Posts Tagged ‘meter’

Talking about Meter

Meter has to be one of the hardest subjects to tackle in Creative Writing, and how you handle it can make or break your students’ experience of writing poetry. Some teachers probably ignore it altogether, which seems a shame, yet others quickly get into the weeds and make poetry seem complicated and impossible to write, which is another kind of shame that’s easy to do. In my textbook, A Writer’s Craft, I try to take a middle path by introducing concepts of meter and feet, but not stressing them too much. I also try to explain why it’s so complicated, which I’d like to get into in a little more detail here.

When working on the proofs for A Writer’s Craft, the editors wondered why I didn’t give a one-word example for pyrrhic, like I had for all the other feet. About the only example I could come up with is “uh-uh”, but even that could be pronounced differently, depending on the context. A pyrrhic foot has two unstressed syllables. But it’s impossible not to stress a syllable at all, so I like to say it has two less stressed syllables. Less than what? Less stressed than the other syllables that surround it.

In performance, I might pronounce “uh-uh”  with the accent on the first “uh” or the second “uh,” or I might pronounce them the same relative to the other stressed syllables around them. Any examples I find for the pyrrhic foot (or dibrach) can be viewed the same way, and most examples of the spondee (with two stressed syllables) are suspect: viewed in isolation, we probably stress one syllable of a pair more than the other, but in a sentence when surrounded by other unstressed syllables, the spondee stands out. (The word is a pretty good example of the foot, but whether you say SPONdee or sponDEE or SPONDEE may depend on your preference and the words in the sentence around it.) With no words around it, our example, “uh-uh,” might sound like a spondee (“UH-UH”), an iamb (“uh-UH”), a trochee (“UH-uh”), or a pyrrhic foot (“uh-uh”). The way you pronounce it may also affect the meaning. So I chose to leave the example blank.

Disclaimer: all of my examples of metrical feet in the textbook are a little misleading because they are words. Typically, when scanning a line of poetry, the feet in the line and the words in the line don’t match up. A word may have parts of a couple of feet in it, or a foot may be made up of more than one word. Often the foot starts in one word and ends in the next, and the next foot starts in that same word. Some polysyllabic words may even have parts of more than two feet in them.

Looking words up in the dictionary is only a partial help. The dictionary usually marks the strongest stress in the word, but when scanning poetry, relative stress is also taken into account, and sometimes there is a syllable in a polysyllabic word that has more stress than most syllables, even if it isn’t the most-stressed syllable in the word. “Polysyllabic” is a good example, since I would stress the first and the fourth syllables, though I would probably stress the fourth slightly more than the first. Syllables two, three, and five definitely have the least stress.

When looking for examples of metrical feet, I came across an example of a scanned poem by James Merrill that illustrates my point of how difficult and subjective it can be to  scan a poem. The example is at the OWL at Purdue, which I respect, so I don’t raise it to criticize them but to consider the challenges of scansion. For now, I’ll ignore the fact that the example poem, “A Downward Look,” is in free verse, so scanning it may be anathema. Their attempt, though often good, raises some issues. For instance, in the third line of the poem, they scan the word “luxurious” as having 4 syllables, which is true, but in performance it often sounds like 3 with the accent on the middle syllable. In the scanned line, OWL seems to end the line with an anapest (they don’t mark the divisions between feet, so it’s a little hard to tell). I’d probably call it an iamb with “ious” sounding more like “yus” than “ee-ous” and ending on the stressed syllable “bath.” The full line, scans well either way: “Foam on a long, luxurious bath” with one trochee and then 3 iambs or 2 iambs and an anapest, depending on your pronunciation. Both the trochee and the anapest would be acceptable variant feet in a mostly iambic line.

Another bothersome line is the first line of the third couplet, “Over protuberances fault,” which OWL scans as having only 3 stresses: “OVer proTUBerances FAULT.” The dictionary would agree that the most stressed syllable in “protuberance” is the second, yet it also notes a secondary stress on the last syllable. Scanning, “erances” as three unstressed syllables is problematic, since that’s rare. You could say this line contains a trochee “OVer” followed by an amphibrach “proTUBer” followed by an anapest “-ances FAULT.” But that would be a very muddy rhythm indeed, with no clear pattern and completely different from the rest of the poem. More likely is that the line falls into iambs after an initial trochee “OVer | proTUB | erANC| es FAULT.” The stresses aren’t all even, but they are all more stressed than the surrounding syllables. [This paragraph has been edited in response to Keir Fabian’s comment below.]

There aren’t always hard and fast rules for scansion, in other words. You need to listen to the pattern of stress in the line, not only think about the stress in the words. And ideally, you begin to recognize a pattern of stress in the lines and stanzas of the poem, which will help you decide how to hear the dominant rhythms and variant feet.

In this example, I would also hear two stresses in the word “radiates” of the fifth stanza, which makes that line a regular iambic line. And in the last line of the example “Happens upon the plug,” I would scan it as a trochee followed by two iambs, stressing the second syllable of “upon,” rather than the first as OWL does it. The dominate rhythm of the poem seems to be iambic, and there are a few alternate feet for variety or for effect. Usually there is only one alternate foot in a line or the difference isn’t very noticeable, such as an anapest in a mostly iambic line (which only adds an unstressed syllable).

What makes it a free verse poem, rather than a metrical poem, is that the line lengths vary  from three to five feet (trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter lines) and there isn’t a consistent pattern. The fourth stanza is even one line, whereas the rest are couplets.

It may not make sense to scan a free verse poem, but doing so can illustrate that rhythm is important, even if there isn’t a meter. Free verse has patterns of rhythm, though they can be looser and less regular.

Introducing meter as something to listen for and learn about is worthwhile in the introductory classroom, but it’s important to stress that rhythm often varies by performance and virtually no poem in meter holds slavishly to the dominant foot. Most will include variant feet for variety or to better show the emotion in the line. This is one reason I introduce rhythm in an early chapter on language, and then look at meter again later when talking about poetry.

Scanning poetry is complicated and frustrating, but it can also be a good group activity where everyone can laugh at their own attempts to figure it out. I’ve had students clap, tap their desks, or even bring in percussion instruments to break the ice and help them recognize the more stressed syllables in a line. Make it a game, and acknowledge that there’s rarely one perfectly right answer. Even the experts can get it wrong, and poets rarely scan their poems — they listen. Develop an ear for meter, and you can ignore all the Greek terms and diacritical marks, and just enjoy the rhythms of language.

A Thought on Meter

I’m in the middle of grading poetry exam, and thinking about how difficult it is to teach writers about rhythm, especially meter. This group of students is doing pretty good discussing it, but this always reminds me of the challenges they have in actually scanning a poem or hearing stressed and unstressed syllables in a line. I’ve often asked students to bring percussion instruments to help emphasize the beat in a line, though they typically get confused and tap on the unstressed or don’t tap on the stressed syllable. Of course, performance makes a difference, and there is some room for variation in how you say a sentence (do you stress the word ‘a’ or ‘the’ for instance?). But it shouldn’t be so hard, except we aren’t trained to hear it. We do it by instinct, but ask us to analyze stress in a sentence, and all we hear (and feel) is stress!

So my thought tonight was to try my typical exercise in reverse. I often have students scan a line of poetry and then tap out the meter as they read it, tapping loudly on the stressed syllables and softly on the unstressed. So what if I started with tapping? If I scan a line or two of a poem first and give them the rhythm. Then have them practice tapping it a few times before adding the words. That way, I’d know it was scanned correctly and that they could handle the rudimentary percussion before having to think about language. We might then go on to scan and tap a few more lines from the same metrical poem, looking for variations to the standard foot. Or try some different patterns (move from iambic to anapest, for instance). Anyway, it’s just a thought, but I figured I should write it down somewhere, so why not here?

Translating Goethe

This past weekend, I took up the challenge to translate a few poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I did it because my World Lit textbook didn’t include any of his lyric poetry, and it’s no fun to teach Romanticism without starting with Goethe. Yes, I know he’s technically part of the Sturm und Drang movement that precedes Romanticism in Germany and includes Classicist elements, but especially in the lyric poems (not to mention his incredibly romantic novel The Sorrows of Young Werther), he clearly establishes the tone for Romantic writers to come, and I like to see him as a transitional figure that creates a bridge between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Literary periods never start and stop as conveniently as their labels would suggest.

But the problem with teaching Goethe’s lyric poetry is that there aren’t good translations available. One issue is copyright. I don’t feel comfortable using much of another recent poet’s translation without permission (there is fair use, though that’s a tricky issue). So if it’s not in my textbook, I prefer public domain. There are some competent 19th Century translations, but their language is dated and can be a challenge for students — too many thees and thous, and too convoluted syntax. The twentieth-century translations that I own (Michael Hamburger’s, Christopher Middleton’s, and John Frederick Nims’, and Vernon Watkins’ in the Princeton Selected Poems) are faithful renderings, but at least in the four poems I wanted to work with, the translations lacked the simplicity I value in the original.

I had translated a couple of the very short poems a few years ago, so this year I decided to tackle “To the Moon.” The challenge with Goethe is that he rhymes, and he does it very facilely in German. To ignore the rhyme would destroy the poem, but to get exact rhyme would often require too much change to the meaning. I tend to be fairly literal when I translate. I don’t like to interpret or read too much into the poem, though I am willing to rearrange and play with shades of meaning as needed to get the form. As I’ve done when translating Dutch sonnets for my Masters thesis ages ago, I resorted to off-rhymes or vowel rhymes at times. As long as the vowel was close and the consonants of the rhyme words weren’t too far off, I was willing to live with it. The point was to suggest rhyme, rather than slavishly repeat what couldn’t be repeated in English. The rhyme sounds are all different, anyway, and often different words have to be used as rhyme words. I tried to have at least one pretty close rhyme pair in each stanza and allowed one pair (usually the first and third lines) to be a little less exact. Since Goethe uses a ballad stanza, and since that can be an unrhymed, A, unrhymed, A pattern, I felt that a partial rhyme was justified, especially if it allowed me to keep from straying too far with the meaning. I was a little more strict about the meter. I didn’t always follow the exact foot that Goethe used, but I tried to keep the number of beats consistent with the ballad stanza. I wanted the feel of the poem to be what it was in the original as much as possible.

It was fun to pull out my old dictionaries and spend time looking words up in my Roget’s Thesaurus. Translating is always a puzzle, but when form is involved the puzzle is more complex and challenging. It was so much fun, that I decided to take on The Alderking next. I stuck with that title, even though some translators use Erlking, which doesn’t make much sense in English. Maybe Earlking would be better, but the combination of Earl and King seems redundant; whereas, Goethe’s mistranslation of Erlkönig out of the Danish to make an Alder-king makes the Elf-king a king of the forest trees. To me, that adds to the poem. Again, the rhyme was a challenge, as was the meter. There are places where I’m not 100% satisfied, but then you never are. When I teach them again, I might revisit the translation and make other choices, but I’m happy enough with it for now. And I provided my students links to some alternate translations so they can compare. That emphasizes for them that translators vary in their rendering of a poem and reminds them that what they read in World Literature is always translated.