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.”

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)

The Art of Rhyme and Meter

The oral tradition of Poetry

Poetry began as an oral tradition. Homer’s Odyssey is probably far older than Homer and Odysseus’ sojourn, in one form or another, may have been handed down for centuries from one storyteller to the next.

Each storyteller probably added details and expanded the story until, by the time Homer learned it, the epic was a real feat of memorization. As every reader of Mother Goose knows, Homer's Odyssey Fragmenta ditty or poem that has a rhythm or rhyme is easier to remember than one that doesn’t.

The Dactylic Hexameters of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s meter, was the  rhythm that made the epic easier to remember. And a device used for the filling out of this meter was the  Homeric Epithet. These colorful descriptions (or epithets) might have also served as cues – much like stage directions.

Before Homer, the tightly wound relationship between dance, music, rhythm and sound was demonstrated by recently discovered poems from ancient Egypt. In a book called The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same exact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple meter and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhythms or lengths of phrases of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been changed or performed with some musical accompaniment, were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. ¶ Ancient Egyptian texts show that Egyptians spoke and sang in musical patterns on all occasions and for all purposes–from the most sacred to the most mundane. [p. 155]

This oral tradition continued with the very first works of the Anglo Saxons, the alliteration of Beowulf, up until the start of the 20th Century, when poets like Frost, Cummings, and Yeats, continued to imbue their poetry with the sounds and rhythms of its oral, musical, lyrical and storytelling ancestry.In short, traditional poetry finds its roots in music.

Free Verse is a different Genre

This all ended with the 20th Century. The poetry of meter & rhyme, the techniques formed out of an oral past,  had become dogmatic and stylized. A new genre replaced the poetry that had been written for thousands of years – free verse.

Though it may seem controversial to suggest that free verse is a new genre (only tangentially related to the poetry of the previous 200o years), the assertion isn’t to the detriment of free verse. Free verse practitioners have themselves, to varying degrees, deliberately avoided the traditional rhythms of a regular meter; have eschewed rhyme; have avoided alliteration; and whole schools have rejected techniques like metaphor. All of these techniques grepower Plain Englishw out of an oral tradition – frequently, or so scholars think, as mnemonic aids or for the purposes of musical accompaniment.

Free verse is the child of the 20th Century printing press (which isn’t to say that free verse can’t be read aloud and enjoyed as such). And it’s not to say that free verse doesn’t borrow techniques from the oral tradition, but free verse doesn’t do so systemically. (Poets, like William Carlos Williams, studiously avoided anything short of what he considered plain speech or plain English and the avant-garde is premised on the avoidance of anything that smacks of traditional poetry.) It was the explosive availability of the printed word that made the visual cues of free verse possible. Aurally, there is frequently nothing that distinguishes free verse from prose.  Cleave Poetry, for example, is defined by its visual appearance  (rather than any aural cues).

In short, free verse didn’t evolve from the poetry of the oral tradition, it replaced it.

So what does this all have to with meter and rhyme? Just this. The near total dominance of free verse in print media and on store shelves (stores that bother with a significant collection) has left its mark on what readers consider a modern style. It makes writing meter and rhyme much more challenging but also more rewarding if done well.

Unlike metrical poetry prior to the 20th Century, the best modern metrical poetry does not draw attention to itself. The best metrical and rhyming poems make the reader feel as though they are reading modern English (without also feeling like free verse). The demands weed the men from the boys, the girls from the women. Robert Frost was a master of this illusion and so was Yeats and Stevens.

Grammatical Inversions & Rhyming: Subject • Verb • Object

When novice poets try to write meter, they frequently use what are called grammatical inversions. They can be effective or they can sound contrived but I suspect that few poets really understand the origin of these techniques, how they’ve  Shakespearean Sentencesbeen used, and why.

The best book on the subject is by John Porter Houston. If you’re a poet and you’re interested in this tradition as practiced by our greatest poet, then this is the book to read. I had a hard time finding it at Amazon but when I finally did I scanned in my own book for their image and added a short review. Here’s how Houston introduces the book.

