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

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #50
    All of us understand that these last fifty years have been poetry's Dark Age.  All of us understand that poetry is dead [on the demand side].  What we might not understand is how perilously close we came from erasing any chance of reincarnating verse in the future.

    Since music replaced poetry in the 1920s, prosodic technique has been neglected, leaving a dwindling number of cognescenti to keep the flame alive like medieval Irish monks transcribing ancient classics.  Such geeks became an endangered species, reduced to a few dozen worldwide in the 1970s, rebounding somewhat with the Internet's arrival. 

    Suppose you wanted to learn how to write poetry.  Where would you look? 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #52
    Let's say you're wary about using some unedited, unverified source on the Internet.  A university course would be expensive, time-consuming and focused more on interpretation or inspiration than technique.  That leaves the dreaded How-To manual.  As we'll see, the problem there is that the authors of these texts are not geeks. 

    Okay, how about an older tome?  Lacking a common experience, too much is assumed.  As we'll see, it would be as difficult for 19th century denizens to explain verse to us as for us to explain the Internet to them.

    Meanwhile, enumerable interrelated theories rushed in to fill the vacuum of ignorance.  These included metrical inflection, forescanning, artifice, iambification, and promotion/demotion.

Metrical Inflection:

    According to one comparatively obscure misapprehension, the "conventions of prosody and scansion based on a rising meter such as iambic pentameter simply DON'T APPLY to falling meter."

    Needless to say, neither the source nor anyone else could hazard a guess as to why this would be so or cite any verse to illustrate this bizarre notion.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #60


   Backscanning has always been the standard for accentual-syllabic meter.  In "The Rationale of VerseEdgar Allan Poe demonstrated the folly of scanning from left to right.  More recent authors have repeated Poe's error, leading to their inability to scan "The Red Wheelbarrow" or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" correctly.  Given that lines find their rhythm as we move from left to right, it is simple common sense to look for patterns at their ends.  Not surprisingly, when non-geeks learn the basics of scansion, disagreements disappear.²

    Poetry being an integral part of their times, Victorian authors would not point out something as obvious as backscanning for the same reason that we might not think to begin their first Internet lesson with "Wait two centuries for Al Gore to invent the World Wide Web.  Then..."

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #59

    Despite the best efforts of Shakespearean actors everywhere, there exists a pervasive belief that poetry is not presented as normal speech.  Even without portentous hush considerations, reciters often sound like stoned robots³ dumped at an ESL outlet for elocutionary reprogramming.

    Here is a quote from one long term artifice advocate:  "The way I understand meter, how a poem is stressed when it's read out loud and how it's scanned are two different things."



    Some seem to think that everything is iambic except--you guessed it!--iambs.  William Blake's "The Tyger" is often miscanned as trochaic while T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is frequently mistaken for free verse.  Meanwhile, we've seen the accentual dimeter works of Elizabeth Bishop's "Sonnet (1979)" and Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Moriturus" mistaken for iambs.

Promotion and Demotion:

    The Chandler Bing School of Poetry insists that important nouns and verbs are de-emphasized while articles, prepositions, conjunctions and the like are stressed, all depending on their position.

For example, someone tried to argue that this was iambic pentameter:

the hand | that slipped | the gold | clasp of | her chok|-er

    ...instead of the normal sounding:

the hand | that slipped | the gold | clasp of | her chok|-er

    ...which would need to be revised to work as iambic pentamter:

the hand | that slipped | the clasp | of her | gold chok|-er
Earl the Squirrel's Rule #61
     In one passage, a source wrote that "...we determine if a syllable is metrically accented by comparing it with the other syllable or syllables of the foot in which it appears."  Later in the same paragraph we read:  "A syllable lightly stressed in speech may, if it appears in a foot in which the other syllable receives even less stress, take a metrical accent."

     Don't sweat the fine tuning before you've found the right channel.  If I ask you whether something is hot or cold don't come back with "cool" [or "warm"].  Worse yet, because "cool" is warmer than "cold", don't try to tell me it is hot.  Barring Otto Jesperson's 4-level notation or undertones, there is no such thing as "metrically accented".  Scanners follow natural speech.  A pyrrhus is a pyrrhus.  A tribrach is a tribrach.  Period.  Why complicate a simple tautology? 

     As an example, consider a simple double iamb such as:

...in my | cold heart.

     Prosody being a science, suppose you do a sonograph of a person speaking those four words.  Suppose "in" registers two units of stress, "my" gets three, "cold" twelve and "heart" thirteen.  2-3|12-13.  Does anyone want to seriously argue that this is anything other than a pyrrhus and a spondee?

     Other common irregularities in recitation include pausing for lung transplants between lines, throwing rhyme parties, over-enunciating, and either "metronoming" (i.e. overstressing every second or third syllable--randomly if not a metrical poem) or monotoning throughout.

     So where does this leave someone trying to learn the rudiments of poetry?  Trusting their instincts.  Being a science, prosody has to make sense.  If no cogent argument is apparent my advice is to move on.


¹ - In "The Rationale of Verse" we saw Edgar Allan Poe end any chance of a successful career by denying the existence of spondees and by trying to forescan the anapestic tetrameter in "Bride of Abydos".

² -  Indeed, at least one college textbook had to be recalled and rewritten because of this information.  Recent editions of the best selling poetry handbook had their scansion sections gutted due to errors.  To their credit, the authors made these revisions in a timely manner, often at considerable cost.

³ -  I was wondering how they manage to get the automatons blazed.  If nothing else, they give new meaning to the term "wired".

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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