Thursday, February 16, 2006

My Manifesto, Part III

This section is going to be fairly technical. If the craft of poetry doesn't interest you, you may want to skip it.

Scansion or Meter

There’s a good deal of technical information about this subject at Vole Central and the Prosody Guide. I want to talk about the relationship of meter to rhythm.

English is unusual in that it has two kinds of timing: stress-timing and syllable-timing. Syllable-timing is characteristic of poetry in the Romance family of languages, while stress-timing characterizes the poetry of Germanic languages, including Old English. Modern English falls heir to both, and in its poetry as in so much else, lives out a series of uneasy compromises.

Pure syllable-timing is quite rare in English-language poetry. One finds it mostly in recently-invented forms like the cinquain, countup and countdown, which proceed by counting syllables and ignoring the natural stress patterns in words. (I’m ignoring the haiku, which is also a syllable-counting form, because it’s not indigenous to English; its importation from the Japanese poetic tradition involves a whole ‘nother set of compromises.)

I wrote Lay it on the Line as an exercise in explicit stress-timing; try reading a few lines aloud while tapping your foot or listening to a metronome. You’ll find that the stressed syllables naturally fall onto the downbeat, but there may be one, two, or three unstressed syllables between any two stresses. (Three is pretty much a practical limit. The English-speaking tongue will interpolate stresses into the middle of a longer string of unstressed syllables, like a launderer putting an extra prop under a sagging clothesline.)

My ear, at least, is much more sensitive to stress-timing; purely syllable-timed verse tends to sound contrived and silly to me. This may have to do with my experiences in drumming and martial art. This is certainly another area where individual listeners’ preferences will diverge.

The attraction of meters like iambic pentameter (“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?” Sonnet XVIII) is that they eliminate the tension between stress- and syllable-timing. This makes them comfortable to listen to, whatever your preference. Violations of iambic meter tend to be less obtrusive if they:

add an extra unstressed syllable at the end
“Farewell! Thou art too dear for my possessing” (Sonnet LXXXVII)

omit an unstressed syllable at the beginning
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds” (Sonnet VIII, line 5)

maintain the 1-to-1 ratio of stressed and unstressed syllables, but mess up the alternation in one foot
Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep” (Sonnet CLIII)

interpolate a stress in a logical place
Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage” (Sonnet XXVI) Technically, only the first syllable in “vassalage” is stressed. But the pattern-seeking brain “wants” to hear a stress on the third syllable, and so the meter does not seem broken.

I’m picking on Shakespeare because, frankly, his reputation is beyond my power to harm. The point here is that these lines may not be technically perfect iambic pentameter, but they nonetheless fall gracefully on the ear, and blend well with lines that are correctly iambic.

I think this helps illustrate the difference between meter and rhythm. Rhythm occurs when the stresses are (more or less) evenly spaced in time: Meter occurs when the stresses are evenly spaced among the syllables. Thus, if there are five clear stresses in a line and they’re fairly evenly spread out, the line “feels” like iambic pentameter, and sounds good with other lines constructed in iambic pentameter, even if it isn’t exactly correct.

The same arguments apply to other types of meter. However, generally the shorter the line, the less forgiving the meter. I should point out here that an overt violation of meter can be a deliberate strategy on the part of a poet—in other words, a pattern break. Nondeliberate violations should be carefully examined for their effect on the overall “sound” of the poem—the pattern-seeking brain gets irritated if it feels like it’s having to work too hard. The final arbiter is the reader’s ear.


Most people have a pretty good idea what they think rhyme means: two words rhyme if they end with the same sound, right? Check Vole Central for a more precise definition (and a bewildering catalogue of possibilities), but that’s good enough to be going on with.

Much of what I’ve said about the brain’s pattern-seeking tendencies in meter also applies to rhyme. Technically (according to the definition referenced above), words like “sea” and “memory” don’t rhyme, because the last syllable of “memory” is unstressed. But most English speakers will accept this pair of words as rhyming, because it’s easy to interpolate a stress onto the third syllable.

