-------------------------------------------Mood: The UsualSome notes on meter and on line breaks.
I read several books on meter during the since December 2006. The two that I found, by far, the most enlightening were the following:
Steele, Timothy. 1999. All the Fun's in How you Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Attridge, Derek. 1995. Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
It happens that I read them in that order (first Steele then Attridge) and that this worked very well for me. It would probably work fine to read them in the opposite order too (I would have to reread them and think about this from a pedagogical point of view to see if I really think this is true, but I don't think it's worth the trouble).
Both books are very clearly written. The authors seem to have a long experience in teaching these subjects and they are very pedagogical, with plenty of illustrations and just very easy to follow. In both cases, my experience in reading the books was utter enthusiasm: I was just about as spell-bound as by a mystery novel (I remember that I was reading Steele while going from Lille to Brussels to catch a plane. My train from Lille to Brussels was an hour late, and it very unclear whether or not I would be able to catch my flight from Brussels or not. Under usual circumstances, I would have been stressed and antsy during the whole time until I was actually on the plane -- or had missed it -- but in the circumstances, I just kept reading Steele and didn't notice the wait, and didn't worry about what would happen if I missed the plane). Note that it's not simply that I'm a meter-addict and that any discussion of meter has this effect on me: I read, or began, several other books which I found boring, unenlightening, or unintelligible.
The two books are complementary. To sum things up in a nutshell, Steele made me understand what an iambic pentameter is and why it works the way it does. He also cleared up for me, in a definitive way, the whole idea of "substitutions" (so called pyrrhic and spondaic substitutions) which I had found unintelligible in the books on meter I'd read before him. Attridge on the other hand made me understand what a tetrameter is, and why the four beat measure is so central and so important.
Let me mention one central example from Attridge that I found fascinating. His idea of silent beats and offbeats. It's a big help to convince oneself of that he is right about this if you know how to beat 4/4 and 3/4 time in music. Otherwise, you can do it by simply beating with your foot or hand. Take a stanza of iambic tetrameter:
On WENlock EDGE the WOOD'S in TROUble;
His FOrest FLEECE the WREkin HEAVES;
The GALE, it PLIES the SAPlings DOUble,
And THICK on SEvern SNOW the LEAVES.
If you say this out loud, in a natural way, you will see that you automatically say it in 4/4 time, that is, the beats (strong syllables, indicated by capitalization) come at regular intervals with no special pauses between the lines (of course you can pause between the lines, but it is quite natural to say the stanza with no pauses).
Now, take a stanza in trochaic tetrameter
TYger! TYger! BURning BRIGHT
IN the FOrests OF the NIGHT,
WHAT imMORtal HAND or EYE
Could FRAME thy FEARful SYmmeTRY?
If you say this, beating time as you did in the previous case, you will notice that between the final beat of a line and the initial beat of the next line, you actually leave a silent offbeat, that is just the same length as the unstressed initial syllable in the iambic lines. In fact, the fourth line of the Blake does have the initial unstressed syllable, and this does not change the rhythm, simply between lines 3 and 4, the flow is continuous, there is not the slight pause of the silent offbeat.
Now this may seem like trivial detail, but it is not! It's crucially important since what it means is that if you choose to write in trochaic tetrameter, your lines are going to be much more autonomous rythmical units than in iambic: they are separated from each other by the silent offbeats, and for instance enjambment has a much stronger effect in this case than in an iambic line.
Now take a poem in trimeter:
The PEOple aLONG the SAND
All TURN and LOOK one WAY.
They TURN their BACK on the LAND.
They LOOK at the SEA all DAY.
It is possible to say this stanza in 3/4 time, that is, in a continuous flow with regular beats on each stressed syllable. But this is not intuitively the natural, preferred way of reading. What one tends to do (and reading Attridge, I immediately realized that this was how I had always said this poem out loud) is to read it in 4/4 time, with a silent beat at the end of each line, so that the rhythm is basically the same as in the case of iambic tetrameter, except with marked pauses between the lines (of course the pausing effect is much stronger than in the Blake, since here it is a whole beat, and not an offbeat, that is silent).
