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, May 31, 2015

Rhythms of Speech

     Some poets focus on scansion to the exclusion of rhythm elsewhere.  Let's switch horses for a moment and consider the regularities of common speech.  Humor me.  I promise I'll come to a point eventually.

     The main difference between listening to verse and prose is that meter involves processing stichs of fixed length.  We soon learn how and when the line is going to end.  Thus, we scan verse backwards.  To wit, amid many similar lines we can discern that Leonard Cohen is not finished here:

I am the one who loves changing from nothing...

      Thus, we wait for the finale: 

...to one.

      If surrounded by the rest of the lyric we hear the meter as [acephalous] anapestic (de-de-DUM) pentameter:

I | am the one | who loves chang|ing from noth|ing to one.

      We don't have this luxury in prose.  Instead, we must assimilate the rhythms as they occur, hearing them as a string of dactyls, the last one incomplete.

I am the | one who loves | changing from | nothing to | one...et cetera.

     Rising rhythms (i.e. iambs, anapests, bacchics) begin with unaccented syllables and end with stressed ones.  Falling ones (i.e. trochees, dactyls, antibacchics) are the opposite.  Roughly, the risers are used to express information and independence;  the fallers, emotionalism and authority.    

     Because Anglo-Saxons used so many articles and monosyllabic words, starting with the verb "to be" in all its forms, English is unquestionably an iambic (de-DUM, "rely") language.

The cat is here.

     Iambs, then, are our default pattern, evident in must reportage.  They produce a business-as-usual march of time.  We may wonder:  "What are the effects of the other cadences?"

     Trochee (DUM-de, "counter") suggests the imperative (i.e. commands and urgency), sometimes creating eeriness or suspense in the process.

Go to hell you jackass!

Help them!

     It follows that if we use trochees (DUM-de, "eager") for less forceful speech we risk losing modulation, like a slam poet screaming into the microphone for three minutes straight.  As they say, "too much emphasis is no emphasis at all."

     The spondee (DUM-DUM, "foxhound") and molossus (e.g. DUM-DUM-DUM, "wine dark sea") are just trochees on steroids but will tend to be more passionate than urgent, more contentious than authoritative.

Screw you!

No, I won't!

...and in the off chance that pigs fly...

     Strong, sympathetic leader characters will issue orders using trochees, not spondees.  The opposite is true of weaker tyrants.

     As the term "unstressed" suggests, pyhrrics (de-de, "as a") and tribachs (de-de-de, "and on the") are soothing, transitional sections.  As the excitement builds towards a climax these give way to  accented syllables.  In terms of tempo, stressed syllables are slower than unaccented ones.  To illustrate these points, compare this filler:

I am on the couch.

     ...to the conclusion drawn in this key sentence:

I think, therefore I am.

     Trinaries that include a stressed and two unstressed syllables tend to suggest movement, which might be literal (e.g. action), strategic (i.e. rising to or falling from a climactic point) or evolutionary (e.g. growth, entropy, metamorphosis).  This general trend is far more evident than the differences between trinaries, especially if we don't know when they began.

     The "waltzing" dactyl (DUM-de-de, "constitute") suggests the structure of a ball room or the fatalism of a Greek play.  Among the binaries, it is most closely associated with the trochee.  Conversely, the "driving" anapest (de-de-DUM, "a la carte") mirrors the iamb and often conveys lighter motifs.  If detectable, the "hopping" amphibrach (de-DUM-de, "repentant") suggests [mis]adventure.

     Trinaries with two accented syllables tend to be more distinct.  The "rocking" cretic (DUM-de-DUM, "Lancelot") hints at frustrating zero sum endeavors:


Back and forth, | up and down

     As Clint Eastwood so aptly demonstrated, this futility can lead to resignation, enervation or callous indifference:

Hey, a man's | gotta do | what a man's | gotta do.

Do you feel | lucky, punk?

Go ahead.  | Make my day.

     The "badgering" bacchius (de-DUM-DUM, "We real cool") connotes insistence.  At the far extreme is the "detailing" antibacchius (DUM-DUM-de, "storm windows"), often explaining things in a stentorious MODIFIER-NOUN-verb format:

Black death was...etc.

     Even more than other falling rhythms (e.g. trochee and dactyl), antibacchic patterns can sound heavy handed. 

Hip bone con|nect'd to the | thigh bone.  The | thigh bone con|nect'd to the | knee bone.  The...etc.

     ...which could also be scanned as bacchics:

The hip bone | connect'd to | the thigh bone. | The thigh bone | connect'd to | the knee bone.  

     As we would see if the above were to occur in a conversation or speech, it is often difficult for our ear to detect in real time where and when the rhythm string began.  My advice is not to worry about this;  in well-composed efforts this will be either apparent or inconsequential.

     Speechwriters understand intuitively, if not consciously, when to employ which cadence.  This skill is glaringly evident in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the rhetoric feats of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and others.  Poets?  For metrists, it is a simple matter to choose the one cadence that captures the stanza's mood.  Almost by definition, today's text-based prose poets couldn't be bothered learning about rhythms--if only because they don't anticipate anyone reciting their work aloud.  That leaves the 2% of poets capable of writing actual free verse.  For them, this can be one of the most fascinating, vital and beneficial aspects of prosody.

Margaret Ann Griffths

     As you could tell if you were to hear someone perform "Studying Savonarola", Margaret A. Griffiths (1947-2009) was the undisputed authority on twinning cadence with pace, mood and theme.  Did you know that for years Maz earned half of her income by winning poetry contests?  If the judges were conscientious enough to read the entries aloud the event became a struggle for second place. 

     Not that you should need it, but this is yet more independent, double-blind proof that the woman many knew as "Grasshopper" was, far and away, the greatest poet of our time.

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Earl Gray, Esquirrel

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