Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Undertones


Definitions:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #82
     Bill Jones and Gus Spectre are the two suspects in a murder mystery novel.  With nothing else to go on, which one would you say is guilty?

     Hearing this, most will answer "Gus Spectre" because it sounds like the word "suspect".  This is an albeit heavy-handed illustration of undertoning:  using small similarities and differences to create a subconscious impression or link on a listener.  In this case, it is sonic undertoning. 

     Metrical undertoning involves using the tiny differences in accenting levels that one might find within feet made up entirely of stressed or unstressed syllables.¹ 

Notation:

     Traditionally, we view syllables as binary:  stressed or not.  Consider this clause:

...at my | day job

     A pyrrhus and a spondee.  Easy peasy.

     Now let's use Otto Jesperson's 4-level notation, which we here at Commercial Poetry designate with bolding if stressed, underlining if at the top of its range.  For example:

...at my | day job

Word  Level Description            Notation

"my"  = 1 = unstressed           = plain text

"at"  = 2 = like a shout-whisper = underlined

"job" = 3 = stressed             = bolded

"day" = 4 = strongly stressed    = bolded and underlined

     These designations allow us to make the point that the syllables within a pyrrhus or a spondee do not have to be exactly equal in emphasis.  We can have, for example, a trochaic pyrrhus ("at my", 2-1 in Jesperson's notation) or spondee ("day job", 4-3), or an iambic pyrrhus ("within", 1-2) or spondee ("blue dog", 3-4). 

Styles - Bangers versus Breakers:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #102
     These differences in stress levels within "uniform" (i.e. pyrrhic, spondaic, tribrachic or mollosic¹) feet will not be as sharp as that between accented and unaccented syllables but they can create an undercurrent ("undertones") that will play with or against the base rhythm.  For example, assuming the phrase "at my day job" (2-1-4-3) comes in a trochaic verse, the trochaic pyrrhus and trochaic spondee go with the grain. 

     By definition, "bangers" love strict cadences.  For example, the iambs we see from Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, Timothy Steele and most curginistas, starting with D.P. Kristalo, tend to be pounding metronomes.  Indeed, some bangers deny that true pyrrhics and spondees exist!  At the far end of the spectrum are the more sophisticated "breakers" who employ substitions, inversions, lame feet, sprung rhythm and other irregulaties to break the monotony.  These include Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and most classical poets, starting with William Shakespeare.  As a matter of style, bangers like consistency, uniform feet reflecting the base rhythm.  Breakers?  Not so much.  The latter may see it as an opportunity to create some tension or counterpoint by going against the grain.

     To illustrate, these two pyrrhic feet are the only two non-iambs in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", written by the Head Banger² himself, Robert Frost:
His house | is in | the vil|lage though

But I | have prom|ises | to keep

    Note that each pyrrhic is iambic (i.e. 2-1 in Jesperson's notation) within an iambic meter.

    Here is an example of a "countertone" (e.g. a trochaic pyrrhus or spondee within an iambic poem) from Tennyson's iambic tetrameter "In Memoriam":

     Binary:  When the | blood creeps | and the | nerves prick

Jesperson's:  When the | blood creeps | and the | nerves prick

    The second pyrrhus may be too close to call but the first is clearly trochaic (i.e. 2-1 in Jesperson's notation).  This tension adds to the mood of suspense in the storyline.  Sound and sense.

    Occasionally, we'll see bangers get carried away and misscan lines, like this Wordsworth one, in order to support some bizarre theory (this one described by the redundant expression "metrical scanning"):

Our birth | is but | a sleep | and a | forget|ting

     Hand that line to 1,000 native English speakers and you'll hear an countertone:

Our birth | is but | a sleep | and a | forget|ting

     The proper trochaic pyrrhus, "and a", completes the parallelism begun with "but a".  Sound and common sense.

Significance:   

    Oddly, bangers, whose use of undertones is generally limited to confirming the base pattern, tend to exaggerate the importance of this subject.  Others may see the topic as fascinating but consider it just one more instrument in a poet's toolbox.  Note that it was not detailed in our series on fundamental scansion.

