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

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Scansion for Intermediates


    If you were taught that "The Red Wheelbarrow", "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "We Real Cool" are free verse then you need to unlearn that and focus on what meter is and what it does, beginning with the first installment in this series:  "Scansion for Beginners".  If you were taught that Blake's "The Tiger" (i.e. "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright") is trochaic this series won't change your understanding of meter but it might begin it.

     Meter is merely repeated quantifications.  The things being counted can be, among others: 

  1. syllables (called "syllabic verse");


  2. accented syllables ("accentual verse");


  3. patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables ("accentual-syllabic verse") called "feet",


  4. alliterations ("alliterative verse");


  5. words ("leximetric verse"); and,


  6. tempos ("quantitative verse").

     In the last millenium, only accentual and accentual-syllabic verse have played significant roles in English prosody.  To be clear, meter has nothing to do with:

  1. Content:

         There is nothing--no subject, theme, conceit or point--that can be explored in prose, prose poetry or free verse but cannot be covered equally well in verse.  And vice versa.


  2. Rhymes:

         As is plain to anyone who has read Shakespeare's blank verse plays, it is wrong to describe verse as "rhyming poetry" like so many outside the poetry world do.  The presence of rhymes or rhyme schemes is no guarantor of meter.  That said, "without meter, rhymes risk sounding like random cymbal clangs over a spastic drunkard's drumming."


  3. Lines:

         English meter is about stichs (pronounced "sticks"), not lines.
Harriet Monroe

     That last one may surprise some but, as we'll discover, lines can be part of an illusion.  Let us look at a few commonly miscanned verses to see the difference between stichs and lines.

     A touchstone poem is T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"¹.  As you can see from Peter John Ross's famous, illuminating scansion (Appendix A), the verses are in four different measures, all iambic:  trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter (apparently too much pentameter--"too penty"--for Ezra Pound's taste!) and heptameter.  Thus, we see another example of heterometer, like "Amazing Grace" and "The Red Wheel Barrow" from the first article in this series.  Note the extra syllables at the beginnings ("anacrusis") of many of the lines .  These unstressed, insignificant connecting words (e.g. "Let", "When", etc.) are part of the line but not part of the meter.

Let | us go | then, you | and I,
        (iambic trimeter with anacrusis)
When | the even|ing is | spread out | against | the sky
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
Like | a pat|ient eth|erised | upon | a tab|le;
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
Let | us go, |through cert|ain half-|desert|ed streets,
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
The mut|tering | retreats
        (iambic trimeter)

     For example, the third stich extends from after "Like" to before the final semisyllable, "-le".  The extra syllables contribute to the "rambling" effect that Harriet Munroe mentioned.

    Here is one of the many anacrusic iambic tetrameter lines:

In | the room | the wom|en come | and go   

    As as aside, note that treating it as headless ("acephalous") iambic pentameter isn't a significant change in a "het-met" (i.e. heterometrical) poem.

[x] In | the room | the wom|en come | and go
   
    Here is one of the "fourteeners" (i.e. iambic heptameter lines):

The yel|low fog | that rubs | its back | upon | the win|dow-panes,   

     Understanding stichs helps us recognize meter even when it is broken up into separate lines.  We saw this with "The Red Wheelbarrow" in the first installment where:

So much depends
upon


     ...and all the identical stanzas after it are actually just broken up accentual trimeter lines:

So much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.

     While the above is the first known curgina (i.e. verses broken up into "free verse" style lines), the first accentual-syllable curgina is the bacchic (i.e. de-DUM-DUM) monometric "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks.

We real cool. We
left school. We

lurk late. We
strike straight. We

sing sin. We
thin gin. We

jazz June. We
die soon.


      Remove the obvious curgination and we have:

We real cool.
We left school.

We lurk late.
We strike straight.

We sing sin.
We thin gin.

We jazz June.
We die soon.


     How do we know that the last two syllables in each stich are stressed?  By listening to the author recite it.



     There are few things more pointless than guessing and arguing about which syllables are being accented in a poem by a living author.  This is yet another reason why we should hear poetry instead of just reading it.

     Regular readers here are familiar with D.P. Kristalo's acrostic curgina, "Beans".  "Joie de Mourir" by the same author is a more standard use of the curginic approach:

Beyond this arid pit is life, lived
incognito. Dreams resist
our beckoning. Just coax the one
that's closest: I can see
my wife. A rose
corsage adorns her wrist; her iris
catches the voyeur sun.

I see her neckline, hem and slit
unfurl then gather like geese
in flight. At dusk we dance and turn
to tell the termagant wind
to end its fit. Two shadows
move at the speed of night
along the shadeless halls
of hell.


     Notice how many more meanings are afforded by these linebreaks.  Length variations make the speech more natural in the sense that few of us utter exactly 8 syllables between every breath.  Compare this to the decurginated version:

Beyond this arid pit is life,
lived incognito. Dreams resist
our beckoning. Just coax the one
that's closest: I can see my wife.

A rose corsage adorns her wrist;
her iris catches the voyeur sun.

I see her neckline, hem and slit
unfurl then gather like geese in flight.
At dusk we dance and turn to tell
the termagant wind to end its fit.

Two shadows move at the speed of night
along the shadeless halls of hell.


     Today, poets are finding new ways to present metrical poetry.  With practice, we'll be able to recognize stichs--verse--even if they come in "corata" (i.e. paragraphs), like "Shadows", without the need to have everything spelled out for us.  If we develop a truly uncanny ear we might even be able to discern the various rhythms and meters of a DATIA, something we will discuss in the final post of this series, "Scansion for Experts".








Footnotes:

¹  - Ironically, had "Prufrock" been free verse it might never have been published.  Ezra Pound convinced Poetry magazine editor Harriet Monroe that "Prufrock" wasn't the "rambling of an old man" by scanning it for her.  As one pundit remarked, with "Prufrock", T.S. Eliot eclipsed not only the ability of others to write verse but the capacity of many to read it.




Appendix A:

     Comments by Peter John Ross:

"Prufrock" isn't free verse. It's as far from free verse as anything written by Swinburne or the most elaborate troubadour. (Swinburne was the acknowledged expert on metre when "Prufrock" was written, and all the modernists had to read the troubadours because Pound wouldn't shut up about how good they were. In "Prufrock" Eliot equalled Swinburne, and might have impressed even Bertan de Born. And of course the non-metrical aspects of the poem surpass them both.)

Let us go then, you and I,
        (iambic trimeter with anacrusis)
When the evening is spread out against the sky
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
The muttering retreats
        (iambic trimeter)
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
        (iambic pentameter)
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells;
        (iambic pentameter)
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
        (iambic pentameter with anacrusis)
Of insidious intent
        (iambic trimeter with anacrusis)
To lead you to an overwhelming question...
        (iambic pentameter)
Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?'
        (iambic trimeter with anacrusis)
Let us go and make our visit.
        (iambic trimeter with anacrusis) 




    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.




 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Dumbest Controversy Ever

     Nick Sebastian's "Very Like a Whale" blog has brought an issue of sorts to our attention.  Apparently, the UK has taken an albeit tiny and obvious step in the right direction by inviting actors to read the winning poems at the Forward Arts Foundation awards ceremony.  Anyone who can follow a tautology must be asking:  "Writers write.  Performers perform.  End of 'controversy', right?"

     Apparently not.  It seems that some people think only the author's intent matters, even if he or she is incapable of communicating that view to anyone else.

     Only poets should read their poetry?  Now there is a marketing strategy!

     And should only designers model their outfits?


     More fundamentally, if interpretation is so important and only the poet's intent matters, what role is left for the audience?  Oh, right.  This stuff doesn't have an audience.  Moving along...

     If I quickly conclude that 2 + 2 equals 5 and others take their time to calculate that 2 + 2 equals 7 I have achieved greater efficiency than they.  Better speed and accuracy.  I'm still wrong, though. 

     Yes, the Forward Arts Foundation have moved from bad readers to good ones, but they're still readers.  If you're going to bring in performers, have them perform.



P.S.  Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian friends!






    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.



Friday, October 11, 2013

Beggaring the Question

 Earl the Squirrel's Rule #58
     Many people seem to think that "begging the question" means "raising the question".  In fact, it refers to "basing a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself."  It's like declaring that the presence of unicorns proves that they exist.

    Say, what?

    In discussing poetry, we often encounter the opposite:  the elimination of the only sensible answer in the phrasing of the question.  It's like asking:  "Other than 4, what is the sum of 2 + 2?"

    For example, in "The Missing Music in Today's Poetry" Arthur Krystal wonders implicitly where the music is in contemporary [arhythmic prose¹] poetry.  The progression from the quantified patterns of verse through the unquauntified ones of free verse to the unpatterned status quo has been a choreographed flight from musicality.  Now we wonder where the tune has gone?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #70

    Here is an even more fundamental case of beggaring the question:

    "How can we tell if a poem is any good without an audience²?"

     Prosodists like to bring up aesthetics from a time when poetry did have fans.  Obviously, that is cheating.  What part of "without an audience" do they not understand?

      On the plus side, the lack of listeners or readers is a boon to poet wannabes.

     "Who is to say my work isn't as good as anyone else's?"

      Who, indeed.

    See "tree falling in the forest."

    See "Pyrrhic Victory".


Footnotes:

¹ - Forgive the redundancies here.

² - Let alone an informed audience.



    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.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Who Cares About Poetry?

Poets: "Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know."

      - Christian Bök (Kelly Writers House, UPenn, November 18, 2009)



    Who cares about poetry?

    Based on sales figures and the lack of iconic poems, I'd say damned near no one.  The public certainly doesn't.  This is a convenient fact for many, since it means there may be no objective audience to judge their efforts.  These people consider non-poets to be the great unwashed.  That even the more sophisticated half of the populace isn't interested in poetry doesn't register with these gadflies.

     That leaves the less than 1% of the population who call themselves "poets" and produce something they label as "poetry".  If challenged, they riposte:  "Who are you to say what we crank out in such volumes isn't poetry?"

     Given that even honored versers have difficulty selling more than a few hundred books into a population of more than 6 million anglophone "poets" it is safe to say that almost no one, including poets, shows any interest in purchasing contemporary poetry.


     Typically, apologists will ignore the point that almost everyone--including poets and the bright, well-educated reader--ignores poetry and counter that sales are not an indication of artistic merit.  Fair enough.  Let's try another tack.

     How much do these fans know about the thing they say they care so much about?

     You know those game shows where the husband doesn't know the color of his wife's eyes?  Imagine a level of apathy and ignorance where the husband doesn't know his wife's gender.  That is what we're talking about here.  Poetry professors and manuals today describe "Prufrock" (written in not one but four meters) and "The Red Wheel Barrow" (arguably the most metrical poem ever written since it is accentual and lexometric) are, of all things, free verse!  Worse yet, few bother to correct them.

     That the public is indifferent to contemporary verse is a shame, yes, but it is also a challenge and an opportunity. 

     The same can be said about the fact that so few poets study or care about poetry.

     Frankly, I doubt there are more than 200 anglophones worldwide who know the difference between an iamb and a trochee (figuratively, if not literally).  Most of those who do populate high-end critical forums like Eratosphere, Poetry Free-For-All and Gazebo.  These people care very much about poetry.  They care enough to learn the elements of the craft rather than merely pay it lip service.  They care enough to contribute their time critiquing it in a manner and technical depth that others can barely imagine.  The result should surprise no one.  Whenever these poets compete on an even footing with others the more knowledgeable group almost invariably prevails (e.g. all of the last 10 Nemerovs).

     Thus, even the most profound ignorance and indifference has its purpose, lending added lustre to more polished contributions.



    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.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Promoting Poetry 1b

Oakland Raider QB and PK George Blanda
    In "Promoting Poetry 1a" we asked the question:  "How does the NFL make most of its money?"  Ticket sales?  Television revenues?  Trademarks?  Something else?

   In 1972 Raider quarterback and placekicker, George Blanda, was the first NFL player drafted in the first Fantasy Football ("FF") league.  With the establishment of the world wide web in the 1990s enthusiasm for FF took off.  Turn your television to the NFL Network channel and you will probably see reference to FF.  Access to the scores database that feeds FF packages, along with advertising revenues directly or indirectly related to FF pages, is currently the NFL's greatest source of income.

    From this, poets can learn that ways to expand and please an audience (and make money) may not be evident even after they are in place, and might be impossible to imagine beforehand.  Even those who joined FF leagues in the 1970s and 1980s couldn't dream of how it would spread a generation later.

    For those who aren't NFL fans, let me explain how FF works.  Participants ("drafters") acquire players (either through ordered picks or via an auction).  NFL players who fail to perform can be replaced with leftover players "on waivers" or as "free agents".  Each week the drafters field a team, leaving the rest of their players inactive (i.e. "on the bench").  The drafter whose activated players garner the most points (e.g. from yardage gains, touchdowns, catches, field goals, etc.) wins.  While true fanatics prefer Independent Defensive Player ("IDP") formats, most FF leagues involve offensive players (and one spot for a defense) only.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #60
    To an uninformed observer, this creates an odd effect:  contrary to the usual "root, root, root for the home team" tribal zeitgeist, participants cheer for individual players.  That is, if you own players on both sides of the game you're watching you will cheer for whoever has the ball:  "Come on!  Score!"

    From this, poets can learn the value of looking beyond one's geographic, aesthetic and intercommunication environment.  How many foreign anglophone poets do you know?  How many formalists?  Curginistas?  How many onliners or slammers?


Karen Solie
    Try to imagine music without, among countless others, the Beatles, Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, the Who, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and their influence on American songwriters.  Now ask yourself why poets and poetry are so often prepended with nationalities:  Canadian poet Karen Solie, "The decline of American verse", etc.   

    Another evident effect is the breadth and level of involvement.  Everyone is playing FF.  Fanatically.  Most surprisingly, this includes many people who don't watch the actual games.  Indeed, the majority of Fantasy Footballers will not watch a regular season game that doesn't impact their FF team's chances.  A Fantasy Football fan is not necessarily an avid Football fan.

    From this, poets can learn the importance of involving non-purists/non-poets.  As an audience member, what is my interest--my investment--in a poem?  If none, what are the odds of me becoming a poetry reader? 

    None.



    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.





Sunday, October 6, 2013

Promoting Poetry 1a

George Blanda
     If you want to learn how to write poems you read those of a Derek Walcott or a Margaret A. Griffiths.  If you want to know how to perform one you look at a Lawrence Olivier or an Anthony Hopkins.  If you want to know how to market poetry--or anything else--you look at the greatest promoters in human history:  the National Football League.

     Begin by asking the simplest question:  What is the principle source of income for that enterprise?  For example:  How does the NFL make most of its money?

  1. From stadium ticket sales?


  2. From television revenues, including its own NFL Network?


  3. From trademarks, including the authorized sale of its logos on shirts, hats, etc.?


  4. Other.  Please specify.


    Hmm.  Maybe this question isn't so easy after all!

    Here is a hint:  George Blanda, 1972.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Answer


     In our last blog entry this fact was mentioned:


     What, then, do the following disparate verses, as well as every other successful poem in every language, culture, form, niche or era have in common?

  • We real cool.  We
    skip school.  We

    Lurk late. We
    Strike straight.

         - from the first known curgina, "We Real Cool" written by Gwendolyn Brooks in 1959.


  • "Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
    Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."

         - from Shakespeare's Sonnet LXXIII, a critics' choice for best English language poem.


  • You'll wonder where the yellow went
    when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

         - Perhaps the 20th century's most recognized couplet.


  • And hunger not of the belly kind, that’s banished with bacon and beans,
    But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means;
    For a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above;
    But oh! so cramful of cosy joy, and crowded with a woman’s love

         - from "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" by Robert Service, the best selling poem from the best selling poetry volume of the 20th century.


  • Look at me now!
    It is fun to have fun
    But you have to know how.

         - "The Cat in the Hat", the best known poem by Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), the best selling author--not poet but author--of the 20th century.


  • He growls as he storms the country,
    A villain big and bold.
    And the trees all shake and quiver and quake,
    As he robs them of their gold.

         - from Steve Sabol's "The Autumn Wind" (1974), the closest thing to an iconic poem in the last half century.



     Hint:  Poems are made up of words.



     If you've given this any thought you know the answer:  all poems are memorable.  Commercial jingles interrupting our favorite television shows remind us that hearing poetry may or may not be a [pleasurable or] memorable experience, but poetry always involves memorable words.



    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.