A pair of words that rhymes immediately appears to the reader to have some significant relationship other than mere coincidence of sound. Thus rhyming creates linkages between words within a line, between lines, or between stanzas depending on the verse form. Spencerian sonnets and terza rima are examples of verse forms in which a rhyme is echoed from one stanza to the next. This emphasizes the continuity between stanzas and makes for a strong narrative. Compare the Spencerian with the Shakespearean sonnet.

As with meter, different kinds of rhyme have different effects. Internal rhyme, where the last word of a line rhymes with a word somewhere in the middle of the next line, gives a poem a stream-of-consciousness feeling. Words that rhyme on more than one syllable (dreaming, streaming) tie lines together more intimately than one-syllable rhymes (dream, stream). The tighter a rhyme scheme, the more unified a poem feels. For example, a rondeau uses only two rhymes in thirteen lines (plus two unrhymed repetitions of the key phrase)—this very strict rhyming balances the fairly irregular verse structure. On the downside, a tight rhyme scheme can be a bit monotonous (not to mention challenging).

Friends And Foes Inform Me I’m Flourescent

Merriam-Webster defines alliteration as follows: “the repetition of usually initial consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words or syllables”. The Prosody Guide offers a slightly different definition: “identity of the first sounds preceding the vowels in the syllables carrying the primary stresses of two words”. According to the Prosody definition, “friend” and “foe” alliterate with “inform” and not with “flourescent”.

Prosody also introduces a new (and slightly frightening) word: Homoeoprophoron, or, the repetition of consonant sounds. Either of the above definitions of alliteration then becomes a sub-case of homoeoprophoron.

Consonant repetition, however defined, is more likely to be noticed by the reader or listener if the consonant is an uncommon one. Four occurrences of “t” in a line may not attract the attention of a native English speaker, but four occurrences of “f” probably will. An unusual consonant echoing from line to line of a poem can help unify it, but can also be distracting if it sounds forced.

I consider alliteration to be an underused resource for poets in English. Anyone who wants to explore it should look at the recent translation of Beowulf to see just how powerful it can be. I may write more on this subject later; expect to see some experiments.

Repetition, Repetition

There are a number of traditional verse forms based on repetition. The repeated unit can be a key word or set of key words (for example, sestina), phrase (rondeau), single line (kyrielle), couplet or other set of lines (many, the villanelle is perhaps the commonest). Then there’s the pantoum, which repeats every line twice (excruciatingly annoying). In addition, of course, poets may repeat words or phrases at will.

In the classic definitions of these forms, the words, phrases, or lines are supposed to repeat exactly. I think a poet should feel free to take moderate liberties with these rules—again, the reader’s ear will determine how much is too much. If a line is changed to the point that the reader no longer sees it as “the same”, repetition has been destroyed.

What is repetition good for? Emphasis: “What I tell you three times is true” Lewis Carroll told us, and it’s still a good rule. More subtly, a word or phrase can be repeated in a context that changes its meaning or its significance. This creates a sense of surprise in the reader—surprise is an important factor in a memorable poem. (Complete predictability is deadly.)

Repetition can get to be monotonous, especially in longer forms such as the sestina and pantoum (sestinas have 39 lines; pantoums could theoretically be as short as 8 lines, but I haven’t seen one with fewer than twelve, and most tend to be longer). Pantoums especially tend to seem vague and wandery, and many of the sestinas I’ve read feel like they’re going around in circles and not particularly getting anywhere. If that’s the desired effect, that’s OK: if not, be wary. Consider trying to create a different mood or convey a different point in each stanza.

Personally, I like a poem to have a fairly strong narrative, unless it’s extremely short. Even if the poem depicts a single moment in time, or a static situation, it can create narrative by progressively revealing more or different things about the situation, perhaps regarding it from different viewpoints. There’s a sestina that does this very nicely at Anamorphisms.

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