This (in combination with the fact that there are feet with 2 unstressed syllables) is what gives the Frost poem its sort of lilting rhythm, similar in my mind to that of a ship on the water (As long as it takes to pass // A ship keeps raising its hull ....).
Again this has important consequences for e.g. the use of enjambment.
Of course, people who are sensitive to poetry know all of this intuitively (since we automatically say the lines in the way described above, without having read anything about the subject). The point of the books above is not prescriptive, but rather descriptive of the natural intuitions we have about how poetic rhythm work.
So, Attridge's fascinating thesis is that the 4 beat measure is somehow fundamental (he shows how it arises almost automatically from a sort of doubling process: 1 beat > 2 beats > 4 beats (the line) > 8 beats (two lines of tetrameter) > 16 beats (the typical stanza with 4 lines of tetramter). It is also the typical rhythm of nursery rhymes (e.g. Eenie meenie minie mo, Catch a tiger by his toe, ...). The three beat measure is really an incomplete tetrameter!
This allowed me to understand all sorts of things about the way I read poetry. E.g. why you have pauses in ballad meter (alternating 4 and 3 beat lines). Take the following example:
The BRAIN -- is WIder THAN the SKY --
For -- PUT them SIDE by SIDE --
The ONE the Other WILL conTAIN
With EASE -- and YOU -- beSIDE --
If you say this naturally, you will see that you introduce silent beats at the end of the 3 beat lines, so that in fact the rhythm of the whole is again a 4 beat rhythm, with pauses at the end of the even numbered lines.
Or take the type of hexameter used by Yeats in "The Lake Island of Innisfree"
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
Notice how we say this automatically: with strong pauses after the 3rd and 6th beats, so that in fact, this form of hexameter is really two four-beat structures per line, each ending in a silent beat. And, you can convince yourself that this really is true by pointing your browser to
and listening to Yeats read this poem himself!! (Please do listen to this, it's so amazing to hear him read, wow!! I'll try to get back to the way he reads at the end of this). Of course in this case, the punctuation is a guide, but the effect is much stronger than that.
It is important to realize that both Steele and Attridge are not trying to teach us something prescriptive (that is, how we should read or write poetry). Rather the perspective is descriptive: "How do poets write?" is the question they're trying to answer. What they are doing is teaching us how to understand, bring to a conscious level, an implicit knowledge than anyone who is familiar with metrical poetry already has. When you read these books, you keep have the feeling of "of course, that's how it works, it's so obvious once he says it".
I want to finish this already too long discussion with a rant and rave about the way some modern poets break lines. And for this, I will start from the way Yeats reads "Innisfree". Of course his diction might be thought to be overly emphatic for modern tastes (though I personally love it). But what is crucial is that it is a metrical reading (that is, one that clearly brings out the metrical structure) and that it respects the lines, in the sense that each line forms a prosodic unit in the reading.
For me, poetry is essentially sound, rather than typography. The division into lines of a poem must be significant in an oral rendition of a poem. If there is an enjambment, I want the lines to be read aloud in such a way that there is some kind of a break between them. Otherwise, the enjambment effect simply disappears in the reading. If there is an ambiguity in the syntactic parsing of a sequence, I don't want the intonation in the version read aloud to disambiguate. I want it to be read metrically, so that the ambiguity remains in the oral. In essence, what I'm saying is that the division into lines must be significant, not just typographically pleasing. Otherwise, why not simply write prose poems, as did Rimbaud or Baudelaire...
Now many poets today break lines in very marked places, e.g. after an article. Let me take an example, and I will say right away that this a poem that I really love, so that what I'm saying is not a criticism of the piece, but of the line breaks. I'm thinking of "A Hermit Thrush" by Amy Clampitt, which you can see the text of and hear read by her at
In this poem she has breaks like the following:
back, year after year, lugging the
makings of another picnic-- (stanza 2)
to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to
hold on in any case means taking less and less (stanza 7)
mainly of our own devising. From such an
empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us (stanza 11)
or to take some less extreme cases of enjambment, consider the first two stanzas and listen to her say them.:
Nothing's certain. Crossing, on this longest day,
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up
the scree-slope of what at high tide
will be again an island,
to where, a decade since well-being staked
the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us
back, year after year, lugging the
makings of another picnic--
You will notice that the pauses in her recitation do not match the line breaks at all even in cases less extreme than the "the // makings" of lines 7,8. She says "scrambling up // the scree-slope", "well-being staked // the slender", "brings us // back" as if they were on the same line. The only place in these two stanzas where she makes a pause that would probably not be there if she were reading a prose texte is "what at high tide // will be again an island". If you listen to the whole poem, you will see that this is typical. Specifically, if I were to take the poem under dictation from the way she recites it, it would be totally impossible for me to put in the line breaks. The oral rendition is simply totally independent from the typographical disposition chosen. (Note that this is even true for the stanza breaks, she very often runs together the stanzas). It's not that there are no pauses, but rather that, overall, the pauses are simply in the places where the syntax leads you to put them, that is, in the places where you would put them naturally if the whole thing was transcribed a long prose paragraph.
The question then is: what is the point of breaking the thing up into lines and stanzas this way? I just cannot fathom it at all, except that it "makes it look like poetry" which seems a very stupid reason. I cannot make any sense of this way of breaking things -- or, to be more precise, this way of breaking lines does not make sense, does not produce meaning the way I think enjambment should. And I think the proof is in the fact that the author does not try to create an oral equivalent of her line breaks when she reads her own poem. They seem to be purely decorative and typographical. Especially the breaks after articles or between a preposition and the noun phrase that follows it seem to me to be simply annoying, distracting, purposeless, even maybe pretentious.
Now, you might think that this would have to be the case in any non metrical modern poetry. But this is not true. For instance, E.E. Cummings very often (but not always, it is true) puts in oral breaks in his readings that correspond to his line breaks, reflecting in his oral rendition the jagged, suspense creating, typographical effects of his breaks.
For instance in his poem "in Just-"
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
he makes breaks after "Just" and "mud"
(you can hear him if you go to
at 4' 30")
Of course he can't reproduce the effects of his idiosyncratic capitalization, but for instance, when he runs together "eddieandbillie" typographically, he reflects this in his reading. And similarly, the idiosyncrasies of the spacing inside the lines is typically reflected in his reading.
Now, even for Cummings, it's obvious that this is not always true, and for instance there's no break between "little" and "lame balloonman" in his reading of the stanza quoted above. And in other poems read by him, there is variation in the degree to which line breaks are marked in the reading. But overall, I think it is fair to say that he tends to reflect his typography quite faithfully in his reading.
Ok, I think I've gotten into rambling mode at this point, and I will stop. I guess that the point of this rant is that I think line breaks should be meaningful and not just "typographically pleasing". And a good test for meaningfulness is whether you do something correponding to the line break in your oral rendition of a poem.
...Created 2007-08-30 03:45:45
-------------------------------------------Mood: Travelling in PeruWell, it's been quite a while since I've written anything, over 6 months... I'm travelling through Peru (lucky me!) and trying to find some time for poetry. I'll come back to reading other people's work and commenting when I get back home, at the end of July...
...Created 2007-07-15 19:05:58
|Journal: Poetic form |
-------------------------------------------Mood: Musing on the essence of poetry...I've read half of Timothy Steele's new collection "Toward a Winter Solstice" during the past two days, and have found it very beautiful and stimulating, as usual with his poetry. He has a way of capturing moments of being, places, people in a specific situation that I find quite admirable, and he also sometimes writes poems that are a sort of poetic essay, with an argument contained in them. In case you don't know his work, he systematically writes in very classical form, typically beautiful iambic pentameter with rhymes. Discovering him, has been a source of inspiration for me and also has made me feel less "out of pace with the current" in my will to use classical forms, or at least to explore them as far as I can. As I said previously, I benefited immensely from reading his very didactical "All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing. An Explanation of Meter and Versification", and I intend to read soon his "Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter".
