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

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

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

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

And I agree with this latter assertion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But watch what happens if I do this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ The Song of Haiwatha [Italics mine.]

Finch writes:

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

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

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

All the |wild-fowl |sang them| to him

I read it this way:

All the |wild fowl |sang them| to him

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

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

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

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

One answer she herself gives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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CALENDARS by annie finch

  • September 18 2009 • Cleaned up typos. Oddly, Firefox keeps mucking up WordPress Javascsripts. I’ve switched to Google Chrome. This is the  third time I’ve had to correct the same typos.

How the Book Faired

Not many reviewers hold poetry books to the same standards I do. In fact, none that I know of.

I am unique among reviewers.

Annie Finch CalendarsLet me begin by stating that I received the book straight from the publishers. The copy that I ordered was hardcover. The book was beautifully wrapped in a fine tissue paper and lacked only a wax seal. The care taken in its presentation leaves the reader with the impression that this is a book (and poet) that the publishers are proud of.

After receiving this beautiful book, I promptly left it on the roof of my car and drove off. Several hours later, I recovered the book from the off-ramp of I-91. This alone is remarkable. The book was able to stay on top of my car for some 23 miles at speeds of just over 70 miles per hour. This bespeaks a slender volume with subtle curves able to withstand gale force winds.

I then put the book next to my favorite chair.

Whereupon one of my little girls knocked over my freshly filled glass of ice tea (I had just been preparing to review the book). CALENDARS was soaked (along with some other books). I then did what I do with all my books that get caught in lemon iced-tea downpours.

I put it in the oven (which has a pilot light) underneath my 1940’s edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia.

I then forget that the book is in the oven and crank the oven to a pizza-ready 475 degrees. As any good lit major knows, paper burns at 451 degrees, hence Fahrenheit 451. Fortunately, the smell of broiled Columbia Encyclopedia and roast Finch alerted me to the impending book burning. I removed the books. Very hot. Very dry. Very bent.

I noted that the binding and glue had withstood both gale force winds and a controlled propane explosion. I promptly placed the roast Finch under my beloved 1938 Webster’s Encyclopedia (all 11 or 12 pounds of it) to straighten it out. Finch is small. Webster’s is big. I forget about the roast Finch until last week. Upon recovering Finch from her premature burial, I discover that the book is straight and, to the untrained eye, looks good as new.

So, I can now say without reservation that the quality of the book is outstanding and highly recommended.

Printed by Tupelo Press.

About Annie Finch

A brief biography of Annie Finch states that she was born in New Rochee, New York in 1956. She studied poetry and poetry-writing at Yale. (I’m not sure of the distinction between poetry and poetry-writing, but then I didn’t go to Yale.) Of interest to me is her collection of essays called The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self (2005),  A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women (1994) and After New Formalist: Poets on Form, Narrative. And Tradition (1999). She’s a formalist. (I normally don’t care for the term because I am not formal, but Finch uses it.) Finch is currently directing the Stonecoast Masters of Fine  Arts program in creative writing at the University of Southern Maine. And of final note: Calendars was shortlisted for the Foreward Poetry Book of the Year Award.

Annie Finch is incredibly productive.

Now to the Poetry:  Understanding Them

Reading Finch is a bit like reading Yeats in the following way: They are both steeped in a spirituality that uses “code words”, symbols and associations that the average reader may or may not be familiar with. Anyone who does a little research on Finch will learn that she’s Finch Study Guidea practicing Wiccan and that to more thoroughly understand her poetry is to more thoroughly understand her spirituality. Fortunately for readers of Yeats, a reader’s guide is available and indispensable. But what if you’re reading Finch? Well, as it turns out, the publishers have provided what they call a “study guide“. Clicking on the image at right will download a PDF from Tupelo press.

