Archive

Tag Archives: Poetic Meter

Supposing you were interested in hearing me read a few poems of mine, you could do so here (I’m Aaron Novick). The poems read are:

  1. (sonnet variant)
  2. Glint
  3. “So priketh hem nature in hir corages”
  4. Dialogue
  5. Ephemera
  6. Poem for John Ashbery
Advertisements

There is no satisfaction in poetry greater than the immaculate final line that brings a poem to its inevitable conclusion. Illustration: May Swenson’s “Ocean, Whale-Shaped”:

Ocean, whale-shaped, rocking between the dunes,
in the gateway of their great naked knees,
horizon chafing a tame sky,

your vast back purple, your shoreward side
wallowing blue, fretted with racing foam,
green, then diamond your fin flashes on sand.

Glazed monuments of the wind, the dunes,
their sprawling limbs Olympian lift and fall
to slopes and platforms seeming hard as bone,

but footsteps scar their flanks like snow;
their white bodies shift,
are shunted by you, blue-black, boisterous whale—

and whittled, are rewhittled by the wind
unsatisfied with any shape or perpetuity.
The land, the sand we tread is not the steady

element our feet believe.
Indelible ocean, humped beside the sky,
you unsubstantial we can’t grasp or walk on,

you pry at these gates and break them when you will—
overwhelming whale of water, mover and shaper,
over and over carving your cradle here.

Take a moment, first, simply to linger over the sounds of this last line. It is a masterpiece of subtle transformations. It begins with outright repetition (“over and over”), but this soon shifts to the consonance of “carving”, which picks up both the “v” and the “r” sounds. This is transformed in turn when we reach “cradle”, which rearranges the “car” of “carving”, echoing it with modification. The short “a” grows long, leading us directly into the culminating word, “here”. This brings us back to the start, to “over and over”, but, once again, the initially short “e” re-appears as long: “-er” to “-ere”. Underlying this play of sounds and holding it all in place is the falling rhythm, which alternates dactyls and trochees until it at last lands on the final stress: / – – / – / – – / – /. The line thus parcels out into three neat units:

over and over / carving your cradle / here

The line resembles a Pindaric ode in miniature: strophe, antistrophe, epode. It is a perfect whole, worth savoring entirely independently of its meaning. But let us look at it in the context of the full poem.

I read the poem as a love story, of sorts: as a polyamorous love story between ocean, wind, sky, land, and people. It shuttles between multiple scales and perspectives. There are the humans who walk on the dunes, and who instinctively (in their feet), believe them to be a “steady // element”. But they are not. They are reworked on all sides: by these very same feet (“footsteps scar their flanks like snow”), by the wind (“are whittled, are rewhittled by the wind”), and by the ocean (“overwhelming whale of water, mover and shaper”).

That brief phrase—“overwhelming whale of water”—deserves careful attention. By this point, in the penultimate line of the poem, we seem to have reached the culmination. While there are multiple agents and perspectives in the poem, people and wind and dunes and sky, the ocean dominates it. The poem opens with the “ocean, whale-shaped”, and as we near the end this is re-affirmed as the ocean is described as “overwhelming”. It overwhelms the poem just as it overwhelms the dunes.

We have, however, not reached the culmination in seeing the ocean as overwhelming. The very next word gives us yet another transformation: the ocean is an overwhelming whale. We are, very suddenly, brought back to the poem’s smallest scale, the animal. A whale is, to be sure, a very large animal, but it is an animal nonetheless. Over the course of the poem, the ocean has transformed from something merely “whale-shaped”, something like but not quite a whale, into a whale, without qualification. The simile has become a metaphor. Why?

In making the ocean an animal, Swenson gives it needs, desires. And it is here that the last line comes in: “over and over carving your cradle here.” The sea, great “mover and shaper”, is carving out its home, is making a world into which it fits. (To use the phrase du jour, it is constructing its niche.) This great, overwhelming presence, so vast and unlike us, suddenly comes to seem vulnerable—comes to seem like us.

Book: A Boy’s Will
Poet: Robert Frost
Text: at archive.org (PDF)


I read Robert Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, at perhaps the perfect time. As the title suggests, the poems here come from a specifically youthful perspective (though Frost was not himself young when he published it). And this means a certain combination of doubt and braggadocio, of exuberance and overeagerly embraced sadness, that I recognize—not so much in myself (though they are not wholly absent) but in the person I was between, say, 18 and 22. (I am 26 now.) Why is this the perfect time? I cannot wholly enter these poems, yet I remember the version of myself that could, and as I read, I am reading not just the poems but also my past, with my own combination of enthusiasm and nostalgia.

Here, for instance, is the first poem of the volume, “Into My Own”:

Into My Own

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew–
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

The narrator romanticizes isolation, and regrets a world that does not afford it. It is not that he is isolated (the trees are, after all, the merest mask of gloom, no more), but that he imagines that he might become so. And if he did (the youthful hope)—and if he did, others would find him “only more sure of all I thought was true.” The youth feels his precarious position, feels the blows of an external world that would bend him to its demands, and protests against this corruption by dreaming of escape.

