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

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

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

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

And I agree with this latter assertion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But watch what happens if I do this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ The Song of Haiwatha [Italics mine.]

Finch writes:

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

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

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

All the |wild-fowl |sang them| to him

I read it this way:

All the |wild fowl |sang them| to him

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

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

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

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

One answer she herself gives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

The Art of Rhyme and Meter

The oral tradition of Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Verse is a different Genre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grammatical Inversions & Rhyming: Subject • Verb • Object

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

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

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

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

Subject | Verb | Object (SVO)

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

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

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

The first line would be an SOV construction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other grammatical Inversions

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

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

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

  • Avoid it at all costs.

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

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

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

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

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

As I find other examples I will post them.

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

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

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

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

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

One last thought on rhymes from Stallings:

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

I agree.

On Keeping the Meter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now for the tetrameter version:

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

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

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

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

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

This is actually a good exercise.

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

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

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

In particular, compare the following:

Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say

Then one foggy Christmas Eve/ Santa came to say:

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

Normally, the average English speaker would say:

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

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

The line is just too obviously metrical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metrical Fillers

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

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

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

But that’s only my opinion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If this post has been helpful, let me know.

Whether it be rhyme, meter or both,

Interpreting Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”

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The Poem

The poem is perfect Iambic Tetrameter. And it’s one of the miracles of Frost’s genius that he could write a poem, without a single variant foot to break the metrical pattern, yet write one of the most memorable and memorized poems in the English language. Frost himself called this small poem “my best bid for remembrance” [Pritchard, A Literary Life Reconsidered, p. 164]. There are, after all, thousands of Victorian poems written in an equally perfect meter, but they are nothing if not forgettable. Since all the feet are iambic, I’ve only marked feet and one elision (which is unnecessary for most), but I’ve noticed many foreign language speakers reading this blog. Evening should be read as a bisylliabic, ev‘ning, rather than the trisyllabic ev-e-ning. Here it is:

Stopping by Woods by Robert Frost: Scansion

  • Frost recites Stopping by Woods:

  • Note: Since I’ve begun paying attention, I notice that many versions of this poem put a period after “deep” on line 13. The edition I use, The Library of America, does not. Frost biographer Richard Poirier in his book “Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing“, also takes time out to comment on this discrepency. He writes:

Work of Knowing…The woods  are not, as the Lathem edition would have it (with its obtuse emendation of a comma after the second adjective in line 13), merely “lovely, dark, and deep.” Rather, as Frost in all the editions he supervised intended, they are “lovely, [i.e.], dark and deep,”; the loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous. The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, and impulse no more predominate in Frost than it is in nature. [p. 181]

I’ll bet this emendation is off the radar for 99 out of a 100 readers, but Poirer’s comment shows just how much, interpretively, can be read into the difference between a comma and period. Imagine what it’s like for editors of Shakespeare – whose texts are anything but authoritative. In the big picture, editors tend to agree on Shakespeare’s punctuation, but the turf wars happen in the details. If you carefully compare different modern texts of Shakespeare, you will notice differences in punctuation and even words.

But… back to Robert Frost…

An Interpretive  Tour

Rather than launch into my own interpretation of the poem, I thought it might be more interesting to sample what’s already out there (since it represents some of what I’d say anyway).

First to Poirer. His comments reflect one of the most common interpretations of this poem. Poirer writes:

The desire (which he openly reveals in certain letters to Louis Untermeyer) for peace and lostness, the desire to throw himself away, gets justified on occasions by his wondering if nature itself does not conspire with him by proposing that, at last, he “come in” to the dark woods. [p. 180]

Unfortunately, Poirer doesn’t reference any of these “certain letters”. Not that I disbelieve him, but if a biographer is going to cite an author’s texts to back up his argument, he ought to offer up a citation or two.

William Pritchard takes a different view. While he acknowledges the darker interpretations of this poem, and he acknowledges Frost’s own intimations from time to time, he also credits Frost’s statements to the contrary, something which Poirer does not do.