If you download it, you will find that the guide consists of a series of leading questions for each of the book’s poems. The questions are meant to provide readers with avenues of investigation that will presumably provide clues to or reveal the poem’s associations, symbols and meaning. By way of  example, here is the first poem (normally I wouldn’t reprint an entire poem, but readers might enjoy following the text as Finch reads the poem in the video below):

Landing Under Water, I see roots

All the things we hide in water
hoping we won’t see them go—
(forests growing under water
press against the ones we know)—

and they might have gone on growing
and they might now breathe above
everything I speak of sowing
(everything I try to love).

Here is the first of the two questions found in the study guide:

Finch dedicates this poem to Rita Dove in the “Acknowledgments” and has mentioned during readings that this poem came to her after reading Dove’s verse play The Darker Face of the Earth. The play, which retells the story of Oedipus among slaves on a nineteenth-century plantation, concerns the influence of a family’s past history on the present. Are these themes reflected in “Landing Under Water, I See Roots”?

Is one to assume that one must read “Acknowledgments” in order to fully appreciate Finch’s first poem? This seems to be the implication. How many readers are going to want to pursue this research? I, for one, am not. I have a whole pile of books yet to read, all on the floor next to my chair, all ready to soak up my next glass of iced tea. I generally don’t care for poetry of this sort. My own bias is to believe that a poem that isn’t self-sufficient, whose meaning can’t be plumbed without the aid of footnotes or endnotes, hasn’t done its job. It’s unfinished. But that’s my bias. I know that other poets enjoy this kind of poetry, as do many readers.

And here is the poet reading the poem:

As it stands, Finch’s first poem is beautifully written (if obscure). Who hides things in water? I don’t. And if we don’t take it literally (which I don’t think we’re meant to) how exactly are we to interpret “water”? Another reviewer, Tim Morris at the University of Texas at Arlington, has this to say:

Annie Finch’s work consistently makes us read a line twice. You are never sure just where a line or a thought is going. But in contrast to one dominant poetic school in America at the moment, descended from John Ashbery, where the reader does not know or for that matter care where the next thought is going, in Finch’s poetry one always cares.

I would modify that second sentence just a little: You are never sure just where a line or a thought went.

OK, never is too strong a word, but perhaps you take my point. There can be an opaque quality to Finch’s poetry, the feeling that you just had to be there. Finch’s poems can be like sentences without nouns where one is never quAnnie Finchite sure what’s being described or conveyed. I’m dubious but, as Morris asserts, Finch’s associative leaps pale in comparison to an Ashbery. There are readers who enjoy this sort of opacity and  I do think it is possible to enjoy Finch’s art without fully understanding her references. In no way do I want to dissuade readers from reading her poetry. My reactions are to be taken with a grain of salt.

But besides that, what’s with the study guide anyway? A whole host of questions beg to be asked.  Was it thought to be necessary? If so, why? Is the text to be considered complete without it? Why wasn’t it included with the book? Doesn’t it imply a certain level of presumptuousness? Is Annie Finch so established that her poetry now comes with study guides? Are readers obligated to read the study guide alongside her poetry? I’m certain she and the publisher would say no, but there it is. I must admit, I would probably have a near death experience if my own poetry were issued with a study guide, but I would also be just a little embarrassed. Shouldn’t I be dead before this happens? Mind you, only some of these questions relate to the quality of her poetry. That said, they’re questions I inevitably ask myself. If a book of poetry comes with (or requires) a study guide, what’s missing in the poetry?

All the same questions could be asked of Yeats, but then Yeats was Yeats. He was writing, unapologetically, for the Irish. Who is Finch writing for? – other women who happen to be wiccans? It’s a question that will occur to some readers through the course of the book and in poems like The Menstrual Hut, Without a Bird, Summer Solstice Chant. None of this, by the way, is a criticism so much as a description of what you will find.

On the other hand, not all of Finch’s poems are so oblique.

A Wedding on Earth is rich with earthy exuberance. At Religioustolerance.org the Wicca religion is described as  neopagan, earth centered religion. Finch’s poem is nothing if not earth centered. It’s imagery is concrete, sensuous, and erotic, reveling in the fecundity of the earth. There is no “earth as it is in heaven”. Heaven is earth.  Religious Tolerance, by the way, defines neopaganism as the following:

A Neopagan religion is a modern faith which has been recently reconstructed from beliefs, deities, symbols, practices and other elements of an ancient religion. For example, the Druidic religion is based on the faith and practices of the ancient Celtic professional class; followers of Asatru adhere to the ancient, pre-Christian Norse religion; Wiccans also trace their roots back to the pre-Celtic era in Europe. Other Neo-pagans follow Hellenismos (ancient Greek religion), Religio Romana (ancient Roman religion), Kemetism (ancient Egyptian religion) and other traditions.

Unlike with some of her other poems, it’s not essential to know that she’s a Wiccan or to know what Wicca entails, but it does inform the poem.

And as each fruit that drips down the earth’s strong chin
spills new sugar over an ancient face,
we all hold seeds that vibrate alive within,
and every hardened pod pulls the world’s embrace
from a new hiding place.

This is from the first stanza. The rich imagery and Whitmanesque rhetoric continue, unabated, through the entirety of the poem. Not all of the allusions or images make sense:

…bring
sand to emptiness, memory to the full..

Sand may have some Wiccan connotation of which I’m unaware. Without knowing, lines like this sound a little like words for the sake of words. They are like the witch’s chants – more incantation than meaning – creating a sort of sound and wall of imagery that’s meant to be like sounds and color. Like a magic spells, the words aren’t quite meant to make sense but to create a mood. The poem works. She moves in and out of incantation and exhortation:

Let your bodies make a body of bodies – cool
with the pores of a question, rich and warm
with answers quickening to beat and roll and spool
through the lost space anchored only by love’s vast charm,
where pools of kiss and hope and remembering meet,
crossed in a sculpting heat.

While we’re talking about content, you might not notice Finch’s mastery of form. And that’s the way it should be. Of all the poets who still write in the aural tradition, which is to say she uses meter and rhyme,  she is the most skillful. Her lines are rich with enjambment. This is a poet who can think beyond the line ,whose inventive powers move over many lines at once. One doesn’t get the sense that she writes line by line – as one does with so many other formalist poets. Her thought and meaning move through the form – that is, Finch gives the illusion that the form is accidental. The poem feels as though it has created the form rather than the form creating the poem.  Her poetry is mercifully free of metrical fillers and archaisms (in terms of word choice and grammar) that so frequently mar the efforts of other modern formalist poets. This is Finch’s singular gift and mastery.

The study guide provides a brief explanation of the meters and a sample scansion of all the poems in Calendar. Of the Wedding on Earth, the study guide writes:

This invented stanza uses the same line lengths, with the rhyme pattern of the Spenserian stanza. As befits a meter related to the Sapphic stanza—a meter that does not lend itself to Wedding On Earth Scansionsubstitution, since a particular pattern of different metrical feet constitutes its identity—this invented meter does not usually use substitution within the line. However, it does tend to leave off the final unstressed syllable of a line, lending the poem a more insistent, drumlike and ceremonial quality.

Notice the emphasis on the insistent, drumlike character of the meter – all in keeping with the feeling of the poem as incantation. This aspect of the study guide is especially useful and one wishes (or at least I do) that the publishers had included an appendix in the book itself – though I can understand why Finch, the publishers, or both opted not to. I fully admire Finch’s passion for the aural tradition, along with the varied exploration of the moods the different meters rouse in her. One gets the sense that the various stanza forms and meters are like musical keys to her. Different composers reacted differently to C Major, C# Minor or E♭major; and one gets the same sense that the different meters evoke commensurate moods and subjects in Finch.

And speaking of the study guide, I find some of its scansions puzzling.

For instance, the study guide scans the first poem as follows (trochaic tetrameter):

Landing Under Water ScansionNotice that the second and fourth line of each stanza shows a missing unstressed syllable. This implies that the meter is what’s called Long Meter, which has a syllable count of  8,8,8,8 . In other words, the ballad meter should be read as Long Meter with a missing syllable in the second and fourth line. In fact, Finch’s ballad meter is a trochaic version of 8s, 7s. A wealth of examples can be found here at the Fasola web site.

