“Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”

  • The title is the search term that brought a visitor to my blog.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

In the teacup that is poetry, the question stirs up tempests. Many rationalizations for the rejection of rhyme have been given, some are genuine but just as many, I think, have been disingenuous. Some of the most absurd rationalizations have been sociopolitical. Formal poetry, and by extension rhyme and meter, has been saddled with accusations of being unpatriotic (Diane Wakoski ~ American Book Review May/June 1986), patriarchal (Adrienne Rich, Deinse Levertov, Diane Wakoski), nationalist (starting with Whitman wanting to break with the poetic tradition of the “Old World”), and whatever other -ism suits whatever chip a poet or critic carries on their shoulder.

“As long as the States continue to absorb and be dominated by the poetry of the Old World, and remain unsupplied with autochthonous song… so long will they stop short of first-class Nationality and remain defective.”

The quote above comes from Walt Whitman’s 1888 version of A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads. Whitman’s reference to the “Old World” was code for what Whitman considered the “European” tradition of meter, rhyme and form. The chip on Whitman’s shoulder? — his poetry wasn’t as widely read as he thought it should be (compared to the rhyming and metrical Longfellow). The following is from Ezra Pound’s preface to Some Imagist Poets 1915.

To create new rhythms — as the expression of new moods — and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon “free-verse” as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry a new cadence means a new idea.

That last line, “In poetry a new cadence means a new idea“, is pure Romanticism. The 19th century created and enshrined the artistic paradigms of genius, creativity and originality, concepts that were less clearly defined in earlier centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century, Kant wrote that “genius does not follow rules”.  Pound is essentially saying the same thing. A “new cadence”, by definition, breaks from the past and presumably from any rules – such as rhyme or meter. The ideal of creativity is restated as the “new idea”.

Pound’s contemporaries absorbed his argument and transformed its tenets into the free verse of Modernism.

For a time though, two competing visions of poetry were at war. Pound, from the outset, framed the debate when he referred to the “old moods” of traditional poetry, echoing Whitman’s nationalistic “Old World”, along with his insistence that free verse is a fight for the “principle of liberty”. Pound’s rhetoric takes on unmistakably political undertones. Disagree with me, he seems to warn, and the fight will be political; and that, as time passed, is how many poets justified their rejection of techniques like rhyme – through the politics of race, gender, and class. Any new artistic movement must validate itself; and, it seems, the best validation is political.

So, my first answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is to answer that the disappearance of rhyme resulted from the desire to reject what had become the stifling tradition of Victorian rhyme and meter (which is what Pound was chaffing against). And because no artistic revolution goes unchallenged, the rise of free verse had to be defended (forcefully in some quarters) by portraying advocates of traditional poetry (and by extension the techniques of meter and rhyme) as reactionary, conservative, patriarchal, etc… In other words, it’s not the poet, it’s the poetry at fault; it’s not me, it’s you.

I don’t find any of these rationalizations against traditional poetry convincing or compelling; however, it can be equally stated that the political arguments against free verse were just as absurd. To some, free verse came to represent anarchy and moral degradation. I don’t buy those arguments either.

It’s the Poet, not the Poetry

It used to be that a poet’s meter and rhyme were what weeded the poet from the poetaster. Walt Whitman changed that. Whitman was not a talented writer of meter or rhyme, but he proved that being a great poet and a talented formalist were two different things.

With that in mind, there is an implicit confession in Pound’s revolution that many poets don’t care to admit or discuss. Implicit in Pound’s manifesto is an admission that the vast majority of poets just are not good at rhyme or meter — the problem with Victorian poetry was only partly it’s subject matter. The worst of it was the sing-song, amateurish quality of its lines.

Though it is better to cast free verse as a triumphant “new idea” rather than an admission of defeat, Pound’s manifesto nevertheless implicitly confesses that rhyme and meter are hard, that even the Victorians don’t do it well, and that most poets would be better off if they just didn’t try (or, as he more favorably put it, that they be “liberated” from the expectation). Of course, Pound didn’t put it that way publicly. He did so privately with T.S. Eliot:

Pound’s criticism of The Waste Land was not of its meaning; he liked its despair and was indulgent of its neo-Christian hope. He dealt instead with its stylistic adequacy and freshness. For example, there was an extended, unsuccessful imitation of The Rape of the Lock at the beginning of “The Fire Sermon.” It described the lady Fresca (imported to the waste land from “Gerontion” and one day to be exported to the States for the soft drink trade). Instead of making her toilet like Pope’s Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce’s Bloom. Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the defacation, there was no point in another round. To this shrewd advice we are indebted for the disappearance of such lines as:

The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes.
Electric summons of the busy bell
Brings brisk Amanda to destroy the spell
Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done . . .
This ended, to the steaming bath she moves,
Her tresses fanned by little flutt’ring Loves;
Odours, confected by the cunning French,
Disguise the good old hearty female stench.