Footnotes:

¹ - Of course, all of this is equally true of tribrachs and mollosi in trinary cadences (i.e. dactylic, amphibrachic or anapestic):

    Accented vs not:  ...and in the | damp, cold leaves

Jesperson's 4-level:  ...and in the | damp, cold leaves

² - Please excuse the pun.



    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Misconceptions

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #50
    All of us understand that these last fifty years have been poetry's Dark Age.  All of us understand that poetry is dead [on the demand side].  What we might not understand is how perilously close we came from erasing any chance of reincarnating verse in the future.

    Since music replaced poetry in the 1920s, prosodic technique has been neglected, leaving a dwindling number of cognescenti to keep the flame alive like medieval Irish monks transcribing ancient classics.  Such geeks became an endangered species, reduced to a few dozen worldwide in the 1970s, rebounding somewhat with the Internet's arrival. 

    Suppose you wanted to learn how to write poetry.  Where would you look? 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #52
    Let's say you're wary about using some unedited, unverified source on the Internet.  A university course would be expensive, time-consuming and focused more on interpretation or inspiration than technique.  That leaves the dreaded How-To manual.  As we'll see, the problem there is that the authors of these texts are not geeks. 

    Okay, how about an older tome?  Lacking a common experience, too much is assumed.  As we'll see, it would be as difficult for 19th century denizens to explain verse to us as for us to explain the Internet to them.

    Meanwhile, enumerable interrelated theories rushed in to fill the vacuum of ignorance.  These included metrical inflection, forescanning, artifice, iambification, and promotion/demotion.

Metrical Inflection:

    According to one comparatively obscure misapprehension, the "conventions of prosody and scansion based on a rising meter such as iambic pentameter simply DON'T APPLY to falling meter."

    Needless to say, neither the source nor anyone else could hazard a guess as to why this would be so or cite any verse to illustrate this bizarre notion.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #60


 Forescanning:

   Backscanning has always been the standard for accentual-syllabic meter.  In "The Rationale of VerseEdgar Allan Poe demonstrated the folly of scanning from left to right.  More recent authors have repeated Poe's error, leading to their inability to scan "The Red Wheelbarrow" or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" correctly.  Given that lines find their rhythm as we move from left to right, it is simple common sense to look for patterns at their ends.  Not surprisingly, when non-geeks learn the basics of scansion, disagreements disappear.²

    Poetry being an integral part of their times, Victorian authors would not point out something as obvious as backscanning for the same reason that we might not think to begin their first Internet lesson with "Wait two centuries for Al Gore to invent the World Wide Web.  Then..."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #59
Artifice:

    Despite the best efforts of Shakespearean actors everywhere, there exists a pervasive belief that poetry is not presented as normal speech.  Even without portentous hush considerations, reciters often sound like stoned robots³ dumped at an ESL outlet for elocutionary reprogramming.

    Here is a quote from one long term artifice advocate:  "The way I understand meter, how a poem is stressed when it's read out loud and how it's scanned are two different things."

    Amazing.

Iambification:

    Some seem to think that everything is iambic except--you guessed it!--iambs.  William Blake's "The Tyger" is often miscanned as trochaic while T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is frequently mistaken for free verse.  Meanwhile, we've seen the accentual dimeter works of Elizabeth Bishop's "Sonnet (1979)" and Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Moriturus" mistaken for iambs.

Promotion and Demotion:

    The Chandler Bing School of Poetry insists that important nouns and verbs are de-emphasized while articles, prepositions, conjunctions and the like are stressed, all depending on their position.

For example, someone tried to argue that this was iambic pentameter:

the hand | that slipped | the gold | clasp of | her chok|-er

    ...instead of the normal sounding:

the hand | that slipped | the gold | clasp of | her chok|-er

    ...which would need to be revised to work as iambic pentamter:

the hand | that slipped | the clasp | of her | gold chok|-er
    
Earl the Squirrel's Rule #61
     In one passage, a source wrote that "...we determine if a syllable is metrically accented by comparing it with the other syllable or syllables of the foot in which it appears."  Later in the same paragraph we read:  "A syllable lightly stressed in speech may, if it appears in a foot in which the other syllable receives even less stress, take a metrical accent."

     Don't sweat the fine tuning before you've found the right channel.  If I ask you whether something is hot or cold don't come back with "cool" [or "warm"].  Worse yet, because "cool" is warmer than "cold", don't try to tell me it is hot.  Barring Otto Jesperson's 4-level notation or undertones, there is no such thing as "metrically accented".  Scanners follow natural speech.  A pyrrhus is a pyrrhus.  A tribrach is a tribrach.  Period.  Why complicate a simple tautology? 

     As an example, consider a simple double iamb such as:

...in my | cold heart.

     Prosody being a science, suppose you do a sonograph of a person speaking those four words.  Suppose "in" registers two units of stress, "my" gets three, "cold" twelve and "heart" thirteen.  2-3|12-13.  Does anyone want to seriously argue that this is anything other than a pyrrhus and a spondee?

     Other common irregularities in recitation include pausing for lung transplants between lines, throwing rhyme parties, over-enunciating, and either "metronoming" (i.e. overstressing every second or third syllable--randomly if not a metrical poem) or monotoning throughout.



     So where does this leave someone trying to learn the rudiments of poetry?  Trusting their instincts.  Being a science, prosody has to make sense.  If no cogent argument is apparent my advice is to move on.



Footnotes:

¹ - In "The Rationale of Verse" we saw Edgar Allan Poe end any chance of a successful career by denying the existence of spondees and by trying to forescan the anapestic tetrameter in "Bride of Abydos".

² -  Indeed, at least one college textbook had to be recalled and rewritten because of this information.  Recent editions of the best selling poetry handbook had their scansion sections gutted due to errors.  To their credit, the authors made these revisions in a timely manner, often at considerable cost.

³ -  I was wondering how they manage to get the automatons blazed.  If nothing else, they give new meaning to the term "wired".



    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Monday, April 7, 2014

DATIA

    Consider these two lines from the first and second sections, respectively, of Lord Byron's 1813 poem, "Bride of Abydos":

Where the citron and olive are fairest of fruit,

The mind within, well skilled to hide


    Now compare the two lines from the octet and sestet of Dr. A.W. Niloc's elegiac sonnet, "Grasshopper":

The world won't change for one so small

as the guide of my passing and mother to my dreams.


    What is remarkable about these verses?




Grasshopper uploaded by Earl Gray onto Vimeo.

     We've seen poems that have more than one meter in the same cadence.  For example, we have the "common meter" of many hymns, including "Amazing Grace", alternating between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.

     Similarly, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has no less than four meters, all iambic:  trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter and heptameter.

     What distinguishes "Bride of Abydos" and "Grasshopper" from Amazing Grace" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is the change in cadence between iambic and anapestic.

From Section I:
Where the citron and olive are fairest of fruit,

From Section II:
The mind within, well skilled to hide



From the octet:
The world won't change for one so small

From the sestet:
as the guide of my passing and mother¹ to my dreams.



     Compare how jarring the iambic versus anapestic transition is compared to the smooth, seamless drifting between trinaries, from amphibrachs and anapests and back again, in Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat":

It's four in the morning, the end of December

And you treated my woman¹ to a flake of your life

Sincerely, L. Cohen




      The startling effect of mixing trinary (e.g. dactyls, amphibrachs or anapests) sections or stanzas with binary (e.g. trochees or iambs) ones defines the DATIA.  A complete DATIA uses all five cadences of the acronym:  Dactyls, Anapests, Trochees, Iambs and Amphibrachs.  An example is "Tecumseh" (who was aka "Shooting Star" or "Panther That Crouches In Wait"):

You, Canadian? The greatest American? You fought to be neither, but nor
were you panther that crouches in wait. You were egret, your feet in the mud
as you stood above weeds. Both your fathers would leave you to war.
Brock would say no more valorous warrior exists. Sure as apple trees bud,

the pleas of a peacemaker can't be imparted
while even your traplines have got to be guarded.

Time was gravity, as shooting stars descended.
Time was charity, and at the Thames it ended.

The cities were the bellows of the wind that blew
at Prophetstown, across the rivers, over you.
Gray wolves surround the egret. Foxes slink away,
their coats the color of your blood. You'd say:

"Sing your death song and then die like a hero returning home."
Yours was the song of that egret, your life like a burning poem.

     The meters of the stanzas are:   

1 Anapestic Hexameter
2 Amphibrachic Tetrameter
3 Trochaic Hexameter
4 Iambic Hexameter
5 Dactyllic Pentameter

     Note that the stanzas/sections can switch in midsentence.

     The rare but venerable DATIA is perfect for longer poems with different speakers, moods, plot points, time periods, perspectives, et cetera.  The catch is that they require a certain level of mastery.

     Trivia Question:  Other than the fact that they are both DATIAs, what do "Tecumseh" and "Bride of Abydos" have in common?  Hint:  You don't need to use any words in your answer.



Footnotes:

¹ - In essence, "mother" ("moth'r") and "woman" ("wom'n") are scanned as one syllable.



    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Phone Deaf

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #56
     Some people cannot locate stresses, even in their own writing.

     In a single critical thread on Eratosphere one phone deaf newcomer mistook "pomegrantates" as a dactyl ("pom(e)|granates", not even getting the number of syllables correct) rather than as a diamb, and "persimmons" as a bachius ("per|simmons") rather than as an amphibrach.  Elsewhere, he tried to present this as a line of perfect iambic pentameter:

the dead|ness in | the orch|ard, the | wren’s sigh,

     Those who don't suffer from this affliction will hear the line as:

the dead|ness in | the orch|ard, the | wren’s sigh,

     ...which works well as a line of iambic pentameter:  iamb (de-DUM), pyrrhus (de-de), iamb (de-DUM), double iamb (i.e. pyrrhus, then spondee:  de-de DUM-DUM).

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #55
     Ironically, the sufferer cited a definition:  "In linguistics, prosody...is the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech."  The operative word there is speech

     If you have a problem imagining where stresses lie insert the line into a paragraph of text¹ and have someone else read it aloud.  Perhaps you can hear the accented syllables.  Consult a dictionary to parse the enunciation of polysyllabic words.  Among monosyllabic ones, nouns and verbs tend to be stressed while less significant words (e.g. articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.) are usually not.  (Pronouns could go either way.)  Be patient.  The problem will usually dissipate with practice. 

     Others will have a less pronounced case of phone deafness.  This leads us to two points:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #31
1.   Contrary to delusions caused by an over-reliance on text in an aural/oral medium, guessing where stresses are intended is not a function of scansion or prosody.  It is a related to performance, equally applicable to prose/rhetoric and poetry.  Regardless of whether you are rehearsing "Long Day's Journey into Night" or the iambic pentameter "Hamlet", if you start pounding on every second or third syllable your director is bound to interrupt, asking "Why are you speaking unnaturally?"

     Poetry being a verbal art, scansion begins after a competent reciter has decided where the stresses land.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #37
2.  Promotion and demotion are myths.  There really is such a thing as a pyrrhic foot.²  No, really.  Take the word "in" from the line cited above:

the dead|ness in | the orch|ard, the | wren’s sigh,

    Some will consider "in" accented "by position", as if poetry performers should underscore the metronome by "promoting" a pyrrhus to the base iambic rhythm.  Some might argue that the number of feet and beats must coincide, such that, for example, pentameter verses must have 5 stresses.  Thus, any line with a spondee would have to contain a pyrrhus and vice verse.  Needless to say, no such "rule" exists.  Indeed, this is a key difference between accentual and accentual-syllabic verse. 

    The preposition "in" isn't stressed, just as the article, "the", isn't.³

    If the symptoms of phone deafness persist watch Shakespearean theater.

    Lots of Shakespearean theater.



Footnotes:

¹ - The idea is to disguise the text as prose in order to avoid the tendency of some to overstress the base rhythm.

² - This may be a carryover from Edgar Allan Poe's career-ending misadventure into prosody, "The Rationale of Verse", which included, among other gobsmacking errors, the assertion that there is no such thing as a spondee.  This, coupled with his inability to scan the initial section of Byron's "The Bride of Abydos", explains why Poe was unable to make a living as a poet at a time when the average grade school graduate understood scansion better than most PhD's do today.

³ - This isn't to say that "the" and "in" receive exactly the same level of stress.  In Otto Jesperson's 4-level scansion, "the" would be a one while "in" would be a two, both being unstressed.



    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel



Friday, March 28, 2014

Brief Definition of Poetry

    Shortly after the development of language, primordials would gather around the fire and tell tales.  The more interesting ones might be preserved as stories, their characters and events saved for posterity.  These fables, myths or sagas might be recounted differently each time.  Thus:

    Prose is information.

    Ideally, it would be enjoyably presented information.  Occasionally, someone would "nail it", recounting a narrative so perfectly that attendees would want to preserve it exactly as performed.  This might include gestures and inflections but would, at the very least, require that the words not be changed.  Thus: 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
    Poetry is verbatim.

    Because of its cultural, entertainment, legal, religious (e.g. the verses of the Bible, Torah, Quran, etc.), and historical value, preliterate societies expended considerable resources memorizing poetry.  One of humankind's first sciences was prosody:  a collection of crowd-pleasing memory aids designed to ease the task of retention.  Thus:

    Prosody is mnemonics.

    Because it needed to be memorized, poetry became more concise and featured more repetitions:  phonemes (assonance, consonance, alliteration), syllables (rhyme), feet (rhythm), stich length (meter), words and phrases (anaphora, anadiplosis), whole lines (repetends), and stanzas (choruses).

    For more detail please click here.

    We hope you find this definition helpful.



   Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Definition of Poetry

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #22
 (Reprinted with author's permission)
     (Click here for brief version)

"Who needs a definition of poetry?"

      Poets.  Readers can pick up a poem, enjoy it, toss it aside and never give poetry another thought until they encounter it again.  They don't need to be told what they like and they don't need to be told what they should consider poetry, good or bad.  In fact, readers should be telling us what poetry is.  In a roundabout, filtered, slow, convoluted and arcane way (i.e. prosody), they do!  Or, at least, they used to.

     Only the magician needs to know how a trick is designed and performed.  Similarly, poets--and judges, editors, critics and creative writing teachers--need a workable definition simply because they are on the supply side (including quality control).  Imagine if you ordered a 6th Century European armourer to manufacture a gun, saying only that guns are things that kill people.  What do you suppose the chances are of that craftsman producing anything that fires a bullet?

     "Yes, but unlike the armourer, budding contemporary poets have seen a poem."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #78
      True, but those new poets have also seen a lot of things presented as poetry that, frankly, weren't.  Thus, they're back at square one, all the more confused. 

      What, then, is poetry?

      Definitions and evaluations of poetry fail due to a number of reasons, chief among them:

  1. They confuse an application with a definition (e.g. "Poetry is a form of seduction");


  2. They confuse the subset (e.g. metrical, formal, classical) with the whole (poetry);


  3. They confuse quality (i.e. good versus bad) with identity (i.e. poetry or not);


  4. They confuse the cause (poetry) with the (emotional, intellectual, informative or humorous) effect; or,


  5. They confuse a mode (i.e. poetry versus prose) with a genre¹ (e.g. fiction, non-fiction, horror, romance, mystery, drama, humor, etc.), the vessel (poetry) with the cargo (content).

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #53
    Because modes are independent of content, any statement that begins with "Poems must convey..." or "Poems must be about..." is demonstrably wrong.  How many times must we hear a judge or critic saying "this poem is great because of [its subject, storyline or message]"? 

     Of course, many of the definitions that we'll encounter were never meant to be taken seriously;  the commenter is merely posing for tourists.  For example, this nonsense could describe anything from the Midnight Express to a hemmorhagic fever:

Boris Pasternak: 

"Poetry is a rich, full-bodied whistle, cracked ice crunching in pails,
the night that numbs the leaf, the duel of two nightingales,
the sweet pea that has run wild ..."

      It is as if they are entrants in a contest to see who can produce the most ridiculous and useless "definition".  If so, this would be my contribution:

    "Poetry is a dagger to the heart, minus the dagger."

      Nor does it get any better when these people try to define poets, as this leg-pull suggests:

e.e. cummings:

                         What is a Poet?
  
   A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses
   his feelings through words.
     This may sound easy.  It isn't.
     A lot of people think or believe or know they
   feel -- but that's thinking or believing or
   knowing; not feeling.  and poetry is feeling --
   not knowing or believing or thinking.
     Almost anybody can learn to think or believe
   or know, but not a single human being can be
   taught to feel.  Why?  Because whenever you think
   or you believe or you know, you're a lot of other
   people;  but the moment you feel, you're
   NOBODY-BUT-YOURSELF.


      Clearly, none of these definitions would help us write a single line of verse.  Where else to look?  Why, a dictionary, of course!  How can we go wrong there?

      Well...

Collins English Dictionary (2003):

poetry [NOUN] from Medieval Latin poetria, from Latin, poeta POET

1. literature in metrical form; verse;
2. the art or craft of writing verse;
3. poetic qualities, spirit, or feeling in anything;
4. anything resembling poetry in rhythm, beauty, etc.

      Hmm.  #1 and #2 ignore free verse while #3 and #4 involve poetry as a metaphor.  How can we speak of "poetic qualities" or "resembling poetry" before we define poetry itself?  Let's try a more aesthetically inclined source:

Merrian Webster's Encyclopaedia of Literature (1995):

poetry [Middle English poetrie, from Old French, from Medieval Latin poetria] 
    
1. Metrical writing.      
2. The production of a poet; poems.      
3. Writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through its meaning, sound and rhythm.

      #1 is the usual confusion of subset and whole.  #2 is tautology.  #3 comes close but fails by stating that all poems attempt to elicit an emotional response.  

Flaubert Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880):

"I should rather be skinned alive than exploit my feelings
in writing. I refuse to consider Art a drain-pipe for passion,
a kind of chamberpot, a slightly more elegant substitute for
gossip. No, no! Genuine poetry is not the scum of the heart."

      In fact, many if not most poems in the 20th century have sought to provoke a decidedly intellectual response.  Ballads often serve no other purpose than relating the facts of an event, like a news story.  Is laughter an emotion?

      At this point, many will fear that a definition of poetry is impossible.  Think of all the conditions such a definition would have to satisfy, starting with:
  1. It must be independent of culture and language;


  2. It must be objective and verifiable, relying on identifiable and universal traits;


  3. It must not amount to "prose with linebreaks" or "whatever the writer presents as poetry";


  4. It must be acceptable to all of the different significant readerships, present and past; and,


  5. It must include all existing genres, from nursery rhymes and humor to epics and Shakespearean dramas.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #56
       So far, the best attempts to define poetry have focused on its components:  rhythm(s), rhyme, sonics, deft use of grammatical constructs and rhetorical devices, original language, trope, etc.  These are certainly improvements on Frost's synechdochical fallacy ("Poetry is metaphor") and they dismiss the legions of vendors hawking "poetry without poetry".  The problem with this approach is that by not pinpointing poetry's most fundamental characteristic we miss the one unifying principle that accounts for the very existence of all these technical refinements.  We'd like a more fundamental and succinct description, one that helps us identify what poetry was even before these techniques and devices were developed.

      It's time for some good news:  Not only can poetry be defined, it can be done so in one word!  What is more, it is a definition that I believe everyone can accept.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #87
      Before getting to that, though, we need to take two side trips.  First, we need to go to our local library and look up Aesop's Fables in a number of different sources.  Note that the wording changes from one telling to another. 

      Second, we need to travel through time back to the advent of language itself.  Standing around campfires, our cave-dwelling ancestors would have had two forms of entertainment:  prose/storytelling versus poetry/song.  What arbitrary distinction separated these two?  The answer is as obvious and undeniable as the difference between "The Iliad" and Aesop's Fables.

      Storytellers needed to get their facts straight but, beyond that, exact wording was unnecessary.  Indeed, it may even have been incumbent on them to change the wording with each recounting.  Five speakers could tell the same story and it might still be interesting due to these variations. 

      By contrast, poetry had to be presented word-for-word.  If someone liked a particular rendering of a story so much that they memorized and repeated it, that became a poem².  This, then, is poetry's definition, one that has not changed in the millennia since the dawn of language itself: 

      Poetry is verbatim.

      Of course, others have said much the same thing:

W.S. Merwin:  "Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong
at the end of a joke, you have lost the whole thing."

Oscar Wilde: "A poet can survive everything but a misprint."

Étienne "Stéphane" Mallarmé:  "My dear Degas, poems are not made out of ideas. They're made out of words."

      Yes, I know that it seems disappointingly slap-your-forehead obvious³ and simplistic, but there you have it.  Radically revise the words, but not the facts, to a story and it remains intact;  make wholesale changes to the words of a poem or song and you have a different work. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #20
      Let us not underestimate the profound impact this fact has even today, though.  It goes well beyond our remarkable ability to recall song lyrics.  We see the ramifications not only in our canon but in every poem published and in every slam, open microphone or recital ever held.  If nothing else, it explains why some performers want to shoot themselves if they mess up even one word.

      With the development of writing and, later, the Gutenberg press, prose seemed to have become a verbatim art form.  After all, your copy of Timothy Findley's "Headhunter" is identical to mine.  Nevertheless, we can finish the greatest novel of our time, not remember a single sentence of it and still consider it a classic.  Even today, some people memorize Homer's epics but not Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" or Herman Melville's "Moby Dick".  We can note how fiction outsells poetry 1,000 to 1 yet it is poetry that is quoted more often.  What about the theatre?  Scripts have to be memorized by performers but is the audience tempted to do so?  What plays are quoted other than Shakespeare's dramatic poetry?   Poetry will always remain the only verbatim art form where it matters:  in the minds of performers and, more importantly, audience members.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #76
      The memorization of poems became a major cultural, historical and religious undertaking in preliterate societies.  Prosody may be humankind's first science, predating even astronomy and the crudest medicines.  Its raison d'être was to facilitate the memorization of poetry by measuring how easy it was for reciters to assimilate and for audience members to be impressed by the phrasing.  Over the eons, whatever worked became technique or device;  whatever didn't would be soon lost.  Poetry, then, became what was memorizable for the reciters and memorable for the listeners.  In short, poetry is what remained.

      This retention wasn't left to chance.  Memory aids were developed.  Thus, if we don't mind going from the standard (i.e. verbatim) to the method we might say:

      Prosody is mnemonics.

      Of course, this is simply another view of:

Don Paterson:  "A poem is just a little machine for remembering itself."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #67
      The tricks used in designing these "little machines" can be categorized in two words:  brevity and repetition.  In the case of "minipoems" or "poemlets" (e.g. haiku, tanka, small aphoristic or imagistic pieces, slogans, etc.) compact size may be the only "mnemonic" required.  There is no challenge in memorizing this:

Christmas Tsunami, 2004

Look!  Starfish
on treetops.

      Some argue that this compression itself defines poetry. 