The history of SOV word order (as, using a common abbreviation, I shall henceforth call the subjectdirect objectverb pattern) vanishes into the Indo-European mists, which has encouraged linguists to formulate various theories of its original importance or even of its former dominance. Be that as it may, the word order shows up historically in Greek, Latain, and Germanic, being associated in the latter especially with subordinate clauses. However, it seems unlikely that, in its English poetic form, SOV is so much an atavistic harkening back to primeval roots as it is a consequence of the adaptation to English of the Romance system of Riming verse. Verbs in Old French and Italian make handy rimes, and they make even better ones in English because so many English verbs are monosyllabic. The verse line or couplet containing a subject near the beginning and a verb at the end is a natural development. [p. 2]

The English language, descended from the Germanic languages, prefers the following pattern:

Subject | Verb | Object (SVO)

Subject | Verb | Object
The girls | play   | on the seesaw.

But poets, as Houston observed, found it convenient, for the sake of rhyme, to invert the grammar. They might write:

The girls on the seesaw play:
“Life goes up, life goes down
“You’ll have good luck another day!”

The first line would be an SOV construction:

Subject | Object | Verb
The girls |on the seesaw |play

This is a construction one sees very often among amateur poets writing rhyme. The only purpose for the grammatical inversion is to make the rhyme. It’s what free verse poets (more so than others I think) derisively call rhyme driven poetry. And it’s precisely this sort of writing that was acceptable right up until the start of the 20th century.

With this in mind, a somewhat peculiar commentary on  rhyme driven poetry can be found at the Poetry Foundation’s blog Harriet. The post is by Alicia Stallings. Alicia StallingsThe reason I say it’s peculiar is because, though she expresses exasperation at the criticism, she never offers an alternative. She begins her post by writing:

As a poet who works in form, I weary of seeing in critiques–either in on-line workshops or in published reviews–the complaint that a poem or phrase or line is “rhyme driven”. Of course rhyming poetry is rhyme driven. Rhyme is an engine of syntax.

But then Stallings immediately acknowledges what the criticism really means: that is, when itis obvious [that] the whole purpose of the line is to arrive at some obvious predestined chime, like the set-up of a punch line.” Stallings then offers some examples of why a poem might feel rhyme-driven, but she never offers a reason why the criticism shouldn’t be made. However, she does write:

But it seems to have become an immediate and unthinking response to lines that rhyme that are in any way out of the ordinary–particularly anything that has the slightest whiff of “inversion”–that is, out of “natural” English word order–which is often interpreted as the blandest, strictest of simple declarative sentences.

And this is to say that such criticism can be carried too far; but then inasmuch as any criticism can be carried too far, this doesn’t invalidate the original impulse. The bottom line is this: Stallings makes sure her rhymes don’t arrive like some “obvious predestined chime”. Rhyme might be the engine, but she makes sure (in her own poetry) that the engine isn’t heard. She’s an exceedingly skillful rhymer. So, the best advice, as regards Stallings, is to do as she does. Read her poetry. Make your rhymes feel accidental, as if they’re an inevitable accident of subject matter.

Robert Frost, on these very grounds, was deservedly proud of his poem “Stopping by Woods”.

Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” [Pritchard, Robert Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]

If you want a model for how to rhyme, read Frost’s Stopping by Woods or The Road not Taken again and again. No one would accuse these poems of feeling rhyme driven although, as Stallings would point out, that’s precisely what they are – rhyme driven.

Again (and I don’t think beginning poets appreciate this enough) it’s not whether a poem is rhyme-driven, it’s whether it feels and reads rhyme driven. Are the rhymes determining the line and the subject matter, or is the subject matter determining the rhymes? In Frost’s poems, it’s hard to imagine how they could have been written any other way. The rhymes feel entirely accidental. The rhymes feel  driven by the subject matter; and this is the effect you are looking for.

For the record, I love the SOV construction – especially when done well. I don’t think I’ve ever used the syntax in my own poetry but I might, just for the enjoyment.