I might be accused of quibbling.

The study guide adds: Line 2: The rest or omitted syllable, very unusual in the middle of a trochaic line, creates an emphatically strong stress on “won’t.

I wouldn’t scan it that way. If this was Finch’s intention, then she didn’t quite pull it off. The tug of the trochaic meter pulls too hard against her intentions. At best, one might scan the line as follows:

spondaic Finch

This would make the second foot spondaic. However, I suspect many readers would read it as follows:

weak spondaic Finch

This scansion makes the word won’t more of an intermediate stress. If Finch had created some syntactic pause after won’t, I think readers would be more apt to heavily stress the word. But such is the art and science (the nitty-gritty) of writing meter. And I love Finch for trying.

Finch’s poems are full of metrical niceties like these and even if I’m dubious as to the success of some of them, I’m in no way criticizing her. Her poems are richer for the effort and the scansions available in the study guide give the interested reader something to think about. Did it work?  Did it not work? If so, why?

It’s refreshing to read a skilled craftsmen and, in effect, have her share her thoughts and poetic ambitions with the reader. In the hands of a master, the tools of the aural tradition add a layer that free-verse  simply can’t reproduce. And Annie Finch is a master.

Her Imagery

Finch’s imagery is curious. It is primarily visual.

She rarely touches on the sense of smell; and when she does, it’s only in the most conventional way. In A Wedding on Earth, for example, she refers to the “fragrant dust” – a rather abstract allusion that carries few, if any, associations. Her sense of touch is also muted – which is strangest of all (especially for a poet so devoted to the Earth). She rarely goes beyond the most conventional descriptions. A stone is rough, the earth is damp, lips are soft, or hands are warm, for example. Other than that, she will frequently use the verb touch (in many of her poems), but rarely explores the sensation other than to say that she or something was ‘touched’.

Taste and Sound (Aural) are also muted. It’s really quite remarkable. I wasn’t able to find a single example of taste in any of her poems. However, I’ll concede that I wasn’t looking for this when I first read her poems and have only quickly thumbed through the poems the second time round. Maybe I missed something. The closest we come, again, is in “A Wedding on Earth” She writes:

And as each fruit that drips down the earth’s strong chin
spills new sugar over the ancient face…

But even here, the sense of taste is suggested but nothing more. The mouth appears frequently in her poems, but Finch rarely, perhaps never in Calendar, actually explores the sense of taste. In Butterfly Lullaby she refers to the “sweet question mark”, but the word and the word’s usage are so conventional as to flirt with cliché. It hardly connotes the sense of taste.

A sense of hearing is also missing from her poetry except in the most conventional usage. The closest she comes may be in the poem Belly, where she refers to the “Humming sparrow touching my breast…” There’s the sense of touch again, but the imagery is abstract. Is she describing sound? Is she describing an inner sensation akin to touch? Even in her poem Faces with Poulenc, ostensibly about her reaction to the composer and his music, the sense of sound is conspicuously absent. Her poem, it might be said, recreates her experience of sound through visual motion. And this is what most characterizes Finch’s imagery.

Motion.

Her poetry is full of verbs, adverbs and present participles. Inks interpenetrate. The Sun tucks its way through the ground. Spirals bend into flame. There is whirling, spiraling, breathing, touching, meeting, curling, fish-rushing sparks, floating, evenings ravelling of slats to emerald. The wisteria raises its inchworm head. “Delve for me,” she writes, “delve down.” Then later: cradle the concrete ground till it softens. Things vine and sink and hide and pour. The sky is grass-moving. Consider the following lines: Indian grass lapping up the spattering sun; a great building that breaths under sunlight, currents of earth linger; You reach through your mouth to find me – Bursting out of your body. In the poem Churching she will “stay here looking” with her blood, she will “stay here holding up” her blood and “will stand here with” her blood but she won’t smell, taste, touch or hear it.

