[LMB] Levels of Bafflement

Marc Wilson marc.wilson at gmx.co.uk
Sat Jan 20 06:43:33 GMT 2018

On Fri, 19 Jan 2018 18:32:14 +0000, John Lennard
<john.c.lennard at gmail.com> wrote:

>>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".

As in "sesquipedalian" :)

>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.

I might try using Calibre to convert it to PDF and see how it fares. 

>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

Giving power and money to government is like giving whiskey and
 car-keys to teenage boys.  PJ O'Rourke

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