[LMB] Levels of Bafflement

M. Haller Yamada thefabmadamem at yahoo.com
Wed Jan 17 04:34:19 GMT 2018

From: John Lennard 

Micki, no doubt you remember that

There was a young man from Japan

whose verses would never quite scan ;

when asked why 'twas so,

he replied, "Well, you know,

I always like to get as many words into the last line as I possibly can."

Micki: LOL! I resemble that remark . . . .(Also saw a variant in Wikipedia as an example!) 

John: Somewhat more earnestly, it sounds to me as if your school teaching did not

properly distinguish metre and scansion. Very briefly, the metre is the

fixed, repeating pattern in the abstract, while the scansion is what your

voice, or anyone else's, makes of the words spoken aloud.

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. If anyone else is reading this and feeling wretched, the OWL at Purdue helps a little bit 
with the very basics: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/570/02/ (Be sure to check out the 
related topics in the sidebar.) 

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: If you tell me that Hamlet's

"To be or not to be" is in dactylic monometer, you're wrong. But with

scansion there is no correct and incorrect, though there may be perverse,

wrenched, or inconsistent as well as effects of national or regional

accent, inspired, and revelatory.

Allowing that it's hypermetric, Hamlet's famous line is an iambic

pentameter. This is the F text.

To be, or not to be, that is the Question :

and it -could- be scanned as wholly regular with an unstressed (old term,

feminine) hyperbeat :

to BE, / or NOT / to BE, / that IS / the QUES / tion :

In no sense is that scansion of the metre wrong ; but it's not how I would

myself scan it, because I'd say

to BE, / or NOT / to BE, / THAT is / the QUES / tion

The metre is five iambs and the hyperbeat ; my preferred scansion has an

inverted foot, a trochee, in fourth place -- and that's not wrong either.

IMO, having been teaching the stuff for decades, the failure to distinguish

properly between metre and scansion is the subject's single greatest bane

at school level, and the consequences of the confusion both put many people

off it altogether, and produce, for e.g., the painfully awkward readings

aloud by those who, say, stop to breathe at the end of each line regardless

of sense and enjambment.

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? I do 

remember my teachers hinting that we shouldn't bludgeon a poem with the meter. I think one suggested 

that it's OK not to read a poem as DUM-ti-DUM-ti-DUM-ti, if it's really DUM-ti-Dum-ti-ti-ti. (Sorry, 

I can't give you the real-life example; it's on the edge of my brain and won't be lured in to 

illuminate my point.) 

Micki: I'm not going to argue that meter doesn't make a difference. It's possible for a poem to 

carry a lot of power in the sounds and content. But a poem that carries power in the sounds, content 

AND meter? Oh, that's a very different thing. I can "hear" the difference, even if I can't describe 


Micki: Unfortunately, I don't think learning this stuff can happen in four class hours (assuming 

that the curriculum even allowed that much time for meter and scansion). I can see why maybe the 

teachers I had didn't fully grasp the concept (and passing on a concept you've only got a tenuous 

hold upon is not a lot of fun, either). 

Micki: I read Edward Lear on my own in elementary school, so I've got a pretty native understanding 

of the limerick. Wikipedia says lines 1, 2 and 5 are usually anapestic trimeter (ti-ti-TUM ti-ti-TUM 

ti-ti-TUM) and lines 3 and 4 are usually two meters of anapestic (ti-ti-TUM ti-ti-TUM). HOWEVER, 

they make allowance for a missing unaccented syllable at the start of a line (such as: There ONCE 

was a DROID from DeTROIT), or an extra unstressed syllable for a rhyme (their example is ta-TUM-ta 

-- but surely they mean it would to ti-ti-TUM-ti? I'm unsure.).

Micki: Wikipedia says that a phonetician named David Abercrombie makes it simpler -- three stressed 

syllables in lines 1, 2 and 5, and two stressed syllables in lines 3 and 4. The unstressed syllables 

are flexible. I haven't messed around with the form seriously enough to know if it works or not. (-: 

Project for January? 

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