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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Scansion for Beginners


"There is no escape from metre;  there is only mastery."

         - T.S. Eliot



    Scansion is "the metrical analysis of verse".  How difficult is this to learn?  Too tough for most MFAs and English graduates, it seems, but in truth, not vexing at all.  Indeed, it can be taught to squirrels and summed up in four words:

Simply
Scan
Poems
Backwards

     Meter involves counting.  We'll be counting either stresses or, mostly, patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables called "feet".  In speaking of "syllables" we'll often use the speaker's definition rather than the dictionary's.  Some syllables will be mashed together, such that "naive" can be one syllable ("elision") or two ("hiatus").  Semisyllables such as "-le", "-ion" or "-er", lacking a drawn out vowel sound, may or may not count as [full] syllables.  "Little fashion faker" might be anywhere from three to six syllables.  Don't let this confuse or intimidate you, though;  it gives you the flexibility to use whichever enunciation is more convenient for you.

     What syllables are stressed?  Among monosyllabic words nouns and verbs tend to be accented, pronouns and modifiers are a coin toss and other types (e.g. articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.) tend to be unaccented.  Listen to the speaker carefully.  For longer words consult a dictionary. 

     English verse is written in one of five cadences:

Iambic        Trochaic    Dactylic    Amphibrachic    Anapestic
de-DUM        DUM-de      DUM-de-de   de-DUM-de       de-de-DUM
review        market      spectacle   revisit         interrupt


     For example, here we see a line¹ of iambic verse:

The rain | in Spain | falls main|ly on | the plain.

     This brings us to our first key word:  "Simply".  If a poem doesn't have many more of this rhythm than facsimiles of it then we've got the wrong base rhythm.  For example, one misguided soul mistook Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Moriturus" for iambic, despite the paucity of actual iambs:

Aware of the flight
Of the golden flicker
With his wing to the light;
To hear him nicker


And drum with his bill
On the rotted window;
Snug and still
On a gray pillow


     Let "Keep It Simple, Stupid" be our guideline.

     Because the line about the rain in Spain has five iambs we call it iambic pentameter.  This is the most popular meter in English poetry because we tend to alternate between stressed and unstressed syllables ("Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!") and because that is how much an average person can say in one breath.  Other measures are monometer (one foot per line), dimeter (2), trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), hexameter (6), heptameter (7) and octameter (8).  Thus, we might see trochaic octameter like this:

Once up|on a | midnight | dreary, | while I | pondered, | weak and | weary

    ...or amphibrachic tetrameter like this:

The lake, it | is said, nev|er gives up | her dead when

    An observant reader might be wondering about some of these examples.  Is the "on" really stressed in "on the plain"?  Isn't the first syllable in the word "never" accented?

    The key word "Scan" suggests seeking.  In this case, we're looking at the position of the stress in our pattern.  For dactyls (DUM-de-de) and trochees (DUM-de) that is the first position.  For iambs (de-DUM) and amphibrachs (de-DUM-de), the second.  For anapests (de-de-DUM), the third.  The rule is that we can add or delete accented syllables but we cannot move them [without creating a stumble or drawing attention].  In other words, as long as we have either a stress where we expect one or no stresses at all, everything is fine.  For example, in iambs the default stress falls on the second syllable.  Thus, we can "substitute" a foot with two stresses (DUM-DUM, called a "spondee";  e.g. "baseball") or one with no stresses (de-de, called a "pyrrhus";  e.g. "in a").  In this way we can drop a stress thus:

The rain | in Spain | falls main|ly on | the plain.

    ...creating 3 iambs, a pyrrhic foot, and another iamb.  Not a problem.  Similarly, we can add stresses to the existing one thus:

The lake, it | is said, nev|er gives up | her dead when

    There is a stress at the second syllable of every foot so we're fine here. 

    Consider this well known line:

To be | or not | to be, | that is | the quest | ion
To | be or | not to | be, that | is the | question
   
    The eleven syllables may create confusion, as does the rhythm itself.  In isolation and ignoring the extra syllable for now, the line works better as trochee than as iamb.  As a trochaic line, there are four trochees and a spondee.  No problem.  As an iambic line, there are 3 iambs, a serious stumble as the (de-DUM) order is inverted into trochee (DUM-de), and then another iamb.  Ergo, this line is clearly trochaic, right?

    Not so fast!  The key words "Scan Poems" combine to warn you that you need to look at the entire poem, not just one line in isolation.  This one line from "Hamlet" comes at the critical turning point of an hours-long iambic pentameter play.  The stumble is intentional here, to draw the listener's attention to this moment.  This is extremely rare this late in a line but it shows us that if anyone hands us a line and asks about the meter our only correct response is:  "Please show me the whole poem."

    Unlike the "to be or not to be" [hypermetrical] line with an extra syllable, we may see [hypometrical] lines missing unaccented syllables.  If these come in the middle of the line we call it a "lame" foot, usually involving a pause--often marked by punctuation. Note the second line of the Shakespearean snippet:

The best | of men | have sung | your at | tributes,
Breasts, | lips, | eyes, | and gold | en hair!


     A line with a syllable missing from the beginning is called "acephalous" or "headless".

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright

    Is the syllable missing from the front or end?  Only by reviewing the whole poem can we answer.

Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame | thy fear|ful sym|metry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art.
Could twist | the sin|ews of | thy heart?
And when | thy heart | began | to beat,
What dread hand? And what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And wat|ered heav|en with | their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did He | who made | the Lamb | make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame | thy fear|ful sym|metry?

     Sure enough, we find six lines of perfect iamb and no lines of trochee.  Ergo, the poem is iambic, as are all the lines in it.  Thus, we know that the line "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright" is acephalous (i.e. missing a syllable at the beginning) rather than catalectic (i.e. missing a syllable at the end).

    Because lines often take a while to find their rhythm we can add or subtract unstressed syllables and even put in inversions (e.g. "that is" in an iambic poem) as long as we do it earlier than the halfway mark--preferably in the first foot.  Thus, the end of a line is a far more reliable indicator of the base rhythm than the beginning.  This brings us to our last grouping of key words:  "Scan Poems Backwards".  Consider the first section of Lord Byron's "Bride of Abydos":

Know ye the land where cypress and myrtle
Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime,
Where the rage of the vulture, the love of the turtle,
Now melt into sorrow, now madden to crime?
Know ye the land of the cedar and vine,
Where the flowers ever blossom, the beams ever shine;
Where the light wings of Zephyr, oppress'd with perfume,
Wax faint o'er the gardens of Gúl in her bloom;
Where the citron and olive are fairest of fruit,
And the voice of the nightingale never is mute;
Where the tints of the earth, and the hues of the sky,
In colour though varied, in beauty may vie,
And the purple of Ocean is deepest in dye;
Where the virgins are soft as the roses they twine,
And all, save the spirit of man, is divine?
'Tis the clime of the East; 'tis the land of the Sun -
Can he smile on such deeds as his children have done?
Oh! wild as the accents of lovers' farewell
Are the hearts which they bear, and the tales which they tell.

     As with William Blake's "Tyger", some of the later lines will reveal the meter (this time as being anapestic tetrameter):

Are the hearts | which they bear, | and the tales | which they tell.

     However, if you try to scan those first two [hypometrical] lines from their beginnings to their ends you might get totally confused and discouraged.

Know ye the land where cypress and myrtle
Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime,

    You avoid this frustration by scanning backwards.  Where "[x]" marks the missing syllables, after that unwieldly first line you have ones like this:

[x] Are em|blems of deeds | that are done | in their clime,

[x] [x] Know | ye the land | of the ced|ar and vine,

    Only after you have scanned the whole poem backwards can you see what happened in that "unscannable" first line:

[x] [x] Know | ye the land | where cyp|ress and myrt|le

    This odd line contains an anapest missing both of its unaccented syllables, a full anapest, an anapest missing one syllable, a fourth anapest and, for luck, an extra ["hypercatalectic"] semisyllable at the end.  Mystery solved!

    In addition to syllables missing from the start of the line ("acephaly"), occasionally punctuational pauses can replace unaccented syllables.  Here, commas take the place of unstressed syllables, creating single-syllable ("lame") iambic feet:

The best | of men | have sung | your at | tributes,
Breasts, | lips, | eyes, | and gold | en hair!


    Note that a poem can be heterometrical (i.e. having more than one meter), usually sharing the same cadence.  For example, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has, in addition to extra syllables ("anacrusis") before some lines, no less than four iambic meters:  trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter and heptameter (as we'll see in "Scansion for Intermediates").  In fact, alternating between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter is so familiar that it is actually called "common meter":

Amaz|ing 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.

    If a poem will not scan into any of these patterns don't give up until you have counted the beats in each line.  If there is a pattern in the number of beats you may have accentual meter, the precursor of the accentual-syllabic meter we've been discussing so far.  Many songs are in accentual meter, including Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven", which varies--often alternates--between tetrameter and trimeter, just as "Amazing Grace" does but with beats, not feet.

If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now,
It's just a spring clean for the May queen.


     Obviously, Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Moriturus" (mistaken for iambic earlier) is accentual dimeter.

 If I could have
Two things in one:
The peace of the grave,
And the light of the sun;
   etc.

     Note that, like many songs, accentual poems, too, can be heterometrical, as in this poem often misidentified as free verse:

So much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

     Two beats per line, then one, repeated four times.  That's a pattern.  That's meter.

     Of course, if you remove the intraphrasal linebreaks (i.e. if you decurginate the poem) you have simple accentual trimeter:

So much depends upon

a red wheel barrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens.


     Poetry is about what you hear, more than what you read.

     Bear in mind that "Scan Poems" can also mean practice your scansion, which is excellent advice. 

     For a slightly more detailed beginner's guide, along with a test, please click here.