On Tuesday, I was also lucky enough to have J. read to me, out loud, the whole of Eliot's "Four Quartets". I love hearing poetry read out loud. (For Eliot's "Four Quartets" there is a recording of him reading them himself, which is really worth acquiring; if you have any trouble getting into these wonderful poems, listen to him reciting them, and you will be conquered).
Part V of East Coker starts like this:
"So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. "
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets).
I love this description of what it is like to be a poet. And reading it, it makes me know that I am not (yet?) truly (or completely?) a poet. I haven't gotten anywhere near that far yet.
So all this has set me to thinking more deeply about the relationship between content and form in poetry. If I remember correctly, Aristotle has a rather simple (or naive?) idea in his Poetics that form and content are separable. That the content exists as such, and is then put into an appropriate form (this is memory from many years ago, I need to check whether I'm being accurate). This has got to be exactly wrong for poetry. If you think about it, most poetry, if paraphrased to separate the content from the form (to the extent that this is even possible), is really very uninteresting. The ideas are banal, the feelings of love, loneliness, despair, admiration of natural beauty etc. are common place (as Eliot says the things he's trying to conquer have already been discovered, it's not the emotions as such that are original). And of course, for much poetry, the essential inherent ambiguity of what is being said -- due to condensation and metaphorical displacement -- makes non poetic paraphrase in the strict sense impossible, since it typically forces elimination of part of the ambiguity.
Clearly -- and we all know this, otherwise we wouldn't be trying to write poetry -- form is a crucial, inseparable part of what it is to be a poem. But then the question is, what does form bring to a poem exactly? And specifically, what do fixed meter and rhyme bring? What does a Sonnet or Villanelle form bring?
An idea has come to me over the past two days, that I want to think through more clearly (and of course, I need to inquire about the literary theory stuff that exists on this, more than likely I'm not the first to follow this line of thought, and by the way, if anyone actually reads this post and knows of relevant literature, please do help me out with a PM) about what form brings to poetry. I want to start from the poem "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop, which I cited in the "description" part of my posting "A Villanelle in Homage to E. Bishop". Patrick made me read this poem, and pointed out to me that the form of the villanelle ensured, as soon as it had been recognized, that the last word of the poem would be "disaster". This leads to a feeling of necessity, of inevitability of the conclusion.
Of course, Bishop twists the form of the villanelle, in that she subtly changes the details of the repeating lines, but the changes are meaningful *because* we see them in contrast with what is expected, so here again, part of the meaning comes from the form, from the contrast between what is expected and what is there.
This idea has slowly been maturing in the back of my mind since then, and leads me to think that, more generally, the formal regularity of any metrical and rhyming scheme (for instance a Shakespearean sonnet in iambic pentameter) gives the content of what is said a feeling of necessity and hence of truth, of depth, that is due in part simply to its conforming to the form. What I mean is that when you get the rhyming word, with the right metrical pattern, it feels "in its place" in a way that it never could in a prose piece. An this in-its-place-ness gives us this feeling that what is being said is necessary and true and right, that it expresses the essential truth of the thing described. It makes a description of an old lady wading in a lake become the essence of the person described, and part of the essence of life in general, in Steele's "Joanna Wading". (And maybe this is why a philosopher like Parmenides wrote a poem, rather than prose.)
In fact, I don't believe that people or moments or whatever can truly be reduced to an essential truth (as suggested for instance in Orson Scott Card's "Speaker for the Dead" which was fun to read, but where the idea that you could somehow express in a speech the essence of a person seems utterly naive). But poetical form allows one to achieve the illusion of this necessity.
I think that it would be interesting to look at this idea in comparing English and French language poetry (and others of course, it's just that those are the two languages where I can really understand poetry). French is really a bad language for poetry, because it has no word stress, no long and short vowels, so it's very very flat as a poetical medium. I truly believe that it is much harder to be a good poet if you try to write in French than in English (probably one of the reasons I'm writing poetry in English and not in French). Also, it probably explains partly why French poetry is typically, on average, much more abstract, metaphorical and more generally conceptually complex than English poetry: the fact that it's so hard to get poetical effect in French on the basis of sound alone, makes these properties much more necessary than in English. For instance, if you translated Housman or Frost into French, it would just not be poetry, it seems to me, because it is often so centrally the meter and rhyme that make it poetry, and you couldn't rely on them in French, they would not be enough to make these things poems (of course rhyme does work in French, and it is certainly not by chance that there is almost no non rhyming poetry in pre-20th century French poetry (contrary to e.g. Paradise Lost), since if you remove the rhyme, there is really nothing left in French, from the point of view of sound regularity, and you can no longer tell at all where a line ends, contrary to English where the cues of the stress pattern of the line will tell you, independently of the rhyme).
Then, this leads me to wonder further about free form. Because, of course, once I've said that the crucial workings of poetry are based on the necessity that arises from form, it seems that free form cannot be poetry at all. The way I want to grapple with this is the idea that good "free form" is in fact not free at all. It is tightly woven, and in constant tension with more classical forms (the way that Bishop's variations in the returning lines in her villanelle are in tension with the expected literal repetition of the line). Eliot, who I admire, is clearly a complete master of classical meter (just read his "O'Possum's Book of Practical Cats", if you're not convinced -- you'll have fun) he can do anything he wants with it. And in "Four Quartets", for instance, the lines are constantly in tension with classical English meter. And beyond this tension, he uses all sorts of devices to make form apparent and necessary. Lots of repetition for instance, which would be completely out of place outside of the poetical context.
To come back to the initial quote from East Coker, one could say that poetry is an attempt to discipline the essentially undisciplined and undisciplinable squads of human emotion. The military metaphors here are really powerful. Poetry is an assault on language and on feeling, trying to force them to mesh.
Well these are my musings of the day, or of the past months if you prefer, crystallizing in the past few days. Any thoughts anyone? Any bibliographical references? I'm sure that what I've said here must already have been said by a lot of people.
...Created 2007-01-11 00:21:52
-------------------------------------------Mood: Heading towards a new year...Well, I'm back from my week's vacation in Andalucía, having spent 24 hours at my father's on the way back from Brussels airport to my home in Lille. It was a nice and restful vacation, I spent a lot of time reading and writing. What I spent the most time on was "Too short a dance", which I posted here asking for comments. I really want to thank the whole community here for their reaction to my post. I asked for feedback, and I got it! I truly felt that people were there for me and that really felt good. It was a hard poem to write, for obvious emotional reasons. The comments, suggestions, encouragements, and simply the emotional support I got from you all was a big help.
Of course, my family loved the poem; because they love me any effort on my part would have been appreciated. But it was important for me to feel that the poem was worth something as a poem.
I wish you all a happy and fulfilling new year!
...Created 2006-12-30 15:17:14
-------------------------------------------Mood: Metrically obsessedWell, I should really be finishing up work stuff before I leave on vacation tomorrow (a week in southern Spain, should really do me some good), but I'm addicted to poetry right now and have a hard time not thinking about it.
I've added some description of the poems "Joachim transfigured at the piano" and "Pearls without Pain", for those who are interested.
I'm currently metrically obsessed. For years, I have been reading poetry in English and loving it, but without the need to be able to analyze meter, appreciating it intuitively. But after writing my first poems, in September, I felt the need (control freak that I am) to understand explicitly what I was doing. So I looked on the net, and ordered books through amazon. The first to arrive, about a week ago, was Fussell's "Poetic Meter and Poetic Form". Now this is a fine book, and it brought me a lot to read it, but just as with everything I'd been reading about spondaic and pyrrhic "substitutions" on the net, it seemed utterly wrong to me intuitively with respect to the strict analysis of meter. I am a professor of linguistics, by profession, and a specialist of syntax and semantics. I don't do research in phonology or phonetics, or teach it to students, but I do know enough about English phonology to feel that there had to be something crucially wrong with this traditional approach to English metrics. Then the book by Timothy Steele arrived ("All The Fun's In How You Say A Thing: An Explanation Of Meter & Versification"). Now I greatly admire his poetry, he is a master of form and has a way of capturing moments, scenes, or reflections that I would like one day to be able to emulate. So, I was hoping that the book would reflect his competence as a poet, and it DOES. It is didactically extremely clear, and it is phonologically informed. He realizes that you need a minimum of 4 levels of stress to describe normal English speech (let's do as he does and call the strongest stress 4 and the weakest stress 1, with 2 and 3 as intermediate), and that there is a natural tendency to give slightly greater stress to the middle syllable in cases where syntax brings three unstressed syllables into a row so that in a phrase like "pattern of desire", even outside a poetical context, there is a tendency to lift the stress on "of" slightly, to level 2, in contrast with level one on "tern" and "des", even outside a poetic context. Therefore, in the context of an iambic pentameter, this scans as having "ern OF" as a normal iambic foot: though weakly stressed, the 2nd syllable is still stronger than the first. It is thus NOT a pyrrhic substitution. Similarly, he understands that typically, when you have two content words with contiguous stressed syllables, one gets metrically subordinated to the other, depending on factors of syntax, morphology, and discourse effects like emphasis or contrast, so that you normally never get two equally stressed syllables next to each other in ordinary spoken English. E.g., when you have an adjective noun compound like "blackboard" (note that this is a compound, a blackboard can be green and still be called a "blackboard") the first part "black" has stronger stress (level 4) than the second "board" which has level 3. Inversely, if "black board" is a phrase, rather than a compound, that is if you're just talking about a board (not the kind you have in classrooms for writing on) that happens to be black, the natural tendency (unless your opposing e.g. a black board to a red board, for then contrastive stress would invert the pattern) is to put a higher stress on "board" (level 4) than on "black" (level 3). Thus, when it is a phrase, "black BOARD" is a fine iamb on its own -- and NOT a spondee -- with stronger stress on the second syllable of the foot, even if both syllables are more stressed than either of the ones in "the previous "ern OF" example. Of course what this means is that you can get two iambs in sequence, where there is a steady climb in stress, and Steele gives plenty of naturally occurring examples from great poets. With what I've set up here, this would be the case "patterns of black board" where the stresses on the five syllables are respectively level 4 / 1 2 / 3 4, with the slashes indicating the foot boundaries. So, gone are the pyrrhic and spondaic substitutions, and this seems to me to be intuitively and technically the only right thing to say. It's what I intuitively felt from the moment I started writing poetry, and what I felt during all the time I read it, without trying to explain it. This does not mean that the comments people like Fussell make about the meaningful consequences of the so called substitutions are irrelevant. They can be perfectly relevant, but they are about feet with patterns like /1 2/ or /3 4/, which they cannot recognize given that they admit only 2 levels of stress. Anything that Fussell says about spondaic substitutions can be transposed to /3 4/ type feet. But now we understand why some "spondees" sound so much better than others, they are the one where there is in fact a rise from 3 to 4, not a descent from 4 to 3.
If you read the questions I raised about some of the lines in "Joachim transfigured", you will see that I have found all the answers to them in Steele's book. My so called spondees and pyrrhics are in fact /3 4/ and /1 2/ feet. My trochaic substitutions (which DO exist, and are especially common at the beginning of a line -- Steele claims that one in ten iambic pentameters in classical English poetry have an initial trochaic foot -- or after a major syntactic break in a line) are normal. And finally, I even found the answer to whether the final, less stressed, extrametrical syllable in a "feminine" pentameter can be the "ow" of "window", "piano" and "Scherzo". Steele as examples of exactly this type straight out Shakespeare.
...Created 2006-12-21 05:22:28
Be kind, take a few minutes to review the hard work of others <3
It means a lot to them, as it does to you.