Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Working with Meter and Rhyme

I mentioned at the end of the last post I'd save meter and rhyme for a separate entry. So I wanted to come back and offer some thoughts on what to watch out for when working with meter and/or rhyme.

The single biggest problem I see in metrical poetry is that it's too regular, and over-regular meter tends towards a sing-song quality:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
We can also hear how that regularity makes the rhymes clang.

So, how do you work in meter and rhyme, without ending up with over-regular, sing-song lines?

Standard Variations
Iambic (da DUM) pentameter does not mean every line has five iambs. It means every line has five feet, and those feet are (for the most part) either iambs or standard variations used in iambic pentameter. Even Alexander Pope, a poet who makes no use of anapests and little use of enjambment, used standard variations in his iambic pentameter.

For instance, if we look at the first stanza of Pope's "An Essay on Criticism":
'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.
One common variation in iambic pentameter is to use a trochee (DUM da) in the line's first foot, rather than an iamb. So, we get:
BUT, of / the TWO, / less DANG'/rous IS / th' OfFENCE,
Another common variation is to use a spondee (DUM DUM) in the first foot:
TEN CEN/sure WRONG / for ONE / who WRITES / aMISS;
Another variation is to to use a pyrrhic, or pyrrhus, (da da) followed by a spondee (DUM DUM) in feet three and four of the line:
To TIRE / our PAT/ience, than / MIS-LEAD / our SENSE:
Another common variation is the feminine ending--having one last unstressed syllable at the end of the last foot. There are no examples in the Pope stanza, so let's look at a stanza from W.R. Robinson. He makes great comic use of feminine endings in "Miniver Cheevy":
MINi/ver LOVED / the ME/diCI,
AlBE/it HE / had NEV/er SEEN / one;
He WOULD / have SINNED / inCES/santLY
Could HE / have BEEN / one.
Robinson also uses a short last line--two feet instead of four feet--so that the meter undercuts Miniver Cheevy's pretensions, in sync with the meaning of the words.

The examples above are not meant to be all-inclusive--the best way to get a sense of the variations available within metered verse is to read a lot of metered verse. Ideally, across a number of time periods. Also, a couple of books I like, which give good overviews of metrical poetry, are Paul Fussells' Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (a formal analysis, coming from the perspective of literary criticism), and Judson Jerome's The Poet's Handbook (a more writer-centric analysis, coming from a poet who you used to write the Poetry Column in Writer's Digest).

NOTE: The way a line is scanned is not absolute. You start by holding both the stresses implied by the meter, and the stresses implied by the way the sentences would be spoken, and from there you make your judgment about how a given line scans. You might disagree with the way I scanned some of the lines above.

Anapestic Substitution
Up to about 1800, it was rare to see anapests (da da DUM) in iambic poetry. However, when Coleridge wrote "Cristabel," he opened the door by making heavy use of anapests within an overall iambic meter:
Tis the MID/dle of NIGHT / by the CAS/tle clock,
And the OWLS / have aWAK/ened the CROW/ing COCK;
Tu--whit !-- -- Tu--whoo !
And HARK, / aGAIN! / the CROW/ing COCK,
NOTE: In his Preface, Coleridge claimed more than just anapestic substitution was going on--he claimed to be writing accentual rather than accentual-syllabic verse. I'll leave that debate for another time.

Since the Romantic poets, anapestic substitution does show up in iambic meters. One needs to be very careful when using anapests within iambic meter. Too many, used without care, can lead to the feel of the meter breaking down. And you will come across some critics who don't condone the use of anapests in iambic meter at all. However, if used judicially, an anapestic substitution can sometimes make for a much more natural sounding line. So, keep the idea in your toolbox. Even Robert Frost has made use of it:
The PEO/ple aLONG / the SAND
All TURN / and LOOK / one WAY.
They TURN / their BACK / on the LAND.
They LOOK / at the SEA / all DAY.
Your sentences don't have to end, or pause, at the end of a line. In fact, one very powerful way to get variation in your meter, and also "cover" your rhymes so they don't jangle, is to use enjambment. That is, let your sentence keep going past the end of the line, and wrap around into the next line. The following example is blank verse, not rhymed, but I love Milton's use of enjambment. Here is the opening stanza of Book Two of Paradise Lost:
High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshon the wealth of ORMUS and of IND,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showrs on her Kings BARBARIC Pearl & Gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit rais'd
To that bad eminence; and from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain Warr with Heav'n, and by success untaught
His proud imaginations thus displaid.
These are the main ways you can get variation within your lines when working with meter and rhyme. And you'll probably also want to give some thought to varying where you put the caesura (break) within your lines.

As I said before, I like metrical poetry with rhyme schemes. So for those who like to work in meter and rhyme, I hope the above thoughts will be helpful. And for those who haven't worked much with meter and rhyme, I hope this will give you some ideas to try out.

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Blogger Angela said...

You just took me right back to the first class of my 2nd year of university, wherein we had to deconstruct a Shakespearean sonnet and then write one of our own. I love me some iambic pentameter!

July 27, 2007 10:10 AM  

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