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Mood: The Usual
Some 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,
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-"

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

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     [ View Past Journals ]

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::Misc : Class : Poetry :
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I saw your name in the community thing and remembered that same poem AlyRose was going on about, i know i knocked some of your other stuff, but i've ofetn thought of and returned to that one. I was going to try a cheap knockoff... but no. It's really good.
| Posted on 2009-12-22 11:46:16 | by Daniel Barlow - [ Reply to This ] -
I've tried to comment on your 'Huanchaco' but it won't let me. I won't ramble here about how I love grey days, and poems that repeat a colour, and how your poem was gorgeous. I'll just say that I've faved it, and it was a lovely write.

| Posted on 2009-10-09 17:36:49 | by AlyRose - [ Reply to This ] -
I would like for you to check out my page
| Posted on 2008-07-19 17:25:08 | by JoJoCrab - [ Reply to This ] -
Hey, just to say bonjour. I hadn't seen you for a long time so I came looking!
| Posted on 2008-02-22 18:21:03 | by Glen Bowman - [ Reply to This ] -
Did I respond to your comment on 1Nov07 ? Anyway thanx. You said the poem is a riddle and you got the answer. Heh! I didn't write it as a riddle and it wasn't even meant to be obscure ... just the report of a strange spiritual feeling, sort of.

For god's sake tell me the riddle answer!!
| Posted on 2007-12-23 23:08:01 | by Glen Bowman - [ Reply to This ] -
Just to let you know that I revised, updated and created some new poems. I need fresh eyes to read and comment. I value your positive feedback.

"I Carry These Words"
"My Dark Wine Sea"
"Flowers to my Coffin"
"Thy Bitter Hands Be Healed"
| Posted on 2007-10-15 18:56:47 | by FireFly747 - [ Reply to This ] -

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