Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Sam Iamb

I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
--Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), Green Eggs and Ham

Most of us in the English-speaking world grew up with that. In case you didn't notice, the lines above are perfect iambic tetrameter:

I do not like green eggs and ham.

Much of Green Eggs and Ham is written in tetrameter. The series of questions asked by Sam-I-am is in headless iambic tetrameter; that is to say, seven syllables beginning and ending with a stress and alternating in between:

Would you, could you, in a house?
Would you, could you, with a mouse?

Seuss used a variety of meters (Wikipedia has a nice summary), most of which were some variant of tetrameter. I should note that he never stuck slavishly to a given meter: he was always ready to break it at a dramatic juncture, such as when the hapless hero of Green Eggs and Ham finally gives in and agrees to try the stuff. (Hat tip to Christopher Moore, for correctly identifying Green Eggs and Ham as a sinister manifesto for high-pressure sales methodology.)

One tetrameter he rarely used was trochaic. Trochaic tetrameter is a fiendishly difficult meter to rhyme in. (Note that I disagree with Wikipedia on the omission of the final unstressed syllable. Do that, in my opinion, and it loses the trochaic feel completely.) Seuss sometimes got away with it by repeating the last, unstressed, single-syllable word: blue fish/new fish.

Actually, trochaic anything is hard to rhyme in, in English. But in tetrameter, two of the eight syllables per line are committed to maintaining the rhyme scheme, which makes constructing an intelligible, graceful line brutal. (It's moot if you're not rhyming, cf. "The Song of Hiawatha.")

The proportion of syllables involved in the rhyme for each meter is as follows:

Iambic pent: 1/10
Iambic tet: 1/8
Trochaic pent: 2/10, or 1/5
Trochaic tet: 2/8, or 1/4

Iambic tet is no more difficult to write in than iambic pent, and I've even written in iambic trimeter ("Death and Mourn") without strain. (Of course if you actually have more to say than will fit in that number of syllables, it's no good struggling with a short meter.) But the drop from trochaic pent to trochaic tet is a killer. I've now written a fair number of poems in rhyming trochaic pent, but only one in trochaic tet ("Swallow Feather").

Many people have argued that iambic pent is the "easiest" or "most natural" meter in English. I'm wary of such claims, because of the effect of familiarity. We've all been exposed to more iambic pent than to any other meter; we're used to it. What if Shakespeare had written all his plays in iambic tet? (An interesting exercise; grab a long speech in fairly consistent iambic pent and rewrite it in iambic tet.) Would we now be claiming that was the most natural meter?

A few words about the meters with more unstressed syllables per stress, such as anapestic and amphibrachic. I've used those quite a bit in more songlike poems, such as "Gambler's Epitaph" and "Second Chance Saloon." What I find in working with those meters is that I stick fairly faithfully to the two-unstressed-between-stresses pattern internally, but I allow the number of unstressed syllables at the beginning and end of the line to vary freely. (That makes it a lot easier to find rhymes, for one thing.)

If these were actually being sung, I think the melody would carry the listener smoothly over any metrical bumps at the beginning or end of the line; not so much in the middle. But this looseness doesn't sit well with the demands of formal poetry, although the one sonnet I've written with such features—"Monochrome Rainbows"—has actually been pretty successful.

I need to explore these metrical frontiers. After all, if I really try them, I might find I like them...

So I will dispense with trochees and iambic
experience for poems eggs-and-green-hammic.

Collection available! Knocking from Inside

No comments: