The Art of Rhyme and Meter

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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,
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Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

  • May 14, 2009 Tweaked & corrected some typos.

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

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

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

False Starts

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

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

Quantitative Verse (Sample from Spenser Encyclopedia)

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

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

Why the Drama?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Not Latin Enough

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

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

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

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

odyssey-book-12-chapman-pope

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

odyssey-book-12-pope-fitzgerald

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

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

Enough with the Romans and Greeks

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

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

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

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

Enter Milton

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

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

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

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

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

The Novelty Wears Off

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

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

The Fall of Iambic Pentameter

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

But not all poets followed Pound’s lead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it goes.

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

The rebellion was short lived.

Modern Iambic Pentameter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Last Comparison

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

odyssey-book-12-fitzgerald-mandelbaum

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

Afterthoughts • August 7 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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