Literary Life ReconsideredDiscussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything siginificant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

Pritchard then continues:

…he wanted to direct his readers away from solemnly debating them; instead he invited them simply to be pleased with how he had put it. He was to say later on about Edwin Arlington Robinson something which more naturally could have been said about himself – that his life as poet was “a revel in the felicities of language.” “Stopping By Woods…” can be appreciated only by removing it from its pedestal and noting how it is a miature revel in such felicities. [p. 165]

And these comments remind me of my post on John Keats “Ode to Autumn”, and Stillinger’s own comments concerning style. In sum, great poetry isn’t always about (G)reat content, but about common  experience described (G)reatly. Great poetry, before free verse, had almost always been marked by the greatness of its expression. Shakespeare always drew on  everyday proverbs and subject matter. The life he experienced was the same as ours. His observations are the same as ours. (And this is what makes Shakespeare universal.) What makes him great was, in large part, his ability to elevate the common through the transcendance of his language and imagery, in short, through his poetic thought. This, I have to say, has largely been abandoned by the free-versifiers of the 20th Century.

Anyway, it’s a view with which I’m sympathetic. Not everything in poetry has to mean something.

Belief and UncertaintyThat said, Robert Pack in defiance of Frost and, perhaps, Pritchard, manages to “interpret” the shaken harness bells. He writes that “the “little horse” in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” shows an instinct to return home, not to remain in the dangerously enticing woods…” [Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, p. 147] Interestingly, Pack  finds a metaphorical link between Stopping by Woods and another of Frost’s poems: The Draft Horse. Pack writes of the horse in The Draft Horse, that “if freedom has any reality at all [it] exists only in the attitude [taken] toward their fate.” In this light, the horse in Stopping by Woods, serves as a reminder that one should not be too enticed by the deep, dark woods.

Robert Bernard Hass,  in his book Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science, picks up on the threat of suicide in Frost’s poem:

Going by ContrariesIn a 1931 comment to Elizabeth Sergeant, Frost remarked that when other writers began calling themselves “Imagists or Vorticists,” he started calling himself a “synechdochist”. This term, ripe as it is with religious connotation, is an apt description of the way metaphor actually operates in Frost’s mature poetry. Although he often uses the word to mean comparison or correspondence (e.g. “every though is a feat of association”), Frost also suggests that the forms we carge out of nature ectend beyond simple figures and feats of association and, in some mysterious way, connect the whole of reality. [pp. 152-153]

From this, Hass makes the following assertion concerning “Stopping by Woods”:

Unfortunately, as Frost learned through his own trials by existence, there are moments when an individual becomes lost to large “excruciations,” when the material world reists the will and exerts counterforces that have profound effects on the quality of life. Sometimes these froces have a dangerous, seductive quality to them, and there are moments when Frost’s work reflects a strong desire to surrender to the brute forces of nature as one way of eliminating their threat. The alluring landscape of [“Stopping by Woods”], for example, presents us with a figure of the will confronting alien entanglements so large that they actually invite the poet to unlock their deepest secrets. [p. 153]

Among the most thorough considerations of the poem occurs in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost. Judith Oster, in her contributory essay calledCambridge Companion “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor”, summarizes and discusses these conflicting interpretations: “[The poem] has been read as “simply” a beautiful lyric, as a suicide poem, as recording a single autobiographical incident, and everything in between. Our is not to adjudicate, nor to “fix” a meaning, but to allow the poem its openness…” Oster then asks: “Why hasn’t it just been taken literally?”

