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, April 30, 2014

Cynthia Wachtell's Son

Huffington Post Blogger Cynthia Wechtell
astronomy - the science that deals with the material universe beyond the earth's atmosphere.

astrology - the study that assumes and attempts to interpret the influence of the heavenly bodies on human affairs.

     Suppose that, hoping for a credit towards a Science degree, you signed up for a course on astronomy and were taught astrology instead.¹  You discover that neither your teachers nor their professors know the composition of stars;  many cannot even tell the difference between a sun and a moon in the night sky.

     Eventually, this practice is stopped.  Which bothers you more?  The bait-and-switch operation or its cessation?



Earl the Squirrel's Rule #64

     Please take a moment to read Cynthia Wachtell's "No Place for Poetry on My Son's Common Core ELA Test".  Don't sweat the details pertaining to any one particular program--Common Core, in this case.  The central point is that for decades poetry has been disappearing at every level of our education systems, from kindergarten to graduate school. 

     To quote Ms. Wachtell:  "We are now seeing a form of literary expression disappear without any discussion of whether it has a role to play in modern education."

     Poetry's revival would be a fait accompli if it had what Walt Whitman enjoyed during his lifetime:  "great audiences".

     Yeah.

     That ain't gonna happen any time soon.

     The art form would thrive in a public that has a clear-eyed understanding of what poetry is, what it does and, above all, how it does it.

     Yeah. 

     That ain't happening either.

     In the end, poetry will have to settle for Cynthia Wachtell's son.

     Two questions leap out us:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #50

1.  Why is this happening?

     That is easy to answer.  The cycle of apathy and ignorance has caught up with us.  As a society, we don't know the basics and we don't care to learn them.  How can we be surprised that poetry is going the way of Classical Greek and Latin? 

     Did we really think that contemporary poetry's 0% success rate would never have an impact on people's attitudes toward canonical poetry?  Apathy/ignorance has made poetry arcane;  absent from our common culture for over half a century, has it become obsolete?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #42

2.  Can any good come of this?

     When we say we aren't "teaching poetry" any longer, what do we mean?  Are we speaking literally, as in rote memorization of verses and practices that would help us perform poems?

     No.  That boat sailed half a century ago. 

     Are we referring to the elements of poetry?  Sonics?  Rhythm/meter?  The things that allow us to write, critique, teach or evaluate verse?

     No.  We haven't done that in decades either.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #97
     What we are really talking about jettisoning is the interpretation of poetry to the exclusion of all performance and prosodic considerations.  In my view, this is addition by subtraction.  By allowing the question "What does it mean?"² to die we move away from the cryptocrap factory and the "need" for English-to-English translators...toward...toward...Cynthia Wachtell's son.

     Ms. Wachtell got off to a rocky start with this disturbing piece of Content Regency:  "My son did not get it. He thought the woman was real. So I decided to teach him a bit about poetry."

     She recovered immediately with this:  "It was an appealing notion to sit side by side with him and talk about words, lines, and rhymes."

     Poetry involves "words, lines and rhymes"?  Not cryptograms, heart farts and homily wannabes?  Who knew?

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #104
     Ms. Wachtell hits full stride by showing more interest in technique than the two biggest poetry organizations have demonstrated in the last decade:  "We studied the poetic elements of the works: alliteration, meter, similes, and rhymes."

     She finishes off with an observation about performance that seems to have eluded many:  "My son no longer halted at the end of each line of poetry, whether the punctuation warranted it or not."  Obvious?  Sure.  In fact, it is something that instructors could have confirmed by conferring with any Shakepearean actor, any performance coach or, if too lazy to venture beyond the School Staff Lunchroom, any Theatre Arts teacher.

     Compare Cynthia Wachtell's remarks with the indifference toward technique shown by others within the poetry world.  If Ms. Wachtell and her son are representative of the literate public we might conclude that the only educated people not interested in poetry are--you guessed it--poets.



Footnotes:

¹ - Actually, it's not as absurd as it sounds.  The terms "astronomy" and "astrology" were once interchangeable.

² - ...as opposed to "Why will you remember this?"



    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.

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    We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel



Monday, April 28, 2014

Pearl Drops

The camera adds 10 grams to Pearl Gray.
     This is Pearl, Earl's sister.  You might remember me from the last time I filled in here:  "The Ten Most Influential People in Poetry Reviewed".  I just dropped by to sub for my brother, who is away this week, hobnobbing with Mickey Mouse, Punxsutawney Phil, Surly and Buddy (of "Nut Job" movie fame), Remy (from Rataatouille), and other celebrity rodentia.  What is the world coming to when a squirrel can't define and autopsy an art form, codify metrical, critiquing and general guidelines, debunk Convenient Poetics and dog whistle scansion, birddog poems for some of the world's largest poetry 'zines, coin useful terms (e.g. curgina, corata, DATIA, cada línea, etc.), serve as moderator, consultant, programmer and/or designer on three seminal online forums, and write a commercial poetry blog without some committee burying him under a gigantic trophy? 

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #18
     Have you ever wondered why Commercial Poetry lists only the top six of the ten best poems of this century?  Let me give you a behind-the-scenes peek at how the critics make such aesthetic judgements.

     First, it is rarely an "aesthetic judgement".  Except from some quibbling about position (e.g. 3rd rather than, say, 4th), there was no argument whatsoever about the top 9;  as for the 10th, the only disagreement was whether or not any poem qualified.  Apparently, the more that people know about something the more consensus there is regarding exemplars.  Who knew?

     Second, what disputes did arise were a result of the lack of ground rules.  Was it okay for an individual to have more than one poem in the Top 10?  Earl, being a poems-not-poets kind of squirrel, was in the "Sure, why not?" camp.  He was surprised to find that this was, initially, the minority position.  No one who knows my brother should be shocked to learn that this soon changed.

     Actually, matters got worse before they got better.  While they were wrangling over guidelines the author with two pieces already on the list produced a third.  (If nothing else, this precluded any debate about who the best living poet is.)  To avoid resentment, it was agreed that these two works, #7 and #10 on the list, would not be included.  That left #8 and #9, which were penned by one of the judges (who shall remain nameless).  2 recusals later we were left with a Top 6.

     Earl is hoping he doesn't blush at the awards ceremony.  It makes him look like a red squirrel in a misfitting tuxedo.



Sunday, April 27, 2014

Predictability

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #62
     You could call it one of the greatest opening or pickup lines in history.  She approached, glanced around, looked at him and said:  "So, this is where we will have met."



     In addition to being verbatim, poetry is, by definition, predictable.  I don't mean the content (e.g. storyline, moral, theme, motif, etc.), which can be as original and surprising as prose.  I mean the actual words.  Poetry allows us to foreshadow word choices with much more than literal evidence (e.g. "the sky is...duh...blue").  After a few hours of blank verse does it take a genius to figure out that the next foot will be an iamb?  Can you guess what word the poet is going to use to rhyme with "glove"?  When referring to a "gutter-gaunt [criminal]" in "Ballroom of Mars" does Marc Bolan use the term "mobster", "thug", "hood" or the [hint, hint] alliterative "gangster"?



    Taken together, these serve as mnemonics for the singer or reciter, albeit with the "cost" (read:  benefit) of signalling the next word or phrase.  Think of how songs rely on beats, melodies and chord progressions to get people singing in the shower, dancing, and/or playing air guitar in their underwear.  Lacking music, poetry will aim for a less exuberant response, perhaps, but doesn't it make sense that poetry relies even more on repetition (e.g. sonics, rhymes, rhythms, meter, anaphora, repetends, etc.) to encourage audience involvement?

    I don't like to make analogies to deciphering; in an era of cryptocrap it is fraught with danger.  That said, poetry can work as a crossword puzzle in real time, constantly setting us up in anticipation of the next word, only to have the riddle solved immediately before another is presented.  This involves the audience not just in the piece's appreciation but in its reassembly/performance¹ as well.

    On which end of the Repeatability spectrum does poetry lie?

  Jokes        Novels         Songs

    "Stop me if you've heard this before" is a common preface, used to avoid retelling the same joke.  At the far end of the scale, radio stations are replaying the same song dozens of times a day.  Novels, short stories and movies lie in between, closer to jokes than songs.²  Poetry stands closer to its subset, songs.  Rereading poems familiarizes us with [upcoming] verses.  In this sense, at least, predictability is not just "a good thing";  it is a primary goal.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #42
    What about on the first pass, though?  Well, we hope this is just one run-through among many, as the piece introduces itself and earns revisits.  Ideally, the poem will present interesting material and language just as, paradoxically, the words find innovative ways to serve as their own foretokens.

    Consider, too, "le mot juste":  the one and only word that fits.  In describing the acrid smoke rising and descending from a crematorium, one poet knew that "falling earthward" would not do.  (Doesn't everything fall "earthward"?)  Consultation with others in an online workshop yielded the perfect solution.  It isn't a choice that we might anticipate when first we encounter the line but, like Homer's "wine dark sea" and Marc Bolan's "gutter-gaunt gangster", we'll have no difficulty reconstructing that phrase at subsequent readings.  The word will not surprise us twice.  Indeed, should I have the pleasure of greeting you 25 years from now I expect you to answer "falling" with "fleshward".

   "Marco."

   "Polo."



Footnotes:

¹ - To create these fleeting expectations, free verse uses all the same tools except meter.  Indeed, that is the main difference between free verse and [lineated?] prose and the only difference between verse and free verse.

² - You watched "Breakfast at Tiffany's" a dozen times?  Okay, bow often did you hear "Moon River"?



    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.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel




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.

Parameters

     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
Nomenclature:

     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.



Footnotes:

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?



    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.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Monday, April 21, 2014

"Experts"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #38
    As you know, the word "geek" is not a pejorative to me.  I worked most of my life to earn this badge of honor.

    Recently, I saw a group of my fellow nerds, all of whom should know better, try to pass off celebrated credentials as an argument. 

   "So-and-so said it so it must be true!"

    This wasn't just lame.  It was from where lame crawls off to die.  I won't ask what happens if someone comes up with a conflicting source (and they will).

    Ask yourself this:  How bad must an "authority" be if none of his or her intelligent students/fans/readers can cogently present any of the things taught to them?

    Please understand two things:

1.  Squirrels don't live forever; and,

2.  If any of you ever presents "Because Earl said so" as a complete explanation or defense, know that I will track you to the ends of the earth and haunt you for all eternity.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Undertones


Definitions:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #82
     Bill Jones and Gus Spectre are the two suspects in a murder mystery novel.  With nothing else to go on, which one would you say is guilty?

     Hearing this, most will answer "Gus Spectre" because it sounds like the word "suspect".  This is an albeit heavy-handed illustration of undertoning:  using small similarities and differences to create a subconscious impression or link on a listener.  In this case, it is sonic undertoning. 

     Metrical undertoning involves using the tiny differences in accenting levels that one might find within feet made up entirely of stressed or unstressed syllables.¹ 

Notation:

     Traditionally, we view syllables as binary:  stressed or not.  Consider this clause:

...at my | day job

     A pyrrhus and a spondee.  Easy peasy.

     Now let's use Otto Jesperson's 4-level notation, which we here at Commercial Poetry designate with bolding if stressed, underlining if at the top of its range.  For example:

...at my | day job

Word  Level Description            Notation

"my"  = 1 = unstressed           = plain text

"at"  = 2 = like a shout-whisper = underlined

"job" = 3 = stressed             = bolded

"day" = 4 = strongly stressed    = bolded and underlined

     These designations allow us to make the point that the syllables within a pyrrhus or a spondee do not have to be exactly equal in emphasis.  We can have, for example, a trochaic pyrrhus ("at my", 2-1 in Jesperson's notation) or spondee ("day job", 4-3), or an iambic pyrrhus ("within", 1-2) or spondee ("blue dog", 3-4). 

Styles - Bangers versus Breakers:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #102
     These differences in stress levels within "uniform" (i.e. pyrrhic, spondaic, tribrachic or mollosic¹) feet will not be as sharp as that between accented and unaccented syllables but they can create an undercurrent ("undertones") that will play with or against the base rhythm.  For example, assuming the phrase "at my day job" (2-1-4-3) comes in a trochaic verse, the trochaic pyrrhus and trochaic spondee go with the grain. 

     By definition, "bangers" love strict cadences.  For example, the iambs we see from Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, Timothy Steele and most curginistas, starting with D.P. Kristalo, tend to be pounding metronomes.  Indeed, some bangers deny that true pyrrhics and spondees exist!  At the far end of the spectrum are the more sophisticated "breakers" who employ substitions, inversions, lame feet, sprung rhythm and other irregulaties to break the monotony.  These include Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and most classical poets, starting with William Shakespeare.  As a matter of style, bangers like consistency, uniform feet reflecting the base rhythm.  Breakers?  Not so much.  The latter may see it as an opportunity to create some tension or counterpoint by going against the grain.

     To illustrate, these two pyrrhic feet are the only two non-iambs in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", written by the Head Banger² himself, Robert Frost:
His house | is in | the vil|lage though

But I | have prom|ises | to keep

    Note that each pyrrhic is iambic (i.e. 2-1 in Jesperson's notation) within an iambic meter.

    Here is an example of a "countertone" (e.g. a trochaic pyrrhus or spondee within an iambic poem) from Tennyson's iambic tetrameter "In Memoriam":

     Binary:  When the | blood creeps | and the | nerves prick

Jesperson's:  When the | blood creeps | and the | nerves prick

    The second pyrrhus may be too close to call but the first is clearly trochaic (i.e. 2-1 in Jesperson's notation).  This tension adds to the mood of suspense in the storyline.  Sound and sense.

    Occasionally, we'll see bangers get carried away and misscan lines, like this Wordsworth one, in order to support some bizarre theory (this one described by the redundant expression "metrical scanning"):

Our birth | is but | a sleep | and a | forget|ting

     Hand that line to 1,000 native English speakers and you'll hear an countertone:

Our birth | is but | a sleep | and a | forget|ting

     The proper trochaic pyrrhus, "and a", completes the parallelism begun with "but a".  Sound and common sense.

Significance:   

    Oddly, bangers, whose use of undertones is generally limited to confirming the base pattern, tend to exaggerate the importance of this subject.  Others may see the topic as fascinating but consider it just one more instrument in a poet's toolbox.  Note that it was not detailed in our series on fundamental scansion.

Footnotes:

¹ - Of course, all of this is equally true of tribrachs and mollosi in trinary cadences (i.e. dactylic, amphibrachic or anapestic):

    Accented vs not:  ...and in the | damp, cold leaves

Jesperson's 4-level:  ...and in the | damp, cold leaves

² - Please excuse the pun.



    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.

Signed,

Earl Gray, Esquirrel


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Misconceptions

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


 Forescanning:

   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
Artifice:

    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."

    Amazing.

Iambification:

    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.



Footnotes:

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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Monday, April 7, 2014

DATIA

    Consider these two lines from the first and second sections, respectively, of Lord Byron's 1813 poem, "Bride of Abydos":

Where the citron and olive are fairest of fruit,

The mind within, well skilled to hide


    Now compare the two lines from the octet and sestet of Dr. A.W. Niloc's elegiac sonnet, "Grasshopper":

The world won't change for one so small

as the guide of my passing and mother to my dreams.


    What is remarkable about these verses?




Grasshopper uploaded by Earl Gray onto Vimeo.

     We've seen poems that have more than one meter in the same cadence.  For example, we have the "common meter" of many hymns, including "Amazing Grace", alternating between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter:

Amazing 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.

     Similarly, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has no less than four meters, all iambic:  trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter and heptameter.

     What distinguishes "Bride of Abydos" and "Grasshopper" from Amazing Grace" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is the change in cadence between iambic and anapestic.

From Section I:
Where the citron and olive are fairest of fruit,

From Section II:
The mind within, well skilled to hide



From the octet:
The world won't change for one so small

From the sestet:
as the guide of my passing and mother¹ to my dreams.



     Compare how jarring the iambic versus anapestic transition is compared to the smooth, seamless drifting between trinaries, from amphibrachs and anapests and back again, in Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat":

It's four in the morning, the end of December

And you treated my woman¹ to a flake of your life

Sincerely, L. Cohen




      The startling effect of mixing trinary (e.g. dactyls, amphibrachs or anapests) sections or stanzas with binary (e.g. trochees or iambs) ones defines the DATIA.  A complete DATIA uses all five cadences of the acronym:  Dactyls, Anapests, Trochees, Iambs and Amphibrachs.  An example is "Tecumseh" (who was aka "Shooting Star" or "Panther That Crouches In Wait"):

You, Canadian? The greatest American? You fought to be neither, but nor
were you panther that crouches in wait. You were egret, your feet in the mud
as you stood above weeds. Both your fathers would leave you to war.
Brock would say no more valorous warrior exists. Sure as apple trees bud,

the pleas of a peacemaker can't be imparted
while even your traplines have got to be guarded.

Time was gravity, as shooting stars descended.
Time was charity, and at the Thames it ended.

