Northern Drive to St Lucy

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

English Poetry Versification - Part II

4. Measurement: meter, scansion

The English Poetry Versification - Part I dealt with such versifier tools as content, form and style. This current blog goes further in the discourse by paying attention to yet another versifier tool that has to do with measurement. No discourse on measurement can take place without addressing the matter of meter and scansion and that is where it is going.

Measurement is the process whereby the length of verses in poetry is determined. In English poetry, measurement places emphasis on stressed and unstressed syllables and this type of measurement is described as accentual-syllabic meter, in which every syllable counts to create the proper rhythm and flow of the meter. Geoffrey Chaucer and his contemporary of poets are credited for the fusion of the accentual of English and the syllabic of French into modern English accentual-syllabic forms. Meter means measurement of the verse length. Foot is the unit of such measurement; hence the measuring instrument is known as the metric foot. In ancient Greece during poetry chants, chanters danced to the rhythmic flow of the poetry verses with their feet so this tradition of using feet as the measurement tool in poetry came about. Metrical verses are named according to the constituent foot and for the number of feet in the verse. So what we have got is this listing where a:

Monometer is one-foot
Dimeter is two-foot
Trimeter is three-foot
Tetrameter is four-foot
Pentameter is five-foot
Hexameter is six-foot
Heptameter is seven-foot
Octameter is eight-foot
Nonameter is nine-foot
Decameter is ten-foot

It is the norm regardless of the metric number to use foot instead of feet.

Iamb is the most common metrical foot in English and other languages as well, and from it iambic is derived. It is made up of a short (u) or unstressed (unaccented) syllable followed by a long (/) or stressed (accented) syllable. Take these two examples: attack; the mind.

There are two syllables in attack. The first syllable (at-) is short and the second syllable (tack) is long. Hence attack measures one iambic foot or what is known precisely as an iambic monometer as we recall the rule that a metrical verse is named according to the constituent foot and for the number of feet in the verse. If the verse had measured five iambic feet then it would be called an iambic pentameter which is very common in English language poetry.

In the phrase, the mind there is one syllable in the word, the; one syllable in the word, mind. The first word in the phrase is short and the second word in the phrase is long therefore the phrase measurement is described as an iambic monometer.

A phrase is a group of words that does not have both a subject and a predicate and therefore cannot stand as a clause or sentence.

A sentence is a group of words that make complete sense, contains a main verb, and begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop; or the equivalent such as a question mark(?) or an exclamation mark(!)

In metered poetry a stanza is made up of verses. A stanza of four verses is called a quatrain. The quatrain is most popular in English poetry. In unmetered poetry, unit is used instead of stanza, and a unit is made up of lines not verses. A unit can have one line or more lines.

The iamb, anapest, trochee, dactyl and spondee are the most common poetic foot used in English verse. Their profiles look like this

Iamb: one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable
Anapest: two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable
Trochee: one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable
Dactyl: one stressed syllable followed two unstressed syllables

Scansion in the broadest sense is to examine carefully; it is applied to animate and inanimate entities. However, when used in poetry it refers to the process of analysis of the rhythmic flow and metrical structure of poems.

When the scansion process is applied to poetry the stressed syllable is shown with a symbol that looks like this / and the unstressed syllable is shown with this symbol u, so the symbolic representation of the English poetic foot is listed as follows:

Iamb u /
Anapest u u /
Trochee / u
Dactyl / u u
Spondee / /
Pyrrhic u u

The iambic and anapestic meters are called ‘rising meters’ because their sound rises from light sound to heavy. Trochee and dactylic meters are called the ‘falling meters’ and this is so because their sound falls from heavy to light. The anapest and the dactyl are bouncing meters and in the twentieth century they were very popular in comic verses than for serious poetry.

The spondee still measures a foot even thought it has one sound that is heavy, and so is the pyrrhic with one sound that is light. They are never used as the sole meter of a poem. Wherever the spondee and the pyrrhic are found in the verse, they provide the complementary role of lending emphasis and variety to a meter especially the iambic rhythmic verses.

The application of the graphic scanning in poetry requires that the heavy sounding syllables and light sounding syllables, feet and rhythmic breaks be identified with their appropriate scanning symbols such as these shown below.

u (unstressed)
/ stressed syllable)
││ (caesura)

The counter │ marks the location of where every foot ends in the verse. The first step in this graphic scanning is to mark off the stressed and unstressed syllables in the verses as shown in Versification poem in Exhibit 1. Bear in mind that English stress content words which are nouns, principal verbs, adjectives and adverbs; and then quickly glides over function words which are pronouns, articles, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, conjunctions are unstressed. These principles are applied as well in accentual-syllabic meter. This quality of quickly gliding over less important words is also known as connected speech. In my cursory analysis of English words with two syllables the stressed syllable seems to fall on the first syllable.