Hers is the visual imagery of constant motion. The verb reaching appears in poem after poem. The verbal imagery lends her poetry energy and richness but also, to me, gives them a monochromatic feeling.  Each poem seems written in the same key. Taken one after the other, they begin to feel breathless and hyperactive. As I say, it’s a curious effect. And to be fair to Finch, she is not alone in overly favoring one sense. I can look back through my own poems (most of them on this website) and see that I seldom explore all five senses. In some, like my All Hallows’ Eve, I made a deliberate effort to exploit taste, touch, sound and smell, but that was a much longer poem. I suppose one might wish that she modulated the pitch of her imagery the way she varies the poems’ formal aspects.

To Whom She Writes

Traditionally, the poetry loved by the most readers (the poetry that is considered universal) is the poetry in which the poet, in effect, disappears.  It’s the poetry in which the reader can say to his or herself: If I could have, that’s how I would have said it. The great poets help us find our own voice, help us express our own ideas and dreams. Guy that I am, I  just don’t see myself ever wanting to recite The Menstrual Hut or Chain of Women while I’m bucking logs. To read Finch’s poetry is to see the world the way see she’s it – to experience the earth and spirit the way she experiences it. Hers is a very personal poetry.

The downside is that sometime the poet’s reveries are so full of personal significance, oblique chants and imagery, that the reader will feel excluded. They might feel as though they are watching a self-involved ceremony that is both strangely secretive and exhibitionist.

And, as I wrote before, the reader might feel as though they just had to be there. Her various chants give that impression: Lammas Chant, Summer Solstice Chant, Winter Solstice Chant, the Imbolc Chant. I suppose they ought to be treated as part of a larger performance. (The book, after all, is called Calendars.) On the other hand, I think it’s fair to wonder at their intrinsic value. She herself writes:

Some are poems I decide I want to write for a certain occasion (“Elegy for My Father,” “A Wedding on Earth,” “A Carol for Carolyn,” the valentines, which are an annual tradition for my husband, and the five seasonal chants); in the elegy and the wedding poem, for example, I wanted to provide an earth-centered religious context for certain rituals of marriage and death.

You just had to be there.

Poems like the chants are probably best enjoyed for the mood they evoke.  Enjoy them and her other poems for their rich rhythms and masterful control. Enjoy her poems for the incantatory spell they can cast on you. I wouldn’t recommend reading the book in one sitting. Read it like you would read the calendar, a day at a time. Then you will especially enjoy poems like Lamia to Lycius and the almost metaphysical conceit of The Intellect of Woman (a kind of companion or response to Wilbur’s poem Mind.  You will savor her metrical skill, the subtlety of her enjambment and the vibrancy of her imagery.

She’s one of the best.

So the intellect of woman will not mind
the sight of where the diamond’s edge has moved.
Perfection’s habit opens us to find
cuts in a window we have never loved.

The Intellect of Woman

Note: I don’t recommend her book in any recipe, ovens or cauldron.

Annie Finch reads American Witch (not from Calanders)

Robert Burns & Trochaic Tetrameter (Sort of…)

I recently wrote a post analyzing a more successful poem written in Trochaic Tetrameter – Edna St Vincent Millay’s Sorrow. ~ February 3, 2009

I noticed that someone searched for the meter to Burn’s Ae fond kiss. Curious, I decided to look the poem up.

What a surprise! As it turns out, Burns has tried his hand at a trochaic poem. Writing trochaic poetry is devilishly difficult. Here’s why. Writing lines that begin with a stressed syllable and end with an unstressed syllable, as Burns does, is the easy part. The devilishly difficult part is making the ear hear the lines as trochaic rather than iambic. The rythm of spoken English is naturally iambic. Listen to yourself talk, and you may notice that almost all of your sentences end with a strong syllable. Up to this very sentence, all but one have ended on a strong or intermediate stress. Here’s the poem by Burns, unmolested by my commentary.

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
robert-burnsDeep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met-or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

And now to the commentary. Rather than go line by line, as is my usual habit, I’ll try not to extenuate.

