Posts Tagged ‘Meter’

Genius Knows Itself: The Wonderful Words of Emily Dickinson

August 11, 2012

Emily Dickinson

Louise Bogan

There is no professionalism, in the worst sense, here; and it is interesting to note that, although she sought out Higginson’s advice and named herself his “scholar,” she never altered a poem of hers according to any suggestion of his. She had, at one time, perhaps been willing to be published, but, later, she could do without print.

Louise Bogan on the “pleasure” of reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson “from beginning to end” from Twentieth Century Views: Emily Dickinson (141)

 

I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.

Adrienne Rich from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (160)

 

Emily Dickinson’s idiosyncratic relationship to words enables her to find the perfect phrase to many thoughts.

At first reading, Miss Dickinson’s word choices can jar the reader’s expectations. Her unconventional grammatical constructions often feel like typos and many of her word choices seem bizarre. But there is much sense in her method; she wrote the poems she wanted to write.

Consider the following lines:

To fight aloud is very brave—
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe—

She’s saying, of course, that active, probing reflection and contemplation are a far greater indication of courage than boisterous displays of belligerence. And the words “very brave” are delivered with verbal irony that cuts deeply into our preferred notions of “gallantry.”

But I am also interested in her choice of the word “who” at the beginning of the third line. Grammatically speaking, the word “to” is the more obvious choice. However, because “who” stands for “all those who would,” the compacted might of this syllable is delivered with considerable heft.

Dickinson’s poem If I Should Die is about the silliness of human cupidity and acquisitiveness contemplated against the backdrop of eternity:

’Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand
When we with Daisies lie—

Here’s some more caustic verbal irony: There’s nothing “sweet,” or comforting about this knowledge; it doesn’t render anyone any less dead; it doesn’t tell us that we shall be remembered fondly by loved ones.

(Note: Like 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 tune of Amazing Grace.)

The conventional metaphor about time “marching” conditions us to think of it as an unalterable, deliberate, rhythmic force, which is why the word “gurgle” in line three flusters the reader’s expectations. The poetess is reminding us that time will continue to proceed in a soft, unpredictable, melodious fashion no matter what we do.

Dickinson’s employment of the word “usual” in line six is also compelling.

Adjectives aren’t supposed to modify verbs, that’s an adverb’s job. (Of course, this is putting it rather crudely. A word is not a part of speech, a word acts as a part of speech, and usual usually acts as an adjective.) Curiously, the poem would not have suffered metrically if she had used the word usually because both usual and usually can be pronounced as trochees (two-syllable words with an accented first syllable.) Usually can be enunciated as a two-, three- or four-syllable word. However, using the word usual suggests that beaming is the sun’s quotidian task whereas usually would have implied that beaming was the sun’s normal condition. Great art is the result of such apparently minor distinctions.

The meaning-per-syllable metric is one tool for assessing a poet’s endowment; Emily Dickinson extracts riches from words with an efficacy that the greatest prospectors should envy.

 

If I Should Die

If I should die,
And you should live—
And time should gurgle on—
And morn should beam—
And noon should burn—
As it has usual done—
If Birds should build as early
And Bees as bustling go—
One might depart at option
From enterprise below!
’Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand
When we with Daisies lie—
That Commerce will continue—
And Trades as briskly fly—
It makes the parting tranquil
And keeps the soul serene—
That gentlemen so sprightly
Conduct the pleasing scene!

by Richard W. Bray

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

May 27, 2010

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