Exhibit 1

Value and measure verses as you would,
/ u u / u / u u u /each word or sound that has fallen from lips;
/ / u / u u / u u /
run as you like under the old stave wood;
/ u u / / u u / / /
stressed and unstressed feet, this way the voice dips;
/ u u / / u / u / /
in musing, rhyme as you please on the verse;
u / u / u u / u u /
for feet brake sharply, leaving strong road mark;
u / / / u / u / / /
in time, those pentameter lines will rhyme;
u / u / u / u / u /
catalectic scanning is not a crime;
u u / u / u / / u /
acatalectic gives foot a stretch mark;
/u u / u / / u / /
take time to sway with cadence every time;
/ / u / u / u / u /
inside rhymes and caesura solve conflicts;
/ / / u u / u / / /
omitted vowels make lines roll with terse;
u / u / u / / / u /
now, those omissions are metrical tricks.
/ u u / u / u / u /

Exhibit 2 shows the second step in poetic graphic scanning where each foot is marked with the counter (│)
Exhibit 2

Value│ and mea│sure ver│ses as│ you would,
/ u │u / │ u /│u u│ u / (5 feet)
each word or sound that has fallen from lips;
/ /│ u /│ u u│ / u│u / (5 feet)
run as│ you likeunder│ the oldstave wood;
/ u│u /│ / u│ u /│ / / (5 feet)
stressed and unstressed feet, this way the voice dips;
/ u│ u /│ / u│ / u│ / / (5 feet)
in mus│ing, rhyme│ as you│ please on│ the verse;
u /│ u /│ u u│ / u│u / (5 feet)
for feetbrake sharp│ly, leav│ing strongroad mark;
u /│ / /│ u /│ u / │ / / (5 feet)
in time,│ those pen│tame│ter lines│ will rhyme;
u / │ u /│ u /│u /│ u / (5 feet)
cata│lectic│ scanning│ is not│ a crime;
u u│/ u│ / u│/ /│u / (5 feet)
aca│talec│tic givesfoot a│ stretch mark;
/ u│u /│u /│ / u│ / / (5 feet)
take time│ to sway │with ca│dence ev│ery time;
/ /│ u /│ u /│ u /│u /
inside rhymes and│ caesu│ra solve conflicts;
/ / │ / u│ u /│u /│ / / (5 feet)
omit│ted vow│els makelines roll│ with terse;
u /│u /│u /│ / /│ u / (5 feet)
now, those│ omi│ssions are│ metri│cal tricks.
/ u│ u /│u /│ u /│u / (5 feet)

The “double-pipe”││in Exhibit 3 in Stanza 1, Verses 1-4 of the modern English poem, "Trapped" shows the location of the caesura in the verses. In modern English poetry the caesura is used more often than not for rhetorical effect. In meter, the caesura denotes an audible pause that occurs in the verse. It is often indicated by punctuation marks which cause a pause in speech. You see such punctuation marks: comma, semicolon, full stop, dash, exclamation, etc being used in poems. It is worth noting though that punctuation is not necessary for a caesura to occur. When a caesura follows a stressed syllable it is known as a masculine caesura; and when it follows an unstressed syllable it is a feminine caesura. The caesura’s position on the verse is worth noting too. When the caesura describes a break close to the beginning of a verse it is an initial caesura, in the center of a verse, it is a medial caesura, and at the end it is a terminal caesura. Caesurae are featured prominently in Greek and Latin versification, especially in heroic verse form, dactylic hexameter. However, in Exhibit 3 the stress meter is used instead of quantitative meter. Quantitative meter is extremely difficult to construct in English, but is common in Latin, Greek, Sanskirt, and Arabic poetry.

Exhibit 3

Gladly the│ girl took│ soft, white│ silk-based│ sheets from the│ big bed;
/ u u│/ / │ / /││ / / │ / u u │/ / (six feet)
(masculine caesura)

Gladly the │girl fixed│ old green│ trampoline;│bug in the│ tool case
/ u u│ / / │ / /│ / u u││ / u u│/ / (six feet)
(feminine caesura)

Falling from│ panel, a │spider on│ top of the│ clean new│ bedspread
/ u u│ / u u│/ u u│/ u u│ / / │ / / (six feet)
Moving, so │deadly with│ weird look;│ web pestmorphed in her│ sad face.
/ u u│/ u u│/ / ││ / /│ / u u│ / / (six feet)
(masculine caesura)

With respect to the Alexandrine which is a line of verse composed in iambic hexameter, the caesura is often placed after the third foot. See Exhibit 4 for examples taken from the Idyll poem, Blissful Countryside.

