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

Saturday, February 18, 2012

20 Minutes that Can Change a Poet's Life

"I always joke with my students that, if poetry was as hard as you think it is, poets wouldn’t do it because poets are among the stupidest and laziest people I know."

- Christian Bök in "The Cage Match of Canadian Poetry"

Let's revisit an old theme with a tiny test, shall we?

1. T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is:

  • Free verse.
  • Metrical.
  • Someone told me it was free verse but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • Someone told me it was metrical but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • Other/unknown.

2. William Blake's "Tyger, Tyger" is:

  • Trochaic tetrameter.
  • Iambic tetrameter.
  • Someone told me it was trochaic tetrameter but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • Someone told me it was iambic tetrameter but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • Other/unknown.

3. Elizabeth Bishop's "Sonnet (1979)" is:

  • Free verse.
  • Accentual meter.
  • Accentual-syllabic meter.
  • I've been told it's free verse but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • I've been told it's accentual meter but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • I've been told it's accentual-syllabic meter but I wouldn't know on my own.
  • Other/unknown.

If you got these three simple questions right on your own then, unlike more than 70% of PhD holders, more than 80% of MFA graduates and almost 97% of total poets (with or without degrees) tested, you understand the rudiments of scansion. You can probably recognize meter within three lines, know why some poets' popularity rises or falls in inverse relation to the public's ear for scansion, and prefer root canals to most poetry readings. You don't need to be told the distinction between verse and free verse or between free verse and prose poetry; your refined ear detects the difference immediately. Nor do you need to be told whether or not free verse poems are written by someone who understands verse; that, too, is usually obvious. You likely find the PoBiz, the blogosphere, and Content Regents unbearable. You couldn't write as badly as Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Carol Ann Duffy if your life depended on it.

"Why," a neophyte might ask, "should I learn about scansion? I write free verse!"

No, you don't. In fact, you'll win two lotteries before you write your first free verse poem. A "poet" with no grasp of meter is like a doctor who doesn't know what blood is.

"But I'm a dermatologist!"

Not mine, certainly.

If you are among the vast majority of poets who didn't ace this test or aren't entirely sure about the answers I have some wonderful news for you. There is a site where, 20 minutes from now, you will comprehend scansion better than the authors of at least two well known technical manuals and better than some famous poets, including Edgar Allan Poe. Here's the kicker: this lesson can be encapsulated in a grand total of eight words--five, if you don't mind an acronym! (The rest of the treatise involves supporting examples, jargon and explanations.)

I have one caveat, though: do not try the tests at the end yet. Practice your skills for a year or so before attempting the easier quiz, a decade or so before the tougher one.

The site is called "How to Scan a Poem".

P.S.: The correct answer to all three questions was the second one.

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