This recourse to such dreams, I know well. I look on it now with a more mature (I do not say ‘mature’ without qualification) eye, recognizing that this fantasy is something effete, unreal—mere dream in just the way the trees are the merest mask of gloom. Yet this is not an unkind judgment: I begrudge neither myself nor Frost’s youth our vanities.

Sorrow, like isolation, is equally romanticized by the youth, as in “My November Guest”, the volume’s third poem:

My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Where the last poem is easier to “dismiss” (that is not quite the right word) as merely a youthful fancy, this poem sticks, by which I mean that I still find myself able to enter into it somewhat naïvely, and make myself the speaker. The speaker who formerly dreamed of physical isolation now (I imagine) finds himself still in society, but nonetheless isolated, and so sorrowful. (In my own case, at least, the dream of physical isolation is often a wistful hope to escape the isolation I so often feel in crowds.) And yet he embraces this sorrow, and finds that in its own way it enhances the beauty of a certain sort of gloomy day. (On this point, Frost is entirely correct.)

What makes this poem something more than mere youthful faux-misery is the youth’s guile, as seen in the last stanza. It is not just that the sorrow makes the days beautiful, but that Sorrow, personified, praises them. And even though he has come to understand her praise, he hides this from her, does not let her know that he has been persuaded, so that she will continue to praise the “bare November days.” It is this image of the youth struggling with his sorrow, trying to outwit her and to subvert her to his own benefit, that escapes youth. I, at least, have not found the need for such guile to diminish with age. (But then, I am not old.)

One last poem to illustrate what I find so rewarding about this volume:

Love and a Question

A Stranger came to the door at eve,
And he spoke the bridegroom fair.
He bore a green-white stick in his hand,
And, for all burden, care.
He asked with the eyes more than the lips
For a shelter for the night,
And he turned and looked at the road afar
Without a window light.

The bridegroom came forth into the porch
With, ‘Let us look at the sky,
And question what of the night to be,
Stranger, you and I.’
The woodbine leaves littered the yard,
The woodbine berries were blue,
Autumn, yes, winter was in the wind;
‘Stranger, I wish I knew.’

Within, the bride in the dusk alone
Bent over the open fire,
Her face rose-red with the glowing coal
And the thought of the heart’s desire.
The bridegroom looked at the weary road,
Yet saw but her within,
And wished her heart in a case of gold
And pinned with a silver pin.

The bridegroom thought it little to give
A dole of bread, a purse,
A heartfelt prayer for the poor of God,
Or for the rich a curse;
But whether or not a man was asked
To mar the love of two
By harboring woe in the bridal house,
The bridegroom wished he knew.

The poem and its beauty speak for itself. What I want to point out is simply what I take to be an important element of it: that the narrator is not married. I suppose I do not know this, but the emphasis on isolation in the volume suggests it. In any event, if we accept that the youth is not married, then we are forced to conclude that this poem is sheer imagination: the youth is inventing the scene of his wedding night, and is worried that it will be interrupted by the various sorrows he feels. As someone who is happily married, I can say that the fear is a justified one. The sense of isolation can strike even when one is among the closest and most trusted of friends.

Reading the poem, I get a sense of self-absorption on the part of the youth. I say this without judgment (lest I be judged). The bride is left in the background, neglected, while the youth is occupied with his care. Even though he says he “wished he knew” whether or not to admit this guest, he does not really have a choice: he has already invited him in, has neglected his bride for the sake of his care.

What we get with this poem, therefore, is a youth imagining a scenario about which he knows little firsthand (marriage) and placing into that scene a character—the only character—about whom he knows a great deal (himself). The result is a mix of fancy and realism, not exactly accurate, but believable enough, and a reasonable fear. It is this mix that so attracts me to the poem. The youth still knows little enough of the material realities of life to invent these realities after his own image, and so we learn the contours of that image—as does he.

 

In The Book of Forms—which, when I was teaching myself the rudiments of meter, was perhaps the most helpful source I encountered—Lewis Turco includes a few “rules of scansion in English” (p. 19). Here is one of the rules:

In any series of three unstressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through promotion and will be counted as a stressed syllable.

There is a corresponding rule for three stressed syllables in a row: one of them will fail to take a stress. Turco calls these “rules of thumb,” an appropriate designation since they have exceptions. The famous exception to the rule for stressed syllables is Tennyson’s Break, Break, Break. The heavy pauses between each “break” allow each stress to emerge fully, without the middle being demoted.

Can something similar happen with the rule against three consecutive unstressed syllables? It can. The poem Fabliau of Florida by Wallace Stevens is a nice illustration:

Fabliau of Florida

Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

The lines range from monometer (are dissolving) to trimeter (foam and cloud are one), though many lines can be scanned in multiple ways, depending on just how heavy the stress is. For this particular poem, I prefer to count only the heaviest, clearest stresses, for reasons detailed below.

The lines I am most interested in are the last two lines. To satisfy the rule forbidding three consecutive unstressed syllables, the lines must be scanned as being at least trimeter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

—and perhaps even as tetrameter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

But both of these ways of scanning the line fundamentally mishear it, and miss the rhythm of the poem. Let us drop immediately the fantasy of stressing the first syllable of each line: they both clearly open with anapests (there will nev-; to this dron-). The entire poem is lightfooted, giving each stress space to breathe, except where it takes a heavier hand for a specific, local effect: “fill your black hull / with white moonlight.”

The only real question concerns “be” and “of”, syllables that are naturally unstressed, but which seem to be likely candidates for promotion as the middle occupants of a string of three unstressed syllables. Read the lines aloud, however, and listen. Each falls into two natural units:

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both “be an end” and “of the surf” are natural anapests, and this comes out in reading the line. The key is that, in reading the lines, there is the slightest of pauses where I have placed the “|”. That pause eliminates the need to stress “be” and “of”. Thus the proper scansion is (with the vertical bar now indicating a break between feet):

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both lines are anapestic dimeter, with the first anapest of each line containing what might be called a mid-line feminine ending. This is the only reading of the lines that does justice to their lightness.

Why insist on this? It reveals a more general point about meter. While there is a clear distinction between heavy stresses and the complete absence of stress, there is a whole range of intermediates whose proper treatment is less clear. A system of meter should introduce some ordered way of approaching them. That is what Turco’s rules do, and they do it ably, in a way that works for the majority of metrical English language poems. But there is nothing inherent in the language that requires that syllables that take a light stress count toward a line’s stress count. It really depends on the sort of regularity one is trying to create. Stevens, in Fabliau of Florida, was writing in a loose, light meter where it is only appropriate to emphasize the heavier stresses, and that creates a context in which the very slight stresses placed on “be” and “of” should not be counted as proper stresses.

In the end, the ear is the supreme judge, and will tolerate system only so far.

The selections from John Quincy Adams in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry are fairly forgettable. Three poems are included, “The Wants of Man,” “To the Sun-Dial,” and “To Sally.” The first is effectively a long list of what the title promises. At first it seemed as if it were going to be a standard moral-driven work, moving from material to spiritual wants. That is, broadly, the arc, but it is not quite strictly held, and higher and lower desires (at least as I rate them) start to intermingle by the end. Perhaps interestingly, there is no indication that the desire for “Submission to the will of God” in any sense reflects back on the rest of the poem. That is, it coexists with the other desires, but it does not seem to nullify them, or make them seem any less. Indeed, the only indication that it is the highest desire in the poem is that it is presented last. This mingling of a lavish materialism with genuine religious devotion is perhaps tellingly American. But this interest is intellectual; the language of the poem adequately conveys its meaning, but it’s only poetry in the surface sense of being written in meter and rhyme. The delights inherent in the shaping of language into beautiful form are absent, to my ear.

“To Sally” starts similarly: as a versified, moralized list:

The man in righteousness array’d,
A pure and blameless liver,
Needs not the keen Toledo blade,
Nor venom-freighted quiver.
What though he wind his toilsome way
O’er regions wild and weary—
Through Zara’s burning desert stray;
Or Asia’s jungles dreary:

And on it goes for its first three stanzas. It is a reworking of one of Horace’s odes (Book 1, Ode 22), and a fairly faithful one—it is basically a loose translation, though Adams changes ‘Lalage’ to ‘Sally’ and a handful of anachronisms find their way into the poem (e.g. “since days of Noah”). I was well-prepared for a tedious continuation of this, but the fourth stanza surprised me:

Else wherefore was it, Thursday last,
While strolling down the valley
Defenceless…

He moves from the general to the personal, to his own case (and here it becomes the love poem the title suggests, for he is “musing… a canzonet to Sally”). And with it comes a poetic shift. Where the first three stanzas are heavily end-stopped—all but three lines end with punctuation, and those three aren’t exactly enjambed—here we get true spillover, and at a heightened moment, that of the shift from casual strolling to ominous defencelessness. The sing-song of the opening moralizing gives way to a more personal language, if only briefly. (The poem remains mostly end-stopped, though not as mind-numbingly as at the start.) It is a beautiful, surprising moment. It doesn’t save the poem as a whole, but it was pleasant to find it in the midst of otherwise forgettable lines.

“To the Sun-Dial,” the best of the three poems included here, is a sonnet about the sundial “Under the Window of the Hall of the House of Representatives of the United States.” Where the other two poems included are overly musical, to the point of becoming saccharine, this poem takes some work to draw out its music. Though in iambic pentameter with only a few unsurprising substitutions (e.g. the line-opening trochee of line three), it is thick, and doesn’t quite flow smoothly, an effect compounded by the fairly heavy enjambment in the middle (lines 4, 5, and 7). I don’t think it quite works—for instance, the last line (“By virtuous deeds to give eternity to Time”) strives for grandeur but stumbles over itself, not least because it is needlessly a hexameter—but I prefer its grit to the too-smooth sweetness of the other poems.

And I suppose it is worth noting, in this climate, that I enjoy the thought of the president of my country writing even mediocre poetry.