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 24, 2014

Geeks versus Scholars

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #93

     Contrary to popular misconception, geeks (aka "nerds" or "dweebs") are very sociable creatures.  The catch is that they tend to communicate exclusively with other nerds and only about the subject at hand:  poetry.  It might also surprise some to learn that dweebs "don't sweat the small stuff."

     No.  Really.

     In the context of this discussion scholars (aka "critics" or "aesthetes") will be considered a subset of academia devoted to literary arguments.  For the most part, geeks and scholars are among the very few who discuss the elements of verse;  the latter do so only in textbooks or articles, the former on blogs or in online workshops.  Given that many geeks are also academics, it would seem the two groups are almost identical. 

Another view
     Not so.  Not even the same species.

     Geeks deal with consensus.  Agreement.  Resolution.  Scholars prefer unresolvable disagreement, as evidenced in their formal theses.  It's a subtle distinction but dweebs like facts while critics like details.  Nerds concentrate on poems.  Aesthetes are more comfortable talking about poets but will, occasionally, talk about verse, especially with those of the same school (literatally and figuratively).  Critics write criticism (duh!) while dweebs write critiques.  Literary versus constructive.


     Three basic guidelines pertain to discussions involving these people:

 1.  Just the words for us nerds.

     When discussing technique--which is almost all geeks ever talk about--both groups avoid mention of content/interpretation.  Scholars do address these matters elswhere [in what passes for literary criticism today].  Tellingly, when Timothy Steele prefaced a technical manual¹ with "Good poems offer us liveliness of wit, sincerity of feeling, depth of intelligence...", even though he qualified it later on in the sentence, every nerd on the planet said in unison:  "He ain't one of us."

 2.  Don't guess the stress.

     Think about the prosody of speech, not the pathology of speech.  If there is any question as to whether a syllable is accented or not, move on.  Skip that foot.  Find another example.  If you must, toss a coin.  It is unlikely to matter.

 Foot #1     Foot #2     Foot #3     Foot #4     Foot #5
blah BLAH | blah BLAH | blah BLAH | blah BLAH | blah BLAH
blah BLAH | blah BLAH | blah blah | blah BLAH | blah BLAH

     Having discerned that the poem is iambic pentameter, it is entirely inconsequential whether that 3rd foot is a pyrrhus (da-da) or an iamb (da-DUM).

 3.   Use the conditional or the subjunctive.

     If your group must agree on whether a syllable is accented or not, use The 99 Luftballons  Solution:  type the passage up as corata (i.e. as text in paragraphs, without identifying it as verse), hand it to 100 native English speakers, record the reading and measure the wave patterns onscreen.  Knowing there's a Chandler Bing in every crowd, if you get 99 of your trial balloons coming up with the same enuncation, the dispute is over.  Failing that, start with "How would 100 anglophones..." or "If we were to give this to 100..."

     If someone who believes that spondees and pyrrhics don't exist tries to tell you that this is, of all things, an iamb, just walk away:

Our birth | is but | a sleep | and a | forget|ting
 Iambic     Iambic   Iambic    Iamb?   Iambic

     To make their case, scholars adopt an interesting system of "moveable goalposts", constantly redefining what is and is not stressed:

No self|ish wish | the moon's | bright glance | confines (p32)
 1  4    1   4      1    4        3      4       1  4
 iambic  iambic     iambic        spondee        iambic

     Those who have used expressions such as "iambic spondee" for over four centuries to describe this penultimate foot will consider both halves of a 3-4 stressed, making it a spondee (DUM-DUM).  However, if you believe that spondees and pyrrhics are a myth or have to be exactly equal in stress, then you will see five iambs:

No self|ish wish | the moon's | bright glance | confines
 iambic  iambic      iambic        iambic?!      iambic

    For the purposes of their argument, then, rhythm is determined by contrasts between syllables within that foot.  Not merely adjacent, mind you, but within that same foot. That these differences might not be heard by human ears, as is the case may be with strings like "moon's bright glance", explains why one pundit dubbed this "dog whistle scansion."³

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #75

     Both geeks and scholars tend to be very careful about terms but don't necessarily agree on their precise meanings or purpose.  For example, consider this Wikipedia definition of "metrical" versus "rhythmic" scansion:  " For clarity, scansions that mark only ictus and nonictus will be called 'metrical scansions', and those which mark stress or other linguistic characteristics will be called 'rhythmic scansions'."