Ezra Pound:  "Poetry is a language pared down to its essentials."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #30
      The argument is that poetry is the most efficient use of language.  Aside from ignoring all of the repetitions we see in poetry, the flaw in this position is that it isn't true--or at least it isn't exclusively so.  Any imperative ("March!") or road sign ("1" on Highway #1, "55", "Stop") is at least as clear, concise and informative as any poemlet.  So why is Basho a poet while the typical drill sargeant or sign writer isn't?  The command or signage demands to be understood and, we hope, obeyed.  A poem asks only to be remembered and, perhaps, quoted.  Thus, what matters is not the language distillation itself but its purpose.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #62
      Short poems are by no means the only ones that practice concision;  even epic poets demonstrate an economy of words.  As poems get longer, though, we need to use more and more "pit stops" or repetitions.  Everything is repeated, from phonemes (assonance, consonance, alliteration) up through syllables (rhyme), feet (rhythm), stich length (meter), words and phrases (anaphora, anadiplosis) to whole lines (repetends) and stanzas (choruses).  To stretch a point, form can be viewed as one poem repeating others.  While reciting a villanelle we know that Line #3 will rhyme with Line #1.

       Stories are told.  Only poetry is recited.



Poetry                              Prose

Genre                               Genre
  - e.g. fiction, nonfiction,        
- e.g. fiction, nonfiction,
         romance, comedy, etc.          romance, comedy, etc.

Type 
  Metrical
    - e.g. trimeter, pentameter, etc.      
  Nonmetrical
    - free verse
    - prose poetry
    - pre-prosodic

Form
  - formal
      - e.g. sonnets, ghazals, etc.
  - non-formal verse
      - meter/stanzas but no

        recognized form (e.g. sonnet)
  - open
      - e.g. free verse




Footnotes:

¹ - This is the basic error that Lewis Turco made in "The Book of Forms".  Unlike a mode, a genre is defined by its content.  For example, romantic fiction must be mushy and untrue;  poetry or prose can be about anything.

² - We shouldn't overlook the fact that it was the audience, not the authors, editors, publishers or critics, who determined what was poetry.  No audience?  No poetry.

³ - Because we're trying to distinguish poetry from prose we won't get into the hybrid, "prose poetry", right now.



Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Dolphins

Dolphin embryo beside a 1-inch pin
     Did you know that dolphins have vestigial limbs and fingers?  It would seem that, at some point in their evolution, they crawled up onto land and experienced a few winters, forest fires, hurricanes and landslides before deciding:

    "Screw this!  We're crawling back into the ocean." 

     Who knows?  Perhaps their collective mythology refers to a disastrous time of dry, as opposed to flooded, land.

     Given that they have little more to do than eat, swim and chat, dolphins have developed vocal centers that are larger and more complex than those of humans, as is their overall brain size.  Dolphins emit a signature whistle--a name assigned to them before they are a year old--to identify themselves.  Just as some human societies are matrilineal, the name-sound of a male dolphin resembles its mother's more than its father's and more than those coming from a female dolphin (e.g. the sister/daughter).  This suggests highly developed social and verbal skills--quite possibly higher than ours.  If so, our scientists' efforts to learn their vocabulary might be like an infant from Beer Bottle Crossing, Idaho trying to learn Hungarian.

Bottlenose dolphin
     Is it unreasonable to conclude that some dolphin communication might be poetry?  Hardly.  Indeed, their prosody may be so superior to ours that it makes our finest verse sound like Dr. Seuss or Charles Bukowski.  Can we prove that dolphins create poetry, though?

     Actually, yes, we can.  Rather easily, in fact.

     I assume you're familiar with the "Telephone" game, where we give a message to the first person in a queue, have them repeat it along the line and then compare the final person's version to the original.

Dusky dolphin
     Try this.  Then try it again, this time using a rhyming couplet.  See how much closer that outcome is to the original than when the message was prose.

     If you understand that, by definition, poetry is verbatim, the solution is obvious.  Have a computer run file comparisons among those recordings of dolphin communication.  If spectrograms uncover identical samples too long to be dismissed as phrasing (e.g. salutation, idiom, cliché, etc.) or messaging you have music and/or poetry.  If there are words you have poetry (perhaps including one if its subsets, song lyrics).

     The next time people tell you that a definition of poetry is useless, impractical or impossible, tell 'em about the dolphins.



    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please take a moment to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull".  Also, feel free to expand this conversation by linking to it on Twitter or Facebook.  Please let us know if you've included us on your blogroll so that we can reciprocate.

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publicly.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel