[LMB] Levels of Bafflement

John Lennard john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Fri Jan 19 18:32:14 GMT 2018

>The etymologies of the various words in Greek are entertaining. Two involve
>actual anatomical feet -- trochee is from a word meaning 'running', and
>pyrrhic from an armoured dance that one imagines involved two short steps.

Marc: No connection to "Pyrrhic victory", then?

John: Nope. Pyrrhic victories are named for those of Pyrrhus of Epirus
(319-272 BCE) against the Romans, who could far better afford the
casualties. The name of the metrical foot comes from the pyrrhichios (=
pyrrhic dance, the -chios bit relating to Greek, chorus, a dance), which
predates Pyrrhus by a ways -- mentioned in Homer, IIRC, whose texts were
probably written down (if not made up) in the C9-C8 BCE.

Marc: 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"?

John: Always glad to inform. The nomenclature is odd and jargonautical, but
systematic, so if you get 'iambic pentameter', everything else falls into
place : first element names a foot, the second tells you how many are

iambic / trochaic / dactylic / anapaestic / more complicated others
mono- / di- / tri- / tetra- / penta- / hexa- / hepta- / octa- meter

With any of the second elements, sesqui (contracting semis que = and a
half) can be prefixed, so iambic sesquitrimeter would be lines comprising
"ti-TUM / ti-TUM / ti-TUM / ti".

And now you can describe 95+% of the canon 1500-1914, and a much bigger
chunk of the canon post-1914 than many realise -- metrical verse has never
gone away, however free verse joined it.

Quite a lot of the other 5%, where more complicated feet turn up, is
light/comic verse. Eliot's 'Macavity the Mystery Cat', frex, deploys
several, including lines that comprise either four or three-and-a-half
iterations of the pattern ti-TUM-ti-ti ; thus when it's four:

Ma-CAV-it-y / Ma-CAV-it-y / there's NO-one like / Ma-CAV-it-y
He's BRO-ken ev(e)- / ry HU-man law / he BREAKS the law / of GRAV-it-y

and when it's three-and-a-half:

He SWAYS his head / from SIDE to side / with MOVE-ments like / a SNAKE
And WHEN you think / he's HALF-a-sleep / he's AL-ways wide / a-WAKE

Now, as ti-TUM-ti-ti is a second paeon, you can drop into a conversation
that 'Macavity' -- which very many people know -- is partly written
in deutero-paeonic tetrameters and sesquitrimeters, which very few people
know -and- just rolls off the tongue. ;-)

There is indeed a *Poetry for Dummies*, which I recall as being mildly
amusing and OK-ish, and Stephen Fry's *The Ode Less Travelled*, which
Michael mentioned, is excellent. Mr Fry is, however, sensible enough to
recommend in his further reading a perfectly splendid volume, *The Poetry
Handbook* (OUP 95, 2/e 2005), which is, as he says, aimed at students, and
has chs on metre, form, layout, lineation, punctuation, diction, rhyme,
syntax, history, biography, gender, and exams. It's by [coughs].

Michael is also right to be cautious about poetry handbooks in reflowable
formats. The subject requires assorted tables and worked quotations often
involving terraces of type that need to be aligned, and reflowables very
frequently screw it up. Print or PDF are greatly preferable.

Micki: Here's a very interesting discussion about meter, linking Emily
Dickinson's poetry to the meter of hymns (there we go again, trying to link
meter to music!).


One thing that sticks out: you've got to know the conventions in order to
subvert and exploit them.
It's possible to do some subversion from a natural "feeling" sort of
standpoint, but I think there's a
lot more trial and error. Whereas, if you both know AND feel in your bones
the meter, you can play all sorts of experimental tricks from the
theoretical standpoint, and see what works in the "in the
bones" position.

John: A fair article, but the odd thing about Dickinson is layout and those
dashes. In the standard printed editions everything is organised into neat
four-line quatrains, displaying the stanza forms Dickinson used, and all
the dashes are identical. But Dickinson was only printed posthumously, and
compiled her own work in what are called fascicles -- homemade bound
notebooks -- and in those, while the stanza forms are certainly present,
they are NOT consistently displayed ; even when there is no need (i.e.
there is enough space), there may be a turn-down of one or more words, so
one gets not regular quatrains  but pentains/quintains and sestets. And
there is a good case that she used not one but three varieties of dash --
angled up, level, angled down -- but because such things are very hard to
typeset, they become the roadkill of editing for print. There is a (very
expensive) facsimile of the fascicles, in a university library near you.

And spot on about internalisation/knowledge. One of the great modern
prosodists was the late Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who in childhood and
youth not only learned and recited many canonical poets but systematically
did exercises in imitation. In his mature voice he could combine first-rate
blank verse with a distinctive Caribbean lilt seemingly effortlessly. If I
quote first without lineation, the lilt may be clearer:

You ever look up from some lonely beach and see a far schooner? Well, when
I write this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt ; I go draw and knot
every line as tight as ropes in this rigging ; in simple speech my common
language go be the wind, my pages the sails of the schooner *Flight*.

Clear as daylight, but also beautifully metrical:

You EV- / er LOOK / up FROM / some LONE- / ly BEACH
and SEE / a FAR / SCHOON-er? / Well, WHEN / i WRITE
this PO- / em, EACH / PHRASE GO / be SOAKED / in SALT ;
I GO / DRAW and / KNOT EVE- / ry LINE / as TIGHT
as ROPES / in THIS / RIGG-ing ; / in SIMP- / le SPEECH
my COM- / mon LANG- / u-age* / go BE / the WIND,
my PAG- / es the / SAILS of / the SCHOON- / er *Flight*

* Caribbean pronunciation, more like lang-er-widge than lang-widge

Frost was very good at colloquial blank verse too:

SOMEthing / there IS / that DOES- / n't LOVE / a WALL,
that SENDS / the FRO- / zen-GROUND- / swell UND- / er IT,
and SPILLS / the UP- / per BOUL- / ders IN / the SUN ;
and MAKES / GAPS EV- / en TWO / can PASS / a-BREAST.

So don't ever believe that metrical means stilted, as many practitioners of
so-called free verse maintain. -Their- attempts at metrical verse may be
stilted, butt that's their problem. And in any case, free verse is by no
means always non-metrical ; it just has no -basic- metre. (Cf.
time-signatures and jazz.)

Last word to the poets themselves:

"Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down." Frost

"Of course you can write free verse. You just have to have an infallible
ear." Auden

John Lennard, MA DPhil. (Oxon.), MA (WU)

Associate Member & Director of Studies in English, Hughes Hall, Cambridge
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