the low mimetic mode, of most comedy and of realistic fiction…

5. If inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode. This is still true when the reader feels that he is or might be in the same situation as the situation is being judged by the norms of greater freedom.

iv J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, New York, Ballantine Books, 1973, 238.

v Prosopopoeia,” The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms, 1989 ed.

“A rhetorical figure of definition that through vivid and imaginative description lends human qualities to an abstraction, or to an animate or inanimate object.”

vi “Personification,” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1993 ed.

“The following enumeration of abstractions in Gray’s [18th c.] ëOde on a Distant Prospect of Eton College shows how such personifications had lost their capacity to produce emotional effects like those in medieval morality plays or in Milton:

These shall the fury Passions tear
The vultures of the mind,
Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear,
And Shame that skulks behind;
Or pining Love shall waste their youth,
Or Jealousy with rankling tooth,
That inly gnaws the secret heart,
And Envy wan, and faded Care
Grim-visaged, comfortless Despair,
And sorrow’s piercing dart.

vii Lee A. Sonnino, A Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, New York, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1968 (see Amplificatio).

viii Le Guin, 114.

ix Le Guin, 35.

x J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, New York, Ballantine Books, 1973, p. 199.

xi Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, New York, Bantam Books, 1977, p.118.

xii Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown, New York, Greenwillow Books, 1984, p. 145.

xiii Ibid. 318.

xiv The Handbook of Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, 19.

xv Le Guin, 81.

xvi Le Guin, 81-82.

xvii The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms.

xviii Tolkien, The Two Towers, 26.

xix C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe, New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

xx Lloyd Alexander, The Taran Wanderer, New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967.

xxi Robin McKinley, The Hero and The Crown, New York, Greenwillow Books, 1984.

xxii John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Roy Flannagan, New York, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1993.

xxiii Kyoko Mori, Shizukoís Daughter, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1993.

IMHO: Critiquing the Critic

I was googling the net for “new formalists” and came across a good article by John Holcombe called The New Formalism. I found the article brief but insightful – neatly summing up the pros and cons of the New Formalist poetic- most of it analysis and some review. There was one passage that tweaked me though. This was criticism of Richard Wilbur’s poem, The Things of This World, referencing a critique by Marjorie Perloff.

Criticism can generally be broken into three kinds – Analysis, Review & Literary Criticism.  There is a place for all three, but I usually prefer analysis because, in the case of poetry, it analyzes the poem on its own terms and teaches me how the poet accomplishes the art of poetry. Literary Criticism all too easily seems to veer into ideological or dogmatic criticism.

Holcombe summed Perloff up this way:

But misgivings had been voiced much earlier by Marjorie Perloff {33} who said of the title poem of The Things of This World (1956) collection, which begins:

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple.
As false dawn. Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

that, for all the New Criticism values of depersonalization, ambiguity, tension, and paradox so brilliantly displayed, the aloof conceit of washing viewed as disembodied angels took some swallowing. Could we forget what laundry actually involved and looked like from a New York apartment? Wasn’t the St. Augustine-derived title, “Love Calls us to the Things of This World” more a studious, male-orientated avoidance of things as they were in the world?”

I found Perloff’s original criticism linked in the footnotes.

Perloff wastes no time laying her cards on the table. Here is how she  begins: “This much anthologized poem provides us with an interesting index to Establishment poetics in the mid-fifties.”

This is no analysis. Perloff  appears only tangentially interested in the poem. From the outset, we know she wants to talk about: “Establishment poetics in the mid-fifties”. This is her world, the world of critical schools and theories, not poetry.  Such criticism can be its own art form  – using literature to create its own literature – but it exists in a sort of parallel universe. (Nowadays one must expend considerable effort to be truly conversant in the various critical paradigms.)

Literary Criticism, as I use the term, may be Feminists, Marxists, Postcolonial, Semiotic, Freudian; and while critics of the various schools may have many interesting and illuminating things to say about how they read poetry (and ultimately about themselves and their opinions), they sometimes have little or nothing to say about how the poet intended the poem. They don’t care and have said so. In most cases, their observations, while relevant from the perspective of a modern reader or performer, are entirely anachronistic in terms of the work being discussed.

Perloff’s analysis amounts to about one sentence: ” Its thirty lines are divided into six five-line stanzas, the meter being predominantly iambic pentameter (“Sóme are in smócks: but trúly thére they áre”), with some elegant variation, as when a line is divided into steps (see lines 4, 15, 18, 30), presumably to create a more natural look. A similar effect is gained by the absence of end rhyme, although there is a good deal of alliteration and assonance…”

That’s it.

And now that she has, almost flippantly, tipped her hat to the poem, she gets on with her feminist axe-grinding, telling us nothing about the poem but a great deal about Ms. Perloff. Here is one of her more pointed passages:

richard-wilbur-2“But if, as Wilbur himself explains it, the scene is outside the upper-story window of an apartment building, in front of which “the first laundry of the day is being yanked across the sky,” the reality is that the sheets and shirts would probably be covered with specks of dust, grit, maybe even with a trace or two of bird droppings. At best, those sheets seen (if seen at all) from Manhattan highrise windows in the fifties, billowing over the fire-escapes under the newly installed TV aerials, would surely be a bit on the grungy side.”

Perloff is excoriating Wilbur for writing a poem that is seemingly out of touch with the realities of cleaning laundry – the laborious, hand-chaffing, skin-cracking work of “Woman”. In short, she accuses him of being a male, self-absorbed (male avoidance) day-dreamer – out of touch with the realities of women’s labor – never mind that men have been known to do their own laundry. (Evidence must exist somewhere.) What’s ironic, though, is that she herself writes as if she knows better.

She writes: “the reality is… probably…

Probably? It’s a disingenuous argument. After excoriating Wilbur for being out of touch, it turns out that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about either! If she doesn’t know (and clearly she doesn’t) then her criticism is just as aloof as Wilbur’s so-called daydream. But not content to leave it at that, she adds: “shirts would probably be covered with specks of dust, grit, maybe even with a trace or two of bird droppings…”

I’ve lived in the city and I lived in the country. I’ve hung laundry out to dry. I’ve never, to this day, had  bird droppings on my laundry (which isn’t to say it never happens); and its never been grungy. If Perloff were probably right, who would hang their laundry out to dry? If it’s going to need another cleaning just for being hung on the line, why bother? What is especially absurd is that Perloff’s commentary has nothing whatsoever to do with the poetry. What point is she making? – that Wilbur is wallowing in male avoidance? So what? What about the poem?

Perloff’ self-serving disingenuousness continues. She writes, for example, : “those sheets seen… from Manhattan highrise windows…” Well, ok, but who said anything about highrises? Not Wilbur. He himself called it the “upper-story window of an apartment building“. But Perloff disingenuously and self-servingly interprets  this as a highrise window, all to make Wilbur’s poem seem ridiculous and unrealistic. Proceeding from her straw man, rather than the poem, she belittles Wilbur along with the poem. And to what purpose?

Perloff asks: “The poem refers to “rosy hands in the rising steam”–no doubt, as Eberhart remarks, an allusion to Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” (AO 4), but where are the real hands of those laundresses, hands that Eliot, half a century earlier, had seen “lifting dingy shades in a thousand furnished rooms?”

Perloff’s question is trite. Yes, I suppose Wilbur could have written a poem about, as she puts it, a woman “who only dreams of better detergents“, but this is criticizing the poem for not being what it isn’t. (It’s also an ironically sexist comment.)

She might as well complain that the hammer makes a poor screw driver.

Perloff wants us to believe that Wilbur and his poem are aloof or as John Holcombe summarizes: an aloof conceit. However, the same could be said of Perloff’s critique. Wilbur didn’t set out to write the kind of poem she thinks it should have been. To spend so many words pointing this out is to say nothing about the poem – but much about Perloff’s own ideology and dogma. The best criticism would help the reader understand Wilbur’s poem on its own terms and in its own aesthetic milieu – a masterfully constructed conceit which many readers have enjoyed and rightfully praised. How did he do it? What can we learn from it? What makes the poem so moving to so many? – even in 1956.

These, to me, are the questions worth asking.


Iambic Pentameter & Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

  • January 10 2011 Updated Scansion.
  • March 19 2009 John Donne & his Sonnet Death be not proud… . [This sonnet is so misread by contemporary readers that it might as well be a companion to this post on Shakespeare’s sonnet.]
  • A companion guide to this one is the Annotated To be or Not to be. Don’t forget to check out some of my poetry while you’re picking my brains – I do write some good stuff. And let me know if this was helpful or if, especially, there’s a question you would like answered. I have written other posts on Iambic Pentameter including guides to the scansion of Iambic Pentameter (with more examples  from Shakespeare) and a look at Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter. I just completed a guide to Shakespearean, Petrarchan and Spenserian Sonnets. I’ve also written a detailed guide to Haiku (if you’re interested). (Further links on other Sonnets are at the bottom of this post.) According to my Stats page, this has become one of my most popular posts; and no one is commenting! Just say hello or thanks – I like hearing from readers.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost, you might like reading Birches along with a color coded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, click here.
  • April 23 2009: One Last Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts. :-)

william-shakespeareWhat possible use could scansion be?

A masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. In Shakespeare’s hands, the meter tells us about the writer, the speaker of the sonnet – something we might easily miss.

Meter is of no use to free verse poets or reader’s of free verse. But to poet’s writing meter, it provides a tool, an extra layer of meaning, counterpoint and play. And to readers of metered poetry, knowing that there’s an underlying pattern informs the language and meaning of the poem. In the hands of a skilled poet (Shakespeare, Keats, Wilbur, Frost, Browning), the tension between language and meter is an art form.

I’ll look at other poets and poems, because it’s fun to do, like sleuthing, but I wanted to start with Sonnet 116 because it’s so famous and so frequently misread. These days, I suspect most readers, without a knowledge of meter, would read the poem as follows:

modern-scansion

This reading would be acceptable if this were a free verse poem. Since there’s no metrical pattern in free verse one is free to put the emphasis (ictus) wherever one wishes (within reason) , depending on ones subjective interpretation of the poem. But, in Shakespeare’s day, so many variants in so short a space would have landed him in critical hot water with his contemporaries and with the reading public. (In his shorter poems, at least, Shakespeare was much more conservative, leaving the more daring flights of metrical variation to his contemporary, John Donne – who was, regularly, skewered for his turgid meter and blank verse.)  But the first line’s two trochaic feet (Let me | not to ) would have been daring even for Donne – (trochaic feet are the reverse of iambic feet in that the stressed syllable is first and the unstressed second). Two such variant feet at the start of a sonnet was practically unheard of. Only one of John Donne’s Sonnets, the most controversial metrist of the day, could be construed to begin with two trochaic feet.

scansion-donne-sonnet-xvi

Yet even here, knowing that Donne was a skillful master of diction and meter, one could consider an alternate reading (and one should, whenever diction appears to run against a meter’s pattern):

scansion-donne-sonnet-xvi-iambic1

Stressing the preposition of isn’t as awkward as it might seem. Even in modern speech we sometimes stress the preposition of – as in: Well, you know, part of the fun is getting drunk. It’s a sort of sly tone of voice which, in the case of Donne’s sonnet, fits with his argument. It’s a tone of voice Donne could be angling for, made possible only if one considers the meter. The same can be said of the second line. The temptation is to read Son as strongly stressed and Thy as weakly stressed. But in keeping with the tone of the first line, putting the stress on Thy reinforces that Donne is addressing “Father” and doing so with a direct, knowing tone of voice. There is no way to know whether this is actually what Donne intended, but the reading is reinforced by the poem’s Iambic pattern.

Likewise, there’s a tone to Shakespeare’s sonnet that we miss if we fail to take the meter into account. Here is how Shakespeare most likely expected his sonnet to be read.

  • January 10, 2011: I decided to bring this scansion “up to date”.  As opposed to before, I’ve left all Iambic feet unmarked so the scansion is less cluttered. I’ve chosen to mark the “weak” Iambic feet, marked in yellow with weak stresses, as Pyrrhic feet, although others might be inclined to mark them as Iambic. The two feminine endings, ne|ver shaken and be taken are marked green. The Spondaic feet are purple.


The sonnet takes on a different tone and, to a certain extent, meaning. Where the first scansion has a sort of elegiac sound to it – a sort of contemplation on love – the second reading gives it a more inflected sound, as if the poet were writing with an unspoken agenda – (Shakespeare was nothing if not a dramatist).

For example, in the iambic version, the line sounds almost defensive: Let me not admit impediments – as if he were responding to some sort of accusation. Don’t accuse me of denying true love. Here is what I believe. In this wise, taking into account the pull of the iambic meter, we are already starting with a very different tone to the sonnet – in keeping with the other sonnets of his collection. They are all written as though in conversation – as though the speaker of the poet were responding to another speaker, or character, whose statements we can only hear through Shakespeare’s responses. Each one is like a monologue in a play.

Consider the change in line two:

modern-scansion-love-is-not-love

Versus:

iambic-scansion-love-is-not-love

The first is how a modern reader usually reads the close of the second line. The second reading follows the Iambic pattern of the sonnet. The second reading, putting stress on the verb – isadds emphasis to Shakespeare’s argument, emphasis which a modern reading lacks.

At the start of the third line we have another choice:

modern-scansion-which-alters-when

Versus:

iambic-scansion-which-alters-when

While a pyrrhic foot isn’t unheard of in sonnets of the time, the iambic reading adds emphasis to the argument of the sonnet. Love doesn’t alter when it alteration finds. The emphasis almost lends a tone of sarcasm or perhaps scorn. Again, the iambic pentameter acts as a sort of prompter, hinting at how the sonnet should be read, in what tone and inflection.

Line five tends to be misread by inexperienced readers, especially when reading unaccented versions of the poem, which frequently print the word fixéd as fixed:

O no, it is an ever fixed mark.

modern-scansion-an-ever-fixed

The accented é indicates that the -éd of fixéd makes the word two syllables rather than one. Even in an unmarked edition, however, experienced readers of Iambic Pentameter, simply through familiarity with metrical poems, will quickly hear the missing syllable and instinctively read fixéd as two syllables.

iambic-scansion-an-ever-fixed

The seventh line is the next that typically diverges between modern readers and the iambic pattern. The iambic reading renders that line as follows:

iambic-scansion-it-is-the-star1

Notice that, once again, the verb is is accented. While modern readers might read this first foot as being pyrrhic (two unaccented syllables), accenting the verb adds emphasis to Shakespeare’s argument. No, he seems to be saying, it is the ever fixéd mark, it is the star. It almost feels as though he is disagreeing with someone who claims that love isn’t any of these things. And notice too, the -ery of every is elided, making it a two syllable word -though most modern readers would read it this way.

The eleventh line is the next where the emphasis differs between the iambic line and modern readers. Notice the emphasis on his implied by the iambic meter.

iambic-scansion-his-brief-hours

It’s the equivalent of saying: His brief hours and weeks won’t alter love! Once again, it’s a difference of emphasis. The iambic reading is more emphatic and more dynamic. Immediately following is a line that most would read as a variant iambic line – reading even as two syllables. Although Shakespeare doesn’t use syncope to change even to e’en, the tradition of eliding these words is well-enough established, especially in poetry of this period, that we can safely do so.

iambic-scansion-even-to-the-edge

If a line can be read so that it conforms to an iambic pentameter reading, especially in poetry during this period (and for the two centuries following too) then it probably should be read that way. (Note: Robert Frost took to calling these feet loose iambs, by which he meant that a foot could conform to an iambic rhythm depending on pronunciation.  It’s a useful term and reflects a convention that metrical poets have known about for hundreds of years.) Anyway, the elision of words in metrical poems is like the performance of trills in baroque and classical music. It was simply assumed that the reader (or performer in the case of music) understood the conventions of the day. Those conventions didn’t need to be spelled out. That was a long time ago, though. Nowadays, those conventions need to be relearned if one wants to read a poem the way it was read in its day. In a similar vein, and during the last thirty years, old conventional practices were relearned and rediscovered in classical music performance. These days, such performances are called Historically Informed Performances. Likewise, reading a Sonnet or Blank Verse passage with an awareness of the metrical pattern underlying it, might as well be called Historically Informed Readings.

[Just as an aside. Tooting my own horn. Helen Vendler states the following: “No reader, to my knowledge, has seen Let me not to the marriage of true minds as a coherent refutation of the extended implied argument of an opponent, and this represents an astonishing history of critical oversight.” Well, I’ve been reading this sonnet (most of them for that matter)  in just this fashion for over 20 years. Her book was published in 1997. So, Helen, if you should read this blog, take comfort. You weren’t the first.]

So far,  the rhymes have alternated ABAB, CDCD, EFEF. Now comes the final couplet, GG – a Shakespearean Sonnet. Shakespearean Sonnets heat the metal through the first 12 lines then, when the working out of the argument is white hot, he lays it to the anvil and strikes:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

My intention hasn’t been to interpret the poem, though some interpretation arises simply by reading it through the lense of meter. Many critics are troubled by the series of negatives in this poem and in its last line – never, nor, no. I’m not as troubled by the negatives. Shakespeare’s last line is almost a dare. I dare you to prove me wrong! Even in offering the possibility that he could be proved in error, he (almost sarcastically) refutes the possibility by offering the impossible retort that proving such an error would mean he never writ and that no man ever loved. Since we know already that he wrote and that men have loved, Shakespeare urges us toward the inevitable conclusion that he will never be proven in error.

The one metrical nicety to notice is in the final line. An iambic reading urges the following:

iambic-scansion-nor-no-man-ever

Notice the iambic emphasis on no. The modern reader might be tempted to gloss over the third foot as pyrrhic (see the “modern” scansion above), putting the emphasis on man. The iambic reading gives extra force to no, lending to the poet’s voice a kind of anger – as if both daring to be proven wrong and contemptuously dismissive of any effort to try. Go ahead, he seems to say, try! Prove me wrong! If you do, then no man ever loved! The equanimity of a modern reading, of an innocent love poem, vanishes. This is a sonnet with a transcendent axe to grind.

Reading the poem by the meter, we discover a very different kind of poem – one of refutation, of a speaker refuting an unspoken argument, not of impersonal definition. In this third post on Iambic Pentameter, I wanted to demonstrate just how powerfully a knowledge of scansion can inform and alter a poem’s meaning. If you have any questions or comments, please post.

February 4rth 2013: I was asked if I could read 116. What follows is about my 21rst try.  I wanted to communicate the sense that this is half of an argument, like a speech in one of Shakespeare’s plays. See what you think:

I’ll be examining more poems as time permits – especially Robert Frost.

Follow up posts:

Thomas Middleton’s Blank Verse

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Iambic Pentameter

Shakespeare & his Sonnet 145

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

Spenser’s Sonnet 75

John Milton’s Sonnet: When I consider…

And…

Check it out…

The Poetry of Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia published Interrogations at Noon in 2001.

interrogations

He’s primarily known as an essayist and critic and especially 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; which is to say: whereas the syllables per line vary, one could read each line as having 5 stressed syllables. I’m guessing that most readers will feel and read the poem as free verse. (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…

In any poet’s favor, accentual verse isn’t remotely as demanding as accentual/syllabic. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the line between accentual, free verse and prose is thin to naught. The poem succeeds or fails in its use of imagery, phrase and content.

Beyond that, the first poem greets us with many of the traits typifying the poems that follow. Gioia doesn’t 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; and 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’s the abstraction of “articulates itself/ in the sunlight”, while phrases like “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’s no color, sense of touch, motion, sound or even sensation. 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. He favors the straightforwardly visual, 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.)

In Gioia one hears the voice of a skillful essayist writing poetry. What do I mean by that? Read Robert Frost’s essays and you’ll hear a poet writing essays—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 favors the direct, intellectual and explanatory in both his poetry and prose. (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.”)

In a nutshell, Gioia frequently writes poetically, but doesn’t write poetry.

 

Blank verse is what I’m most passionate about and Gioia offers us a sampling of his skills in the poem Juno Plots her Revenge.  The poems first lines:

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 conservative. For instance, most of his lines are end-stopped, 16 out of these first 19, (meaning that the end of the lines are either marked by punctuation or reflect a normal pause in speech patterns or phrase). And it’s a representative pattern. Not even pre-Shakespearean writers were as conservative with enjambment. Generally, it marks the poet as inexperienced, very conservative, or having been born in the mid 16th century. It marks a poet who isn’t at ease with the form and whose thoughts don’t move freely through the lines. The poem marches line by line instead, each thought fitted to the line (the Restoration deliberately wrote their Heroic Couplets this way). Since Gioia’s neither an Elizabethan nor a Restoration poet, I’d have to say that his skills aren’t equal to the verse form.

In the first seven lines there’s 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  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, like the first seven, posses only one line that varies the iambic beat. All in all, the effect produced is stodgy and wooden. The natural rhythms of the language, which skillful poets use to counterpoint the iambic rhythm, are missing. Too much efficiency.

Lastly, one meets with the same sort of imagery as in the book’s first poem. There’s an over-reliance on adjectives and, inasmuch as he uses adjectives, they’re 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. They all serve their purpose, but they’re stale and overused. They evoke nothing and end up feeling 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 is found in Descent to the Underworld. There’s greater flexibility as thoughts 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 lines are still relatively conservative (perhaps too much so) but by Gioia’s standards, even here, there’s 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…

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

Gioia’s rhyming gives a similar impression—a poet who writes line by line. In the two poems considered, The End of the World and The End of Time, both poems are end-stopped.

“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 reader will probably pause with each line as though each were its own independent accomplishment. Here again, the natural ebb and flow of the language is overruled 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 more so in that indistinct syllabic poetry or accentual poetry that exists somewhere between free and formal verse (when he doesn’t have to hew to meter or rhyme. 

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.

~ Pentecost

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 line to line. Written on the death of his son, the poem is poignant in its directness. And other poems like this: After a Line by Cavafy, Accomplice, (and my favorite) Homage to Valerio Magrelli—a series of short, direct and well-turned free verse poems. While his imagery remains mostly pedestrian, he does occasionally manage to startle:

…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.

In truth, he’s 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. Writing formal poems is a tricky businesses, requiring the poet to both follow and lead a form’s constraints. Gioia’s best poems lie just a little outside those constraints.

Edited August 1st, 2021 | up in Vermont

Iambic Pentameter (The Basics)

  • Revised, tweaked and improved March 24 2009.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost, you might like reading Birches along with a color coded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, click here.
  • After you’ve read up on Iambic Pentameter, take a look at some of my poetry. I’m not half-bad. One of the reasons I write these posts is so that a few readers, interested in meter and rhyme, might want to try out my poetry. Check out Spider, Spider or, if you want modern Iambic Pentameter, try  My Bridge is like a Rainbow or Come Out! Take a copy to class if you need an example of Modern Iambic Pentameter. Pass it around if you have friends or relatives interested in this kind of poetry.
  • November 14th 2015 Another blogger has taken up the effort to write some introductory posts on Iambic Pentameter. He takes a different tact than I do, choosing to recognize larger patterns (repeating patterns) in multiple feet: the 4th paeon, the 1rst epitrite, the 3rd epitrite, the Spondee-paeon, the Paeon-Spondee, the choriamb, the minor ionic, and minor ioncis with deferred closures, etc.. His blog is called versemeter  and his first introductory posts are broken into three parts: Iambic Pentameter Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. I encourage you to take a look, see what you think, and comment. Let him know what you think. At minimum, it demonstrates that there are different approaches to meter. Use the one that works for you.

First Appearance

Iambic Pentameter is the meter of Blank Verse, most Sonnets, and a variety of verse forms starting in the14th and continuing through the 21rst Century.

Iambic Pentameter is closely associated with Blank Verse, which some websites credit as having first been written by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The assertion is incorrect. Chaucer was, in fact, the first poet to write Iambic Pentameter and examples can be found with the prologue of the Canterbury Tales.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
chaucer-stained-glassAnd bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Although, at first glance, this may not appear to be Iambic Pentameter, it is. We’ll get back to it in another post.

What is Iambic and Pentameter?

All of Elizabethan, Jacobean and Restoration Drama, written in verse, is written using Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) – this includes all of Shakespeare’s Plays and Sonnets. Milton’s Paradise Lost is written in Iambic Pentameter. Keats’ Sonnets & Hyperion, along with most of his major poems, are written in Iambic Pentameter.  Almost every major poet , prior to the 20th Century, wrote Iambic Pentameter when writing their best known poetry.  Exceptions would be poets like Walt Whitman (free verse), Robert Burns (who wrote a variety of metrical lines – mostly iambic), and Emily Dickinson (whose meter is derived from hymn tunes, which is why so many of her poems can be sung to Yellow Rose of Texas).

Iambic is an adjective. Iamb is the noun and is short for Iambus. Iambus is from the Greek and refers to two. Therefore, Iamb refers to any two syllable “unit”, referred to as a foot by metrists, consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (or ictus).

What is a Foot?

A foot is defined as a group of syllables (unspecified in number) comprising a metrical unit. In the case of an Iamb, the metrical foot contains two syllables.

In the following example, I’ve bolded and italicized the stressed syllables.

To be or not to be

The bolded and italicized words receive greater stress, when speaking, than the words which have not been bolded or italicized.

Now, if we break this line into feet, we end up with following:

To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.

Except for the last foot, each foot consists of two syllables. The last foot is a variant called an amphibrach (in that it varies from the first four iambic feet). The amphibrach is a foot (a metrical unit) consisting of an unstressed, stressed, and unstressed syllable.

A strictly iambic line would be:

Of hand, | of foot, | of lip, | of eye, | of brow   (Shakespeare: Sonnet 106: Line 6)

What is Pentameter

The Greek prefix Pent- or Penta-, means five. Pentameter therefore means a line of verse consisting of five metrical feet. Remember, a metrical foot contains an unspecified number of syllables until it is modified by an adjective like Iambic.

What is Iambic Pentameter

The adjective, Iambic, modifies Pentameter to mean, a line of verse consisting of five Iambic metrical feet [feet containing an unstressed and stressed syllable].

There are also examples of poems written in trochaic pentameter. In this case, the term would mean a line of verse consisting of five trochaic [metrical feet [feet containing an stressed and unstressed syllable]. (Note: The stressed and unstressed syllables, in comparison to Iambic, are reversed.)  It would also be possible to have amphibrachic pentameter. To my knowledge, no poems have been written in this meter. If any reader knows of one, let me know!

The line:

Of hand, | of foot, | of lip, | of eye, | of brow

is strictly Iambic Pentameter because each foot is strictly an Iamb and there are strictly five feet.

The line:

To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.

or

To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.

is not, strictly speaking, an Iambic Pentameter line, because the final foot is amphibrachic and the fourth foot may be read as being trochaic. However, it is considered an acceptable variant of the Iambic Pentameter line. In the second scansion of the line above, putting the emphasis on is might sound awkward, but imagine an actor speaking the line. The second scansion gives the line a different emphasis. It all depends on where the is is.

Perfect Iambic Pentameter?

After having written this, I’ve noticed various websites who (not to put too fine a point on the matter) get it wrong. Frostfriends.org, for example, writes the following about the closing line of Frost’s poem Birches:

Birches: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations.” This line is perfect iambic pentameter, with an extra metrical (feminine) ending.

Their statement is incorrect. This line is not perfect iambic pentameter (and this is more than just splitting hairs). A perfectly iambic pentameter line would not have a feminine ending (an amphibrach) in the final foot. The correct thing to say would have been – this is a perfectly acceptable variant within an iambic pentameter pattern.

More on this poem, and its scansion, can be found at my post on Frost’s Birches.

Symbols used in scanning Metrical Poetry

Lastly, the symbols used to denote stress in a line of verse are as follows:

weak-stress This symbol denotes a weak stress.

intermediate-stressThis symbol denotes an intermediate stress.


strong-stressThis symbol denotes a strong stress.

metrical-divider This symbol denotes the division of a metrical foot.

So, the line above would appear as follows:

to-be-scansion

Note: I’ve scanned that as receiving the stress although I believe that the word is should receive it. For more on this opinion and why, visit my post on To Be or Not To Be.

And consider the following scansion:

when-to-scansion

In the scansion above, notice that the word sweet receives an intermediate stress. This means that most readers would probably put less stress on sweet (saying it less loudly) than on the syllable si– of silent. Try it out. Also, importantly, notice that the feet divide the words. An iambic metrical foot consists of two syllables, not necessarily two words. Thus, count two syllables and mark off a foot, count two more syllables and mark off a foot, etc… Mark off every two syllables regardless of the words. If the lines contains more than 10 syllables, as in the scansion of “To be or not be”, one of your metrical feet will not be iambic.

A Ten Syllable Line is not the same as an Iambic Pentameter Line

It’s also possible that just because a line has ten syllables, it might not have 5 feet. It might have four feet with two anapestic feet. And this is where science becomes art. There is an art to scansion, but it is not hard to learn. While metrical feet may divide words, the placement of metrical feet is not insensitive to phrasing. In other words, sometimes it may make more sense to recognize a phrase as being anapestic or, as with feminine endings, amphibrachic.

(My next post answers what to do when considering such variants.) In the example above, the last foot was not iambic. In other examples, the first, second, third or fourth foot might not be iambic. When I write my next post, on variant lines, we’ll figure out how to tell which foot gets the extra syllable.

Two More Symbols: Elision

There are two more commonly used symbol to consider. One is the symbol for elision. Elision means that instead of pronouncing a word as having, say, two syllables, it is pronounced as having one. Likewise, a word that appears to have three syllables, might be pronounced as two.

elision This symbol denotes elision.

Consider the following line:

scansion-with-elision

This example is taken from George T. Wright’s Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. Only the first foot is scanned. Notice that lier of livelier may be pronounced with two syllables li-er or one -lier. If the reader wishes to maintain the iambic rhythm of the line, the whole word livelier would be pronounced with two syllables. If the word were pronounced with three, then the line would be considered dactylic – a strong stress or syllable followed by two weak stresses or syllables.

livelier

Two More Symbols: The Missing Syllable

Finally, a less common but equally useful symbol designates a missing syllable.

missing-syllable

It is useful when discussing variant lines, such as the following from my blank verse poem My Bridge is Like a Rainbow:

missing-syllable-in-my-bridge

The symbol indicates a missing syllable in an otherwise fully Iambic line. The line itself is called a headless line, but more on that in my next post.

The next post will deal with sorting out variation in the Iambic Pentameter line  – how they can be read, how to know, and if you can know.

Other Symbols, Other Systems

the-book-of-formsIt’s worth noting that there are other systems and symbols used to denote stress patterns in English Language Poetry. The one that I’ve presented here is the most universally used and recognized. There may be slight differences. For instance, Lewis Turco, in his book The Book of Forms, doesn’t use the intermediate symbol that I provided above – he uses a dot instead.

turco-intermediate-stressSymbol used for Intermediate Stress in Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms.

Besides the difference in this one symbol, however, Turco uses the same basic system I have been describing. You may run across other symbols or, if you are researching this as a part of a class, you may have an instructor that prefers one symbol over another. All that matters is that you understand the basic ideas that these symbols represent. The symbols themselves are secondary.

Beyond this point, the fights between metrists can get ugly. There is no end to the precision to which some metrists aspire. Some detest the basic system of scansion described above. Some dispense with the symbols altogether and opt to typographically move individual words up or down (in relation to each other) according to how much stress they believe each word should receive. My own view is that these systems of scansion lose sight of their original purpose. They reflect a sort of obsessiveness that has more to do with linquistics than with poetry.

  • 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.

(This is the short form, for a slightly more detailed description, try Wikipedia.)

Feel free to comment if you have questions or suggestions.

Three Masterful Haiku by online Hakuists

[If you came to this post looking for more general information on Haiku, take a look my post on Haiku called What is: Haiku. If you’re looking for Haiku on certain themes, try the Categories Widget at right or use the search feature.]

I have a renewed interest in Haiku. Their brevity and compression helps me express ideas and observations that I don’tt have time to work out in longer poems – though I do continue to work on longer poems. As part of my renewed interest I’ve been visiting and enjoying different Haiku blogs. My favorites are the bloggers who try to write at least one Haiku a day and I have found two that I like very much.

I was inspired to reprint their Haiku here because their Haiku are powerful and deserve to be read by more readers.

The first is Crows & Daisies, a blog by Polona Oblak. Stricktly speaking, she writes Haiga.

The following is her November 25th contribution:

//crowsndaisies.blogspot.com/ for the original.

The compression and evocative power of the Haiku is perfectly illustrated by Oblak. The sum of her three lines far exceeds their content in that the reader is compelled not just to imagine the  bird’s tracks in the snow, but also the bird and its startled leap into the air. That she evokes this imagery without its description demonstrates a certain mastery of the form – an intuitive grasp of the Haiku’s unique potential. A poet with less experience might have written something like:

prints end
in the snowy path – startled
bird

This haiku essentially conveys the same information but undermines some of the Haiku’s very strengths. The art of great haiku is in the form’s capacity to create an image and narrative that transcend the poem’s size. The great Haiku is like the pebble sending ripples deeply across the waters of the reader’s mind. Polona’s Haiku accomplishes just that.

woman’s desire
deeply rooted —
the wild violets

Chiyo-ni – Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master

Another strong Hakuist can be found at the blog: haiku notebook by w.f. owen. Owen adopts a one line approach which is keeping with Japanese Haiku. (The Japanese Haiku is written with cutting words, which translators have interpreted as line breaks.)

Owen’s November 25th contribution:

W.F. Owen - Flawless Persimmon

W.F. Owen – Flawless Persimmon

The compression in the Haiku is powerfully effective. The ambiguity of the poem’s meaning lends it meaning beyond what’s stated. Owen could have written: “the persimmon has a seed”. But he chose to describe the persimmon as flawless.  Then the reader might ask: Is the persimmon flawless because it contains a seed? – or is Owen expressing surprise that the “flawless persimmon” has been flawed by the seed? In this ambiguity we find what is, perhaps, one of the most profound Haiku I have read online. By flawless we usually think of beauty and perfection. But while life grants beauty and perfection, such flawlessness is momentary – an ephemeral dream.

But would the persimmon have been perfect if it had had no seed? The poet’s surprise, if one wishes to interpret it as that, is also an acknowledgment. The persimmon, or life, is made both perfect and imperfect by the seed. The seed is an acknowledgment of both the persimmon’s imperfection, that it must age and be flawed, but also its paradoxical perfection, that in order to be perfect, it must carry a seed inside – and that from this seed will spring renewed flawlessness. From this paradoxical heart is the heart of a great Haiku. From imperfection comes perfection – from the flaw comes flawlessness. There could be no life without it. The pithiness of the Haiku is aphoristic and, in my house, will become an aphorism.

Owen followed this Haiku by another November 26th.

W.F. Owen - Rustling Leaves

W.F. Owen – Rustling Leaves

While this Haiku may not attain the transcendent ambiguity and meaning of its predecessor, qualities that distinguish the Haiku from longer verse forms, there is nonetheless an evocative eeriness that is powerful and worth enjoying.

The “rustling leaves” tells us that the poem is written in Autumn. It tells us that there must be a strong breeze or wind, enough to stir leaves, and that the wind must be cold. The poet pulls up the covers. But the power of an image like this, not extenuated, is in guessing that one can pull up the covers not just for warmth, but out of fear – and that is what lends this Haiku its own eery power and resonance. Maybe the leaves aren’t rustling because of the wind? Could it be something else? Autumn is the season of endings and death – and nothing so reminds us of our temporary lives than the fall of leaves. Why does the poet pull up the covers? We are left wondering. We are left knowing that theleaves, themselves, are like a cover, readying the earth for a long sleep.

Our humanity is a common bond that is not separated by time. A hundred years before, a woman wrote:

sleeping alone
awakened
by the frosty night…

– Chiyo-ni – From Chiyo-ni Woman Haiku Master

Paul Muldoon: Poems 1968-1998

[Like the review below, this also was originally written on Amazon.]

muldoon-collected-poemsIf glibness can be elevated to greatness, then (as critics like to say), Muldoon has no peer. But that’s a big “if”. I picked up this volume based on a recent New York Times article where I read that (just in case you haven’t heard yet) he is a Professor of Poetry at both Oxford and Princeton, having been inducted into the former at the tender age of 20. Surely, dear reader, you must know by now the unparalleled list of professorial poets produced by Oxford & Princeton? Need I name names?

I nevertheless like Pual Muldoon’s poetry. I recommend it and it’s fun to read, but his book of poems from 1968-1998 could hardly be considered a string of pearls.

What you will and won’t get.

His is like snapshot poetry. Don’t expect extended metaphor, conceits, or any overall development in the way of imagery or narrative. His is a quick wit and quick eye. Reading his poem is like setting fire to a box of matches. There’s no smoldering pathos hear. His fire leaps from matchtip to matchtip, word to word, until the whole of it goes up in an exciting little burst of flames.

His poetry has been compared to Donne, but similarities are thin. For example, Donne was singularly known for the difficulty of his metrical writing. Expect no metrical daring from Muldoon. He doesn’t write by numbers. Muldoon’s difficulty can be summed up, I think, by this tidy comparison. Reading Muldoon is like listening to someone else’s phone conversation. You will only ever hear half the conversation.

The earlier books in this collected poems are the most accessible and, in certain ways, the more enjoyable. You’ll find those matchtip lines like: “Once you swallowed a radar-blip/of peyote/you were out of your tree…” This makes for fun reading.

The book “Madoc: A Mystery”, however, dating from 1990 indulges in a stellar example of poetic onanism. Clearly, the writing of Madoc brought great pleasure to the author, but I personally doubt this book will mean much to anyone not having a fetish for erudite cleverness. Clearly, the Princetion professor Muldoon is having a long distance conversation with his Oxford counterpart. You will have to wiretap if you really want to get this stuff. For example:

“[Galen]
“It transpires that Bucephalus is even now
“pumping jet
“of spunk into the rowdy-dow-dow
“of some hoity-toity little skewbald jade.”

Get it? If you do, this bud is for you.

The final book “Hay”, is the best of them. Even if a portion of the poems strike one as little more than deliciously worded doggerel, the fun of Muldoon’s wit evens the whole of it out. “I’ve upset the pail/in which my daughter had kept/her five-`No, six’-snails.” Substitute “reader” for “daughter” and you get the idea.

By the way, did you know he was professor of poetry at Princeton AND Oxford???

Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

william-shakespeare[First, if you came to this post looking for information on Shakespeare & Iambic Pentameter, the symbols used and how to scan Shakespeare, take a look at my Guides to Iambic Pentameter in the Categories Widget or simply click on the link – among other posts you will find my scansion of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. I notice that some users find this post looking for information on Haiku and “scanned Haiku”, take a look at my Guide to Haiku. If there’s specific information you are looking for, feel free to ask in the Guest Book and, given time, I’ll post an answer. This blog is for everyone. Please, please say Hello.]

[Second, this is a review I wrote on Amazon a while back. The full title of the book is: Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature). The author is M.L. Harvey.]

Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning

This is the first book this reader has read from the series “Studies in Comparative Literature” and the twentieth in the series. It is clearly not written for the causual reader who wishes to deepen his or her appreciation for the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Shelley, or Browning. It is what it claims to be–a study in generative metrics, with the emphasis on “study”.

From the first page, the reader will be left with the distinct impression that he has walked into the middle of an ongoing conversation. The author of the book, M.L. Harvey, assumes an acquaintance with prior material and the reader is well-advised to become acquainted with that material. Mr. Harvey has other matters to attend to and proceeds quickly with his own elaborations. If the reader (as I did), chooses not to read from Halle and Keyser’s “English Stress, Its Form, Its Growth, and Its Role in Verse” (an earlier exegesis on which some of Mr. Harvey’s own ideas build) then the footnotes are central. Read them all. They are hardly asides, being more often essential to Mr. Harvey’s contentions.

This is not slight material and the reader may often wish the editors had treated Mr. Harvey’s material with similar energy. Mr. Harvey, for example, uses `W’ to denote a weak stress and `S’ to denote a strong stress along with a variety of other symbols including `N’,.’Z’, `a’ and `b’, all of which are mercifully explained in a glossary of terms. The problem arises when these symbols are meant to be placed above their relevant syllables. In some instances, it is difficult to discern which syllable they are being placed above. I found myself sometimes trying to decipher Mr. Harvey’s intentions. In one or two instances, the symbols referred to by Mr. Harvey were missing in the relevant example, or the shorthand he apparently used in preparing the manuscript was not converted to its appropriate symbol.

The thrust of Mr. Harvey’s book is to create a kind of metrical unified field theory for each of the poets considered. Mr. Harvey refers more than once to the empirical support for his conclusions, including laboratory’s in which a number of readers were apparently given material to read (presumably poetry). Based on their reading habits (and presumably his own and those of his peers) a fairly reliable pattern can be discerned as to how English speaking readers scan a line. There is safety in numbers, but this approach is also problematic and reveals a central difficulty. Such research reveals how -twentieth century- readers (including Mr. Harvey) scan a line, but cannot reveal how a sixteenth or seventeenth century reader might have scanned a line, let alone the poets, for whom context was also a consideration. Although it is not clear, Mr. Harvey seems to propose, in a passage called “How to Scan a Line”, that his rules, derived from observed patterns of scanning, can in turn be used to “objectively” scan a line.

An oddly conspicuous example of where this method can go wrong, is one he returns to repeatedly. Mr. Harvey, for example, finds that the line: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” contains two anapests followed by two iambs. Because, in his opinion, a stressed syllable occurs in the third and sixth position, the line must adhere to the abstract pattern “WWSWWSWSWS”. This conclusion is almost unanimously counter to the accepted reading of this line by Shakespearean scholars, and by inference, Shakespeare himself. Although a modern reader (the nub of the problem) would read this line as containing two anapests, one need only refer to the most recently published examination of the complete sonnets (an outstanding book by Helen Vendler called “The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets”) to see where and how Mr. Harvey’s methods can go wrong. Ms. Vendler writes: “It is the iambic prosody that first brings the pressure of rhetorical refutation into Shakespeare’s line: `Let -me- not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.’ [Ms. Vendler italicises “me”] The speaker says these lines schematically, mimicking, as in reported discourse, his interlocutor’s original iron laws.” The context of the line [it is not clear that Mr. Harvey’s methods of scanning take into account the dramatic context of any one line] contradicts his methods. Another example he chooses comes from Lear: “Bids the winds blow the earth into the sea”. He again reads this line as beginning with two anapests. Given the context of the line, it is more likely and more accepted (according to sixteenth and seventeenth century habits of speech and prosody) that the line is iambic throughout, the first foot being trochaic and the second a spondee. This is a reading that can be applied to many of Mr. Harvey’s double anapests and one which argues that his `rules’ (such as the successive S constraint) need further refinement. It is this reader’s experience, for example, that a spondee in the second foot, while creating a minimal stress, paradoxically serves to further enforce the stress value of the fourth position, often imparting to that position the highest stress of any other syllable. In Lear’s line above, “blow” would therefore receive the greatest stress of any syllable in the line, a reading which, contextually at least, makes more sense.

A more egregious example of misreading, due to changes in habits of pronunciation and even to present day differences between the continents, comes when Mr. Harvey examines Milton. Words like “contest” and “blasphemous” and “surface” (all taken from Paradise Lost) were still accented on the second syllable. “Which of us beholds the bright surface.” (P.L. 6.472 MacMillan. Roy Flannagan Editor.) Mr. Harvey, offering an example of a “very rare `inverted foot'” (the credit for its recognition he gives to Robert Bridges) gives the following line: “Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim Prostrate (P.L. 6.841) In fact, Robert Bridges and Mr. Harvey are both mistaken in reading the fifth foot as inverted and one need not be a seventeenth century scholar to recognize it. Webster’s International Dictionary: Second Edition, in fact, provides the following pronunciation key. (pros [stressed] trat [unstressed]; formerly, and still by some. Esp. Brit., pros [unstressed] trat [stressed]). Any laboratory of Americans, nearly without fail, would also misread this line, and so the danger of overwhelming empirical evidence!

This misreading (due to changes and differences in pronunciation), along with contextual misreadings, is symptomatic and reveals the flaws yet to be ironed out by Mr. Harvey. For the time being, his methodology fails to take into account context, as demonstrated by the sonnet, as well as changes in pronunciation, as demonstrated by his extracts of Milton, and therefore can still only be used as a semi-reliable presentation of how these individual poets created and scanned their lines. Rather than using Mr. Harvey’s methodology (if such should be the temptation) the modern reader of these poets is still advised to purchase a well-annotated edition where the proper scanning of a line is a concern.

robert-browningThat being said, I do not wish to discourage anyone from reading Mr. Harvey’s work. Objections like those mentioned in this review are inevitable when dealing with something so subjective and changeable as the pronunciation of the English language. Mr. Harvey’s undertaking is not an enviable one and the objections so far raised are less than his successes. Mr. Harvey’s reasoning is, for the better part, solid and insightful. In fact, to be fair, one should spend as much time sampling his successes. This, however, would only restate what is already well-stated by Mr. Harvey. Most notably, he convincingly answers (in this reader’s opinion) why poets prefer iambic verse to trochaic verse-no mean feat and a question which clearly fascinates Mr. Harvey.

Vernacular, Colloquial, Common, Dialectal

[This is a relatively old post and there has been a lot of interest in it (given the number of hits it receives per day). The article has undergone a drastic revision but even now I think one could dedicate a book to the subject. This post is thin gruel, all considered. I give just a few paragraphs to each poet but at least this may serve as a starting point. My apologies to those looking for a far more detailed and thorough treatment. Maybe on some upcoming posts I’ll go into more detail with specific poets.  Last revision Jan 1, 2009]

Wikipedia, as of my writing this, defines Colloquial as language “considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing.”

The Challenge

A number of modern poets have said that they consider the proper voice for poetry to be ordinary speech. Some phrase this as the responsibility of the poet, others equate this choice as a political statement and for others it is a gender issue.

The reasons poets give, however, is not so interesting to me as the practical exercise, especially when it comes to the fusion of colloquial rhythms with metrical poetry. So my focus is on poets who write metrical (or formal) poetry with the hope that what I write can be applied to free verse poets as well.

The question is why, over a stretch of four centuries, there have been so few poets who write colloquially in metered verse. The answer, in part, is that it takes a special confluence of talents – the ability to work within meter with ease and mastery along with the talent to hear and reproduce the tone and inflection of ordinary speech. The two abilities don’t always go together. Add to this the circumstance of time and place, and it’s no wonder such a poet is so rare.

Back in the Day

william-shakespeareWhat makes writing colloquially in metered verse so difficult is that the rhythm of colloquial speech frequently runs counter to the regular patterns of accentual syllabic verse. It didn’t always used to be so difficult. When Shakespeare needed to write colloquially or dialectally, and needed to do it in Blank Verse, he could use all sorts of metrical cheats and did – elevating such devices to an art form. Here are just some of those tricks, drawn from Shakepeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, by Sister Miriam Joseph.

If Shakespeare needed an extra syllable, he used prosthesis to change rattle to berattle.

If he needed to change a trochaic word to a dactyl, he used epenthesis, changing meetly to meeterly.

If he needed to omit a syllable he could use aphaeresis, changing against to gainst.

If he needed to omit a syllable from the middle of the word he used syncope, changing prosperous to prosp’rous.

In short, Shakespeare could freely omit or add syllables as necessary. It was the norm and was prized in Elizabethan times when done skillfully. It was through the use of prosthesis and proparalepsis (adding a syllable to the end of a word), that many of our modern words were coined by Shakespeare. The bottom line is that using these techniques made writing colloquially and dialectally, in meter (Iambic Pentameter), much, much easier. Consider the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet, one of the most memorably colloquial characters in all of Shakespeare:

Lord, how my head aches! what a head have I!
It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces.
My back o’ t’ other side,–O, my back, my back!
Beshrew your heart for sending me about,
To catch my death with jaunting up and down!

In the second line Shakespeare uses the figure elipsis or eclipsis to eliminate the word if and the figure apocope to eliminate the last syllable of the preposition into. In other words, the line should read: It beats as if it would fall into twenty pieces. However, this would introduce two anapests (in the third & fourth foot) into the Iambic line, an embarrassing disaster in Shakespeare’s day.

scansion-romeo-juliet

I’m not sure a modern poet would dare to use the same techniques. Then, in the third line, the nurse’s colloquial speech once again threatens to rupture the Iambic Pentameter pattern.

scansion-romeo-juliet-2

This could probably be scanned differently, but this is my stab it. I’ve chosen to treat the third foot as a heavy feminine ending before a midline break (the comma after O). One could argue, perhaps, that the midline break really comes after side. In which case it would read:

scansion-romeo-juliet-3

In this case, the fourth foot would be a kind of double-onset after the midline break (after the word side). In both cases, the scansions are easily within the realm of acceptable iambic pentameter variants. In fact, the lines are mostly iambic. Shakespeare, of course, pulls this off by using the figure syncope, removal of a letter or syllable from the midle of a word – o’t’other side. If he hadn’t used this figure, the second foot would have been an anapest. In Shakespeare’s day, this anapest, along with the heavy feminine ending or the double onset (however you choose to scan it) would have exceeded the bounds of a tolerable variant.

A brief note on Shakespeare’s use of Proverbs. Of all the poets who put pen to paper, Shakespeare is the most conversant in the proverbial lore of this day. His mind was filled with proverbs and their use is like a multi-colored thread through the entirety of his output. At some point I may write a post on his use of proverbs. They give to his verse and to the voice of his characters an earthiness and familiarity that we hear as colloquial  and vernacular. But Shakespeare wasn’t unique in his love of proverbs. The Elizabethans were avid collectors of proverbs and they were taught them from their childhood schooldays. All the great Elizabethan playwrights sprinkled their writing with proverbial lore – if not so skillfully as Shakespeare.

Robert Burns

robert-burns-2One of the most dialectal, as opposed to colloquial, of English poets is Robert Burns, so much so that some of his poems are almost incomprehensible without annotation.

The night was still, and o’er the hill
The moon shone on the castle wa’;
The mavis sang, while dew-drops hang
Around her on the castle wa’.

Sae merrily they danc’d the ring,
Frae e’enin till the cocks did craw,
And aye the owerword o’ the spring
Was Irvine’s bairns are bonie a’.

This wonderful little tetrameter poem was written in rhyming couplets. Burns uses several metrical “cheats” to fit the dialect within the feet – all the same as those in Shakespeare’s day. He uses syncope to change over to o’er and evening to e’ening. In both cases he avoided an anapest. Notice that he doesn’t elide the word merrily. Even though we might, ourselves, be tempted to pronounce it with two syllable – merr’ly – Burns clearly wants it pronounced as a three syllable word – mer-ri-lyotherwise the solidly iambic patter breaks down.

Now, there’s one line that is especially tricky. How do you read: And aye the owerword o’the spring? One might be tempted to read the line as follows:

scansion-robert-burns

However, this would give us a dactyl in the third foot – something which, up to now, Burns has studiously avoided. The elipsis o’the, reducing two syllables to one, gives us a clue as to how Burns would like us to read the line.

scansion-robert-burns-2

With this reading the perfectly iambic pattern of the lyric is preserved. In fact, Burns (for all his dialect) is far, far more conservative than Shakespeare ever was and even Milton! His poems are all, by in large, strictly iambic.  And he accomplishes this feat using a variety of metrical “cheats”. Burns, it seems, valued metrical regularity over the irregular pull of dialectal diction. Another interesting facet of Burns’ poems is that, for all the dialectal vocabulary, his use of colloquialism or the vernacular voice is relatively normal. He may use colloquial or proverbial phrases, but not in any way that truly sets him apart from other poets. From A Dedication:

Be to the poor like ony whunstane,
And haud their noses to the grunstane;

The phrase the poor like ony whunstane has a proverbial ring to it. The colloquial expression hold their noses to the grindstone is typical of Burns’ use. Unlike Shakespeare, who poetically enriches his proverbs, Burns writes them out as he’s heard them. Having said all that, his use of these effects, when added to the rich dialectal voice of his poetry, unquestionably lends his poetry (despite their strict metrical devices) an air of the commonplace and the common voice.

But my point, in all this, is to demonstrate just how many metrical cheats poets were able to employ when writing colloquially or otherwise.

john-clareJohn Clare

John Clare’s career began as Burns’ ended. Like Burns he wrote about common things, but did so without  Burns’ virtuosity.When other poets were writing (or attempting to write) with a more elevated and heightened style, in a High Mimetic Mode, Clare was writing about common things in a common voice.

From The Nightingale’s Nest:

Hush! let the wood-gate softly clap for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love,
From here I’ve heard her many a merry year
At morn, at eve, nay, all the livelong day,
As though she lived on song.

The phrase many a merry year is colloquial, as well as all the livelong day – an idiomatic & vernacular English (as opposed to uniquely American) expression. Like Burns, though, Clare is very careful to stay within the metrical foot – archly conservative in his use of variants. The only variants I could find were trochaic first feet (blank verse).  In the lines above, one might be tempted to read the third line as a variant.

scansion-clare

This reading would create an anapestic fourth foot. In the entirety of the poem, no line veers from ten syllables and hardly veers from Iambic. Although Clare hasn’t used syncope or elipsis to slur the syllables, the correct reading is almost certainly as follows:

scansion-clare-21

This reading retains the strong Iambic Pentameter pattern of the poem. It again shows how poets, writing in meter, expected to fuse colloquial diction with the demands of meter. Clare’s omission of elipsis was a sign of the future – when more modern poets, writing in meter, would omit the visible indication of slurred syllables on the presumption that a knowledgeable reader of metered verse would slur the syllables without prompting – other modern poets – not aware of this tradition – simply read their lines as anapests and see up to two or three anapests as an acceptable variant. My own feeling is that more than two anapests in a line tends to be a departure from Iambic Pantameter rather than a variant.

At other times, there was no need for Clare to use such figures of grammar. His colloquial speech fit effortlessly into the pattern of whatever meter he was writing:

Hark! there she is as usual- let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
Those hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ‘neath the rustling boughs…

Such colloquial phrases as if rightly guessed and stoop right cautious fit neatly in the iambic pattern. Clare’s only concession was use aphaeresis when changing beneath to ‘neath – the only such figure in the entirety of the blank verse poem.

Most of John Clare’s poetry follows this similar pattern. An attentive reader can deduce that he wrote quickly, his verse frequently filled with words that do little more than fill out the meter, but his voice is always at ease and filled with the sort of speech and rhythms that seldom found their way into the more rarefied poeticizing of his contemporaries.

That said, and like Burns, Clare’s meter always remains rigid and archly conservative.

In fact, after the Elizabethans, the history of meter is one of ever increasing rigidity. The plasticity of a developing language hardened. By the end of the 17th Century words and their usages were all but standardized in comparison to the free-wheeling heydey of Shakespeare’s period. What this meant was that these techniques, rather than being an outgrowth of (and contributing to) a developing language, were becoming tools of poetry rather than of language. The coinage of new words declined rapidly and was even frowned on. Concomitant to this reining in of loose canons was an increasingly formal tone in poetry. Erudition, refinement and dignity were the bywords of Restoration Poetry – the stuff of Pope, Dryden , Davenant, Milton – not colloquialism. The malleable freedom of blank verse gave way to the strict accounting of heroic couplets. So, even though poets had the tools available to them, the times weren’t right. Colloquialism no longer found its way into the poetry of the leading poets.

After the restoration, even as the tyranny of heroic couplets finally began to give way, the rigidity of the restoration left its stamp of the following generations. The extravagant adventurousness of the Elizabethans were all but forgotten and seldom imitated, even as the nineteenth century fell under the sway of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and the great Victorains – Browning and Tennyson.

By the end of the nineteenth century many of the techniques used to fulfill the demands of meter and rhyme had become no more than mannerisms. It was to this that Pound was reacting when he rejected the sing-song meter of the Victorians. He believed that the only way to liberate poetry from the stale exigencies of meter and rhyme was to liberate it from meter and rhyme. Free verse was born and the exigencies were thrown out the window. They were no longer needed.

To some poets, though, Pound was taking the easy way out.

A few Poets looked for a new way to fuse the colloquial voice with metrical poetry.

Colloquialism without the Cheats

ea-robinsonE.A. Robinson was already meeting the demands of meter without recourse to the tired devices of his contemporaries — the tired metrical cheats, the flowery language and expostulations. Robinson’s poetry, for the first time in English language poetry,  reunited the common, colloquial voice with the demands of formal poetry.

The Blank Verse poem Aunt Imogen is a fine example of Robinson’s more vernacular and supple style. There are no thees or thous, no syncope, no elipsis, no aphaerisis.

The verse begins with an informality that was, up to this point, unheard of .

Aunt Imogen was coming, and therefore
The children—Jane, Sylvester, and Young George—
Were eyes and ears; for there was only one
Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world,
And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two.

Knowing that the verse is iambic pentameter blank verse, we know a few things about the first line:

aunt-imogen

The first is that the first & last syllable of Imogen receives the strong stress, not the second syllable. The second thing we know is that therefore is pronounced differently than nowadays, with the second syllable receiving the stress – there-fore’. A quick search in Webster’s (not the dinky collegiate version but the old one the size of a cinder block) confirms that the older pronunciation of therefore was more prevalent in Robinson’s day. (Trochaic feet, in the fifth foot of an Iambic Pentameter line, is extremely rare before the middle of the 20th Century.) Robinson doesn’t mind the Pyrrhic fourth foot, willing to exchange metrical rigidity for phrasal flexibility.

After the informality of the first line Robinson offers up some American vernacular. “Were eyes and ears” comes from the expression all ears, a uniquely American Idiomatic expression. Then the next lines seek to echo the voice of the children saying that  “there was only one/Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world. It is the kind of exaggerated expression children are prone to but which, up to now, rarely found its way into serious poetry. Robinson ends this first sentence with the following: “And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two”.
The closing words have the feeling of a conversational aside, adding to the air of informality and colloquial speech – something which Frost was to develop even further. There is, deliberately, no rhetorical heightening in any  of these lines.

In terms of the meter, Robinson relaxes his strict accounting, allowing the colloquialism to disrupt the iambic pattern.

robinson-in-the-whole-world

I read the first of the two lines as containing what’s called a double foot – a Pyrrhic-Spondee. (The double foot is an Iambic Pentameter variant which Sidney, an early pioneer of Iambic Pentameter, made frequent use of.)  The next line mirrors the first, though this time I read the line as having five feet. Though it probably was not deliberate on Robinson’s part, the second line helps re-affirm the Iambic Pentameter pattern without sacrificing Robinson’s colloquial effects. The effect is supple and flexible. It is a new voice in the poetry of blank verse.

There’s more to say about this poem but I think another poem will better demonstrate the other salient feature of Robinson’s verse – his magnificent Sonnet “The Sheaves”. He generally resists altering the natural grammar of spoken English for the sake of rhyme or metrical rhythm. He finds ways to preserve normal speech patterns while preserving the integrity of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. This is significant. Up until Robinson, poets regularly reversed grammatical units depending on what Iamb or Rhyme they needed.

For example, consider Wordsworth’s Scorn not the Sonnet:

“the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound”

The last line reverses the normal grammatical order for the sake of the rhyme wound/sound. Allowing that we don’t use the auxillary verb do as an expletive, one would normall say: Tasso did sound this pipe a thousand times or Tasso sounded this pipe a thousand times.

Robinson tries to dispense with such devices, rhetorical heightening, the use of the antiquated pronouns thee or thou for a much more familiar and “low American”  colloquial voice or or “low mimetic style” (See my post on the Oratorical Style for a discussion of high and low mimetic styles – the discussion is in reference to Fantasy Writers but applies to poetry as well. Apart from the poets mentioned in this post, and up until the 20th Century, most poets writing in meter chose to write in a high mimetic style, including Emily Dickinson.)

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Robinson’s concessions are change assigned, magic undivined and long to stay (where one would normally expect assigned change, undivined magic and to stay long. Other than that, the poem sounds thoroughly modern to an American ear. Whitman can sound modern to an American ear, but Whitman set aside meter to do it. Robinson didn’t and that, and if only in this respect, is all the more impressive.

Robert Frost: A Master of Colloquialism in Poetry

robert-frost-youngAfter Robinson, Robert Frost became the unrivaled twentieth century master of the colloquial. Frost, through skill, genius or sheer determination, dispensed with any metrical concessions. His verse is free of grammatical inversions, syncope, elision or any of the other metrical concessions. And there are no wasted words – words merely to pad the meter. His colloquial phrases strain the meter (and he was criticized for it even by his students – Robert Francis). But nonetheless, he mastered both the demands of formal poetry and colloquial sense and discursiveness – the halting, digressive, deliberative and informal pattern of our daily talk.

We don’t speak in five paragraph essays, but feel our away forward, our thoughts shaped by what we build on. This is the tone that Frost mastered.  His uniqueness, in this respect, and the difficulty of his art is attested to by the fact that, so far, few poets and fewer poems have achieved anything comparable.

‘The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it – that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound’

~ Home Burial: Robert Frost

Notice how Frost imitates the deliberative pattern of colloquial speech. The husband says: “I never noticed it from here before.” Then, colloquially, he reflects: “I must be wonted to it“. The poem is written in Blank Verse and the phrase fits neatly within the meter.  Outside the sphere of Dramatic Verse, no other poet before Frost ever introduced the everyday pattern of speech into verse.  This was Frost’s innovation. Notice the dialectal effect of “We haven’t to mind those.”

Dictionary.com defines Dialect “as a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially.”

The pithiness of “We haven’t to mind those” is characteristic of the New England dialect still alive and well, up in Vermont – a tight, clipped and northerly accent. However, the dialectal language strains against the meter.

scansion-home-burial

This is a hard line to scan and don’t hold me to it. “We have” is iambic but from there, the dialect of the voice plays against the meter – the sort of liberty that Frost was criticized for by more traditional poets.  Nevertheless, Frost just manages to fuse the colloquial tone with the overall Iambic Pentameter pattern (the variant feet are an allowable variant).

That’s hard to do, especially for modern poets. One has to have an ear for colloquial language, for meter, and how to fit the two together. My own poetry shows the learning process. In my poem Come Out!, the first of my poems where I was able to fuse colloquial speech and meter, there are still some poetic turns of phrases that, if I were to write it now, I might avoid.

But I might be taught,
I should supposeI can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With womenfolk.  We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.

The phrase I should suppose is a Frostian touch followed by the colloquial asseveration  I can’t say I see how. It’s worth noting that he could have written I can’t see how but he needed the extra iamb |say I| to fill the meter. Because the phrase is speech-like and feels natural, the filling out of the line feels natural. But there’s another Frostian feature of the line, and that is the tension between natural speech pattern and the Iambic Pentameter pattern. A colloquial reading might go something like this:

robert-frost-i-should-suppose-colloquial-reading

This, at least, is how I would expect a local to say it. But something Frost is renowned for, and probably because of the tension between phrase and meter, is his tendency to put the expected metrical stress on words that normally might not receive stress. Here’s how the phrase reads if one takes the meter into account:

robert-frost-i-should-suppose

With this second reading, should takes empasis. The husband knows he should be more cognizant of his wife’s experience. And we know that this is how Frost meant the line to be read because the husband immediately avers, reconsiders, saying I can’t say I see how. In this phrase the iambic stress is on can’t and I. The husband has already determined that he can’t see through his wife’s experience and probably won’t. Not I he says.

The effect finds parallels in A Swinger of Birches, among other poems. The speaker seems to turn back, aver, reconsider what he’s spoken just as we do in everyday speech.

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them

The colloquialism of the italicized lines, like many of the lines, plays hard against the meter. In this sample, there is only one line that is indisputable Iambic Pentamter: Like girl on hands and knees that throw their hair. Taken at face value, the iambic pattern is lost, breaks down in these lines, but there is the echo of an older reading in these lines (and it is with this knowledge that Frost allowed himself some variance).

For instance, in Shakespeare’s day a little syncope and elipsis would have regularized the line :

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun
Before them o’er   their heads to dry i’th’sun

But he was going to to say when Truth broke in

[Where going is slurred via elision to read as one syllable.]

matter-of-fact-elision

On the other hand, Frost allows himself a more flexibility, willing to end a final foot with a trochee: bend them; willing to vary the Pentameter with a Tetrameter line having two anapests.

frost-anapestic-lines

In short, Frost was skilled at matching colloquial phrase to the metrical line, but he was also willing to deviate from the pattern when the phrasing mattered more than the meter. It was a flexibility that served him beautifully, and which he seemed to beautifully balance (never completely losing the iambic pentameter feel) – a flexibility which, as we will see, no modern poets writing in meter seem to have absorbed from Frost – despite their study and admiration of the poet. As for myself, my own poem All Hallows’ Eve works toward that ideal, along with some newer poems I have’t posted yet.

[For a look at meter and colloquialism in another Frost poem, check out my post on A Road Not Taken.]

After Frost

richard-wilburRichard Wilbur , probably considered the natural heir to Frost, seldom touches on the colloquial voice the way Robert Frost does. His voice and technique harken back to an older poetry – to Robinson mor than to Frost. Not only are Wilbur’s poems frequently formal in structure, but they mostly sound formal, even his free verse. The are spoken with an air of formality or literariness that works against the colloquial voice. Consider “Seed Leaves”, dedicated to R.F. (Robert Frost?). The poem begins:

Dislodging the earth crumbs
Here something stubborn comes,
It comes up bending double,
And looks like a green staple.
And making crusty rubble.

The inverted grammar of the first line, for the sake of the rhyming “comes/crumbs” firmly undercuts the feeling of a colloquial voice. The subject/verb inversion as much as announces the presence of Poet, much as one clears his throat before he speaks. In his latest collection, “Mayflies”, perhaps the most masterful , none of the poems are written in a voice other than his own — always the poet speaking. “The Crow’s Nest” begins:

That lofty stand of trees beyond the field,
Which in the storm of summer stood revealed…

Once again, this time in the second line, the normal order of subject, object and verb gives way to the exigencies of rhyme. And this is the trap of formal poetry, which only Frost seems to have overcome– how to write a metrical and rhyming poem while preserving the vernacular, colloquial voice.

Timothy Steele

timothy-steeleTimothy Steele, a contemporary poet well-liked for his skill in formal poetry, succeeds in areas where Wilbur does not. In one of his most Frostian poems, he largely succeeds, but Steele pays a dear price. It is excessively derivative both in voice and subject matter, as though Steele couldn’t write a colloquial poem without adopting not just Frost’s voice, but also his subject matter. Consider “Timothy“:

Although the field lay cut in swaths,
Grass at the edge survived the crop:
Stiff stems. with lateral blades of leaf,
Dense cattail flower-spikes at the top.
If there was breeze and open sky,
We raked each swath into a row;
If not , we took the hay to dry
To the barn’s golden-showering mow.

Compare this to extracts from Frost’s poems “Mowing” and “Tuft of Flowers”, written, probably, a hundred years earlier:

[Notice the echo of gold in the poem above and below…]

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,

Or easy gold…

[Or the echo of “row” and Frost’s “swale” with Steel’s “swaths”…]

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

[Or compare how flowers and spikes show up in both poems…]

Not without feeble-pointed spokes of flowers…

Or compare Steele’s “we took the hay to dry” with Frost’s “to toss the grass to dry“…

Steel’s poem is rife with Frostian parallels, so much so that one suspects that Steele either deliberately imitated Frost in style and subject as a way to learn , or that Steele is altogether too pickled in his admiration. His reverence borders outright theft. Thankfully, Steel’s other poems are not as pickled, but he does not, to my knowledge, ever write in another’s voice – something which lends itself to colloquial or dialectal diction. It were as though none of the formal poets had ever read anything beyond Frost’s very first book?

[Current revision ends here – Dec 21 2008]

Rebel Angels

[My intention is to provide some fuller examples from Lea’s poem – Dec 21 2008].

Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea

I paged through “Rebel Angels” a compendium of 25 poets: “Poets of the New Formalism”; and I could not firmly identify any poem as being written in a voice other than the “poet’s”, as opposed to say, Frost’s The Housekeeper, or The Witch of Coos or The Pauper Witch of Grafton. The only poet who might count is Sydney Lea and the poem The Feud. Lea comes the closest to a distinct (which is to say not Frostian) colloquial voice. His poems begins:

I don’t know your stories. This one here
is the meanest one I’ve got or ever hope to.
Less than a year ago. Last of November,
but hot by God! I saw the Walker gang…

In an earlier version of the post, I remarked that Lea’s meter was too variable to be true blank verse.

No longer. In fact, I find Lea’s meter to be somewhat conservative; and reading it now, I sometimes wish the colloquial phrasing conformed a little less to the Iambic pattern! That said, I wish the same for some of my poems. Lea’s poem is an admirable  effort – more so now that I’ve given it a second consideration.

My only disappointment remains the use of Italics (in the second line) – and something Sydney uses elsewhere in the poem.

One of the great advantages of meter, which free verse is incapable of, is in the ability to stress words that otherwise might not be stressed, according to their place in the metrical line. Consider Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet that begins “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments…” The temptation is to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” However, Shakespeare’s sonnets rarely, some say never, deviate from the iambic norm. A safer bet is to assume that Shakespeare is playing against the meter, expecting us to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” Admittedly, the prepositions [to] and [of] should not receive much stress.

The meaning of Shakespeare’s poem is very different when the meter is kept in mind. Lea, on the other hand, fails to use the meter to advantage. The italics, in fact, vary from the meter and act as a sort of cheat. In Lea’s poem we’ve come full circle. Only now, the effect is not to preserve the meter but to ignore it!

Coda

There’s more to write on this  subject, and I will.

It would be interesting to consider how colloquialism has been used in differing forms. For now, I still hope to find the formal poet who can re-unite the colloquial, common and vernacular with meter, verse and rhyme.