     I hope you have found this helpful.





Footnotes:

¹ - As we will discover in the next installment, "Scansion for Intermediates", we will be using the word "line" when the term "stich" would be more accurate.



Appendix A:

       You may wish to copy and paste this useful chart into a word processor and print it out in a courier font:

==================  Meter Types ================== 

 Beat   Name
   uu = Pyrrhic (aka Dibrach)
   uS = Iamb
   Su = Trochee (aka Choree)
   SS = Spondee
  uuu = Tribrach
  Suu = Dactyl
  uSu = Amphibrach                          Metres:
  uuS = Anapest                      Monometer = 1 foot
  uSS = Bacchic                        Dimeter = 2 feet
  SuS = Amphimacer (aka Cretic)       Trimeter = 3 feet
  SSu = Antibacchic                 Tetrameter = 4 feet
  SSS = Molossus                    Pentameter = 5 feet
 uuuu = Proceleusmatic               Hexameter = 6 feet *
 Suuu = First paeon                 Heptameter = 7 feet
 uSuu = Second paeon                 Octameter = 8 feet
 uuSu = Third paeon
 uuuS = Fourth paeon    * Hexameter is aka "alexandrine" if iambic.
 uuSS = Ionic a minore
 SuuS = Choriamb                       
 SSuu = Ionic a maiore                       Stanzas:                 
 SuuS = Antispast                       2 lines = couplet
 SuSu = Ditrochee                       3 lines = tercet
 uSuS = Diiamb                          4 lines = quatrain
 uSSS = First epitrite                  5 lines = cinquain
 SuSS = Second epitrite                 6 lines = sestet or sixain
 SSuS = Third epitrite                  7 lines = septet
 SSSu = Fourth epitrite                 8 lines = octet or octave
 SSSS = Dispondee                      
uSSuS = Dochmios

   "S" = Stressed (or, more accurately, "long" in the original Greek)
   "u" = unstressed (or, more accurately, "short" in the original Greek)

===================================================




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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Quantity of Quality

Quantity:

     The PoBiz is all about numbers.  Creative Writing professors need to sustain enrollments for their department to thrive.  Raising entrance or academic standards would be a step in the other direction.  Their interest, then, lies in convincing students, prospective or current, that they can become writers.  Not readers or literature fans in general, mind you, but writers.  The number of Yale English graduations has declined by 62% between 1991 and 2013.  Between 1971 and 2013, the number of Creative Writing degrees has increased by 908% while the number of programs has increased by about 500%.

     The registrar's ally in this endeavor is the academic/literary press.  If you are an editor of such a venue you have two numbers problems.  First, you need subscribers.  A century ago, this meant readers.  Today, it means contributors, past, present and aspiring.  To succeed as an editor, then, you need more and more poets--something that universities and online forums provide in droves--who wish to see their words in your publication.  Thus, when we hear editors say that they are looking for "new voices" they really mean "new subscribers".  Oddly, money isn't always the issue.  Many subscriptions might be payment for articles or poems used.  It's about numbers.

     As for the poetry, it is like vacation pictures:  of no interest to anyone beyond family and friends, few of whom will venture to read any of the other poems in the publication.  The bios and, of course, the index are of far greater import than the verse.  When announcing the publication of cousin Pat's poem be sure to include the page number or, if online, a direct link to the poem, as opposed to the webzine.

I cannot love the beast once caged, a thing that one can own.
I cannot love the chiseled statue as I loved the stone.
     Not surprisingly, when we ask such people who the best contemporary poet is they ignore the singular, "poet", and give us a list of "greats" long enough to fill a telephone directory.  Clearly, it is in their interest to convince us that there are hundreds of living William Shakespeares and Margaret Ann Griffiths.

    "Why, everyone can be a poet," they seem to argue, "in a few easy lessons and with a boost from some co-operative publishers."

     What of the calibre of poetry, though?

Quality:

     The editor's second concern is about finding enough poems for the next edition.  Given hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions from such diverse authors, that should be a breeze, though, right?

     Assuming you don't have an eidetic (i.e. photographic) memory and assuming you understand that "forgettable poetry" is an oxymoron, take a moment to count the number of poems of the last decade, 2001 to 2010, from which you can remember snippets.  Divide by ten for an annual figure.  If you're lucky, then, you and every editor like you will remember three such poems per year.  You can now appreciate the "quantity of quality" problem:  periodicals have more than 3 poems per issue!  

     As Jack Underwood said:  "You will find less than five really good poems."





     See that 2.1% in red on the right of the diagram that is "worth a look"?  A century ago, when poetry was still part of people's lives and most Grade 6 graduates knew basic scansion, this section would have offered a lot of publishable, if not great, verse.  Today, with MFA grads not knowing iambs from trochees, this is your slush pile.  Yes, you publish most of your work from this (or from solicited work of similar quality) but you do so reluctantly.  Chances are it is weighty prose from those who believe that "only ideas are poetic" and who don't mind if there is "only a bit of 'craft' in 'art'."  If they existed, this sludge would probably cost you more readers than would be gained.

