You may have learned in your English classes the names for different types of poetic feet, including
Iamb, which is two syllables, with the second stressed ( ~ / )
Trochee, which is two syllables, with the first stressed ( / ~ )
Anapest, which is three syllables, with the last stressed ( ~ ~ / )
Dactyl, which is three syllables, with the first stressed ( / ~ ~ )
Amphibrach, which is three syllables, with the middle stressed ( ~ / ~ )
Amphimacer, which is three syllables, with the first and last stressed ( / ~ / )
Spondee, two stressed syllables, and
Pyrrhic, two unstressed syllables.
These terms are actually useful when describing Greek or Latin poetry; but in the practice of English poetry, the Amphimacer, Spondee, and Pyrrhic feet are nearly useless categories, since the natural pronunciation of English words make it nearly impossible to create lines written entirely in Amphimacers, Spondees, or Pyrrhics. In actual practice, about 90% of formal English poetry is written in iambic meter, with the other 10% divided between trochaic, anapestic, and a fraction of percent to dactylic (mostly comic verse, like the double dactyl form). To my knowledge, not a single poem has ever been published in sustained Amphibrach—so I wrote one, just for play with it. I then showed it to one of my poet friends, who, celebrating the joke, announced that the poem was actually written in anapestic meter, with a clipped foot beginning each line, and a feminine rhyme at the end.
The kids at the library love when he visits
To read to them poems and dramas and stories;
Such magical voice! oh yes everyone says it’s
A joy and a wonder—they always want more. He’s
A bard and a wizard, an actor and teacher,
With morals and counsel dispensed with his reading;
Though human, he seems more some magical creature,
But just what the children have always been needing.
Adults at the coffeeshop welcome his coming
Escaping monotonous humdrum and plodding;
And list’ning, they’ll contemplate what they’re becoming
Between sips of coffee and fiction, and nodding,
They’ll think of the things that they’ve known and forgotten
Now mentioned again in the stories they’re hearing;
They’ll recollect lessons from battles they’ve fought in,
And what they are teaching the children they’re rearing.
Then off to the rest home, a song and a smile
Announces him to the infirm and the weakened;
Delighted they visit, and listen awhile
To tales that he promised the previous weekend.
With joy and respect he will read to the weary,
And pray with them, ease them, and calm their upstarting;
With heart full of loving and eyes a bit teary
He’ll read from his books to the old and departing.
The children, they get from him wonder and learning,
The grown, they receive him an ally in aging,
The old, just the comfort for which they’ve been yearning,
For him, these rewards for the stories he’s staging.
If you enjoyed that, you can listen to some more anapestic meter here.
If you have a Kindle, you can pick up my book, Visions, for only 99 cents!
And if you’d like to learn more about meter, a good place to start is here.
In my last post on my other blog (which discusses elements in fantasy literature), I proposed that one of the reason that combat/war motifs are so popular is that man have an innate desire to see good triumph over evil, as well as a drive to participate in that personally. However, in our modern civilized world, most people occupy positions that have little need for physical combat, and so many men feel a little alienated from this aspect of their psyches. And being placed at a distance from physical conflict, we are also distanced from some opportunities to cultivate courage. Now we may still learn how to be courageous; but it is not one of top priorities among our life lessons, which may be focused more upon such things as how to please the popular and how to be recognized by your peers. So many a school boy may have a somewhat vaguer notion of courage—what does it look like? and where does it come from?
He stands beside me on the battle-line
And scans the ranks of men opposing us,
His mind and body tense and ready. Mine
Are shaking, and I wonder if we must
Go forth to fight—perhaps the foe will yield,
Or send a representative to duel.
But no: they have no champion to field—
Only greater numbers. Fear would rule
Me save for him beside me, sword and shield
In hand and set to challenge any who’ll
Approach. Together, he has promised me,
We’ll go to battle ‘gainst the Philistines,
Together we will fight; together we
Intend to leave the battle-scene.
He stands above me never giving ground,
Engaging all who dare to challenge us,
His body hot and tiring. Mine was downed
With injury and plunged into the dust,
Just moments after we’d begun to fight.
I am not dead; for hope I may be healed
I’m faithfully defended by this Mighty
Man. But now the sword of bronze he wields
Against the foe begins to dull—he might
Do better here if only I could steel
Myself to move and hand him mine. But fear
Restrains my arm, and I remain upon
The earth while he endures, remaining near
Me as the battle rages on.
He stands beneath me on the bloody plain,
With me upon his shoulders. Both of us
Have lived, the consequence of all the pain
He has endured to satisfy my trust:
Together we will fight; together we’ll
Depart. Pity such a Mighty Man
Of Valor had no partner for his zeal,
Instead of fighting next to me. I can
Not understand what peace resides concealed
Within his breast, that he could calmly stand
Immune to fear of pain and dread of death.
I cannot understand how he retains
The strength to bear my injured form, when left
On him are twice my bloody stains.
I had a few different kinds of jobs in my life so far, including teaching (once working as a private tutor, another working as an elementary school teacher, and another as an English teach in Korea for one year), working at Starbucks (starting as a barista, and rising to become a store manager), and doing freelance writing. Presently I work for the county I live in, processing applications for Medi-Cal. In all my other jobs, I maintained some level of mental creativity, and would, from time to time, write poetry. I was particularly productive while working in Korea; and while working at Starbucks, I not only wrote poetry, but also completed a novel. But since I began working for the county, I haven’t felt at all creative, and have written nothing new in more than 2 years. The last thing I did write was a series of short verses contrasting the life of modern men with those of the ancients, and included this bit:
My stiffened limbs are slow to move,
My Carpal Tunnel’s not improved,
My eyes are strained, my neck is sore,
I’ve thrown my back out bending o’er…
Our ancient sires ran the plains
To hunt their food without such pains;
But men today have lost that art:
We sit in chairs and fall apart.
I wrote this reflection on the decay of the body due to inactivity; but today I think more upon the same results upon the mind. For just as lack of physical exercise causes the muscles to atrophy, so does lack of mental exercise cause the mind to contract. For want of mental engagement, challenging discourse with others, and time spent reading, the mind loses some of its former facility, becoming less capable of processing complicated concepts, and less creative also. And that is where I find myself today.
I suspect that I am not alone in this: the very structure of our workaday lives tends more to the routine and the mundane than it does to the creative. And certainly greater responsibilities and greater demands upon our time easily crowd out of our schedule time previously spent upon reading and writing. Long gone are those college days when it was actually my responsibility to read and write, where a cafeteria meant not having to spend time and energy on grocery shopping and preparing meals, and where I had many other people to regularly engage in creative discourse.
Meanwhile my current working environment puts me into very different contact with people than I have enjoyed in previous occupations. At Starbucks, for example, I enjoyed a variety of different kinds of people and relationships with both co-workers and customers. But when processing Medi-Cal applications (for those of you in other states, Medicaid), it is a rule that we do not have relationships with the applicants; and among my co-workers, poetry is not a topic of much interest.
Meanwhile it has become less of an interest to myself, too. For when I was writing poetry, one of my goals was to encourage others to love and good deeds, but in order to encourage people, you need to have, well, people. A third of my book is devoted to encouraging a better idea of manhood; but if the men who need such encouragement don’t read poetry, then perhaps I need to focus on other means.
Anyway, this entry is not meant to be a dirge; so let me try to bring it back around to a proper encouragement: for all you poets out there, and for all you readers of poetry as well: mind your habits, to protect your mind and spirit: keep reading, make time for conversation, and cultivate those relationships that challenge you to grow. For when our minds are not growing, they easily contract.
Our last two entries have looked at poems with minor flaws, where the natural pronunciation of words does not support (or is not supported by) the meter of a poem. But lest new readers imagine that any deviation from perfectly regular meter is a mistake, today I would like to look at a couple of poems with examples of appropriate and effective deviation from regular meter. Both of the following poems are in iambic pentameter, and have similar substance/theme. See which one you prefer:
Farewell to Folly
by Robert Greene (1560-1592)
Sweet are the thoughts that savour of content;
The quiet mind is richer than a crown;
Sweet are the nights in careless slumber spent;
The poor estate scorns fortune’s angry frown:
Such sweet content, such minds, such sleep, such bliss,
Beggars enjoy, when princes oft do miss.
The homely house that harbours quiet rest;
The cottage that affords no pride nor care;
The mean that ‘grees with country music best;
The sweet consort of mirth and music’s fare;
Obscured life sets down a type of bliss:
A mind content both crown and kingdom is.
“Happy were he”
by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1566-1601)
Happy were he could finish forth his fate
In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.
Now a perfectly regular iambic pentameter line runs ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /. But in both of the poems above, some of the lines (Sweet are the thoughts, Sweet are the nights, Beggars enjoy, and Happy were he…) scan instead like this: / ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /. The lines still have the important 5 beats, but the first foot of each line is a trochee ( / ~ ) instead of an iamb ( ~ / ). Such a trochaic substitution allows a line to begin with a stressed syllable, enabling the poet to place content words at the beginning of a line without starting every line with an article or conjunction. It does not disrupt the flow, so long as such substitutions are infrequent: the ear still perceives the alternating emphasis which creates the music of the poem.
Trochaic substitutions fit most neatly at the beginning of a line (although may also occur in the middle of a line, as in “the sweet consort”). When a poet needs two unstressed syllables next to each other in the middle of a line, another type of substitution may be used: one may place an anapest ( ~ ~ / ) instead of an iamb ( ~ / ). Curiously enough, Robert Greene chose not to do this on the line “The mean that ‘grees with country music best;” apparently it sounded better to him to cut a syllable off of “agrees” with an apostrophe. Such shortening of words was common enough during his time period; but today it is much less welcome to the ear. If writing today, “the mean that agrees” ( ~ / ~ ~ / ) might be a better choice.
Similarly, Greene’s pronunciation of “Obscuréd” (as 3 syllables, ~ / ~ ) also is more fitting for his time period than ours. Today, that pronunciation is highly artificial; but in his time, literary convention allowed (to an extent) for the pronunciation of the -ed suffix in such cases (but it was still a little artificial).
These two poems also both offer good illustrations of how the words we naturally emphasize when speaking will change with context. Let us begin with the words “than” and “that.” As function words, they are usually not emphasized: for example, “I want more than five” or “pull that lever.” But if these word occur between two unstressed syllables, than we will add a little more stress to them automatically: we hear this in “richer than a crown,” and “cottage that affords” (and it happens to the “of” in “savour of content”), because the English ear prefers it to 3 unstressed syllables in a row.
Conversely, when 3 syllables which are naturally stressed in isolation are put next to each other, the English ear will often diminish the middle one, as in “the poor estate scorns fortune’s angry frown” and “give God ever praise.” Should these phrases have occurred in prose, we would have still heard them the same way, with a diminished “scorn,” and less stress than usual upon the word “God.”
Find this article useful in helping you write poetry? Leave a comment below.
And if you enjoy formal poetry, check out this book on your Kindle for contemporary poetry in traditional meter.