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.

The Poetry of Dana Gioia

interrogationsDana Gioia published Interrogations at Noon in 2001.

He is primarily known as an essayist and critic and is especially known for his defense of Formal Poetry. In his Notes on the New Formalism, he wrote: “the real issues presented by American poetry in the Eighties will become clearer: the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation.”

He was a contributing poet to the anthology “Rebel Angels”, which I hope to review at some later date.

Selections of his poetry can be found at his web site.

With Interrogations at Noon, Gioia is true to his preference for meter and rhyme and offers a variety of verse forms and rhyme schemes. The first poem, Words, appears to be an accentual poem. Whereas the number of syllables per line vary, one could read each line as having 5 stressed syllables. I think, to most readers, the poem would feel and read like a free verse poem. (Accentual verse is frequent in nursery rhymes, where the accentual rhythm is more easily discerned in the shorter line lengths.)

The world does not need words. It art-ic-ulates it-self
in sun-light, leaves, and sha-dows. The stones on the path
are no less real for ly-ing un-cat-alogued and un-count-ed…

The artfulness of writing accentual verse is not so demanding as accentual/syllabic, accentual verse being closer to free verse. So the poem succeeds or fails in its use of imagery, phrase and content.

And in this first poem we are greeted by many of the traits that typify the poems that follow. Gioia does not possess the same gift for imagery & language as his contemporary, A.E. Stallings. His imagery, such as it is, is generally abstracted and literary, lacking sensuality, texture, smell, feeling. One very seldom wants to linger over a given image or combination of words. His imagery and language tends to be on average, pedestrian, sometimes verging on cliche.

Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping the shoulder, the slow
arching of the neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

There is the abstraction of “articulates itself/ in the sunlight”.

Such phrases as “glancing the skin”, “gripping the shoulder”, “slow/arching of the neck or knee” are the stuff of every day prose. The phrase “silent touching of tongues” flirts with cliché. The poem concludes:

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always —
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

The sun “piercing” anything is a stock image. We have some poetic language in “painting the rocks… then dissolving each lucent droplet..” but there is no color, sense of touch, motion, sound or even sensation in any of it. Neither does one see the world in new ways as when Frost writes: “But I had the cottages in a row/ Up to their shining eyes in snow.”  Such moments of transcendent imagery are a pale rarity in Gioia’s palette. Gioia’s imagery is straightforwardly visual and the language conceptual and intellectual: as in: “The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always…” which has an elevated, antique ring to it, though not so archly archaic as A.E. Stallings’ excesses. Gioia generally avoids the archaisms favored by Stallings.

Reading Gioia, one hears the voice of a skillful essayist writing poetry. What do I mean by that? Read Robert Frost’s essays and you will hear the voice of a poet writing essays. Frost’s essays are like his poems – indirect, playful, coy. He would write lines like the following: “”Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Gioia’s poetry is like his essays – direct, intellectual and explanatory. (When I was dating, I once played the piano for a girl I was trying to impress. Her friend sniffed: “He plays the piano like a typewriter.”)

Gioia, in a nutshell, frequently writes poetically, but does not write poetry.

~

The verse form I am most passionate about is blank verse. Gioia offers us a sampling of his skills in the poem Juno Plots her Revenge.  The poems first lines are as follows:

Call me sister of the thunder god.
That is the only title I have left.
Once I was wife and queen to Jupiter,
But now, abandoned by his love and shamed
By his perpetual adultery,
I leave my palace to this mistresses.
Why not choose earth when heaven is a whorehouse?

Even the Zodiac has now become
A pantheon of prostitutes and bastards.
Look at Callisto shining in the north,
That glittering slut now guides the Grecian fleet.
Or see how Taurus rises in the south,
Not only messenger of spring’s warm nights
But the gross trophy of Europe’s rape!
Or count the stormy Pleiades — those nymphs
Who terrorize the waves, once warmed Jove’s bed.
Watch young Orion swaggering with his sword,
A vulgar upstart challenging the gods,
While gaudy Perseus flaunts his golden star.

My first reaction is to find Gioia’s blank verse very conservative. For instance, most of his lines are end-stopped, 16 out of these first 19 lines, (meaning that the end of the lines are either marked by punctuation or reflect a normal pause in speech patterns or phrase). And this is a pattern which is representative. Not even pre-Shakespearean writers of blank verse were as conservative with enjambment. The attribute marks a poet who is either an inexperienced writer of blank verse or one who is simply very conservative. It marks a poet who isn’t at ease with the form. His thoughts don’t move freely through the lines, but instead march line by line, each thought fitted therein. His skills have not transcended the verse form.

In the first seven lines there is only one line, the first line, that disrupts the iambic rhythm, the first two feet being trochaic. Some might read the first foot of the seventh line as being trochaic, but it could as comfortably be iambic. The line ends with a feminine ending – one of the few variations. The next twelve lines, like the first seven, posses only one line which varies the iambic beat. All in all, when one also considers the end-stopped lines, the effect produced is stodgy and wooden. The natural rhythms of the language which skillful poets use to counterpoint the iambic rhythm, are missing in Gioia’s conception of the form. Too much efficiency.

Lastly, one meets with the same sort of imagery as in the first poem of the book. There is an over-reliance on adjectives and, inasmuch as he uses adjectives, they are repetitive (as in the 4 line proximity of “warm nights” and “warmed Jove’s bed” and they are unimaginative – gross trophy, stormy Pleiades, young Orion, vulgar upstart, gaudy Perseus, golden star. These adjectives all serve their purpose, but they are stale and overused. They evoke nothing. One feels, after a point, that they are more for metrical padding (making sure there are enough syllables in a given line). One hopes that if Gioia writes more blank verse, he eschews such adjectives. The effect might be to add more flexibility to his line, favoring enjambment.

A more successfully attempt at blank verse can be found in Descent to the Underworld. The Iambic Pentameter shows greater flexibility in its flow of thought – which more freely overlaps from one line to the next.

At first the way is not
Entirely dark. Some daylight filters down
And gives the cave that same bleak iridescence
The sun shows in eclipse. But gradually
The path descends into undending twilight.

The iambic pentameter is till relatively conservative (perhaps too much so) but by Gioia’s standards, even here, there is some loosening.

There are no grassy meadows bright with flowers,
No fields of tassled corn swaying in the wind,
No soft green vistas for the eye…

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

~

Gioia’s rhyming poems give a similar impression – of the poet who writes line by line. In the two poems considered, The End of the World and The End of Time, all the lines in both poems are end-stopped.The former poem begins:

“We’re going,” they said, “to the end of the world.”
So they stopped the car where the river curled,
And we scrambled down beneath the bridge
On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.

This first poem is written in heroic couplets – though some prefer to reserve that term for longer, narrative poems. (It is written in rhyming couplets.) The latter poem follows an ABAB rhyming pattern. Because each phrase and grammatical unit ends neatly with the end of each line, the flow of the poems wants to pause with each line, as though each line were its own independent accomplishment. The natural ebb and flow of the language is overrulled by the demands of the form – the very sort of writing that prompts scorn from poets who prefer free verse.

Gioia is at his best in shorter, pithier poems. And he is at his best when writing in that indistinct syllabic poetry or accentual poetry that exists somewhere between free verse and formal verse. He is at his best when he doesn’t have to hew to a meter or rhyme scheme. Pentecost is just such a poem.

Neither the sorrows of afternoon, waiting in the silent house,
Nor the night no sleep relieves, when memory
Repeats its prosecution.

Nor the morning’s ache for dream’s illusion, nor any prayers
Improvised to an unknowable god
Can extinguish the flame.

We are not as we were. Death has been our pentecost,
And our innocence consumed by these implacable
Tongues of fire.

Comfort me with stones. Quench my thirst with sand,
I offer you this scarred and guilty hand
Until others mix our ashes.

This is the poetry of a direct and unpretentious voice. Freed from the constraints he imposes on himself in other poems, he speaks directly and simply. His thoughts move freely from one line to the next. The poem, written on the death of his son, is poignant in its directness. This is Gioia at his best. Other poems like this: After a Line by Cavafy, Accomplice, (and my favorite) Homage to Valerio Magrelli – a series of verses, each short, written in free verse, unpretentious, direct and well-turned. While his imagery is not transcendent, while there’s nothing that makes one want to pause with admiration, he can nevertheless be sensitive to just the right description:

…stranded in thought,
on the lonely delta of the spirit
as entangled as a woman’s sex.

Or

..in the equilibrium of their design
untouched and overlaid like the wooden pieces
in a game of pick-up sticks.

Gioia’s ability to hew phrase and thought to any given structure is skillful but not surpassing.

He is a poet able to shape his thoughts to the demands of whatever form he undertakes, but he fails to create the illusion that the form has grown organically from the unforced working-out of ideas. Writing formal poems successfully requires a flexible and creative mind able to both follow and lead the demands of the chosen form.

Gioia is at his best when writing just a little outside the constraints of formal verse.

Vernacular, Colloquial, Common, Dialectal

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

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

The Challenge

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

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

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

Back in the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

scansion-romeo-juliet

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

scansion-romeo-juliet-2

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

scansion-romeo-juliet-3

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

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

Robert Burns

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

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

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

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

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

scansion-robert-burns

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

scansion-robert-burns-2

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

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

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

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

john-clareJohn Clare

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

From The Nightingale’s Nest:

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

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

scansion-clare

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

scansion-clare-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colloquialism without the Cheats

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

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

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

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

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

aunt-imogen

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

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

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

robinson-in-the-whole-world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Frost: A Master of Colloquialism in Poetry

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

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

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

~ Home Burial: Robert Frost

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

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

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

scansion-home-burial

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

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

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

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

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

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

robert-frost-i-should-suppose

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he was going to to say when Truth broke in

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

matter-of-fact-elision

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

frost-anapestic-lines

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

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

After Frost

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

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

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

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

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

Timothy Steele

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

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

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

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

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,

Or easy gold…

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

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

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

Not without feeble-pointed spokes of flowers…

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

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

[Current revision ends here – Dec 21 2008]

Rebel Angels

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

Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coda

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

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