     Readers and critics, including those who inhabit online workshops, come from a much simpler environment.  Verses are either good or bad, perfect or worth revisiting by the author.  It is easy for us to disparage the stuff being put out, especially if we haven't seen what was put aside.  In all of my experience as an editor I saw one poem that came close to the .1% and one that barely made it.  Everything else was a compromise.

     We will all sleep better if we don't think about what the average submission looked like.



Friday, July 26, 2013

Posterity? The Future is Now!

   In "First, the really bad news" the unlikelihood of any 2013 poem standing the test of time was established.  In addition to it having been replaced by songs on the radio 90 years ago, poetry's problems include:

  • Mass Media:  Poetry has virtually disappeared from newspapers, television, non-literary publications, etc.

  • Diversification:  With so many different literary outlets the chances of any two or more readers in a discussion encountering the same poem are slim.

  • Aesthetics:  In the past, people argued about whether a poem was good or bad.  Now they argue about whether or not it is a poem in the first place.

  • Education:  What percentage of poets know the basics, starting with scansion?  5%?  10%?  15%, maybe?  That is out of the 1% of people who consider themselves poets.  How do you sell something when only .0015 of the population understands what it is and how it works?  Where are the "great audiences" of which Whitman spoke?

  • Generational Narcissism:  People today show no interest in the past or, for that matter, the future.

  • Bundling:  Poets try to sell books rather than poems.  It is like, having failed to sell a cow to a vegetarian, we try to sell him a herd instead.

  • Market Research:  Non-existent.  Indeed, the whole notion of asking the public what they would like to see in a contemporary poem is foreign to our thinking.

  • Communication:  The only two venues at which geeks (concerned with quality) and honchos (concerned with quantity) used to meet have been closed.  One side will go on touting the likes of Maz while the other gives us the Flavor of the Month.

  • Popularity:  It is one thing to be part of a canon when your contemporaries appreciated poetry, quite another to survive an era when no one is being broadly discussed, performed or quoted.

  • Motivation:  When was the last time you heard anyone say anything about repopularizing poetry?

     A great squirrel once said:  "If poetry is not for everyone it will be for no one."


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #65
     Of its many challenges, the greatest may be the long slide from Shakespeare's commercial success to today's abject failure.  Without the hoi polloi, Shakespeare's theatres would have folded;  there would have been no reason for anyone to collect and preserve his folios.  Today, poets sneer at a far more educated public than Shakespeare entertained.  The art form has dovetailed into solipsism, going from us writing "poet's poetry" for each other to writing "confessional" verse for our friends and, finally, journal writing for ourselves.  Fewer and fewer of us can bring ourselves to blurb--sorry, "review"--poetry.  No one performs the work of a contemporary, as the Bard's actors did.  Because it has no performance value, today's verse shows less and less attention to sound.  Why worry about crowd-pleasing techniques when there is no crowd?

      We lost meter in the 1950s, plotting in the '60s, sonics in the '70s, rhythm in the '80s, coherence in the '90s and now our grammar is fading fast.  Other than that, yes, Ms. Hirshfield, "Poetry is just fine."

      In this era of instant gratification the "good" news is that we don't have to wait a century to be ignored.  Wholly and collectively.  The future is now!  Indeed, we don't even have a populist like Bukowski.  How can we have a Shakespeare when we can't even produce a Thomas Tusser


     The answer is to look at that verb:  "produce".  If we mean "make", we should, if we consider the Law of Averages (i.e. population increases, greater education and communication), be producing dozens of Shakespeares!  [Yeah, right.]  If we mean "produce" in the sense of "producing a play or movie" we see that prodigious talent is not the only thing missing.  The producers no longer know the basics of the craft;  thus, they can't guess which work is worth investing in.  There are no venues.  No hype.  No fan base.  Serious popular critics don't exist.  Where are the Ezra Pounds to serve as script consultants?  Thus, even if we did give birth to a bunch of Shakespeares there is no superstructure in place to exploit them.

     As you can see, the situation is grim, made all the more so by the all-too-common tendency to ignore the facts.  Nevertheless, all of this goes away if we can find one competent² storyteller.

     Just one.


Footnotes:

¹ - "Bestselling poet in England between 1560 and 1640 (the era of Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, and the early Milton, to name just a few) -- Thomas Tusser (he outsold most of those poets even when you take all their works sold during that period combined).

     "Bestselling English poet between 1890 and 1914 (era of Housman, late Tennyson and Browning, Hardy, and numerous others of note) -- Norman Rowland Gale."

     - Howard Miller (Gazebo, 2007-03-19)

² - "Competent" includes the ability to tell stories in either mode:  prose or poetry.



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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Killer and Filler Poems

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #23
     In Poem Types, Vol. 1: "Killer and Filler" Rattle Editor Tim Green mentions how one salient, unforgettable image or quote can catch an editor's or judge's eye and save a poem from oblivion.

