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

Friday, July 1, 2011

Poetry Genres: Part I - The Essence of Verse

Poetry Genres: Part I - The Essence of Verse

Before we categorize poetry let's take a moment to define it. IMHO, there are, at most, two views of poetry worthy of consideration:

  1. "Poetry is rhythmic speech."

  2. "Poetry is verbatim" (Kaltica, 2008) or, if you prefer, "memorable speech" (Auden, 1935).

If you are ever engage in a discussion of poetry genres pick #1. It saves time by excluding prose poetry, treating it as a hybrid. Now you just have to distinguish verse from free verse. That shouldn't pose a problem, should it? (Hee-hee!)

We squirrels never take the easy way out. For the purposes of this series I'll adopt the second definition and will use less arbitrary means to distinguish prose poetry from verse and free verse. In fact, I'm going to start by designating Definition #1 as:

Myth #1: "Poetry is rhythmic speech."

There was poetry long before there were accented languages, let alone accentual or accentual-syllabic verse. Even ignoring this fact and the concept of prose poetry, we have syllabic verse, which is deliberately arrhythmic. Whole paragraphs of "Moby Dick" are in perfect iambs. Are these sections [embedded] poetry? No. Why not? Because they aren't meant to be [read aloud or] memorized.

What is the essence of verse?

Consider this passage from "Beowulf":

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.

A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on.

In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Et cetera.

Note that each "line" of "Beowulf" has four beats, making this accentual tetrameter. However, this wasn't how the poem was written. Rather, it was recorded in one long string of words without so much as a single paragraph break. Essentially, it was in the form of ticker tape text. Even if we were to include the punctuation and capitalizations that you see "Beowulf" would look like this:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes. A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on. In the end each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to him and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
Et cetera.

Without rhymes and with even less formatting than prose, how could a listener tell "Beowulf" is poetry rather than prose? Did it require a knowledge of accentual poetry? Not really. A listener could, after a while, discern the pattern of four beats per phrase/sentence. What the audience detects, though, are not "lines"--"Beowulf" has neither lines nor stanzas--but stichs: segments determined by the meter.

Nota bene: Yes, the speaker would pause at the end of each stich but only because it was the end of a sentence or phrase.

Flash forward more than an eon and we see corata, where verse is presented in paragraphs, not lines. Similarly, we have curginas, where verse is presented as lineated free verse, without regard to meters. The most famous example is "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
...et cetera.

These are, in fact, rhyming bacchic monometer couplets:

We real cool.
We left school.

We lurk late.
We strike straight.

...et cetera.

Myth #2: "The line defines verse."

No. The stich does. This is as tautological as saying that meters define meter. To be precise, what defines verse is not the stich but the listener's ability to discern it at a subconscious level, at least.

In "Beowulf" we saw how [more or less] complete thoughts in the form of end-stopping (roughly: punctuation) and phrases cut the text into stichs. Compare these to where a line might end in mid-phrase, such as the fully enjambed second line in this passage from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar":

I wish we may: but yet have I a mind
That fears him much; and my misgiving still
Falls shrewdly to the purpose.

Myth #3: "Performers pause after every line of poetry."

Not so, as anyone who has seen a professional Shakespearean performance can attest.

Hearing the predominant de-DUM pattern allows us to recognize the cadence but, without pauses and rhyme, how does the poet help the audience recognize the meter? That is, how does the mind see that these feet are grouped into stichs of five? The answer is in an ever-expanding bag of tricks.

The authors of "Beowulf" used grammatical constructs: phrases and sentences. Shakespeare relies on these, too, especially at the beginning of his blank verse. In essence, he's training the ear to anticipate a break after each five feet; once he's established this expectation he can skip such pauses, as he does with the Cassius excerpt above. Another, more subtle tool had arrived with the advent of accentual-syllabic verse. The tendency of stichs to "find their rhythm" as they proceed alerts the ear to the meter length. Consider this line from "Hamlet":

Whether | 'tis nob|ler in | the mind | to suf|fer

1 trochaic inversion, 4 iambs within the stich and a hypercatalectic semisyllable, "fer", outside it. After a few hours--yes, Shakespeare's plays took hours--of this the ear ignores the "noise" at the beginning and end of the line to focus on the iambs, "'tis nob|ler in | the mind | to suf-". This resolution marks the meter length and explains why substitutions in general and inversions in particular occur far more often at the beginnings of lines than their endings. Indeed, in all of English prosody not a single stich ends with an inverted foot...and inversions are extremely rare in the penultimate foot.

To be, | or not | to be: | that is | the quest|ion,

The late inversion, "that is", stands out as the only fourth foot inversion in the entire production. It draws attention to itself for a reason, this being the pivotal point of the play.

Other ways to signal the end of a stich [or stanza] range from the subtlety of diaeresis to the garishness of perfect rhyme. I could go on and on about the technical aspects of meter but I find that such discussions tend to bore today's poets. That being the case, I'll end with this:

Not one canonical poem has been written by anyone who wasn't a very competent verser. Don't expect that trend to change.

Next: "Poetry Genres: Part II - The Essence of Free Verse"


  1. Your excellent analyses of verse mechanics here, particularly this one, have given me an idea on how to improve the chances of my terribly passé, technically correct formal verse, being accepted by poetry magazine editors. Just supposing that I actually want to send them any of course. ;) I doubt most of them would be equipped to realise that one of my sonnets started life as such, if I simply messed about with the line structure a bit. And after all, they would still read aloud or recite exactly the same if anyone these
    days actually troubles to do so, so the poem would lose nothing essential in the process. It might be easier on the eyes to which some people are accustomed to reading with alone, too.

    I had more or less intuited the concept of stich before without knowing what to call it or that it already had a clear definition. If I deliberately set out to write a "formal" poem I would naturally display it typographically in end-rhymed iambic pentameter (or whatever it was actually written in) but you've sucessfully clarified for me here why there is no compelling need to do so if you have good poetic diction. I use strict forms for the artistic self-discipline, the beauty that is inherent in art that contains discernable patterns, and the aesthetic impact of the soundscape it creates, not because of the way it looks on the page.

    Of course, to a prose "poet" who just puts words on the page and arranges them visually, and has no real understanding of or talent for prosody, the concept of stich is of no real use. But shame on them for ruining poetry as a truly living art, frankly. ;)

    I just thought I'd say how much enjoyment and solid information your blog is giving me, by the way. If more people were prepared to take your uncompromising approach to the primacy of effective poetic diction and metrical technique, poetry would be in a much healthier state than it is now, I believe.

  2. Damn, wish I could edit my post for that moment of slysdexic grammar! Oh well, what I MEANT to say was probably clear enough...

    1. @ragashree:

      I'm sorry I didn't respond earlier but things have been hectic here.

      I agree that a fundamental knowledge of meter would certainly help the cause. It's embarrassing when we see PhDs and award-winning poets reveal that they don't know rudimentary scansion, especially when two of them start writing technical manuals on the subject.

      I applaud your interest in meter. IMHO, all poets should begin with that as a basis. As one pundit said, trying to write free verse without this foundation is like trying to juggle five balls in the air when we can't sustain one.

      In light of the current market (or lack thereof), though, the struggle between metrists and non-metrists is over scraps. To get a seat at the table verse without music is going to have to find a way to compete--even with the most modest success--against verse with music (i.e. song lyrics).

      Thank you for your reply. Don't be a stranger!


Your comments and questions are welcome.