Shakespeare’s use of SOV wasn’t for the sake of a rhyme. Shakespeare used the reversal of normal English  (unusual even in Shakespeare’s day) to add metrical emphasis and elegance; to make a line more memorable; to add meaning; or to reveal character.

Here, for instance, is how Shakespeare reverses the normal syntax of English to convey and build suspense. Horatio is describing having seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father (I have included Houston’s explanatory comment):

william-shakespearethrice he walk’d
By their oppresss’d and fear-surprised eyes
Within his truncheon’s length, whilst they, distill’d
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me
In dreadful secrecy impart they did,
And I wish them the third night kept the watch,
Where, as they had deliver’d, both in time,
Form of the thing, each word made true and good,
The apparition comes. (
Hamlet I, ii, 202-11)

Having devised a sentence in more or less normal word order in which the verbs have radically different positions, Shakespeare then resorts to inversion, and the OVSV clause contains, moreover, a peculiar reversal of impart and did. The next sentence places two circumstantial expressions between subject and verb, so that the latter, with its short object, seems curiously postponed, even though the number of intervening syllables is not great. Finally, in the concluding subordinate clause, both subject and verb are held off until the end. [p. 83]

Notice how Shakespeare holds off the apparition comes until the end of the line. Throughout the passage the inverted grammar underpins the feeling of terror and suspense, the feeling of a character whose own thoughts are disrupted and disturbed. (I think it’s worth commenting at this point, especially for readers new to Shakespeare, that this is poetry. Elizabethans did not talk like this. They spoke an English grammar more or less like ours. Shakespeare can be hard to read because he is a poet, not because he is Elizabethan.)

  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the purposes of making language more memorable is a lovely one.
  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the sake of rhyme is dubious.

Toward the end of the Houston’s introduction, he makes an interesting point. Although the use of the SOV construction continued into the 19th century (even with a poet like Keats who was consciously trying to shed the feeling of antiquated and archaic conventions), the general trend was toward a more natural speech. Houston writes:

The importance of SOV word order in subsequent English blank verse is worth noting. Although it is scarcely unexpected that Milton, with his latinizing tendencies, liked the device,its persistence in the romantics can be a trifle surprising. Keats slight use of SOV in The Fall of Hyperion is odd, given that there he supposedly tried to eliminate the Miltonisms of Hyperion to some extent; Hyperion, in fact, contains no SOVs. An example of two in Prometheus Unbound does not seem incongruous with the rest of the language, but finding SOV word order in The Prelude runs somewhat counter to our expectations of Wordsworth’s language.

but scarcely Spenser’s self
Could have more tranquil visions in his youth,
Or could more bright appearances create
Of human forms (VI, 89-92)

Examples are to be found in The Idylls of the King and seem almost inevitable by the stylistic conventions of the work, but the use of SOV in the nineteenth century is essentially sporadic, if interesting to observe because of the strong hold of tradition in English poetry. [p. 3-4]

The usage was ebbing. The result is that its use in rhyming poetry stood out (and stands out) all the more. And now, when the conventional stylistic aesthetic is that of free verse, SVO inversions stands out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, this short passage can’t possibly do justice to the rich tradition of grammatical inversion in English Poetry. Reading Houston’s book, if you’re interested, is a better start. The point of this post is to raise poets’ awareness of why they might be tempted to write like this; and to make them aware of what they’re hearing when they read poetry prior to the 20th century.

Other grammatical Inversions

There are other types of inversions besides Subject•Verb•Object . In a recent poem I examined by Sophie Jewett, you will find the following line:

I speak your name in alien ways, while yet
November smiles from under lashes wet.

The formulation lashes wet reverses the order of adjective and noun for the sake of rhyme. This sort of inversion is also common among inexperienced poets.

  • Avoid it at all costs.

Conveniently moving around parts of speech might have been acceptable in the Victorian era and before, but not now.

And here’s another form of grammatical inversion by Thomas Hardy from The Moth-Signal:

ThomasHardy“What are you still, still thinking,”
He asked in vague surmise,
That you stare at the wick unblinking
With those deep lost luminous eyes?”

Normally the present participal, unblinking, would follow the verb stare. This is the way grammar works in normal English sentences. However, for the sake of the rhyme, Hardy reversed the direct object, at the wick, with the past participal unblinking. The effect is curious. To what is unblinking referring? – one might ask. Is it the stare that is unblinking? – or the wick? Apologists meaning to rationalize this inversion might point out that the syntactic ambiguity is brilliantly deliberate. I don’t buy it; but they could be right.

  • Again, my advice would be to tread lightly with this sort of inversion. It smacks of expediency.

As I find other examples I will post them.

Ultimately, one of the most telling attributes of an experienced rhymer is the parts of speech he or she chooses to rhyme. A novice may primarily rhyme verbs or nouns. The novice’s rhymes will be end-stopped. In other words, the line and sentence will end with the rhyme. The rhymes of the more experienced poet will move like a snake through his verse. The rhymes will shift from verb, to noun, to adjective, to preposition, etc. They will fall unpredictably within the line’s syntax and meaning – as if they were an accident of thought.

In the spirit of put up or shut up, check out my poem All my Telling. Decide for yourself whether I practice what  I preach. And here is Alicia Stallings what what is, perhaps, the most succinct advice on rhyme that I have ever read – her Presto Manifesto. The most important statement from her manifesto, to me, is the following:

There are no tired rhymes. There are no forbidden rhymes. Rhymes are not predictable unless lines are. Death and breath, womb and tomb, love and of, moon, June, spoon, all still have great poems ahead of them.

You will frequently hear poets and critics remark that a given rhyme is tired or worn. As a counterexample they will themselves offer poems with rhymes that, to my ear, sound concocted and contrived. I call this sort of thing safari-rhyming – as if the poets had gone safari hunting, shot the rare rhyme, and proudly mounted it. The truth of the matter is this: the English vocabulary is finite. There are only so many rhymes. It’s not the rhymes themselves that are worn or trite, but the lines that are tired. Give an old rhyme a new context and magic happens. Robert Frost’s rhymes in Stopping by Woods are nothing if not tired; but the poem’s effortless progression of thought and idea means we don’t notice them. They become a kind of music rather than a distraction.

And this is what rhymes are meant to do. Ideally, they’re not meant to be noticed. This is why the novel rhyme can be as distracting as the line that is syntactically contorted for the sake of a rhyme. The best rhymes are like a subtle music. If, when reading a rhyming poem aloud, the listener doesn’t immediately discern the rhymes, take that as a good sign.

One last thought on rhymes from Stallings:

Translators who translate poems that rhyme into poems that don’t rhyme solely because they claim keeping the rhyme is impossible without doing violence to the poem have done violence to the poem. They are also lazy.

I agree.

On Keeping the Meter

This is the most difficult portion of the post to write because so much of what I write will be construed as a matter of taste; and the distinctions between mediocre meter and meter written well can be subtle. Readers will have to decide for themselves. Way back when, I wrote a post called Megan Grumbling and the Modern Formalists. The point of the post was to demonstrate how the stylistic conventions of free verse had influenced, adversely, the meter and blank verse of modern formalists. (This would seem to go against my earlier statement that poets writing meter can’t write the same way (as in the 19th century) since the advent of free verse. Not entirely. As with anything, there’s a balance to be struck. The best meter doesn’t draw attention to itself.) Feel free to read the whole post, but I’ll extract the most relevant part because I think it has some bearing on this post.

In the January 2006 issue of POETRY magazine, we find some beautiful poems by Megan Grumbling. But remember, this is mirror mirror world. Just as Dryden’s heroic couplets showed up, ghostlike, in his blank verse, free verse asserts itself, ghostlike, in modern formal verse.

“Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls
our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road
crosses the river that they call Great Woks.
The nearby fields so rich it’s hard to breathe–
the hay treacly with auburn, grasses bronzed–
we stop before a red farmhouse, just shy
of where the river runs, where maple trees
have laid the front lawns ravished with their loss.”

The enjambment of the first three lines has all the flavor of free-verse. There are no auditory clues (in the way of syntactical units) that might hint to a listener that these are lines of blank verse. One might as easily write the first sentence as follows:

Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road crosses the river that they call Great Woks.

The average reader would never suspect that this was blank verse. The reader might, in a moment of preternatural attentiveness, notice that the line is entirely iambic. That said, there is no indication that this sentence is Iambic Pentameter. Given Grumbling’s approach, one might as easily print her poem as follows:

Their stri|dent hold |upon |the back
roads pulls |our mor|ning drive, |out to
where Oak |Woods Road |crosses |the river
they call |Great Woks. |The near|by fields
so rich |it’s hard |to breathe– |the hay
treacly |with au|burn, grass|es bronzed–
we stop |before |a red |farmhouse,
just shy |of where |the ri|ver runs,
where ma|ple trees |have laid |the front
lawns ra|vished with |their loss.

This is perfectly acceptable iambic tetrameter, but for the short last line. I only had to remove the purely metric “that”. It might be argued that one could submit any iambic pentameter poem to the same exercise, but such an argument would only be partially true. One would find it exceedingly difficult to apply the same exercise to Shakespeare’s passage from Antony and Cleopatra. Or, more fairly, consider Frost’s An Encounter (more fairly because Grumbling’s poetry is clearly inspired by Frost.)

Once on the kind of day called “weather breeder,”
When the heat slowly hazes and the sun
By its own power seems to be undone,
I was half boring through, half climbing through
A swamp of cedar. Choked with oil of cedar
And scurf of plants, and weary and over-heated,
And sorry I ever left the road I knew,
I paused and rested on a sort of hook
That had me by the coat as good as seated…

And now for the tetrameter version:

Once on |the kind |of day |called “weather
breeder,” |When the |heat slow|ly hazes
and the |sun by |its own |power seems
to be |undone, |I was |half boring
through, half |climbing |through a swamp
of ce|dar. Choked |with oil |of cedar
And scurf |of plants, |and wear|y and
over-|heated, |And sor|ry I
ever |left the |road I |knew, I
paused and |rested |on a sort |of hook
That had |me by |the coat |as good
as seat|ed…

The latter isn’t a very passable version of iambic tatrameter. The third line is entirely trochaic and can only be “rescued” if we elide power to read pow’r or read the line as follows:

and the |sun by |its own pow|er seems

Though this too is unsatisfactory. The fifth line fails altogether. I picked Frost’s poem at random (lest the reader think I picked one poem especially antithetical to such treatment). What the poem illustrates is Frost’s skillful wedding of sense (grammatical & otherwise) to blank verse – Iambic Pentameter.

The same commitment is not sensed in Grumbling’s poem, skillful though it is. One might assert that Grumbling’s poem is primarily iambic and only secondarily pentameter. The ghostly influence of free-verse pervades her poem, just as the ghost of heroic couplets pervaded Dryden’s blank verse. One might say that she only grasps the surface of blank verse. But her choices might also be deliberate.

This is actually a good exercise.

If you can successfully convert your Iambic Pentameter to Iambic Tetrameter or even Iambic Trimeter, then you’re probably doing something wrong. If nothing else, your meter may be too regular or the joining of line and thought may be too slack. There’s an art to fitting thought, meaning and syntax to a metrical line. It’s subtle and difficult to describe but, if done well, line and meter are like hand in glove.

Not to pick on Timothy Steele but… Steele illustrates the opposite dilemma. There’s a stiffness to his meter that one can learn from. His poem, Sweet Peas, starts us off:

The season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the white wall was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her…

In particular, compare the following:

Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say

Then one foggy Christmas Eve/ Santa came to say:

(The latter line is from the Christmas Carol Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) The point of the comparison, cruel though it may be, is to demonstrate what they both have in common – a slavish devotion to an Iambic beat. In the case of the Christmas Carol, it’s necessary. The lyrics, after all, have to coincide with the rhythm of the carol. (You can’t have variant beats in Christmas Carols.) Steele doesn’t have that excuse. His line is full of metrical expediencies.

Normally, the average English speaker would say:

“Yet our neighbor phoned that night saying she had watched them…”

But that’s not Iambic Pentameter. Steele had to move things around. The first thing he does is to shift “that night”. That’s not ideal, but there’s some justification for it. Maybe he wants to emphasize that night? Curiously though, he doesn’t punctuate the clause – Yet when, that night, our neighbor phoned… One would think, if emphasis were the motive, he would want to add some punctuation. As it is, the odd placement has the feel of a metrical expediency. But the phrase phoned to say only makes it worse. The phrase is modern English but in this context it sounds entirely expedient, not just metrically but because it’s clearly thrust to the line’s end for the sake of a rhyme. (This is a rhyme driven line.)

The line is just too obviously metrical.

Three of the four lines are end-stopped, negatively emphasizing the rhyme and meter. The third line is marginally end-stopped. All this combined with the fact there’s only two variant feet out of the first 20 makes for some very wooden meter.

Here’s the rest of that opening verse from Steele’s poem:

Steele_TimThe season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the |white wall| was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it was plain
She struggled with the tumor in her brain
And, though confused and dying, wished to own
How much she’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me good night,
She thought their colors now were at their height–
Indeed, they ne|ver had |looked lovelier–
The only kind response was to concur.

These lines are an object lesson in how not to write meter and rhyme. There are only three variant feet out of 60. All but one of the lines are strongly end-stopped. Steele’s use of contractions is a matter of expediency. For instance, in line 8, he contract’s she’d but doesn’t contract I had. It feels arbitrary. The effect is to highlight the obviousness of the metrical beat. The rhymes are mostly nominal or verbal and, because the lines are end-stopped, they land with hard thumps. A poet might be able to get away with any one of these features in isolation, but when thrown together, the poetry feels contrived. Just as an experiment, let’s see if we can turn this poem into an Iambic Tetrameter.

The season for sweet peas had long
Since passed, and the white wall was bare
Where they’d been massed; yet when that night
Our neighbor phoned to say that she
Had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it
Was plain she struggled with the tumor
In her brain and, though confused
And dying, wished to own how much
She’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me
Good night, she thought their colors now
Were at their height– indeed, they never
Looked lovelier– the only kind
Response was to concur.

What do you think? I actually think it improves the poem. I only had to remove one word. The lines take on a certain sinuousness and flexibility that moderately makes up for their thumping iambics and subdues the cymbal crash of their end-stopped rhymes. They become internal rhymes – they are registered but no longer hit the reader over the head.

If you’re having trouble writing meter that isn’t end stopped (and if you’re not rhyming), remove two words from your first line and shift the rest accordingly. (And you can try removing other metrically expedient words along the way to really shake things up.)  I’ll demonstrate. Rather than pick on any more modern poets, here’s something from the first act of Gorboduc, the first English drama written in blank verse (and just as end-stopped and metrically conservative as some modern formalist poetry):

There resteth all, but if they fail thereof,
And if the end bring forth an evil success
On them and theirs the mischief shall befall,
And so I pray the Gods requite it them,
And so they will, for so is wont to be
When Lords and trusted Rulers under kings
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or a just revenge,
When right succeeding Line returns again
By Jove’s just Judgment and deserved wrath
Brings them to civil and reproachful death,
And roots their names and kindred’s from the earth.

So, let’s remove the word thereof, which is only there for the sake of meter (a metrical filler):

There resteth all, but if they fail, and if
The end bring forth an evil success on them
And theirs the mischief shall befall, and so
I pray the Gods requite it them, they will,
for so is wont to be when Lords and Rulers
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or revenge, when right
Succeeding Line returns again by Jove’s
Just Judgment and deservèd wrath brings them
To civil and reproachful death, and roots
Their names and kindred’s from the earth.(…)

Voila! What do you think? The lines take on greater flexibility and there are fewer end-stopped lines. Even though the overall pattern is just as relentlessly iambic, the effect is somewhat mitigated by the shift between line and thought. You can practice the same with your own poetry, even if its rhymed. You could even try writing Iambic Hexameter, then shifting all the lines so that they’re Iambic Pentameter.