The cities were the bellows of the wind that blew
at Prophetstown, across the rivers, over you.
Gray wolves surround the egret. Foxes slink away,
their coats the color of your blood. You'd say:

"Sing your death song and then die like a hero returning home."
Yours was the song of that egret, your life like a burning poem.

     The meters of the stanzas are:   

1 Anapestic Hexameter
2 Amphibrachic Tetrameter
3 Trochaic Hexameter
4 Iambic Hexameter
5 Dactyllic Pentameter

     Note that the stanzas/sections can switch in midsentence.

     The rare but venerable DATIA is perfect for longer poems with different speakers, moods, plot points, time periods, perspectives, et cetera.  The catch is that they require a certain level of mastery.

     Trivia Question:  Other than the fact that they are both DATIAs, what do "Tecumseh" and "Bride of Abydos" have in common?  Hint:  You don't need to use any words in your answer.



Footnotes:

¹ - In essence, "mother" ("moth'r") and "woman" ("wom'n") are scanned as one syllable.



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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Phone Deaf

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #56
     Some people cannot locate stresses, even in their own writing.

     In a single critical thread on Eratosphere one phone deaf newcomer mistook "pomegrantates" as a dactyl ("pom(e)|granates", not even getting the number of syllables correct) rather than as a diamb, and "persimmons" as a bachius ("per|simmons") rather than as an amphibrach.  Elsewhere, he tried to present this as a line of perfect iambic pentameter:

the dead|ness in | the orch|ard, the | wren’s sigh,

     Those who don't suffer from this affliction will hear the line as:

the dead|ness in | the orch|ard, the | wren’s sigh,

     ...which works well as a line of iambic pentameter:  iamb (de-DUM), pyrrhus (de-de), iamb (de-DUM), double iamb (i.e. pyrrhus, then spondee:  de-de DUM-DUM).

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #55
     Ironically, the sufferer cited a definition:  "In linguistics, prosody...is the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech."  The operative word there is speech

     If you have a problem imagining where stresses lie insert the line into a paragraph of text¹ and have someone else read it aloud.  Perhaps you can hear the accented syllables.  Consult a dictionary to parse the enunciation of polysyllabic words.  Among monosyllabic ones, nouns and verbs tend to be stressed while less significant words (e.g. articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.) are usually not.  (Pronouns could go either way.)  Be patient.  The problem will usually dissipate with practice. 

     Others will have a less pronounced case of phone deafness.  This leads us to two points:

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #31
1.   Contrary to delusions caused by an over-reliance on text in an aural/oral medium, guessing where stresses are intended is not a function of scansion or prosody.  It is a related to performance, equally applicable to prose/rhetoric and poetry.  Regardless of whether you are rehearsing "Long Day's Journey into Night" or the iambic pentameter "Hamlet", if you start pounding on every second or third syllable your director is bound to interrupt, asking "Why are you speaking unnaturally?"

     Poetry being a verbal art, scansion begins after a competent reciter has decided where the stresses land.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #37
2.  Promotion and demotion are myths.  There really is such a thing as a pyrrhic foot.²  No, really.  Take the word "in" from the line cited above:

the dead|ness in | the orch|ard, the | wren’s sigh,

    Some will consider "in" accented "by position", as if poetry performers should underscore the metronome by "promoting" a pyrrhus to the base iambic rhythm.  Some might argue that the number of feet and beats must coincide, such that, for example, pentameter verses must have 5 stresses.  Thus, any line with a spondee would have to contain a pyrrhus and vice verse.  Needless to say, no such "rule" exists.  Indeed, this is a key difference between accentual and accentual-syllabic verse. 

    The preposition "in" isn't stressed, just as the article, "the", isn't.³

    If the symptoms of phone deafness persist watch Shakespearean theater.

    Lots of Shakespearean theater.



Footnotes:

¹ - The idea is to disguise the text as prose in order to avoid the tendency of some to overstress the base rhythm.

² - This may be a carryover from Edgar Allan Poe's career-ending misadventure into prosody, "The Rationale of Verse", which included, among other gobsmacking errors, the assertion that there is no such thing as a spondee.  This, coupled with his inability to scan the initial section of Byron's "The Bride of Abydos", explains why Poe was unable to make a living as a poet at a time when the average grade school graduate understood scansion better than most PhD's do today.

³ - This isn't to say that "the" and "in" receive exactly the same level of stress.  In Otto Jesperson's 4-level scansion, "the" would be a one while "in" would be a two, both being unstressed.



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    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.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel