nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

Thomas Hardy

Archibald MacLeish

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

The poem’s meaning is evoked by the structure of words-as-sounds rather than by the structure of words-as-meanings. And the enhanced meaning, which we feel in any true poems, is a product, therefore, of the structure of the sounds.

–Poetry and Experience
by Archibald MacLeish (23)

Scansion records units of rhythm, not units of sense

–All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing by Timothy Steele (530)

Vocabulary

Meter: The basic rhythmic structure of written and uttered words (not simply poetry)

Iamb: A unit of language consisting of an unstressed syllable and a stressed syllable, in that order.

I once began a lesson on meter to a group of eighth-graders by exaggerating (both verbally and bodily) the inherent iambic rhythms of the following lines of poetry:

“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Pegg-y Ann McKay
I have the measles and the mumps
A gash, a rash and purple bumps*

A girl in the class looked at me in utter recognition and blurted out,
“I get it:

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH
nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

I was happy that this student immediately picked up on the main point of my lesson, but I was really thrilled because her description of iambic poetry was, in my opinion, superior to the one that is commonly offered in textbooks, a depiction with a musical correlation which mimics a snare drum:

ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum
ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum

Here are some examples of iambic meter:

Iambic Monometer–One Beat (nuh-NUH)

Upon His Departure Hence by Robert Herrick

Thus I
Passe by
And die:
As one,
Unknown,
And gone:
I’m made
A shade,
And laid
I’th’grave:
There have
My cave.
Where tell
I dwell,
Farewell.

Iambic Dimeter–Two Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH)

The Robin by Thomas Hardy

When up aloft
I fly and fly,
I see in pools
The shining sky

Iambic Trimeter–Three Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH)

Touring a Past by Dick Davis

There is no boat to cross
From that ill-favored shore
To where the clashing reeds
Complete the works of war
Together with the grass,
And nesting birds, and weeds.

Iambic Tetrameter–Four Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH,
nuh-NUH)

Now I lay me Down to Sleep

If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take

Iambic Pentameter–Five Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH,
nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH)

Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born a-gain
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

One Final Thought

…”scanning” a line is not a dramatic, or poetic reading of a line. Scanning a line is reading it in a special, more or less forced, way, to bring out the meter and any definite derivations or substitutions. Scanning will not bring out the other parts of the tension; it will tend to iron them out. On the other hand, a good dramatic, or poetic, reading will tend to bring out the tensions–but note well that in order to do this it must be careful not to override and completely kill the meter. When that is done, the tensions vanish. (Another reason why the meter must be observed is, of course, that if a line is truly metrical, a reading which actually destroys the meter can only be an incorrect reading–by dictionary and rhetorical standards.) A good dramatic reading is a much more delicate, difficult, and rewarding than a mere scanning. Yet the scanning has its justification, its use. We would argue that a good dramatic reading is possible only by a person who can also perform a scansion.

The Concept of Meter by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley
from The Structure of Verse, Edited by Harvey Gross (163-164)

Suggested Further Reading:

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry

The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky

Versification: A Short Introduction by James McAuley

by Richard W. Bray

* Sick by Shel Silverstein

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3 Responses to “nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH”

  1. Genuis Knows Itself: The Wonderful Words of Emily Dickinson « Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] many poems by Dickinson, If I Should Die is in common meter, which means it consists of alternating iambic lines of four and three feet. Here’s a quick common meter test: try singing the poem to the […]

  2. An Effective Title-Writing Strategy for Academic Papers « Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH […]

  3. An Interview on Writing Lyrics and Verse with Richard W. Bray Conducted by Richard W. Bray | Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] Usually I know from the beginning based on it’s structure. For example, if it’s iambic it’s probably a poem and if the stresses are more spaced out it’s a song. But sometimes I argue […]

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