[LMB] Levels of Bafflement

Marc Wilson marc.wilson at gmx.co.uk
Thu Jan 18 17:27:21 GMT 2018


On Wed, 17 Jan 2018 13:41:54 +0000, John Lennard
<john.c.lennard at gmail.com> wrote:

>Micki: I think this must be true. We had some poetry, but very little
>memorizing, and while words
>like "iambs" and "trochees" flit inside my head like little bats, they
>don't land and make actual
>sense.
>
>John: For 99% of English metrical poetry you only need to remember six feet:
>
>1. iamb -- ti-TUM, and 2. trochee -- TUM-ti
>
>conTRACT, the verb (the rock contracts as it cools), is an iamb ; CONtract,
>the noun (he signed a contract), is a trochee.
>
>3. pyrrhic -- ti-ti, and 4. spondee -- TUM-TUM
>
>These never occur as basic metres, because speaking all spondees is to talk
>like a Dalek, and speaking all pyrrhics is to whisper like a Dalek. They
>do occur as variant (or distinguishing) feet in both iambic and trochaic
>metres, and may occur as such elsewhere.
>
>5. anapaest -- ti-ti-TUM, and 6. dactyl -- TUM-ti-ti
>
>Relatively few English words are anapaests, but many phrases are -- hence
>"a young man" and equivalents in limericks, and in those mixed metres
>Catherine mentioned, "to the sea", "and the sky". Conversely, a lot of
>words are dactylic -- EARN-est-ly, MENT-or-ship, HAP-pen-ing.
>
>What's interesting about it all is the interplay between a fixed pattern,
>set as a template, and actually words. So Milton, frex, has a line in
>*Paradise Lost* --
>
>With mazy error under pendant shade
>
>that contains four trochaic words in a row -- MA-zy, ERR-or, UN-der,
>PEN-dant -- and yet Milton's line is a wholly regular iambic pentameter,
>because every one of those words is split between two feet --
>
>With MA- / zy ERR- / or UN- / der PEN- / dant SHADE
>
>
>
>John: With metre, there is correct and incorrect.
>
>Micki: AH! so if someone tells me "That doesn't scan," to some extent it
>might be just a personal or dialectic difference. "It doesn't scan to me."
>
>
>
>John: Ye-es, but. Personal and dialectal matters may indeed matter, but
>there are still things that do not scan.
>
>Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate correct and incorrect metres is to
>speak a line aloud, wildly exaggerating the stresses a metre
>would prescribe. Sticking with Hamlet, for now, let's say someone claims
>it's really trochaic pentameter ; so we take a line
>
>O what a rogue and peasant slave am I
>
>and if this is trochaic pentameter, then the supposed pattern of stress
>would be
>
>O what / A rogue / AND peas- / ANT slave / AM i
>
>and that's clearly nonsense. All else aside, peasant, a naturally iambic
>word, PEASant, becomes a trochee, peasANT ; and the stresses on A and AND
>are absurd. Oh, says our someone, I misspoke, and meant its anapaestic
>trimeter with a hyperbeat. We try again.
>
>o what A / rogue and PEAS- / ant slave AM / I
>
>Nope. Also nonsense. So let's revert to iambs.
>
>o WHAT / a ROGUE / and PEAS- / ant SLAVE / am I
>
>And that's more like it. Nothing here is impossible -- but that does not
>mean one has to scan the line as wholly regular -- "O what" might well be a
>spondee, and so might "am I".
>
>
>When someone says of a given line, "that doesn't scan", what they usually
>mean is that rigidly observing the prescribed metrical pattern is wrenching
>the natural spoken accents of one or more words in ways that are
>unacceptable to their ears, and they may have very good reason to say so.
>Thus, if you present me with a limerick beginning
>
>A dilapidated old man from Peru
>
>I can say it does not scan, because dilapidated (di-LAP-i-da-ted) cannot be
>made to fit within an anapaestic pattern. We either have to stress 'ted',
>which produces nonsense down the line
>
>A diLAP- / i-da-TED / old man FROM / peRU
>
>or we have to accommodate dilapidated as a row of medial hyperbeats
>
>A diLAP- / i-da-ted old MAN / from peRU
>
>
>
>Micki: INDEED! This difference between scansion and meter is difficult. You
>say it's not necessarily wrong to scan something differently from the meter
>but . . . . Is an actor supposed to use the meter, or are they allowed to
>scan things to add nuance to their interpretation of the words?
>
>
>John: It may well be the poet who introduces the variation quite
>consciously. In *Macbeth*, frex, he has a line (Folio text) --
>
>Listning their feare, I could not say Amen
>
>and there is no way the first foot can be scanned as an iamb (listNING) ;
>it has to be a trochee (LISTning), and that's not personal interpretation
>-- the terminal -ing of present participles is almost never stressed in
>English, and to do so is perverse.
>
>
>In the middle ground, take our old friend Richard III, who says in
>his famous opening soliloquy --
>
>But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks
>
>Now, the formal iambic metre would prescribe
>
>but I / that AM / not SHAPED / for SPOR- / tive TRICKS
>
>which is perfectly speakable ; but surely not right, because "not" is
>screaming for a stress, and so is "but"
>
>BUT I / that AM / NOT SHAPED / for SPOR- / tive TRICKS
>
>Is an actor who speaks it thus interpreting? Yes. Are there serious
>Shakespearean and other cues for that interpretation? You bet.
>
>
>And finally, if scansion were never distinct from metre, then by definition
>every line of iambic pentameter in Shax would go exactly ti-TUM ti-TUM
>ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM, as undeviatingly as a metronome, and we should
>shortly all begin swaying in place as we listened, before becoming
>increasingly bored.
>
>There is a metrical structure, as there are in music time signatures, but a
>great deal of the fun comes with deviation/syncopation. The whole point of
>establishing a pattern, and hence a set of rolling expectations, is to
>play variants against it, to advance a beat, or retard one, or add
>or subtract one ; not so much as to destroy the underlying pattern, but
>nevertheless. So it isn't that "it's not necessarily wrong to scan
>something differently from the meter", but rather that it is essential to
>do so, and every poet other than Daleks and Vogons always has. The fun for
>readers is in following them.

This is all new to me.  Studied English to GCE level, but we never
discussed this sort of thing at all.  I've heard of iambic pentameter,
and a few other technical terms, but not in this sort of detail.

Very interesting.

Have you considered writing "metre for dummies"?  
-- 
Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a function. -- Garrison Keillor


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