     No doubt you've seen poems that contain only one remarkable (i.e. "killer") snippet, nestled in a bed of relative mediocrity (i.e. "filler").  Typically, these fail because the audience is left wondering if the poet had only enough inspiration and energy to write that one spectacular phrase.  As we'll see, the perfect "killer and filler" poem is brief and well integrated, such that the filler showcases the killer.  Think bride and bridesmaids here.

     Because it contains the finest sentence in 21st century poetry "There are Sunflowers in Italy" by D. Menendez is often mentioned in this context.

The sunflowers in Italy
are as distant
as the Cuba I never knew
and the poems that you left
when I met you
in that marble room.

El grito tuyo no se oyo
pues el silencio
del que fusilaron
en el jardin
fue mas alto.

You wrote your verses
with your veins
cold against the wall.


Today I walk through the streets of Miami
crying for what you left.
But you, old man, you cannot mourn.
You have the sunflowers.

     We recognize this effort as one of the five great poems from this millennium.  This is almost entirely due to that showstopping sentence--one that halted even Peter John Ross in his tracks ("Whoa!").  The ending is fine, if a little sentimental to some.  The first half, including the out-of-place colloquial Spanish sentence, is flawed and limp but we could overlook that as buildup.  The problem is that, as a killer and filler poem, the filler doesn't seem to be from the same poem as the killer.  The voice, style, rhythm and tone are all different.  As such, the poem lacks integration.

     A slightly better example would be John Stewart's "Sister Mercy", a cliché collage with one astounding line.  In it, "Sister Mercy" is both the name of a soldier's nurse (and imaginary lover) and a euphemism for the heroin she brings him.  As you can see, the language is common to the point of cliché (e.g. "nothing is forever...so grab it while you can") except for that one moment of clarity when he envisions being cured.

Sister Mercy (by John Stewart).


Would you bring me Sister Mercy, yeah
If she is still in town
For it seems I lost directions
And I've always had them down
And I don't know where I'm going, yeah
And I don't know where I've been
Could you send me Sister Mercy, yeah
She's always been my friend
Always been my friend

She would bring me to the river, yeah
Where I could lay my head
And I would close my eyes
And remember what she said
She said nothing is forever, yeah
So grab it while you can
Find the dreams along the river
As they move across the land
Move across the land

In the summer in the Badlands, yeah
Where I once ran wild
She would take me to the river
As a mother takes a child
For the dreams along the river, yeah
Are the best, I understand
Sister Mercy and the river, yeah
They know how to treat a man
How to treat a man

And she knows it's not forever, yeah
And I'll soon be on my feet
And I will take her dancing, yeah
In the liquid desert heat

And I'll forget tomorrow, yeah
And most of yesterday
Sister Mercy and the river
They know how to get their way
Sister Mercy and the river
They always get their way
Always get their way

Would you bring me Sister Mercy, yeah
If she is still in town
For it seems I lost directions, yeah
And I've always had them down
And I don't know where I'm going, yeah
And I don't know where I've been
Could you send me Sister Mercy, yeah
She's always been my friend
Could you send me Sister Mercy, yeah
She's always been my friend

     These succeed as lyrics because the music keeps listeners entertained.  It fails as poetry because it is too long;  the killer to filler ratio is far too low.

     The archetypical killer and filler poem--the one that inspired the expression itself and may be the best poem of the last thirty years--is "Hookers" by Usenetter Marco Morales.

Missing you again,
I embrace shallow graves
Pale faces, doughlike breasts
help me forget.

    It's short.  There is no difficulty in spotting the killer line.  More importantly, though, every word from the other three lines shares vowel sounds with the killer except the words "Me...missing you", which encapsulate the theme.  It may seem like free verse but is, in fact, metrical:  three iambic trimeters and one dimeter, from which we get the form's name:  carnivalia (i.e. three tris per dime).  Notice how the trochaic inversion of the last line echoes the acephaly (i.e. headlessness, missing an unaccented syllable before "Missing") in the first, allowing both the beginning and ending lines to commence with an attention-grabbing stress.

[x] Mis|sing you | again,
I em|brace shal|low graves;
pale fac|es,  dough|like breasts,
help me | forget.

     Notice how the trochaic inversion serves as an effective exit strategy here.  If those last ten syllables were part of an iambic pentameter poem...

pale fac|es,  dough|like breasts, | help me | forget.

     ...they would be pivotal rather than terminal, as in this famous line at the turning point of Hamlet:

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

     There is so much packed into these four tiny lines that this poem serves as a fascinating topic when other poetry discussions stall.  See how easy it is to memorize.  That, itself, may be the sign of a brilliant poem.



Addendum:  Check out this Killer [and Filler] Pun.



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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hearing versus Listening

"Come to see the deaf girl dancing here."

         - Song lyric, source unspecified



Earl the Squirrel's Rule #61

    As an experiment, ask any individual or group to write down sentences or phrases from a [prose] speech, lecture or report they've just heard.  Scan them and you may be surprised to see how frequently these fragments scan.  Often perfectly.  Usually as iambic or anapestic.  This shows two tendencies:  when we want to say something memorable and when we remember snippets the text is in perfect or near perfect rhythm.

    Similarly, go to an open mic and watch the audience members closely.  If you can do so inobtrusively, film them.  You will note that their level of attentiveness coincides with the level of rhythm.  The existence of cadence--not necessarily meter but rhythm--is reflected in the listeners' body language. 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #37
    Thus, repeating patterns, even if we aren't aware of them, will appeal directly to our memory and pleasure sensors--often creeping past our conscious minds in the process.  Every sloganeer understands this.  We all hear like poets.  Our challenge now is to listen like them.

    Do you sit up and notice when you encounter, say, 10 or more consecutive syllables of binary (i.e. iambic or trochaic) or trinary (i.e. anapestic, amphibrachic, dactyllic) rhythm during, say, a newscast?  Suppose you were watching the evening news and heard the commentator eulogize:  "He has gone to his grace, and that leaves so much less of ours."

     Would you hear those four consecutive anapests?

He has gone | to his grace, | and that leaves | so much less | of ours.

     If so, it would be a simple matter of making a few changes...

He has gone | to his grace, | leaving us | so much less | of our own.

     ...and using that paraphrasing as a basis for "Un Drapeau pour Trudeau":

Un Drapeau Pour Trudeau (in English) on Vimeo.


Un Drapeau pour Trudeau

Once again he has made us
accept something better
denied: one more rose
on his breast before infinite moments
alone, one more snowfall to face.
It is just
as old Rex
eulogized:
he has gone
to his grace,
leaving us
so much less
of our own.

   
Earl the Squirrel's Rule #31
    A century ago, when verse was a conspicuous part of our lives, seven syllables was enough for the average person to detect rhythm.  If we develop such an ability ourselves we can take advantage of opportunities in our daily lives.  Virtually any snippet of speech can trigger our consciousness, inspiring us to convert the poetic into poetry.

     To enhance your perception of rhythm, start by watching at least one Shakespearean play a month.  Try scanning speech in real time, first with the Bard's blank verse and, later, with formal and informal [prose] talking.  In due course you'll be able to discern natural, random stresses from patterned cadences as quickly as the source can speak.

     This ability will change your view of poetry in general and of free verse in particular.  Much of the arhythmic typing that passes for free verse nowadays will sound tragicomically clumsy.  On the plus side, you won't be able to step outside, turn on a radio or television, watch a movie or use your telephone without hearing poetry.



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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Poetry's Three Eras

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #42
The Preliterate Era

     Poetry began with stories around a campfire, a few of which were deemed worthy of preservation.  Without writing, this involved memorization which, in turn, led to the establishment of humanity's first science, prosody.  Poetry shaped the tribe's culture, history, law, religion and language, especially in matters where the exact wording was critical.  The legacy of this era is that poetry is a verbatim, audience-oriented audiovisual presentation.

     We tell stories.  We recite poems.

The Textual Era

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #63
     The advent of the written word relieved us of the fear of losing our heritage.  Nevertheless, it came at a price that became evident only over the centuries.  At a glacial pace, the written word--and our growing reliance on it--removed poetry from the audience physically (e.g. page versus stage), pychologically (e.g. the isolation of poet from audience resulting eventually in the rise of confessionalism/solipsism), conceptually (e.g. the rise of cryptocrap) and geographically (e.g. causing disaffected audiences to walk away from poetry).  This process accelerated whenever publication efficiency improved, from mimeographs to photocopiers to desktop publishing and, ultimately the Internet (e.g. Usenet and, later, the World Wide Web).   Coincidentally, as poetry became more accessible literally it was becoming less accessible figuratively.  In the meantime, poetry was replaced by another verse-based performance:  songs on the radio.  To some, the belief that reading poetry aloud to an audience was acceptable seemed to obsolete prosody's mnemonic basis.  Not so.  Rather, it gave rise to forgettable poetry and, sure enough, the public forgot about poetry.

The Internet Era

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #12
     Once established, the cyber community began returning the aesthetic focus to readers rather than writers.  A central meme in the original online poetry forum, rec.arts.poems, was "Try to have your writing make sense."  Once the web arrived, this sentiment was echoed by Margaret Ann Griffiths ("...you've neglected the basic need of making sense").  The greeting that incoherent verse received from onliners amounted to:  "If this can only be understood by you and your fellow Tamarians why show it to us mere humans?"  Today, philosophy lessons with linebreaks are curiosities found almost exclusively on old-fashioned print outlets.

     In many ways, the Internet has brought us back to the primordial campfire.

1.  Connectivity

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #16
       Generally speaking, by posting our work online we make our words available to the entire tribe at no cost.  What is more, annotation can be handled with hypertext links, as we see with the prototypical cliché collage poem, "Elegy to Eva".  This expectation was the final nail in cryptocrap's coffin.

       Soon we will be able to access every significant poem ever written.  Unlike books, which tend to group poems by their authors, we can sample one poet after another's oeuvres, as prehistoric humans would have.  As we do at open mics.  Indeed, a growing number of these will be video presentations:

2.  Multimedia

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #13
       The rise of Vimeo, YouTube and other venues returns us to poetry's audiovisual roots.  The tribe can, in many cases, see the author perform the poem at, say, a slam, open microphone or a reading.  This has an immediate and obvious aesthetic effect:  a return to the oral hijinks that we call "craft" or "prosody", long considered obsolete by, from all appearances, textual editors, critics, teachers and poets.  Interest in scansion is trending upwards.  The re-emergence of meter is one reflection of the growing ambition of poets to serve the new influx of potential readers--the public.  With multimedia, the entire population, not just the ~50% who read, can become poetry fans.  Do we forget poetry's first and most successful era, when virtually everyone was a fan and none of those fans were literate?

3.  Databases

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #19
    As important as multimedia and hypertext has been to contemporary poetry's web presence, they pale in significance to the impact databases will have on poetry's prospects.  This goes far beyond the fact, previously mentioned, that virtually all poetry will appear online sooner rather than later.  What is happening is that writing is being evaluated either automatically (think of Gender Genie or, for poetry, our very own "Prosody Evaluation And Report Logger") or by consensus (think of Facebook's thumps up).  Hit counters are becoming more sophisticated, filtering out web crawlers, bots and spiders and will soon begin evaluating the quality of the visits.  That is, do users stay long enough to read the entire page or do they peek and run?  In this way, audience members can see the reactions of all other viewers, as they could in days of yore.

    What is the effect of this increased awareness?  As Chris Richardson said:  "It's the American Ido effect:  Being bad includes not knowing you're bad."

    In judo we don't have to guess whether or not we have succeeded.  The fact that we're on our ass is proof enough that we haven't.  Without an audience, there is no similar way to show that we've failed at poetry.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #18
    In the very near future everything we post online will be rated by various criteria and, as is already the case, will be listed on search engines according to such an evaluation.  Soon, when you Google "pomegranate verse" you will see how your ode to the pomegranate is faring against other poems on that subject.  Assuming it doesn't top the list, you might wonder:  "Why not?"  Everything that can be quantified will be.  How many social media links has that page generated?  How many YouTube videos are associated with it?  These objective responses perform the same function for poets that landing on their butts did for the budding judokas:  it makes it clear how far they have to go.  Inevitably, students will demand informed critique and to learn technique--two things largely absent from classrooms for decades.  If so, our current focus on quantity could, in theory at least, translate to quality.

    If you want 100 "chimpanzees" to produce Shakespeare in less than 100 years try training them.



Sunday, July 14, 2013

Nanopresses

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #19
     As you may know, Nic Sebastian is one of our favorite onliners and a stalwart advocate of Nanopresses, the mechanics of which are to combine "a good manuscript", a "credible editor" and an innovative, Indie "Nanopress" that will sell books at cost.  The theory seems to be that what prevents people from reading more poetry is the price.  Therein lies the flaw.  Were this true, poetry webzine servers would crash every day.  If the Internet proves anything it confirms book sales figures indicating that, so far, people don't read poetry.  At any price.  Period.¹ 

     Does this mean that the Nanopress approach is unworkable?  Hardly.  Indeed, it is a brilliant idea that, in my humble opinion, calls for far more ambitious use.  Let's view such a project as a commercial poet would.  To begin with, the key issue isn't the marketing aspect;  that can be easily tweaked.  Rather, the focal question is:

    "Aside from the length and level of the authority's commitment, how is this different from the normal blurbing model?"

Ezra Pound
     If the small-e editor has the technical chops²  she (I flipped a coin and have designated the editor as female, the author as male) can improve the writing significantly.  This is the strength of the Nanopress model:  it replicates the most successful partnership in Modern poetry:  that of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.  As such, the relationship between the two Nanopress participants should not amount to two friends or a professor with her prize pupil.  At some point in the collaboration the editor has to be free to fling pages at the poet and scream "Too penty!"  Otherwise we risk seeing the bland lead the bland.

     How does one come up with "a good manuscript" and "a credible editor"?  Actually, that's the relatively easy part for the experienced poet.  Go to Eratosphere, Gazebo or Poetry Free-For-All and participate for a few years.  You might even write down some of the positive things critics will say, quoting them later either in the book or in promoting it.  During this process you will meet many prospective editors.  Send out private messages until you snag one.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #35
     By far, the most significant role for the editor is to proactively support the product.  Blurbing, yes, but on steroids.  This might include trying to find the biggest publisher--in essence, Nanopress without the Nanopress.  Self-publishing is always an option but don't dismiss the Indies/Nanopresses out of hand.  One or two of these might have some very interesting distribution methods, venues and networks.  Regardless of who puts the book out, the small-e editor, even more than the large E-Editor [who actually published the book but who may have others to worry about, too], will need to use all of her contacts to find reviewers and bolster the book's chances of winning an award.  Who knows?  That might even attract a reader or two!