She continues:

To choose just one of any possible starting points, the word “promises”. In this context the beautiful scene  the word “pulls down” the experience from the merely aesthetic and sensual, but does so without diminishing that beauty or that feeling, without weighing down the poem. What results is a conflict between two undiminished forces: “promises” that would lead the speakers onward, and his desire to give in to his intoxication with the beauty and peacefulness of the woods. The pull between those alternatives can be seen as that between obligation and temptation, or most literally, between stopping and going on. ¶ If we decide to look at the situation literally, we would think about what staying might mean. Most obvious is simply that it’s too cold to stay there safely. The restfulness – the “ease” of “easy wind” and the “down” of “downy flake” begin to suggest an implicit metaphor, especially when combined with the “sleep” which must be postponed until promises are kept… Sleeping before stopping, then, adds to the notion of not-yet-doing the danger of no-longer-being. [pp. 161-162]

And finally, most importantly, she writes:

What can the poem mean? That is another issue: whatever those words in those combinations will allow without distorting their meanings, without introducing elements that cannot fit in the context of the poem as a whole… one could follow Frost’s advice to a graduate student to take his poetry “all the way.” Or one could feel chastised by Frost’s ridicule of those who say this is a “suicide poem.” Or one could ignore Frost altogether. [p. 162]

Another contributor to the Cambridge Companion offers up what is probably the most representative interpretation of the poem (if one accepts that the poem should be interpreted). John Cunningham writes:

Stopping by Woods - DraftThe opposition between humanity (the owner of the woods whose “house is in the” village and who will not see the speaker, the absence of “a farmhouse near”) and the purposeless natural phenomena (descending snow and night, the woods, the frozen lake) Frost establishes early. Even the horse “must think it queer.” Three times the poet uses some form of stop. The setting is becoming blank, undifferentiated whiteness, a desert place on “the darkest evening of the year,” literally an overstatement but metaphorically not so to the speaker. For him movement forward ceases; his choice is between the “woods and frozen lake,” either offering only death to one who stops. In effect the horse asks “if there is some mistake.” To have so stopped could well prove to be such. The “sweep/ of easy wind,” free of the thousand mortal shocks that one is heir to, and the “downy flake,” like warm bedding, entice the speaker to give up his human errands and to sleep in the void of death. The woods are “dark and deep,” not promising words in Frost, deep as the final absence of death, and “lovely” only in the temptation to shuffle off that they offer. With “but I have promises to keep,” the speaker and the poem pivot, rejecting the temptation, affirming his promises, a word with human connotations of duty and presence, and accepting the “miles [that he must] go” before he sleeps this might and before he “sleep[s]” finally in death. [pp. 269-270]

Cunningham then goes on to interpret the repetition of the last two lines as “congruent with the stacked-up accents at the pivot above…” Quoi? This gets opaque. Do you get it? I don’t. However, if he’s going to run with this interpretation (which, as I wrote before, is the standard interpretation) I think he misses a golden, interpretive opportunity in the last two lines.

One could interpret the last two lines as follows:

And miles to go before I sleep
[I have miles to go before I’m home and in bed.]

And then, much more darkly and deeply he writes:

And miles to go before I sleep
[And many more “miles” to go before I go to die.]

However, I’m not convinced by Cunningham’s assertion that the descending snow is a “purposeless natural phenomena“. Frost doesn’t give us any indication, within the confines of the poem, that we should think so. No matter what thematic material you might find elsewhere in Frost’s poems, it doesn’t follow that Frost’s use of certain images and ideas is always one and the same. They aren’t. Bernard Hass, himself, makes this observation:

….[as] inviting [as] those secrets [the alien entanglements of nature] may be to one who has grown “overtired” of his struggle with nature, Frost is equally aware that natural imperatives can also be beneficial. Just  as nature has an intrinsic capacity to increase entropy, it also has synthetic powers of regeneration and self-organization that, when left to their own creative devices, terminate in beautiful structures that are both pleasing and protective. [Going by Contraries, pp. 153-154]

In this light, it’s hard to see an “easy wind” and “downy flake” as mortal threats. They are more a recognition of aesthetic beauty. But of what kind? To this end, Cunningham reasons that the adjectives are to be construed as an act of seduction. That is, the “easy” winds are seductively easy, but deadly to one who tarries too long in their cold.

As far as this goes, I’m sympathetic with Cunningham’s interpretation; but I do not think that Frost is contemplating suicide. That’s over-interpreting the poem, in my view. I do think there is a recognition by Frost, in this poem at least, that there is something lovely in the contemplation of nature’s sleep – a recognition of its necessity and loveliness. But at no time does he actually claim to desire it. After all, he says, he has promises to keep. The last two lines withstand this interpretation. I have miles to go before I sleep tonight; and I have “miles” to go before my final sleep.

The Ordeal of Robert FrostIn reference to Frost’s poem as a suicide poem, Mark Richardson, author of The Ordeal of Robert Frost, observes Frost’s own irritation at the suggestion:

During Frost’s own lifetime… critics sometimes set [Frost’s] teeth on edge with intimations about personal themes in the poem, as if it expressed a wish quite literally for suicide… Louis Mertins quotes him in conversation:

“I suppose people think I lie awake nights worrying about what people like [John] Ciardi of the Saturday Review write and publish about me [ in 1958]… Now Ciardi is a nice fellow–one of those bold, brassy fellows who go ahead and sall sorts of things. He makes me “Stopping By Woods” out a death poem. Well, it would be like this if it were. I’d say, “This is all very lovely, but I must be getting on to heaven.” There’d be no absurdity in that. That’s all right, but it’s hardly a death poem. Just as if I should say here tonight, “This is all very well, but I msut be getting on to Pheonix, Arizona, to lecture there. ” (Mertins 371) [The Ordeal of Robert Frost, p. 190]

Typical of Frost however, he still leaves open the door, saying to Mertins later:

“If you feel it, let’s just exchange glances and not say anything about it. There are a lot of things between best friends that’re never said, and if you — if they’re brought out, right out, too baldly, something’s lost.” [Ibid]

Richardson writes that Frost’s “subtle caveat to Mertins is probably meant equally to validate Ciardi’s suggestion about “Stopping by Woods” and to lay a polite injunction against it.” Richardson then picks up on Pritchard’s observation concerning the “felicities of language”, even alluding to Frost’s comments on E.A. Robinson (later on the same page):

Frost directs our attention not to the poem’s theme or content but to its form: the interlocking rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: “If I were reading it for someone else, I’d begin to wonder what he’s up to. See. Not what he means but what he’s up to” (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. [p. 191]

And again, we come back to the idea of expression, rather than content, being (if not the heart of poetry) an equal part. Richardson adds that by “empasizing the lyric’s form Frost really only defers the question of theme and content. It is not that the poem does not have a theme, or one worth a reader’s consideration; the form simply is the theme.” The same could be said for much of Keats’ poetry and his Ode to Autumn. Richardson quotes Poirier, in reference to Frost:

“If [a] poem expresses grief, it also expresses–as an act, as a composition, a performance, a ‘making,’ — the opposite of grief; it shows or expresses ‘what the hell of a good time I had writing it.” [p. 192]

Where does all of this lead? Here’s what I think: I read the poem as both an act and performance, to be enoyed as an act and performance, and as a meaningfully suggestive poem – an acknowledgement of the lovely, dark and deep thoughts that are never far from our every day thoughts and lives. Nature will bring to all of us the same sleep it brings to the dark woods, but first we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.

Frost on Stopping by Woods

Browsing through the used bookstore a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on a little book called Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism. I think it’s been out of print for a good many years, but it has some choice quotes concerning Stopping by Woods. All the quotes are apparently from Reginald L. Cook, “Robert Frost’s Asides on His Poetry”,  “Frost on Frost: The Making of Poems” and “The Dimensions of Robert Frost”. Here they are:

  • …When he reads “Departmental,” which he once referred to as “my iridium poem; its hard and useful,” he says, ironically, that he intends sometime to write thirty pages of notes for the scholiasts. He once remarked that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was the kind of poem he’d like to print on one page, to be followed with “forty pages of footnotes.”
  • “Stopping by Woods” contains “all I ever knew”.
  • …”Stopping by Woods” is, he says, “a series of almost reckless commitments I feel good in having guarded it so. [It is] … my heavy duty poem to be examined for the rime pairs.” [Note how Frost, once again, praises the expression of the poem, it’s form, rather than it’s content.]
  • …”That one I’ve been more bothered with than anybody has ever been with any poem in just pressing it for more than it should be pressed for. It means enough without its being pressed.” And, in a biting tone, he adds, “I don’t say that somebody shouldn’t press it, but I don’t want to be there.” Often he has spoken out against the “pressers” and over-readers. “You don’t want the music outraged.” And of “Stopping by Woods” he says that all it means is “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.” Yet no true reader leaves the discussion there. He knows as well as the poet does that what is important is how the poet played with “the constant symbol” implicit in the making of the poem. “Everything is hinting,” Frost reminds us.
  • … “Stopping by Woods” came to him after he had been working all night on his long poem entitled “New Hampshire.” He went outside to look at the sun and it came to him. “I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
  • The most ascerbic and closest-cropped expressions of his [Frost’s] wit are reserved for the analysts of literature who try to pick a poem clean and miss its intent. When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”
  • …Frost starts out perfectly free in his poem. “I can have my first line any way I please,” he says, and he is right, “But once I say a line I am committed. The first line is a commitment. Whose woods these are I think I know. Eight syllables, four beats- a line – we call it iambic. I’m not terribly committed there. I can do a great many things. I did choose the meter. What we have in English is mostly iambic anyway. When most of it is iambic, you just fall into that – a rhyme pair – I’d be in for it. I’d have to have couplets all the way. I was dancing still. I was free. Then I committed a stanza:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

He will not see me stopping here is uncommitted. For the three rhymes in the next stanza, I picked up the unrhymed line in the first stanza, and rhymed its end-rhyme “here” with “queer’, ‘near’ and ‘year,’ and for the third stanza I picked up ‘lake’ from the unrhymed line in the second stanza and rhymed it with ‘shake,’ ‘mistake’ and ‘flake.’ For the fourth stanza I picked up ‘sweep’ from the unrymed line in the third stanza, to rhyme with ‘deep’ and ‘sleep.’

“Every step you take is further commitment. It is like going to the North Pole. If you go, you have to bring back witnesses – some Eskimos! How was I going to get out of that stanza? It’s going to be like the Arabian Nights -one story after another. By the third stanza you have a sense of how long a poem is going to be. It’s ‘sweep’ I’m committed to:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

For my poem is a commitment to convention. That’s what it’s a symbol of . The form of regular verse – Greek, Latin, English – is a symbol of commitment.

“The interest is the quarrel with those commitments. When I read a poem, I ask myself: What is the main point in the argument? Where is the insincerity in the argument? Having comitted ourselves to go to the North Pole or to our love, we have to believe we have been to the North Pole or that we have been in love. The modern poet who uses free verse or new experiments quarrels with the commitment to convention. His revolt is based on that, that all life goes false by its commitments. Consequently, I look at a poem very examiningly, very suspiciously. I don’t want to think that the poem is a compromise with the rhyme.”

  • “What it [the repeat of the final line] does is save me from a third line promising another stanza …. I considered for a moment four of a kind in the last stanza but that would have made five including the third in the stanza before it. I considered for a moment winding up with a three line stanza. The repetend was the only logical way to end such a poem.”

And finally, here is Frost himself:

The Poem’s Form

Lawrence Buell, in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, calls the poem a Rondeau [p. 111]. Every definition I’ve read of Rondeau, including The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, offers up a definition that has nothing, whatsoever, to do with “Stopping by Woods”. It’s likely that Buell is being very liberal in his use of the word Rondeau. That is, Frost’s poem is a rondeau in the sense that there is a recurring rhyme scheme that takes as its rhyme the one unrhymed word of the stanza before. Most critics would probably call this a nonce poem – meaning that the rhyme scheme is unique to the poem.

  • Note: [May 29] I just received a comment from Gemma who points out the Frost’s Rhyme Scheme is the same as that found in Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Kyayy’ám’s Rubaiyat. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics calls it the Omar Kyayy’ám Quatrain. Since Fitzgerald’s translation was published in 1859 and quite famous in its day, it’s possible (if not likely) that Frost saw it at one time or another. I myself grew up with a copy in my grandmother’s house – the only book of poetry she owned! I still have it but haven’t looked at it in a long time. That said, Frost himself (from his own comments above) seems to imply that the rhyme scheme developed organically (was of his own making).  For more details on the Rubaiyat, check out the link in Gemma’s comment.

At the beginning of the post, I asked how a poem so metrically regular could, nonetheless, feel so dynamic. Returning to The Cambridge Introduction to Robert Frost, Timothy Steele, in his essay entitled “Across Spaces of the Footed Line”: the Meter and Versification of Robert Frost, offers the most insightful analysis I have come across. He writes:

Because iambic structure often is compounded of non-iambic elements of English word-shape and phraseology, a poet like Frost can initiate, within the basic iambic rise-and-fall movement, all sorts of counter-currents to the prevailing rhythm. An exemplary instance of these modulatory West-Running Brooks occurs in stanza three of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’:

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

In the first two lines, Frost uses mainly monosyllabic words, and of the two two-syllable words, one is rear-stressed. As a result, divisions between feet and those between words largely coincide, and this in turn produces a strong sense of rising, iambic rhythm:

He gives || his har || ness bells || a shake
To ask || if there || is some || mistake.

In contrast, the remaining two lines feature four fore-stressed disyllabic words. Consequently, words more often cross foot divisions than end at them. Even as the iambic fluctuation continues, the lines have a falling, trochaic character, which in turn suggests the sweeping movement of wind and snow:

The on|| ly oth || er sound’s || the sweep
Of eas || y wind || and down || y flake.

Frost’s first version of the line about the wind and flake read, “Of easy wind and fall of flake.” He may have made the change not only because he wanted a more descriptive word for the snow, but also because he intuited that the rhythm would benefit from a more descending flow than “and fall of flake” could give. [pp. 133-134]

On to my own comments…

The other facet to consider is line length versus phrase length. Notice how the first two lines are also two succinct syntactic phrases. They are essentially each a complete sentence. Frost eases this confluence of line and phrase in the next two lines through enjambment – Stopping by Woods: Manuscriptboth lines comprise a single sentence. The first stanza’s confluence of line and thought mimic the poet’s own deliberation. He stops. He considers the land owner. He decides the land owner won’t know he’s “tresspassed”.

The next stanza then relaxes just as the poet himself relaxes. The form and sensibility of the poem are in prefect congruity. All four lines of the stanza comprise a single sentence. The reader will, perhaps without explicitly observing this trick, subconsciously register the effect and the poet’s relaxation.

The third stanza doesn’t repeat the first two. (Each stanza is different.) The first two lines comprise one sentence while the closing two lines comprise another. The poet is divided, just as the stanza is divided between two sentences. The horse reminds the driver that their travel isn’t through, but the poet remains distracted by the easy wind and downy flake.

The syntax of the final stanza breaks each line into discreet phrases. The poet is matter of fact. First, and yes, the woods are love, dark and deep; but more importantly, I have promises to keep. The spell of the woods are broken. The speaker of the poem returns to miles he must travel before he sleeps.

The point in all this is to demonstrate that there are more ways to vary a metrical poem than through the varying of meter. Line lengh, phrase and syntactic sense, if well-played against and with each other, can have a powerful and dynamic effect on a poem.

Frost’s small poem is a masterpiece.

Anyway… if you enjoyed this post and have questions or suggestoins, please comment!

Further sources of information:

  • A new & recommended post that examines the poem as aesthetic statement. Fascinating.

  • Modern American Poetry • This is a collection of essays culled from various authors and critics, possibly the most helpful offering on the web – similar to my own approach but without the multimedia.

Poetry Everywhere

  • Clicking on the Image will take you to PBS.ORG where you can watch Frost read Stopping by Woods.
  • Answers.Com offers two interesting essays by authors who are not among the “big guns” of Frost criticism.
  • Sparknotes offers a brief  little overview of the poem and a possible interpretation. These are followed by study notes if you’re in need of a kick start.

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.

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.