Metrical Fillers

This, as it turns out, is the most contentious part.

I’m fairly hard-nosed about what are (in my view) egregious metrical fillers, but many formalist poets are equally pugnacious in protecting their turf.

The word at the top of my list is upon. While, no doubt, the words has its place, my irritation stems from its reflexive use as an all too convenient iambic substitute for on. Most formalist poets use it. They’re not apologetic. And I’m not apologetic when I call it lazy. The problem, in many cases, is that poets (even free-verse poets) misuse the word. Upon is not universally interchangeable with on. Also, my sense is that, in terms of everyday speech, on has more or less replaced upon. Upon has become a primarily literary usage and feels fusty to me.

But that’s only my opinion.

And it’s easy to get hung up on the word. The point is to avoid metrical fillers – words that are unnecessary to the sense of a line’s meaning (whose only purpose is to fill the meter). Here’s a sample I discussed in my earlier post on Megan Grumbling:

we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this field.

The word upon expediently substitutes for on.  The word “within” is metrical padding. How else does a bag hold anything but “within”?

Later in Grumbling’s poem, more metrical padding appears with “out to where the Oak Woods Road…” Using modern English, we say: “out where the Oak Woods Road…” A.E. Stallings indulges in the same sort of metrical expediency.

Sing before the king and queen,
Make the grave to grieve,
Till Persophone weeps kerosene
And wipes it on her sleeve. [Song for the Women Poets]

The added and unnecessary preposition (to) before (grieve) is nothing more than metrical filling. Here is another example from Stallings‘ The Dollhouse:

And later where my sister and I made
The towering grown-up hours to smile and pass:

Again, the effect is antiquated. The preposition (to) before (smile) is unnecessary – another metrical filler.

However, some of the most abused metrical fillers are adjectives, especially among poets first tackling meter. My advice to poets just starting out is to write meter without adjectives or write with a strict limit (maybe one for every ten lines). Whether writing meter or free verse, nothing can weaken a line like an adjective. Use them sparingly.

After so many examples of what not to do, I thought I’d close with a fine example of beautifully modulated meter and rhyme by Annie Finch (whose book I will be reviewing soon):

annie finchDo you | hear me, |Lycius? |Do you hear |these dreams
moving |like words |out of |the air, it seems?
You think you saw me thin into a ghost,
impaled |by his |old eyes, with |their shuddering boast
of pride |that kills |truth with | philosophy.
But you hear |this voice. It is a serpent’s, or
is it |a wom|an’s, this rich |emblazoned core
reaching |out loud for you, as I once reached
for you with clinging hands, and held you, and beseeched.  (…)

These are the opening lines to Lamia to Lycius, from Annie Finch’s new book Calendars. The poem is written in open heroic couplets, like Steele’s, but the difference is night and day. The thing to notice is that there are only two end-stopped lines in these first nine. The syntax and thought of the lines moves sinuously through the line ends, subduing the rhymes. The effect is to make the rhymes feel more organic, more like an outgrowth of the poem’s subject matter.   Notice also the rich use of variant feet balanced against more regular iambic feet and lines. (I’ve marked phyrric feet in grey.) Notice also the absence of metrical fillers. Finch isn’t determined to keep a strict count like other poets – Timothy Steele or Dana Gioia (the link is to my review of his poetry). The result is a far more varied and rich voice.

If this post has been helpful, let me know.

Whether it be rhyme, meter or both,

Rhyme & Meter Online: March 15, 2009

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

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Life, an epic Poem

Analysis: William Blake

William Blake’s poems are methodical in construction of the meter and rhyme, every word seemingly painstakingly chosen. He uses standard formal poetry constructions like trochaic and iambic tetrameter, rhyming couplets, and quatrains in almost every one of his poems, which helped me to fully grasp these concepts in ways I never did in high school English class.