     Remember that "Friends" episode where "Ross" talks about going to Beijing and eating Chinese food? 

     "Of course," he adds, "over there they just call it 'food'."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #86
     The expression "metrical scansion", if used to describe standard 2-level/stressed-or-not scansion, is redundant.  In a prosodic discussion, what else would we be scanning?  The horizon?  Similarly, "rhythmic scansion" can be  described as "rhythm" or "cadence", especially if expanding the discussion to include "stress or other linguistic."  Thus, these terms, "metrical" and "rhythmic", add nothing but confusion to the word "scansion".  By definition, aren't all verses metrical and rhythmic?

     "Absolutist"?  "Relativist"?  Gee, I wonder which of those terms is more pejorative in academic circles.  No matter.  Let's get this straight:  Those who absolutely deny the existence of spondees [unless they involve two stresses which are absolutely equal, at least] are "relativists" while those who feel that the sounds can be relatively distinct are "absolutists"?  How is comparing proximate syllables any more "relative" than comparing distant and far more numerous ones?  If geeks were to discuss this notion (which they wouldn't), I'd bet they would use the term "global" to describe accepting the tautology that "stressed is stressed"  while "local" would refer to the focus within feet.

      At best, this is an "I say 'tom-AI-toe', you say 'tom-AW-toe', let's call the whole thing off" argument.  At worst, it is an unwillingness to use precise, longstanding, orthodox², and self-explanatory terminology (e.g. trochaic pyrrhus, iambic spondee, cretic mollosus, dactylic tribachs, etc.).

The Bottom Line: 

      Such encyclopedic² volumes¹ are a bounty of information.  When all is said and done, though, as interesting and educational as these treateses may be, a person can read a 333 page¹ book on scanning poems without learning about--you guessed it--scanning poems, including the famous examples cited here or elsewhere.  Even a key term like "heterometer", needed to describe not one but both of the best known poems in the 20th century canon, is entirely overlooked.  Also conspicuous by its absence is the most prominent advocate and essay for Spondee Deniers:  Edgar Allan Poe's "The Rationale of Verse" was published (albeit "more as an act of charity than anything else") in 1848.  Despite the ridicule, though, it hasn't worked as a cautionary tale;  every generation or so another scholar, desperate for a theme, resurrects it.

     The fad lasts until some tiny creature asks The Question: 

    "Why not call things what they are?"

     Like I said, don't sweat the small stuff.


¹ - "All the Fun's in How you Say a Thing - An Explanation of Meter an Versification", published by Ohio University Press, ©1999

² - "The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics" (4th Edition, p1352) includes this:

    "Several knowledgeable and sensible modern metrists (J.B. Mayor, George Saintsbury, Fitzroy Pyle, Clive Scott, G.T. Wright) have long held that the foot of two heavy syllables is a legitimate variation in iambic verse...Absolutists, these metrists hold that, if two contiguous odd-even streses in a line are both strong--perhaps not perfectly equal in stretch (though it is certainly paossible) but nearly so--then they should be counted as strong and the foot is, thus, spondee.  That is, if both stresses are, on a sale of four degrees of stress (1 strongest, 4 weakest), 1s or 2s (i.e., either the sequence 1-2 or 2-1), then scansion should reflect the fact that these levels are both above 3 and 4."

     Later, it describes the opposite:  "Relativist scansion more accurately tracks the shape of line movement;  absolutist scansion more accurately takes account of which syllables are heavy and which not."

³ - Some even maintain that scansion is not based on normal human speech.  (Say, what?)  Damn.  It's bad enough that 100 chimpanzees with 100 keyboards are producing Shakespeare.  Now they're performing it, too?

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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