Posts from — January 2009
Drove about 800 miles last weekend, slept very little, and got even less work done, but it’s worth it to see my stepdaughters, and I do have a few links to share.
The first is to the Associated Press’s unofficial collection of poems written for the inauguration. Most, unfortunately, seem to me worse than the pretty bad official poem, but I do like Julia Alvarez‘s untitled poem beginning “The land was never ours, nor we the land’s …”
The second is to the text of the poem Robert Frost wrote for but did not read at the inuguuration of John Kennedy, “Dedication.” It’s not terrifically good either.
January 26, 2009 3 Comments
Elizabeth Alexander’s poem for the inauguration got me looking, and I’m amazed to discover that in more than 6 years I’ve never blogged about occasional poetry. A quick search of the web doesn’t find much by other folks, either.
Herewith a quickie:
Occasional verse is verse written for an occasion, and any occasion will do, from Obama’s inauguration to your great-aunt Sally’s first nose-piercing. One of the jobs of the English Poet Laureate is to write birthday odes for the monarch — Philip Larkin refused the job in an occasional poem suggesting Ted Hughes would do it, and so he did.
Critical regard for occasional poetry has suffered for a century because, in the estimation of some Modernist and post-modern theory, poetry should not be instrumental. Any such theory is wrong.
Here endeth the quickie. One day I may say more.
Just one more thing: the discussions of Alexander’s poem on poetry boards and lists have not been particularly kind, and I participated in that unkindness. It seems I should put my metrical feet where my critical mouth is, and, since I’m late on the weekly sonnet podcast, I’ve written an inaugural sonnet. I’ll record and podcast it tonight after donning my flame-retardant suit.
Jeez, I should read more carefully — see Patrick Gillespie’s comment below. In my (feeble) defense, I might note that there is an article about poets who wrote poems for Obama just above the set of poems, and that some of the same poets named in the article also wrote poems for Hayden Carruth. But it’s no excuse.
January 22, 2009 2 Comments
This is just weird. And I don’t mean the “poems to be strapped to the back of racing pigeons.”
January 18, 2009 3 Comments
I’d meant to mention his death a couple of days ago, but time and the world and my CRS prevented me. He was one of my favorite poets, and a writer from whom I learned much — the trick I used yesterday of breaking a poem to see how it works came from his De/Compositions: 101 good poems gone wrong.
Besides being a wonderful poet, he was a fine critic and by all accounts a wonderful teacher, and he will be missed.
January 17, 2009 2 Comments
At any rate, my podcast, “Mike Snider Reads,” is on iTunes now, and the latest entry is a pair of twinnets — yes, there are two now.
In other news the 2010 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival has been canceled, the latest victim of the financial crisis.
Update 11:54:51 am:
Twitter and the podcast both got the wrong text. Here’s the corrected and surely immortal version:
“Minimalist Winter Twinnet”
January 17, 2009 No Comments
Before getting to the interesting stuff, a word about the terms of English prosody: they’re Greek. They’re Greek because early prosodists wanted to show that English verse had as firm a cultural footing as anything classical, but they don’t mean about English poems what they meant about Greek or Latin poems. Classical Greek and Latin prosody was quantitative, meaning that lines were arranged according to the duration of syllables, and even that was nothing like what we mean by long and short vowels. The quantity of many syllables was fixed—that is, was either short or long no matter what its context, but some did vary according to well-understood rules. Well, we ain’t got no quantities.
Instead, English is a stress language. When we applied the terms of Classical prosody to our language, an iambic foot, instead of a short syllable followed by long one, becme a relatively more lightly stressed syllable followed by a relatively more strongly stressed syllable.
And here is where scope begins comes in, for that “relatively” applies only within the boundary of the foot, and because the normal pattern in English is for adjacent syllables to differ in stress, however slightly, one syllable in any group of 2 or 3 normally carries distinguishably greater stress than the other(s). That syllable has the metrical stress in that foot, and its position determines the foot’s kind.
(Without that “normally” I’d have just declared pyrrhics and spondees illusory, and some days I nearly think they are—the tendency to vary stress in English speech is so strong that when people speak in a monotone, we worry about them. I worry about prosodists who spot more than one or two in a random 1000 lines.)
Let me stress again (heh)—the scope of metrical stress is the foot. Whatever happens in the rest of the line, one names a foot according to its syllable count and the position of its most strongly stressed syllable, and though they may all be weakly or strongly stressed in the line, within the foot one will have at least some slight stress relative to the rest.
That “whatever” needs more treatment. Take line 11 from “Design”:
What brought / the kin/dred spi/der to / that height,
“to” carries metrical stress because it’s a little bit heavier than the second syllable of “spider,” but I claim that “that,” the unstressed syllable of the next foot, carries more stress than “to.”
Now let’s make a change:
What made / the kin/dred spi/der climb / that height,
Two words changed; it’s still iambic pentameter; not a single metrical stress has changed — but now the line has 5 clear speech stresses, whereas before there were 4. Speech stress is a property of syllables in a line; metrical stress is a property of syllables in a foot.
What brought / the kin/dred spi/der to / climbing,
Of course, the line is now well and truly broken, but look what happened in that fourth foot: since “climb” is strongly stressed in the last foot, “to” is no longer promoted to metrical stress. Instead, the last syllable of the noun “spider” gets slightly more stress, at least as I hear it. Metrical stress is still local: that is, there is still one syllable in the foot that is a little heavier than the other, but it’s a different syllable. And we’re down to four speech stresses again.
I wrote in the previous post that “rhythm in a metrical poem is the dance between speech-stress and meter,” and I know my little demos above can’t prove that. But I hope they do show at least that metrical stress and speech stress are separable.
January 16, 2009 5 Comments
Yeah, I Twitter.
And today I invented a verse form that (barely) fits the 140 character limit — triplet, any meter, with a single end rhyme and internal rhymes from the first and second lines in order into the third.
My example (140 characters with the label):
A Twinnet’s tangled rhyme, its tiny scope
And low byte count, let twittering poets hope,
This time, to mount the Muses’ cyberslope.
Now if I could just get Twitter to use as well as count carriage returns …
January 14, 2009 2 Comments
In a follow-up to my last post, I want to try to address two confusions which plague too many discussions of metrical poetry. First, rhythm in a metrical poem is the dance between speech-stress and meter, which are emphatically not the same thing. In particular, though a speech-stressed syllable in a well-handled poem will fall on a metrical stress, not every metrical stress carries speech stress — not every iambic pentameter line has 5 beats. Second, not every line in a metrical poem consists of canonical lines in its normative meter. Longer lines, especially in longer poems, use substitute and variant feet to avoid metronomic rhythm and to highlight important passages.
To illustrate, I’ve marked up a well-known sonnet by Robert Frost — foot boundaries are indicated by a slash (“/”), speech stress by boldface, and non-speech-stressed metrical stress by italics:
- I found / a dimp/led spi/der, fat / and white,
- On a / white heal/-all, hold/ing up / a moth
- Like a / white piece / of ri/gid sat/in cloth —
- Assort/ed char/acters / of death / and blight
- Mixed read/y to / begin / the morn/ing right,
- Like the / ingred/ients of / a witch/’s broth —
- A snow/-drop spid/er, a flow/er like / a froth,
- And dead / wings car/ried like / a pap/er kite.
- What had / that flow/er to do / with be/ing white,
- The way/side blue / and in/nocent / heal–all?
- What brought / the kin/dred spi/der to / that height,
- Then steered / the white / moth thi/ther in / the night?
- What but / design / of dark/ness to / appall?–
- If de/sign gov/ern in / a thing / so small.
It’s certainly appropriate to quibble about some of my choices — “like” in lines 7 and 8 may well carry speech stress, especially because of parallelism and because of the long “i,” which is also a rhyme sound in both the octave and the sestet — but lines with 5 clearly iambic feet are a minority in this poem. Of them (1, 4, 5, 8, 11, & 12), only 1 and possibly 8 have 5 clear speech stresses, since the last syllable of “character” and words like “in” and “to” simply cannot carry the force of the strong vowels embedded in verbs and nouns found in the other metrical stresses of their lines.
(By the way, their metrical stress is an example of “metrical promotion,” which is here, as almost always, applied to the middle of 3 consecutive weakly stressed syllables. It’s just a bump, not a bang.)
The most common IP variation is a trochee in the first foot, and Frost uses it in lines 6, 13, and possibly 9 — I marked the last that way, but it’s essentially a don’t-care. In any case, this is so common that many metrical scholars don’t consider it a variation at all.
Even without the initial trochee, line 9 would not be entirely regular because of the anapest (unstressed-unstressed-stressed) in the third foot. An anapest also occurs in the third foot of line 7, and line 6 has either an anapest or an elision ( prefer the latter) in the same foot.
The most interesting and the most characteristically Frostian variations occur in the last two feet of line 10 and in the first two feet of lines 2, 3, and 14, each of which I’ve marked as usntressed-unstressed/stressed-stressed, or, if you prefer the Greek, as pyrrhic/spondee, or, if you prefer what the Greeks called it, a single ionic minor foot.
(Frost himself called the pattern a “double iamb,” which he considered a single foot with two stresses; spondicides and pyrrhicides may mark them as a pair of rising iambs, which you might mark 1 2 / 3 4 to indicate a continually increasing stress. Tim Steele uses that convention for a different reason: an iamb, for him, is stressed/unstressed, but the stress-level numbers allow him to demonstrate to students that not all iambs are equal.)
You may have noticed that the meter in lines 2 and 10 causes the second syllable of “heal-all” to be metrically unstressed in the former and stressed in the latter. In line two, the position of “all” between the stressed “heal” and “hold” causes it to be demoted; in line 10, both its position and its status as an end-rhyme require it to be stressed. Just as with metrical promotion, metrical demotion can occur when three consecutive syllables carry roughly the same speech stress — the center cannot hold.
That’s a lot to say about 143 syllables and their stress relative to each other, and yet “Design” is hardly metrically problematic. Were I to go on to discuss how poem’s metrical structure interacts with its meaning, that would indeed be interesting, and when I have time I may try. But the point here is that, pace Pound, writing in meter has nothing to do with his conception of “writing in the sequence of the metronome.” Musicians who won’t train with a metronome are unlikely to be able to produce rhythmically interesting musical lines — and good metrical writing, employing judicious variation and respecting ordinary human speech, can produce rhythmic complexities and delights utterly beyond the reach of free verse.
I don’t at all mean that good metrical verse is necessarily superior to good free verse, nor that free verse cannot be rhythmically complex and delightful, nor that the additional possible rhythmic delights of metrical verse are inherently superior to those possible in free verse. Free verse just has fewer rhythmic toys to play with.
January 13, 2009 9 Comments
With one exception, the boards I sometimes visit to get and give advice on fledgling poems are not not helpful with meter. In fact, it’s hard to get advice on meter anywhere, since it’s so badly taught — when it’s taught at all — even at the graduate level.
The most common confusion, between speech stress, metrical stress, and rhythm, leads too many to believe that “correctly” handled meter is metronomic (thank you so much uncle Ezra!) and that “free verse” is free from that boring tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock …
It’s a dreadful, pernicious error, and one I’ve from time to time tried to address here at the Sonnetarium. October of 2003 was one of those times, and, in particular, I made an arbitrary mini-collection of the opening 2 lines of the first 12 iambic pentameter poems by 12 different poets in the New Formalist anthology Rebel Angels. The point was to demonstrate, using poets widely misunderstood to be rhythmically unadventurous, just how wildly the rhythm of clearly pentametric lines can vary through exploiting ordinary speech syntax and a few fairly standard metrical substitutions. That post is here; the whole month is here.
Note: The first 6 years of this blog were not done in WordPress and were not originally hosted at this domain, but it’s all been moved. It looks a lot different, but I think all the internal links are good. One day I really am going to get that long blogroll moved here.
Another Note: Ezra Pound, whatever else he may have done or known, seriously misunderstood both meter and the musical line.
Update: The old radio blog linked above will soon be down for about half an hour, but should be back up by 22:30 EDT at the latest.
Update: It’s back!
January 11, 2009 3 Comments
- Over at Listen Up!, my podacst page, I’ve added forms of poetry as categories so you can hear all the ovillejos (look in Turco’s Book of Forms) I’ve recorded. Including the two nonce poems, there are 22 different forms!
- Review coming soon, of Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House.
- Maybe best of all, via a Google News alert, a New York Poetry Brothel featuring, among others, Jennifer Michael Hecht!
January 9, 2009 No Comments