(Let Us Hope...)
My attention was drawn to an online discussion of meter, and scanning (at the Poetry Foundation’s blog Harriet). I didn't scrutinize the comments long before I felt, "What the heck is the poem about? Why aren't they talking about that." It's as if, in these online communities, meter has been fetishized. Like the old prose vs. verse debate: let the first question be, is this thing worth reading to begin with? Kipling wrote of "the distinction between men who do deeds worth writing about, and those who write words worth talking about" (my paraphrase). Which is rarer let me not hazard to guess; but in these groups, in these forums, and in these formats, it seems the discussion gets bogged down into trivial technicalities, and a lot of chatter is raised, over a side-issue—reminiscent of the undergraduate poetry workshop in which debate winds up centering on the placement of this or that comma. The presumption of “worth reading” is never doubted.
My high school English teacher Mary Reiff did a great thing, by keeping a folder of her students’ work, and returning it to us at the end of the year. As a consequence, I have—and have just dug out from storage—the poetry final exam on which I scored -10 and a C-. The first section consists of fifteen excerpted verses, and we were instructed to “[l]abel the following examples according to the most obvious poetic device.” (Onomatopoeia, simile, personification, metaphor, alliteration, are some of the answers I gave.)
The second section gives five lines (or in one instance a stanza) to be scanned for their meter. Ms. Reiff made a big deal about, and laid her greatest emphasis on, our knowing the names of things (“labels”) instead of understanding what they were about—I recall the counsels physicist Richard Feynman received as a boy from his father when classmates badgered him about not knowing the exotic names of birds: when you know all that, you know about different humans and what they call it, “but absolutely nothing about the bird,” his father said.
I felt her instruction on poetry was appalling—though I give her kudos for introducing me to poems by Emily Dickinson and E.E. Cummings, both of whom “made all the difference” (to quote Robert Frost, whom she taught me to hate, though I have since gotten over it). Nearly forty years later, as I look at the graded exam paper that was returned to me, for the first time I realize that five scansions, all marked incorrect, actually reveal an understanding. Unaccented and accented syllables are correctly indicated; only I made the mistake of dividing not into metrical “feet” but by syllable.
I hated being forced to memorize the names—iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and so forth; dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter and so forth. As a display of my resentfulness, I left prominently in the margin my “key” —the mnemonic device whereby, if still in a pinch, I can drag out the nomenclature and signify it.
The basis of (English) meter is simple: you have accented and unaccented syllables in a line. There may either be one or two unaccented syllables to each accented one. This forms a foot, or a beat. Depending on how we consider the beat—whether the unaccented syllable(s) fall on one side or another of the stressed one (with “stress” here used as a synonym of “accent”) —we label it accordingly. But this is unimportant, an imposition after the fact, not really a thing in itself.
Meter—that is, the alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables—preexists the poem: the nomenclature follows after. Robert Frost gave the metaphor of the clothesline. It is the line upon which we “hang” the words when we write a poem. Just as you would not stretch clothes across an expanse by affixing the sleeves together, one after another, so the words are not strung together sequentially: each is attached to the line. (Not only clothes but words can be damaged by misuse.)
Another, and different metaphor, takes in all the appurtenances of prosody. It is like a scaffolding which must get set in place before an artist can work on a mural or ceiling. After the work is completed—in poetry—the scaffolding cannot disappear; but it dissolves into the structure and becomes mostly irrelevant. (Having written two books using Spenserians I know better than most that the meter, rhyme, and stanza-form exist to enable the poem, and not vice versa: one seldom finds discussion of Spenser hinging on the metrics of this or that line, this or that rhyme, but rather about his content.)
The friend who drew my attention to the online discussion answered my comment to him with this:
I believe meter—like any aspect of a poem—worth talking about, provided that talk doesn't meander into somehow validating something alleged as being a poem as being a poem. And clearly (see comments to Harriet blog), scansion is at the mercy of how reader A hears a line, and how reader B hears that very same line. If that is what you mean by "meter isn't worth talking about," I am not wholly disinclined to agree—when someone takes pains to share, "I've studied [prosody] thoroughly for a long time including my entire PhD orals in versification at Stanford (no, it’s not a common field... they said I was the only person ever to do orals in versification there)," I'm tempted to think there likely would not be ample space in the entire state of California to accommodate her and anyone else when it comes to discussing prosody. And while writing in verse forms is not unlike putting together a Revell model airplane kit—some efforts look considerably less glue-festooned and more like airplanes than others—that's no guarantee for poetry.
Knowing the rules of prosody—knowing the names for meters—does not confer competency in their usage, as my friend suggested; more often than not it impedes it.
Too often, the rhythm of a line is confused with the line’s meter. Something by Shakespeare, such as “Let me not, to the marriage of true minds,” is exactly the type of trope that trips up scanners. The line is perfectly regular. Iambic pentameter, since the beginning, permits and has depended upon the occasional reversed first foot. Other feet may be reversed, but less successfully, generally with the last foot considered irreversible (though it happens, despite the damage that percolates therefrom). The points of contention, in Shakespeare’s line, tend to be the word “to,” which is typically scanned as unaccented; and “true minds,” both of which typically are given an accent.
This becomes dwelling too hard on the matter: the composition of a poem is different from the reading of a poem; a reader’s perspective must not be applied to theories of composition. The analogy here would be with the distinction between played music as heard from seating within the orchestral hall, and from upon stage where the musicians are performing. One of the functions served by the conductor in classical music concerts, is to ensure that all constituents keep in time with the rest of the ensemble; another is to regulate decibel levels according to the vantage point of an audience. On stage it can be very hard to tell.
Without the benefit of an external conductor, prosody’s work occurs in the poet’s head. I was going to say “mind” but perhaps “ear” may be more applicable—though not with the sensual ear.
With the meter of a poem, argument should not be possible. Jumbling feet together here and there, making exceptions, strictly speaking, should not be done. Certain leeways are permitted, yet with stringent application. For instance, my play The Peony Pavilion is done in two basic meters: iambic pentameter and and anapestic tetrameter (I believe—I remain insecure in my labeling). The anapestic use is explicitly for a section that has distinctive demands within the dramatic context of the whole—otherwise strict uniformity is adhered to. (Additional ballad form, song form, and iambic tetrameter occur in delineated sections, but I mean in the main body of the textual structure, just as we would consider a play by Shakespeare to be in iambic pentameter despite the “incongruous” song of a fool.)
Beside from the bad rhymes—actually “easy” is the most common epithet I hear—it is for their strict adherence to meter that my poems are most oftenly criticized. I am willing to sacrifice sense, word order (see my piece on inversions) and even grammar, so as not to break the meter, which remains sacrosanct. Grave as those faults may be, breaking meter is graver. Occasionally a rupture occurs—sometimes by choice (under duress) and sometimes by accident: exigencies of practice fall short of the ideal. The ideal is inflexible and unvarying. Meter is not a component that permits tomfoolery.
The third section of Ms. Reiff's test asked for a brief essay about poetry. Specifically, “What is the difference between poetry and prose writing besides the obvious difference in form? In other words, why would someone necessarily choose to write in poetry rather than prose. Use specific examples if possible.” My answer represents in every respect a parroting of what she wanted us to say, and nothing of my own sentiments. Her demands—I felt certain—were sheer poppycock, but I’m not so sure I had any original idea of my own. Surely to that little bit of chicanery I owe squeaking by with a C-. I wrote:
Poetry is a more emotional form of writing than prose. The beat adds to whatever the poem is expressing. Poetry uses literary devices (like metaphor, personification, similie [sic], etc.) more than prose does, so poetry is generally more lively. People expect most poems to have deep meanings and profound themes.