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Mike Snyder’s Formal Blog

Stephen Edgar’s Stanzas

…today I just want to point out his use of regularly varying line-lengths in rhymed, metrical poetry. I’ve seen such verse called “heterometrical,” or “het-met,” for short, but Lew Turco don’t like that, not one bit, so I won’t use the terms. Not today, anyway…. A fairly simple example is the stanza Edgar uses in “Transit of Venus,” from the sequence “Consume My Heart Away.”

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Poetry Foundation

Wernicke’s Area

By Martin Earl

Since poetry is now written largely without rules (or written with self-invented rules), since the common craft of metrics, rhyming, quantifying are no longer taught, largely dispensed with by the community, the result is a less universal and a more personal poem, a poem that can no longer be “read”, except by the writer and the writer’s closest cohorts – those who know the language. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. There is simply no need in today’s world to write or to read epics composed in ottava rima which tell the life-stories of unlikely heroes…

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The Poetry Archive

Stephen Edgar

What is most immediately distinctive about Edgar’s work, certainly among poets of his generation, is his commitment to formal verse “and for showing considerable panache in handling [it]” (Kevin Hart, Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry). This has drawn comparisons, in Australia, with poets such as A D Hope and Gwen Harwood, but also to the likes of Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur. Poetry Chicago says of him that “he achieves, overall, a supple classicism that earns him a place next to the best twentieth-century American formalists.”

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[Looks like this book (the paperback version?) was just posted at Amazon. The publication date is June 1, 2009.]

Amazon.Com

Fourteen on Form: Conversations with Poets (Paperback)

Fourteen on Form: Conversations with Poets by William Baer. Interviews with Willis Barnstone, Robert Conquest, Wendy Cope, Douglas Dunn, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Donald Justice, X. J. Kennedy, Maxine Kumin, Frederick Morgan, John Frederick Nims, W. D. Snodgrass, Derek Walcott, and Richard Wilbur. When free verse and its many movements seemed to dominate poetry, other writers worked steadfastly, insistently, and majestically in traditional forms of rhyme and meter. Such poets as Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Derek Walcott, and Richard Wilbur utilized sonnets, villanelles, blank verse, and many other forms to create dazzling, lasting work. Their writing posed a counterpoint to free verse, sustained a tradition in English language verse, and eventually inspired the movement called New Formalism. Fourteen on Form: Conversations with Poets collects interviews with some of the most influential poets of the last fifty years.

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Poetry Foundation

By Annie Finch

Listening to Poetry: On The Free Verse Brain and the Metrical Brain

Poetry’s connection with music and the right brain may be its basic identifying use and distinction as an art form, the reason it has survived through the millennia. And perhaps this essential connection is the reason that, after a century dominated so hugely by free verse, the caricature of poetry in the popular mind still remains, against all apparent reason and the weight of a century’s lived experience, inherently associated with meter…

Metrical poetry, traditionally, offers up its riches to the receptive, listening mind. The meter itself guides, and the inner or outer ear has only to hear. Reading a metrical poem aloud is rather like performing a piece of music using the instrument of your voice (and just as in music, the degree of skill in composition will significantly affect the result). When John Donne opens a sonnet with “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for, thou are not so,” the weight and length of the stressed first syllable of each of these lines, in contrast to the unstressed syllable of the iambic openings of the rest of the lines in the poem, are very specifically determined. Because a metrical poem modulates individual phrases against the scaffolding of a rhythm and line-length that is mutually expected by both poet and reader, the poet can indicate, even on the page, the exact timber, tempo, and other physical characteristics the reading-aloud process should take at each point in the poem…..

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PoemShape

The Art & Writing of Iambic Pentameter

The art to writing Iambic Pentameter is partly in knowing when not to write it.

Chaucer was the first poet to write full length “poems” in Iambic Pentameter. But his language was middle English, not modern. The first drama (that we know about) written in Modern English and in Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) was Gorboduc not by one author, but two – Sackville and Norton. Since this was probably their first crack at Iambic Pentameter, and since they wanted to make a good impression, they didn’t vary the pattern one iota. In other words, they didn’t quite know when not to write it.