Here’s how Burns would like us to read the first four lines (and how some instructors may want to scan the lines):

ae-fond-trochaic-reading

These are trochaic four foot lines. However, most readers, probably even in Burns’ day, will be more inclined to (subconsciously) read the lines as follows:

ae-fond-iambic-reading

Notice that the first lines are read as iambic trimeter. The iambic pull is too hard to resist when the lines begin with the weak indefinite article Ae or (modern spelling) A. This is what makes writing trochees so devilishly difficult. The poet must go the extra mile to enforce the trochaic rhythm, otherwise the ear will naturally want to read iambs – which is what happens in the lines above and which is why, at first glance, the poem’s meter is deceptively obscure. Burns doesn’t quite pull it off. It’s not until we get past the first two lines that Burns’ metrical intentions become clear. In musical terms, it’s as if Burns failed to establish the tonic. Only mid-way through the melody do we really know what key we’re in.

So, rather than hearing trochaic feet, we hear it as an anapest followed by a solid iambic foot. The third foot in the first and second lines are heard as feminine endings. Only in the third and fourth lines does Burns unambiguously push the lines into a trochaic reading.

Nevertheless, (and having said all that), if the reader wants to read it in the spirit in which Burns’ wrote it, he or she should try to read the first lines as trochaic, in accordance with the first scansion. The meter is telling a tale that informs the poem. It mirrors  the topsy-turvy emotions of the speaker. Rather than pledging the joyful union of an undying love, he is pledging the opposite, the painful separation of an undying love. It’s upside down. Nothing is the way it should be in this love poem – and the meter reinforces that. It’s all backwards.

The next four lines of the first stanza are more easily read as trochaic. It’s not until the forth line of the second stanza that the reader might stumble again: Love but her, and love for ever.

love-but-her

The first scansion is how Burns means for us to read it. The second scansion is how the ear, realistically, hears it – a headless iambic tetrameter line with a feminine ending. Being the one line out, in an otherwise trochaic pattern, the iambic rhythm has the curious effect of sounding backwards and awkward. It’ also, curiously, the one line in which Burns most directly states his love. The effect, brought about by the use of meter, is to make Burns’ statement of his love sound curiously backwards and out of kilter. I think it’s probably giving Burns too much credit to say the effect was intentional. My own impression in reading  Burns is that he’s a conservative metrist (just as one would expect from a poet of short poems). He seldom ties or has the leeway to exploit the full potential of meter.

The final stanza is the least successful in terms of its trochaic meter.

fare-thee-weel

The first scansion, again, is how Burns means it to be scanned (and that’s the spirit in which we should read it); the second two lines are how the ear hears it – two headless iambic tetrameter lines with feminine endings. And this is where art means science in the art & science of scansion. Does one scan it the way Burns intended it to be scanned, or how the ear hears it? It’s probably as simple as deciding what one wants to demonstrate. The  next two lines of the last stanza could more easily be read as trochaic, but because of the iambic rhythm established by the first two lines, one tends to read them, again, as Iambic Tetrameter.

Thine | be il | ka joy | and trea-sure,
Peace, | En-joy | ment, Love | and Plea-sure!

After these lines Burns repeats the initial lines, reinforcing the iambic rhythm (though the lines feel like trimeter rather than tetrameter). The overall effect by the time one gets  to the last two lines (which do read as trochaic) is of metrical confusion. For most readers, if they realize that the poem was meant to be read as trochaic, the second reading will make much more sense. This is a poem that will probably take two readings by most readers. Unlike Longfellow’s The Song of Haiwatha, Burns fails to firmly establish the trochaic rhythm from the outset – and so the feeling of metrical confusion.

And that’s the point, if any, I would make about trochaic meter: not that Burns’ poem is a failure, but that the meter is devilishly difficult to write. Many readers and critics will observe that trochaic poems tend to be monotonous. The reason is that the poet must constantly fight against the English language’s natural tendency to be iambic. That makes variant feet in a trochaic meter a dicey proposition and usually avoided – hence the monotony.

If you try to write one, good luck.

Be sure and let me know if this post was a help!