The art and practice of it (2)


It may be that in providing this brief—but useful, I hope—sketch of poetic rhythm and meter, over the next several posts, I am at work in a literary equivalent of art history: “poetry history.”  I can’t help feeling that the workings of language at this level of rhythm have not been added to the toolkits of a lot of poets.  There are admirable new poets whose work is rich with rhythm and sound is wonderful and wonderfully different ways–recently, I have read Urayoán Noel’s Hi-Density Politics (BlazeVox 2010) and Sherwin Bitsui’s Floodsong (Copper Canyon, 2009).  For me, the experience of reading a fragment of Anacreon, a poem by John Donne, one by Lorine Niedecker, one by Urayoán Noel, and one by Sherwin Bitsui on the same morning—this morning—is an exhilarating participation in the life of poetry.  So while what follows may seem to some readers “poetry history,” I wouldn’t still devote myself to thinking about it if I didn’t experience it as being very alive, and if I didn’t think that this treasure-chest is out in the open, not buried by poetry misers, and it’s for us all to find, to use.  (It endlessly replenishes itself).  


For the poet, what matters is learning how to hear the rhythmic patterns that the English language creates, and using them, in one way or another, expressively.  (In the work of some poets they are used very emphatically, and in work of others, scarcely at all.)  For the reader this is about learning how to hear what’s being said, beyond and also inside the meaning of the words.  For the poet, this is about learning to make one’s own choices about the rhythms of speech stresses (and, in the past and still among a number of poets, metrical accents).  (These are two different things.)  For the reader, it’s about hearing the music of the individual poet.  After all, the poet who’s listening while working finds that s/he is sounding out— discovering—at least sometimes, the voice that s/he wants to hear and wants heard.  And the reader who’s listening hears how the poetic pace and rhythm of language is the subtly embodied, and also subliminal, dance of the meaning.

The artistic problem is to work with rhythm with as much deliberateness as possible, both intuitively and consciously, to keep growing into one’s own voice.  (The metaphor of “finding” it, as if it were something that already existed, is misleading; what’s true is the metaphor of “finding” it in the process of finding one’s way forward in anything.)  The poet’s use of the rhythms of speech (and of meter) isn’t mechanical, but instead—and fittingly for those poets to whom it matters—it’ a kind of soft singing that is vital (that is, with the feeling of life in it).  The performance is not mechanical.

Of course there’s poetry with no song of any kind in it.  And there’s non-metrical singing (free and syllabic).  I’ll come to some examples, later. 

Writing with attention to any of the qualities and elements of poetry is about being judged by one’s readers (real and imagined, living and dead).  No way to escape that.  No reason to want to escape it.  And there is no one right way to understand rhythm and meter, since all the proof is in the way the poem itself sounds, to those readers.  About meter, I have heard one excellent poet say to another, with utter sincerity and severity, yet not without friendliness, “You’re wrong.”  And there are analytical accounts by scholars of linguistics and language that don’t much serve poets, who—like musicians—mostly learn from scores and from performance.  (But not neglecting “theory.”  There’s “music theory” so of course there’s “poetry theory,” although no one calls it that.)  There is enough agreement on the way meter sounds in English for us not to get lost in the minor quarrels about how to analyze it.  While English-language poetry can do lots of things (and has done a huge variety of things), what concerns me in this series of posts is what it does most inherently, and therefore what poets have mostly done with it, in its long history.


We speakers of English use speech stress for emphasis and for clarity of meaning; the rhythms of our language are predominantly an alternation between syllables that we stress when speaking and syllables that we do not.  Predominantly, but not wholly so—which is what makes for the liveliness of rhythmic variation that is as much a part of the English language as it is of music.  Beyond this fundamental fact about English, there is the subtler reality that we use different degrees of stress when speaking.  Some linguists posit four comparative degrees.  We can roughly distinguish them by ear—a range from a completely unstressed syllable (like the second syllable in “syllable”) and the most emphatically stressed syllables: “Yikes!.”  I myself don’t write by such numbers, any more than I would paint by numbers, and I doubt that anyone does—but I know I’m hearing them, and using this kind of relative “weight” or duration or volume.  And when I break them down, while reading a poem (as a painter would break down color relations when studying a painting), I can use this scale of 1 to 4 to sort out how meter and stress play against each other in a poem: 1 will be the absence of stress, 2 and 3 will be intermediate degrees of stress culminating in 4, the greatest amount of stress.

A poet has to train the ear and then the ear can hear without being reminded of schemes.  It’s the same with music.  And poets train the ear by playing or singing, in our own way—just as musicians do.

Rhythms of language have to do with the sequences of syllables that we stress “naturally” and those that we don’t.  Meter plays on and with the irregularities among the generally regular alternating stressed and unstressed syllables in our speech, and on the degree of stress, but putting them both into counterplay with a pattern of very clear expectation.

Since the practice of English poetic meter became more or less solidified in the late 16th century, it hasn’t changed very much as a way of taking advantage of the inherent iambic rhythms of our language.  This must be because the rhythmic patterns of English haven’t changed or varied enough to throw very many ears out of tune—despite all the changes in pronunciation and usage over many centuries and in many English-speaking places, from Oxford to East London to the Lake District, Belfast to Glasgow to Toronto, from Chicago to San Antonio to Seattle, from Sidney to Johannesburg to Delhi.  So the alternating speech stresses and lack thereof, from one syllable to the next, that characterize the sound of English still set the dominant rhythm of the language.  In poetry written freely, this is true; in metrical poetry, this is true.  The question is what effects one hears, as a reader, and what effects one wants, as a poet.  How does the meaning, emphasis, and pleasure of a poetic line or passage create the effect that it does?  Partly this is through the rhythms of English.


The two elements of meter that we listen to, when we “scan” a metrical poem (that is, when we want to see how the rhythm and meter work together) are (1) the “foot,” as we call it—a small group of syllables (almost always 2, but sometimes 3) in which, when those syllables are considered only in comparison to each other, not in comparison to syllables in any other foot, neighboring or distant, we hear one syllable that is stronger than the other(s); and (2) the line, which creates our expectation of breath and syntax.  Often the metrical accent within a foot is also a natural speech speech; at other times, it is invited by the metrical pattern itself, as I’ll show.

Over many years, many schemes have been proposed, some of them very complicated, for classifying different types of metrical feet, derived from terminology used originally to classify feet in ancient Greek meter, which was very different in every way from our own—in how the language sounded (so far as we can guess), what a “foot” was (the term must have been used because poetry was song, and song meant dance), what the different kinds of feet (that is, dance rhythms) were, and how a line was composed out of feet.  Here is where some readers will become bore or will panic, but really, it’s simple.  The most important criterion for any way of looking at poetic meter is whether it helps us clarify what we read and improve what we write, without itself becoming an impediment to our pleasure in reading.  Some scholarly analyses set out to account not only for the general way meter works but also for the variations, including those that don’t seem to make sense according to a scheme.  But that kind of analysis is not about pleasure.  And what’s most important for readers and writers is to hear what poetic lines in English do, to get a feel for the living movement of speech within the pulse of meter.  To get a feeling for an individual poet’s particular rhythmic structure, as well as its relation to the rhythmic structures of other poets.  And to catch the nuances of meaning that meter makes possible.


I’m using a scheme that I’ve come to by practical decisions, over years of reading, and that I keep simple.  In this poem or that, there may be feet that I can’t account for.  But not so many, except when I am accounting for them by judging them to be clumsy, poorly heard by the poet, forced—or just inept (the usual reason).  (When I read, I judge poems as better or worse; I don’t read them primarily for the information they convey about literature or poets more generally, more historically, more theoretically.)  To figure out what is happening rhythmically in a metrical poem, I pay attention to three things: speech stresses, metrical accents, and the boundaries between feet.  I use only the usual terminology for distinguishing four different kinds of feet from each other: the rhythmical mirror-image iamb and trochee; feet with three syllables; and the double foot that consists of two quick little syllables followed by two strong ones.  I could call them “A,” “mirror-A,” “B,” and “C”—but that would only introduce new terms to be learned, and everyone has already heard the words “iambic”; “trochaic”; and “anapestic” (which is the most common shape of a three-syllable foot).  As for that double thing, I call it “that thing” (there are some established names for it, but there are also disagreements about what it is, so I’ll leave all that to one side.)


I. What are we hearing?

There are two kinds of rhythmic emphasis: natural speech stresses and metrical accents. As I suggested above, natural speech stress is an essential aspect of spoken English. “He told her,” “He told her,” and “He told her” mean three different things in English; other languages don’t often work that way—they distinguish the three different meanings with other linguistic elements.  Anyone who doesn’t hear the speech stress in English may misunderstand what is being said.  Metrical accent, on the other hand, is an artifice that makes use of a natural element of our language, so meter is apparent and relevant only in a poem written in meter.

Poetic meter is a regularity of rhythmic pattern that allows for a multiplicity of speech rhythms. Meter organizes speech stresses so that they mostly match the meter in their regularity of occurrence, even as they produce a pleasing variety in their degree of emphasis.

Together, the interplay of the variety in degrees of speech-stress emphasis (1 through 4) and the regularity of metrical emphasis produce complex and variable poetic rhythms, while doing so within a relatively simple overall scheme.


Some specifics: We often speak several unstressed syllables in a row—naturally we don’t distinguish them as such.  (The underlined syllables in that phrase are the speech stresses—two 4′s [na- and -tin-] and two 3′s, perhaps, which add up to four syllables out of twelve in all, hence eight unstressed syllables.)  So sometimes, because the way we speak often includes many unstressed syllables, the use of poetic meter can result in a foot with no appreciable speech stress—that is, a foot in which the speech stresses might be measured very roughly by the ear as 1,1.  (By the way, of course there are poets who don’t wish their poetic language to have very much to do with speech, who choose to work against speech; I’ll leave that case to one side, for now.)  In a metrical poem, two adjacent unstressed syllables will still create a metrical foot in which the second syllable will have a metrical accent:

/                 /              /             /                   /               /

natur | ally | we don’t | distin| guish them | as such

I can scan that as a six-foot iambic line: the first foot is reversed (a trochee), with the accented syllable first, coinciding with the speech stress on the first syllable of “naturally.”  Then five iambs.  The speech stresses might be:

4    1       1  1      1      3          1   4         1        2         1      4

natur | ally | we don’t | distin| guish them | as such

But nobody has to worry about assessing the four degrees of speech stress; I’m just illustrating with this sentence the range of them.  The important thing is that in all the feet after the first one, we can easily give the second syllable an iambic metrical accent–it does coincide with strong speech stresses in the third, fourth and sixth foot, it sorts out the difference in less-than-emphatic stress in the fifth foot (“them” sounds stronger, lengthier) and it matches up well enough with the second foot, in which the “ly” sounds longer than the “al.”  So a perfectly ordinary sentence can turn out to scan nicely.  It’s simply pleasing that the metrical scheme works out so nicely against the ordinary speech rhythm of that sentence.

In a metrical poem, beyond creating pleasing emphasis and rhythmic interplay, the meter can even determine or clarify the meaning. For example, if this sentence, “I can’t believe what he told her,” were spoken unselfconsciously, there would be speech stresses—perhaps, depending on the meaning—on “can’t,” “-lieve,” “told her.”  In a metrical poem, the ambiguities of vocal emphasis in this sentence would be resolved.  The entirely iambic line “I can’t | believe | what he | told her” shifts the expected speech stresses, showing the reader that the word “he” stands in a position where it is metrically accented, and therefore the line is emphasizing that what’s important here is that this “he” was perhaps not expected to say what he said—maybe someone else was expected to have told her; or it could mean that, contrary to expection, “he” told “her” rather than “her” telling him.”  This is so in the metrical line even though “he” as emphasized in speech might not be given as strong a degree of spoken emphasis, as strong a speech stress, as “her.”  In this metrical line, perhaps “he” is a 3 and “her” is a 4, which in turn is stronger than “told,” which might be a 3.  And because “her” is the second syllable in the last foot of the line in a metrical poem (a very emphatic position for a word to occupy), the line tells us that it gets a lot of emphasis.  Remember, we only compare the two syllables within the foot, so “told her” as it is placed in this metrical line is an iambic foot, and “told” no longer has an emphatic speech stress.  Instead, it has a pleasingly strong stress for a metrically UNaccented syllable; this is a kind of rhythmical syncopation:

2   4        1      4         1      3        2     4

I can’t | believe | what he | told her

So in a metrical poem, the meter can determine how the reader understands such a line.  Some hastily improvised doggerel (I know it’s awful)  to illustrate:

After He Found Out

Because the coat had been his mom’s, he said

His wife would warm this old, cold fur,

She left it at the cleaners, though.  They called—

I can’t believe what he told her.

If this same line were in a free-verse poem, on the other hand, there’s no pattern that can tip the reader one way or another toward interpretation of what the poem is emphasizing.

The most important practice of reading, then, is that thinking about poetic meter, we don’t say a line aloud in any sort of sing-song exaggeration of the alternating stressed and unstressed syllables of the meter.  We don’t let the meter tell us where speech stresses are; that’s what bad actors do.  Instead, we let the unforced, more natural speech stresses play against the meter, and vice versa.  The key to hearing meter is listening first to how the line might be sounded as more or less natural speech, and then seeing how those speech stresses, which will vary, relate to the metrical pattern (including the usual variations, which must have arisen as artistic responses to the pleasing variability of speech stresses in English; more on this, later).

Someone may be asking—what was the point?  Why did poets bother?  It must have to do with the pleasure of hearing how English can be lightly organized in this way so as to mark the language of the poem as poetic, not everyday; and also with the pleasure of hearing poems as songs.  Songs without instrumental music or sung melodies based on pitch—songs of melodies based on rhythm and meaning.  Very expressive word music.

(Much more to come.)

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