     Aim high!



Footnotes:

¹ - We cannot change this problem until we acknowledge it.

² - Alas, there are no Ezra Pounds today.  Those with the chops rarely have much pull.  That is, of the dozen or so experts I could recommend as editors only one would have much influence with publishers, high profile reviewers or awards committee panels.  That, alone, speaks volumes on the state of the art.



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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Grasshopper

     July 13th may be the saddest day in the history of 21st Century poetry.  This is the official date of death for Margaret Ann Griffiths (aka "Maz" or "Grasshopper", May 23, 1947 to July 13th, 2009).  That we cannot say it is her actual date of death is part of the tragedy. 

     I always find it difficult to speak of Maz without sentiment and without people suspecting hyperbole.  That being the case, I'll contain my remarks to those that will create little controversy among those lucky enough to know her. 

     No tribute does Margaret justice.  Maz is remembered for everything from her opinions on book reviews to her dealings with transparent trolls (e.g. "...mind-reading is easy when there's such large print involved").  Unfortunately and as far as I know, "Epigraph: The Pismire Oration" is the only recording of her voice.  She was also notoriously camera shy;  the two photos of her that you see here are the only ones I've encountered.  While sparse, her Wikipedia entry is informative.

     Maz's charm stemmed from her demonstrating every conceivable virtue and a few delightful faults, chief among them her impatience with arrogant fools, evidence of which you saw on "Now, that would be a rejection slip!"  That Maz was voted the best poet of our time by the world's toughest critics before she wrote her signature poem, "Studying Savonarola", is a matter of record.  She was highly regarded as the co-editor of Worm, revered as a critic on PFFA, Gazebo and Eratosphere, and was the only Brit ever celebrated as a Guest Poet on Poets.org's critical forum.

     It is a testament to her characteristic modesty that, when informed of the latter honour, she asked the contact person to check his sources, certain that there must have been an error in communication.  That functionary replied:  "Yes, Poets.org should make more such 'errors'!"

     Margaret's only book, collected and published posthumously by fans worldwide, is a masterpiece, made all the more remarkable by the fact that most entries were drafts posted to online workshops for critique.  Maz had few equals as a technician.  Students can learn and professors can teach more from her book than most other 21st century collections combined.  As an example, check out the text to "Studying Savonarola" and then a technical analysis of it.

     It should quickly become obvious why some of  her fans have adopted the mantra "those not jealous of Maz have the most reason to be."  Margaret's grace, generosity, wit, and talent made a fan of anyone who read her poems, critiques or commentary.  To quote one fan:

     "Talking about Margaret Griffiths is bittered by sorrow, sweetened by memory, and distinguished by understatement being mistaken for hyperbole. She had the wit of a Dorothy Parker, the insight of a Don Paterson, the practicality of an Adrian Mitchell, the technique of an Algernon Swinburne, the critical skills of an Ezra Pound and the humility of an Emily Dickinson.

     "As a critic, this century provides no superiors.

     "As a poet, this century provides no peers.

     "As a role model, history provides no proximates."

Studying Savonarola (by Margaret Griffiths) posted by Earl Gray on Vimeo.

     I have only one thing to add to D.P. Kristalo's alexandrine elegiac sonnet:  I miss Maz.

Grasshopper



Grasshopper posted by Earl Gray on Vimeo.


There are no stars for us.  Fate-weary heroes, roads,
and thrones won't anchor us this far from London light.
No sirens skirl for us, no crow or squirrel goads
us, sounding rancorous, as shadows turn to night.

You dreamed of holy mud, tanks melted down to spoons,
of standing by the Thames, the last of those who warred
against the staining blood, against the draining moons,
against the crippling memes, against the Vogon horde.

Time jumps, grasshopper style, as London light recedes.
Your verses, in their youth, will cross the Bridge of Sighs.
Night falls to mourning while my every breath concedes:    
you spoke the wicked truth and I the honest lies.

So says Calliope:  "Your orphaned words will reign
where coast ends path and sea, while time and space remain."


Friday, July 12, 2013

Bad Poets...




  ...want to demonstrate their uniqueness and originality by "finding their voice" in "speaking truth [to power]", "straight from the heart".










  ...remind us of the difference between prose and poetry as they try to convince us that all poems are born equal.  Even theirs.










  ...dominate open mics, slams, readings, publications and, well, just about everything.  Except critical forums.  Go figure.










  ...reflect the statistical absurdity that 90% of drivers think they are better than average.










  ...form the only significant potential market for better poets.











  ... learn from Register for our seminars.











  ...give us someone to talk about in the third person.











  ...keep the dream stereotype alive.










 ...serve the same evolutionary function as sound checks and spam:  they show that messages are getting through without actually saying anything.












   ...make us almost glad that the public doesn't read poetry.








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