From On The Composition of The Waste Land by Richard Ellman

Says Pound, Pope did it better. The problem, Pound tells Eliot, is not that he is using rhyme and meter, but that he isn’t that good at it.

The truth is, the vast majority of free verse poets are not good at rhyme or meter (possibly none of them). And to be fair, the majority of formalist poets are also not that good at it. The majority of readers don’t know that, yes, the  majority of contemporary poets aren’t good at rhyme or meter because those poets are sensible enough not to try it. (Rue the day that a poet like Ron Silliman tries to write meter or rhyme.) And it is a far more pleasant thing that rhyme be rejected for trumped up reasons than that the poet admit he or she isn’t good at it.

There are exceptions. John Ashbery, for one, has gracefully stated that, if he could, he would write traditional poetry, that he likes traditional poetry, but that his talent lies elsewhere. I have had many free verse poets tell me, in private, that they have tried to write rhyme or meter, that they admire it, but that they lack the talent for it.

So, my more fully honest answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is that poets aren’t good at it.

It’s not that poets “don’t write rhyme” because they reject it, but because they’re not, and never were, good at it. If you are writing poetry that rhymes and uses meter, be good at it. (Just as poets recognize their own limitations, they’re especially good at recognizing the limitations of others.) If you don’t “write rhyme” well, criticism will come where criticism is due. The best poets recognize good rhyme and meter when they see it. At worst, traditional poetic techniques are slighted for ideological reasons, and even envy.  Until you can tell the difference, ignore everyone and write what’s in your heart.

If your interest is in reading modern traditional poets, a few of us are around.

I’m always ready to recommend a few. Every heard of Duncan MacLaurin? He’s a poet about the same age as myself. Take a look and see what you think. Click on August/September 2011 Snakeskin 179, and look for MacLaurin at the top left. A pdf of MacLaurin’s poetry is available, along with a selection of eight at The Hyper Texts.

Recognizing & Using Caesuras, Enjambment and End-Stopped Lines

the end-stopped line

I’ve noticed a number of searches on caesuras, enjambment and end-stopped lines.

Sir Thomas Sackville

Fortunately, these are easy to recognize. When English poets first began writing blank verse (unrhymed Iambic Pentameter) one gets the feeling they had their hands full just counting syllables. Their efforts were stiff, wooden, inflexible. The example I always like to use is Gorboduc, by Thomas Norton andThomas Sackville. The play was written in 1561, 3 years before Shakespeare’s birth. For all its limitations, the play was the first (as far as we know) to have been written using blank verse and stands as a template for all the great verse plays to follow, including Shakespeare’s. Two features that make the verse feel wooden, by modern standards, is the strict Iambic beat on one hand (there are practically no variant feet) and the heavily end-stopped lines. End-stopped lines simply means that ones thought ends with the line. If you see that the line’s end is punctuated with a period, comma, question mark, semi-colon, etc… then the line is end-stopped. The phrasal unit, the syntactic sense, ends with the line.

Interestingly, the on-line text of the play at Luminarium (linked above), doesn’t include much punctuation. This could be because their text is taken from a facsimile or because the scanner (OCR) didn’t pick up on or recognize whatever text they scanned. I put my money on their having transcribed from a facsimile or an earlier, public domain (and relatively unedited) edition. It also means that you can test your ability to recognize end-stopped lines. Imagine you were an editor. How would you punctuate the following verse? If you can correctly punctuate the verse then you can recognized end-stopped lines. (Most end-stopped lines are marked by punctuation but some aren’t. Remember, if you can finish the line without feeling as though some sense is missing, or if you can pause (as though there were a pause in the syntactic sense or comma), then the line is end-stopped.

Gorboduc:

Are they in Arms? would he not send for me?
Is this the honour of a Father’s name?
In vain we travail to assuage their minds
As if their hearts whom neither Brother’s love
Nor Father’s awe, nor kingdom’s care can move
Our Councils could withdraw from raging heat
Jove slay them both, and end the cursed Line
For though perhaps fear of such mighty force
As I my Lords, joined with your noble Aides
May yet raise, shall repent their present heat
The secret grudge and malice will remain
The fire not quenched, but kept in close restraint
Fed still within, breaks forth with double flame
Their death and mine must pease the angry gods. (Act III l. 93)

What follows is an edited version from Drama of the English Renaissance 1:The Tudor Period, edited by Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin.

Gorboduc:

Are they in Arms? would he not send for me? |
Is this the honour of a Father’s name? |
In vain we travail to assuage their minds, |
As if their hearts whom neither Brother’s love, |
Nor Father’s awe, nor kingdom’s care can move, |
Our Councils could withdraw from raging heat. |
Jove slay them both, and end the cursed Line! |
For though perhaps fear of such mighty force |
As I my Lords, joined with your noble Aides, |
May yet raise, shall repent their present heat, |
The secret grudge and malice will remain. |
The fire not quenched, but kept in close restraint, |
Fed still within, breaks forth with double flame. |
Their death and mine must pease the angry gods. |

I added red pipe marks at the end of each end-stopped line and a green one at the only enjambed line. There are 14 lines and only one of them is enjambed. Notice that every one of the end-stopped lines is also punctuated. In this tiny sample, over 90% of the verse is end-stopped. Is that representative of the play? I suspect it’s not far off. The actual figure probably hovers around 90% or less. That makes for very stiff verse. That ratio is typical for beginning poets who have a hard enough time thinking through the meter, let alone the line. Some mature poets never pull it off. (I’ve already named names elsewhere, no reason to beat the horse.)

enjambment

Enjambment is the opposite of the end-stopped line. There is a syntactic or phrasal pause which coincides with the end of the line. The simplest example:

Enjamb| ment makes | the read |er  read |beyond
The end |of a|ny giv|en line |of verse.

This blank |verse line| is not |enjambed |but end-stopped.

Don’t be fooled by the feminine ending in the latter line. It’s still end-stopped. By the time the Elizabethans, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, came into their own, so did blank verse. The judicious and skillful use of enjambment is what makes Shakespeare’s verse so elegantly flexible (and any verse for that matter). Among the loveliest examples is Florizel’s speech from the Winter’s Tale:

Perdita:

No, like a bank for love to lie and play on; |
Not like a corse; or if, not to be buried, |
But quick and in mine arms. Come, take your flowers: |
Methinks I play as I have seen them do |
In Whitsun pastorals: sure this robe of mine |
Does change my disposition. |

Mary Riley and Richard Baird in The Winter’s Tale.

Florizel:

·········································What you do |
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet, |
I’ld have you do it ever; when you sing, |
I’ld have you buy and sell so, so give alms, |
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs, |
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you |
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do |
Nothing but that; move still, still so, |
And own no other function: each your doing, |
So singular in each particular, |
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds, |
That all your acts are queens. |

The beauty of Shakespeare’s verse is that the enjambment nicely dovetails the passions of the speakers. In Florize’s case, when he is the most passionate and poetic, wishing his lover like a wave o’ the sea, the sense of the poetry washes over the ends of the lines like the wave he describes.

It’s a lovely effect.In the examples above, roughly 30% of the lines are enjambed. And just giving the verse of the play a cursory glance, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the play’s overall enjambment closer to 40%. Out of curiosity, I googled shakespeare, enjambment, and percentage to see if any scholar had actually done the work (I know they have), but I couldn’t find anything. I doubt there’s a single aspect of his plays that haven’t been written about – right down to the recipe for the ink on the manuscript of Sir Thomas More.  Who knows?

separating the boys from the men

Where the skill of a poet really shows itself is in the combination of meter and rhyme. The less capable poet will end-stop his or her rhymes. The skilled poet will enjamb their rhymes – not all of them, but enough of them to give their verse a more flexible and natural (unforced) feel. The poet who end-stops their rhymes is the poet who can’t think beyond the rhyme. The habit is typical of beginning poets, and to be expected, but the mature poet should learn to think beyond the line.  Here’s a poem by Dana Gioia, from his book Interrogations at Noon. I marked each end-stopped line with a pipe ‘|’ and left it at that.

Alley Cat Love Song

Come into the garden, Fred, |
For the neighborhood tabby is gone. |
Come into the garden, Fred. |
I have nothing by my flea collar on, |
And the scent of catnip has gone to my head. |
I’ll wait by the screen door till dawn. |

The fireflies court in the sweetgum tree. |
The nightjar calls from the pine, |
And she seems to say in her rhapsody, |
“Oh, mustard-bown Fred, be mine!” |
The full moon lights my whiskers afire, |
And the fur goes erect on my spine. |

I hear the frogs in the muddy lake
Croaking from shore to shore. |
They’ve one swift season to soothe their ache. |
In autumn they sing no more. |
So ignore me now, and you’ll hear my meow
As I scratch all night at the door. |

About 90% of these lines are end-stopped. We’re back to 1561. The lyric is charming enough, but the end-stopped rhymes give the poem a wooden feel. Gioia should have left this kind of verse behind long ago. By comparison, here are two stanza’s from the poet Robert Bagg, from a longer poem called Tandem Ride, a poet who I’ve reviewed elsewhere on PoemShape. Like Gioia, Bagg dispenses with meter but writes a regular, rhyming, verse.

XIX
We search the boathouse on Paradise Pond; |
the window lights of the state asylum
dominate the sweeping skyline beyond, |
radiating a contagious gloom
as if the campus were its anteroom. |
Sensing the madness in our enterprise
we abandon our foundering tandem, |
exhaustion having (at last) made us wise. |
Who’d pump a symbol seven miles but two Amherst guys? |

XX
She pushes a glass door open a crack, |
emerges form a tropical greenhouse, |
shoes squishing, then pauses–almost goes back– |
aware her sweat-drenched translucent blouse
would amuse us, or might even arouse
us more than her breasts did normally. |
She’d never say, Come on to me, guys, now’s
the right time!
–but I sensed viscerally
she wasn’t the same girl we had chased up that tree. |

Roughly half the lines are enjambed, giving the stanzas a nice ebb and flow. The  enjambment doesn’t overly emphasize the rhymes. Take a look at Shakespeare’s sonnets and you will notice the same freedom between end-stopped and enjambed lines. The thing to notice, most of all, is how Shakespeare (and other skillful poets) use end-stopping and enjambment to add emphasis to certain lines and thoughts. For instance, the vast majority of his sonnets’ closing couplets are end-stopped. This puts added emphasis on the rhymes which, in turn, brakes the sonnet’s momentum and emphasizes the finality of the couplets argument – the end-stopped lines emphasize the feeling of the epigrammatic sting.

Sonnet 63

Against my love shall be as I am now, |
With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’erworn; |
When hours have drained his blood and filled his brow
With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn
Hath travelled on to age’s steepy night; |
And all those beauties whereof now he’s king
Are vanishing, or vanished out of sight, |
Stealing away the treasure of his spring; |
For such a time do I now fortify
Against confounding age’s cruel knife, |
That he shall never cut from memory
My sweet love’s beauty, though my lover’s life: |
··His beauty shall in these black lines be seen, |
··And they shall live, and he in them still green. |

The best poets will, instinctively, fully exploit end-stopping and enjambment when the opportunity calls for it. Lesser poets won’t.

Tom O’Bedlam

Caesuras

Caesuras are essentially nothing more than breaks in rhythm, thought, or syntax that occur anywhere between the beginning and end of a line. In other words, they’re the same as an end-stopped line except that the “end-stopping” occurs in the middle of the line. That said, they can be trickier to spot. They aren’t associated with the end of a line and aren’t always matched by punctuation.

Caesura’s were a fixture of classical Greek and Latin poetry but Anglo Saxon was the language in which the Caesura came to glory. In the book Creative Poetry by B. Roland Lewis  one finds this little gem tucked away in a footnote:

William Ellery Leonard’s two studies, “Beowulf and the Niebelungen Couplet” and “The Scansion of Middle English Alliterative Verse,” in The University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, for an entirely untraditional view about Anglo-Saxon prosody. Or see is Introduction to his own [used to have a link to his introduction but the link rotted – Dec. 16th 2017] metrical translations of Beowulf. He holds that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf; and his modernized version of Beowulf is in that meter. Professor E.W. Scripture’s new (1929) Grundzuge der Englischen Verswissensschaft has some closing chapters in Old English and Middle English alliterative verse in the light of laboratory analysis.

So, if we were to lineate Sing a Song of Six-Pence as Beowulf’s author might have, it might look like this  (caesuras marked):

Sing a song of sixpence, || a pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds, || baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, || the birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish, || to set before the king?

The king was in his counting house, || counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour, || eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden, || hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird || and pecked off her nose.

If you click the link to Leonard’s translation, you’ll see how this translates when applied to Beowulf. You might get an idea as to how the Anglo Saxons would have “heard” the great poem (and how the caesura was an integral part of the poem’s rhythm and structure). I always favor translations which try to capture, not just the sense, but the sound and structure of the original — something which is altogether too rare with the near total dominance of free verse.

The caesura’s importance to English poetry faded with the language’s modernization.  Still, examples can be found. Wikipedia offers an example from the ballad Tom O’Bedlam. I’ll give another from the same poem (which you can read in its entirety in Harold Bloom’s book The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost):

When I short have shorn my sow’s face
·······And swigged my horny barrel,
At an oaken inn || I impound my skin
·······In a suit of gilt apparel.
The moon’s my constant mistress
·······And the lovely owl my marrow.
The flaming drake || and the night-crow make
·······Me music to my sorrow.
While I do sing || “Any food, any feeding
·······Feeding, drink or clothing?
Come dame or maid, || be not afraid:
·······Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Notice that only the final caesura coincides with any sort of punctuation. (Is the rhythm of the ballad a faint echo of the ancient Anglo Saxon poetry? Possibly.) The caesura, in the stanza above, indicate rhythmic pauses. Also, all of the caesuras would be masculine caesuras. They each occur after a stressed syllable. Here are the first two stanzas from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.

Once upon a midnight dreary, || while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious || volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, || suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, || rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ || I muttered, || `tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.’

Ah, distinctly I remember || it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember|| wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; – || vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow – || sorrow for the lost Lenore –
For the rare and radiant maiden || whom the angels named Lenore –
Nameless here for evermore.

Once again, some of  the caesura are marked by punctuation, some aren’t. Most native English speakers will instinctively pause mid-line, even without punctuation. The combination of the internal rhymes (dreary/weary, napping/tapping) and the trochaic meter encourages us to read the lines as bipartite. Normally, for example, one wouldn’t pause between curious and volume in the second line, but the poem’s rhyme and meter strongly encourage us to divide the line (if only to reinforce the rhythm of the others). Try it. See if you agree. Conversely, we want to read through pauses that we normally wouldn’t. For instance, the heavy mid-line caesuras make us want to ignore the syntactic breaks in the first stanza’s third, fifth and last line::

While I nodded, nearly napping

`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered…
Only this, and nothing more.

We might be more hard-pressed to ignore the natural break in ‘Tis some visitor,‘ I muttered…, but we could. In Poe’s poem, unlike Tom O’Bedlam, all the Caesura are feminine caesuras because they each occur after unstressed syllables.

In the following, another passage from Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, you will find caesuras and what’s called an epic caesura (generally in reference to a feminine caesuras within an iambic line – I highlighted the epic caesura in red.

It is for you we speak, || not for ourselves:
You are abused || and by some putter-on
That will be damn’d for’t; || would I knew the villain,
I would land-damn him. || Be she honour-flaw’d,
I have three daughters; || the eldest is eleven
The second and the third, || nine, || and some five;
If this prove true, || they’ll pay for’t. || By mine honour. (Act II, sc. I :142-148)

The fifth line contains the epic caesura. The unstressed syllable –ers at the end of daughters is hypermetrical (because the line immediately continues with the unaccented ‘the’ instead of an expected strong accent.). In other words, it’s an extra unaccented syllable. Below, the blue represents an anapestic foot and the green represents a feminine endings (the colors I use in all my scansions). Notice how Shakespeare, ever the dramatist, uses the unusually frequent caesuras and end-stopped lines to denote an agitated mind. Not all uses of caesura create the same sense of agitation. Context is everything and a good poets uses whatever tools are available.

I have | three daugh |ters; the eld| est is | eleven

The other way to scan it is to treat the epic caesura as its own feminine ending within the line.

I have | three daugh ters; |the eld| est is | eleven

My habit has been to use the second scansion (having learned to read and write Iambic Pentameter with George T. Wright’s book Shakespeare’s Metrical Art). Shakespeare’s line, therefore, has twelve syllables, unlike the expected ten of iambic pentameter, but nevertheless falls within the graces of standard practice.

A second kind of feminine Caesura would be the lyric caesura. This is probably the most obscure of all caesuras (and the one you’ll forget the quickest). Give something a name for the sake of giving it a name. This term refers to a caesura which occurs after an expected unstressed syllable. Got that? Four examples can be found in Dickinson’s poem Because I could not stop for Death–. I’ve highlighted them in red.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess || – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather || – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet || – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice || – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

free verse

The use of enjambment and end-stopping can be very useful to the free verse poet and for similar reasons. T.S. Eliot, in his poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night, skillfully uses a combination of enjambment and end-stopping to control the ebb and flow of the verse and thought. Writing free verse, he could have broken his lines anywhere, but clearly manipulated the lines in such a way that they suggested a kind of rhythm.

Twelve o’clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Half-past one,
The street lamp sputtered,
The street lamp muttered,
The street lamp said,
“Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin.” (….)

Notice, in the second stanza above, how the first four lines are end-stopped, emphasizing and slowing down the verse with a kind of childlike, mother goose-ish feel. Then notice how, when the street lamp speaks, the lines are enjambed and the verse has the feeling of spaciousness. The voice feels different.  The effect is accomplished both through enjambment and the lack of a recognizable rhyme scheme.

It’s an effect, however, that the vast majority of free verse poets are unaware of or have chosen to ignore. The result is that their poetry is nothing more than lineated prose. While their lines may be end-stopped or enjambed, the effect feels completely arbitrary.

The caesura loses all it’s effect in free verse. After all, if the verse is regular enough to make the reader aware of such a syntactic feature, then the verse by definition isn’t free. If the verse has structure, then it’s not free. I’ve had this argument with practitioners of free verse and they either get that glazed look of breathtaking denial or they lose the ability to speak. Free verse can’t be both free and “structured” (in the sense of a regular pattern). Can’t happen.

Anyway, that’s that. If the post has been helpful, let me know. If not, I’m always ready to improve.

up in Vermont • March 26 2011

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

The Writing and Art of Iambic Pentameter

There is no one way to learn how to write Iambic Pentameter. If you’re not certain what Iambic Pentameter is, then you should probably read my post on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics first. The post explains what it means, how to scan it, and provides an explanation of the some of the terminology surrounding the verse form.

How Not To

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

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

GorboducVidena: The silent night, that brings the quiet pause
From painful travails of the weary day,
Prolongs my careful thoughts, and makes me blame
The slow Aurore, that so, for love or shame,
Doth long delay to show her blushing face;
And now the day renews my griefful plaint.

Ferex My gracious lady and my mother dear,
Pardon my grief for your so grievèd mind
To ask what cause tormenteth so your heart.
Videna So great a wrong and so unjust despite.
Without all cause against all course of kind!

So it begins. So it goes. So it ends. Te-tum te-tum te-tum. Line after line after line. The only variant feet appear to be some first foot trochees, but even these are up for debate. The word Pardon, in the lines above, was probably pronounced after the French with the stress on the second syllable – Par(don). With a cursory glance, I could find only two feminine endings in the entire play. Here is one of them:

And eke |gain time, |whose on|ly help |sufficeth Act V.i. 105.

The verse of their play feels excessively formal and buttoned up. The vast majority of their lines are end-stopped – which is to say: each line ends with punctuation or a complete syntactic unit or phrase. In short, they wrote the way some of our modern Formalists write.

Don’t make that mistake.

Where To Start

JS BachWhen J.S. Bach used to teach harmony to his students, he would give them give chorales by Martin Luther – unharmonized single line melodies. That way they didn’t have to think about composing a melody. It was already there. All they had to do was to write the base and harmonize. His students would gradually progress from two, to three, to four part harmony.

Likewise, a cool method for learning to write Iambic Pentameter is by picking some prose to poetize. That way, all you have to think about are the mechanics of the meter. To that end, I have carefully selected some old fashioned prose some readers might recognize. Here it is:

Therefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters, both Antonius himself and also from his friends, she made light of it and mocked Antonius so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderful passing sweet savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people. Some of them followed the barge all alongst the river’s side; others also ran out of the city to see her coming in; so that in the end there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her that Antonius was left post-alone in the market-place in his imperial seat to give audience.

This choice piece of purple prose was written by Thomas North – a translation of a French work by Jacques Amyot which Cleopatrawas itself a translation from Plutarch – a Greek historian who wrote while Nero was emperor of Rome. North was describing Cleopatra. The coin at right, recently discovered, is said to portray Cleopatra. We live in the 21rst Century and normally I wouldn’t pick some 500 year old snippet, but the beauty of this example as that , if you try your hand at it, you can compare your effort to the greatest poet of the English language.

Now, imagine you’re a playwright and you’ve been given an advance to write a play about Cleopatra. You only have a few weeks to write the play or the advances will stop. The drama is to be written in blank verse – the standard of the day. This is your chance to Wow! theatergoers not only with your dramatic powers but with the virtuosity of your blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) – a new and flourishing verse form. You decide to draw your material from North’s translation of Plutarch.

Free Verse First

Where do you start?

The first thing you might do is to lineate the prose. A skilled poet will do this *and* produce Iambic Pentameter but I’ll break down the thought process. And (so that this post isn’t a book length post) we’ll only poetize the first of North’s two paragraphs

CleopatraTherefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters,
both Antonius himself and also from his friends,
she made light of it and mocked Antonius
so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise
but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus,
the poop whereof was of gold, the sails
of purple, and the oars of silver, which
kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music
of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such
other instruments as they played upon in the barge.
And now for the person of herself:
she was laid under a pavilion
of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled
and attired like the goddess Venus commonly
drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand
of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters
do set forth god Cupid, with little fans
in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

Ta da! We now have a free verse poem. And this is probably where 99 out of 100 modern poets stop. Free verse is the easiest and least demanding literary form ever created. But for those who like to juggle with more than one ball, let’s try two. The next step is to transform this passage into Iambic Pentameter. Again, if you’re not sure what Iambic Pentameter is (but have dared to read this post nonetheless) take a look my Guide to the Basics. This will explain just *what* Iambic Pentameter is. Now on to Plutarch. Since we don’t live in the 16th Century, no need to keep the archaisms.

Now Make it Iambic Pentameter

Therefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters,

When she |was sent |for by |An-to|ni-us

both Antonius himself and also from his friends,
she made light of it and mocked Antonius

And by |his friends, |by var|ious let|ters – she
Made light |of them |and mocked |An-to|ni-us

so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise
but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus,

Disdai|ning but |to an|swer with |a barge

the poop whereof was of gold, the sails
of purple, and the oars of silver, which

The poop |was gold, |the sa|ils pur|ple and
The sil|ver oars |kept rhy|thm to |the mu-sic

kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music
of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such

Of o|boes, flutes, |viols |and ci|therns – such
And more |as can |be played |upon |a barge.

other instruments as they played upon in the barge.
And now for the person of herself:
she was laid under a pavilion

As to |her per|son: She |was laid |beneath
A cloth |of gold |of tis|sue – her |pa-vil-ion –

of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled
and attired like the goddess Venus commonly
drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand

At-ti|red like |the god|dess Ve|nus just
As she |is drawn |in pic|tures; next |to her
On ei|ther hand |were Cupidonpret|ty boys |ap-par-eled

of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters
do set forth god Cupid, with little fans
in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her.

As if |they each |were Cu|pid, fan|ning her
To keep |the wind |up-on | her.

And here it is in one piece.

When she was sent for by Antonius
(And by his friends, by various letters) she
Made light of them and mocked Antonius
Disdaining but to answer with a barge –
The poop was gold, the sails purple and
The silver oars kept rhythm to the music
Of oboes, flutes, viols and citherns – such
And more as can be played upon a barge.
As to her person: She was laid beneath
A cloth of gold of tissue – her pavilion –
Attired like the goddess Venus just
As she is drawn in pictures; next to her
On either hand were pretty boys appareled
As if they each were Cupid, fanning her
To keep the wind upon her.

When she | was sent |for by |An-ton|i-us
(And by |his friends, |by var | ious let|ters) she
Made light |of them |and mocked |An-ton| i-us
Dis-dai|ning but |to an|swer with |a barge –
The poop |was gold,| the sa|ils pur|ple and
The sil|ver oars |kept rhy|thm to |the mu-sic
Of o|boes, flutes, |vi-ols |and ci|therns – such
And more |as can |be played |up-on |a barge.
As to |her per|son: She |was laid |be-neath
A cloth |of gold |of tis|sue – her |pa-vil-ion –
At-tir|ed like |the god|dess Ve|nus just
As she |is drawn |in pict|ures; next |to her
On ei|ther hand |were pret|ty boys |ap-par-eled
As if |they each |were Cu|pid, fan|ning her
To keep |the wind |up-on |her.

This is juggling two balls. In altering the verse from free-verse to blank verse, I was careful to keep a strict Iambic Pentameter meter – the only variants being feminine endings. Notice that I’ve had to move some words around. (If I had really wanted to be conservative, I could have end-stopped every line.)

The blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) is competent and passable poetry. And  this is where many poets stop (those who write meter). Now let’s do some real juggling. Let’s vary the meter; give it some life. And since we’re writing verse drama, I’ll add some characters: Enobarbus and Agrippa. Just for the fun of it, I’ve thrown in some Shakespearean touches to give the passage a more conversational feel. I also split up the lines for visual effect, but if you put them back together, they will all be Iambic Pentameter (some with various variant feet). At some later date, I’ll poetize the second paragraph because, well,  it’s fun to do (or at least I think so). Done. Visit The Writing & Art of Iambic Pantemeter II if you want  to read my try at the whole passage.

She answered under Purple Sails

Plutarch & Gillespie

And here it is for easier reading:

She answered under purple sails...

She came from Egypt…

And here’s another juggler – one of our greatest Poets and Dramatists – John Dryden. Not who you were expecting? This is from his play All for Love; or, The World Well Lost Act III Line 180.  The Literary Encyclopedia offers a good article on the play, but you have to be willing to pay for it after the first 600 words.

Plutarch & Dryden

John DrydenAnt. … she came from Egypt.
Her Gally down the Silver Cydnos row’d
The Tacking Silk, the Streamers wav’d with Gold.
The gentle Winds were lodg’d in Purple Sails:
Her Nymphs, like Nereids, round her Couth, were plac’d;
Where she, another Sea-born Venus lay.
Dolla. No more: I would not hear it.
Ant. O, you must!
She lay, and leant her Cheek upon her Hand,
And cast a Look so languishingly sweet,
As if, secure of all Beholders Hearts,
Neglecting she could take ‘em: Boys, like Cupids,
Stood fanning, with their painted Wings, the Winds
That played about her Face: But if she smil’d,
A darting Glory seem’d to blaze abroad:
That Men’s desiring Eyes were never waery’d;
But hung upon the Object: To soft Flutes
The silver Oars kept Time; and while they played,
The Hearing gave new Pleasure to the Sight;
And both to Thought: ‘twas Heav’n or somewhat more;
For she so charm’d all Hearts, that gazing crowds
Stood panting on the shore, and wanted Breath
To give their welcome Voice.

The Chair she sat in…

And here’s another juggler! This poet’s name is T.S. Eliot. Not who you were expecting? This is from the second part of The Waste Land: A Game of Chess. Eliot doesn’t hue to Plutarch’s text. That’s not what he’s about in in this rendition, but notice how some of North’s words show up in different contexts and how the general  tone and progress imitates North’s narrative.

TS EliotThe Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
From satin cases poured in rich profusion.
In vials of ivory and colored glass,
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid–troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odors; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carved dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantle was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.

The barge she sat in…

And here are some of the greatest lines ever written by the greatest poet of the English language – 150px-shakespeareWilliam Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s version (on which I based my own) Enobarbus describes what he has seen. This comes from Antony and Cleopatra Act II Sc. II 230. You can hear it read on YouTube.

And here’s the thing to know. What make’s this passage great is what makes poetry great. It’s not content. This is what novels do. There are many great and profound passages of prose. What makes poetry great is something else: style—ordinary content made into something extraordinary. Every woman, with a touch of Cleopatra, knows that by a turn of hair, the cut of her skirt, the shade of her lips and eyebrows—small and poetic touches—her beauty is transformed into something that makes the heart skip.

And this is what’s missing in so much contemporary and free verse poetry.

If you want to be a truly great poet, learn what little touches make a woman into a beauty. Study closely how little additions and adornments turn ordinary prose into poetry. It’s not the content that makes the poem. Shakespeare’s every addition plays on the idea of Cleopatra’s sexual seductiveness. North’s passage is merely description. Shakespeare gives description suggestiveness, underscoring the psychology of the character who speaks the lines – an essential part of Shakespeare’s dramatic genius. Shakespeare’s use of imagery always underscores his character’s psychological state. When you write your own poetry, remember this. There is not a single 21rst century poet, to my knowledge, who gets it. The winds are “love-sick”. The silver oars make “the water which they beat follow faster, amorous of their strokes”.

Don’t miss the erotic double-entendre in the phrase “amorous of their strokes”.

With the image, amorous strokes, still fresh in his mind, Shakespeare then adds that the wind “did seem to glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool”.  NShakespeare's Wordplayo image is separate or divided from the image before. Shakespeare’s imagery is of a piece. This subtle linkage between images, frequently through wordplay, is a habit of his thought that allows Shakespeare to unify acts and entire plays through the linkage of word and image. In Shakespeare’s hands, imagery can be like a leitmotif. If you really want to understand how Shakespeare did it, M.M. Mahood’s book “Shakespeare’s Wordplay“, is worth every penny. Compare Dryden’s effort to Shakespeare. Interestingly, Dryden was trying to imitate Shakespeare. The entirety of Dryden’s play was written in blank verse. This was a considerable departure for Dryden who, along with his contemporaries, wrote nearly all their poetry in heroic couplets.

In the next passage, the silken tackle “swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands”. All in all, Shakespeare’s additions to North’s passage reach a kind of subliminal sexual crescendo. Enobarbus is not just smitten by the extravagance of Cleopatra’s excess, not just reporting on what he has seen, the undercurrent of his imagery reveals him to be smitten by the sexuality of her excess.

Plutarch & Shakespeare

Enobarbus: I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

Agrippa: O, rare for Antony!

Enobarbus: Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes,
And made their bends adornings: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.

Upon hearing this report, Mecaenas realizes that Mark Antony, who had been the most admired soldier in all of Rome, is quickly becoming nothing more than Cleopatra’s playboy. Legend has it that when Cleopatra initially saw that she was going to be defeated by Caesar, she ordered that she be rolled inside a carpet. The carpet was to be presented to Caesar as a gift. When Ceasar unrolled it, Cleopatra unrolled with it, naked, nubile and young. The rest is history.

This is the legend.

Here is the story as presented at the United Nations of Roma Victrix website:

Cleopatra was rowed in a small rowboat by a single Sicilian, by name of Apollodorus. Upon reaching the palace area, the only way to enter Caesar’s presence was to conceal herself in such a manner without arousing suspicion of her brother’s men. The story of Cleopatra being rolled in a carpet, while false, is still true in essence. She was slipped into some bed coverings and presented to Caesar as a gift. Though little is known of the actual meeting, it’s quite clear that the young queen made an enormous impression on the great Roman. Though her ‘beauty’ is disputed, (at worst probably plain of appearance) Cleopatra was young and virile. She was elegant and charismatic, but most of all, she had power and money, and Caesar probably supposed she was susceptible to manipulation. Caesar, at 52 years old and 35 years her elder, was easily seduced, or perhaps even seduced her, as Caesar’s affairs were legendary anyway. Cleopatra was politically brilliant and secured Caesar’s loyalty, certainly not only through sexual pleasure, but through manipulation of her own. She was, and Caesar was well aware, the key to controlling the vast wealth of Egypt. Caesar was, and she was well aware, the key to securing her place as Queen, and perhaps even Pharaoh, and the power of the gods.

At the close of Enobarbus’ description, Enobarbus plainly knows that Antony will never escape the whiles of Cleopatra. The image of Cleopatra, at right, was created for a BBC documetary. It is a reconstruction of what Cleopatra might have looked like based on coinage, description, artifacts, etc…

cleopatra-reconstructedEnobarbus: I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breathe forth.

Mecaenas: Now Antony must leave her utterly.

Enobarbus: Never; he will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

Give it a Try

If you decide to give North’s passage a try, measuring yourself against Shakespeare, be sure and post it in the comment section!

In any case, if this post has been helpful or has inspired you, let me know.