Exhibit 4

I hate the rapid life in suburbia;
u / │ u u│ / /││u /│u /│ u
masculine caesura
The strife in foreign lands including Serbia;
u / u / u /││ u / u / / u
caesuraI long to hear the sounds of animals and birds;
u / u / u / ││u u u / u /

The whispering of the wind, and the barking of curs.
u / / u u u ││/ u u / u u /
feminine caesura

What is there to conclude about the scansion process? Scansion provides a diagrammatic representation of the metrical effect of the poem, any poem when applied for that matter. Scanning in English poetry is not to reproduce sound of the persona’s voice. Its purpose is to make a diagram of the heavy sounds and the light sounds found in the poem. Scansion is a way to see where the stresses are the poet wishes to put the emphasis. When you scan a poem don’t be surprised to find that the exercise helps in understanding the poem. Scansion has the propensity to unlock those techniques poets use to create rhythmic effects, and can sometimes help readers to see layers of meaning in poems that only scansion can provide. Scansion is a way to indicate how to read a poem aloud.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

English Poetry Versification - Part I

Versification is the poets’ backpack they trek with through the mountains, valleys, streams, plains and moor in a cognitive environment. These poetry chefs search for the right ingredients to clean and season the poetry they cook for us to consume. Ever mindful that their poetry must have the right taste and texture for folks still growing baby teeth, those with all their natural adult teeth and those who must wear dentures. Ever mindful of this, poets select the best spices and condiments to add flavor to their poetry dishes. In advance, they set the weight and measurement then blend them well into the stuffing that goes into the poetry. When completed the poetry is placed on the serving tray with the presentation pleasing to the eyes in a manner that complements the poetry being served.

How is that appetizer above I’ve whipped up for you? Now here is a sample from poetry dish in the form of an acrostic rhyming ababcdeedebcb in non-standard iambic pentameter.


Very well, measure verses as you should
each word, or sound that has fallen from lips;
run as you like under the old stave wood;
stressed and unstressed feet, this way the voice dips
in musing, rhyme as you please on the verse;
for feet brake sharply, for a strong road mark;
in time, those pentameter lines will rhyme
catalectic scanning is not a crime;
acatalectic gives foot a stretch mark;
take time to sway with cadence every time;
inside rhymes and caesura solve conflicts;
omitted vowels make lines roll with terse;
now, those omissions are metrical tricks.

The purpose of it was to lead you on to the main thread, that persons who prepare poetry for consumption are called poets. What poets bring to the table to feed our senses are their thoughts they weave through the process of Versification.

In order to versify, poets use versifier tools which perform specific task but working together in unison to produce the end product known as poems. These six versifier tools are listed below and with comments on each of them.

1. Content
Words = facts, ideas, impressions

2. Form
Content Structure

3. Style
Poetic diction

4. Measurement

5. Sound Effects

6. Elements of poetry
literal meaning
figurative language
rhythm and rhyme

Content for poems is made up of facts, ideas and impressions which poets creatively weave together. The arrangement of content is dictated by the particular form and genre which poets use. In order to present this content to the audience or readers the poet provides a voice. In other words, the poet assigns someone who will speak the words written in the poem. The person who elucidates the content of the poem is called the voice. Voice can also mean the aura. The aura that is created from the element in the artistic production that induces a perception by the audience or reader of the moral qualities of the speaker or character, Aristotle called this the ethos. In narrative poetry, the persona is the “I” or the implied speaker as in the case of lyrical poems. Sometimes the poet would identify a created character as the speaker. However, in the absence of such a specific attribution, the term persona is applied. What good does this do? It allows for no automatic assumption that the creative work done is the expressed experiences or views of the poet. The identification of a character or characters by poets prevents any potential ambiguity. It also enables poets to give expression to things they would prefer not to have attributed to themselves.

Form is the arrangement of the meter, rhythm, lines, verses, stanzas in poems. When predetermined meter, rhymes and stanzas become the structural blocks for poems we have what is known as fixed form (sometimes referred to as closed form, classical form, traditional form). The poetry styles that fit into this mold are the epic, ode, sonnet, ballad, limerick, pantoum, sestina, triolet, villanelle, rondeau, ghazal, elegy, tanka, cinquain, haiku, senryu, octtava rima, terza rima, paradelle. When the structural blocks in traditional poetry are ignored as often done by modernist and postmodernist poets, we refer to such a structure as a non-compliant form also known as unstructured poetry or open form poetry. Non-compliant poetry styles are free verse, reportage, pose poems, language poetry, performance poetry, computer-generated poetry, egoless poetry, beat poetry, blank form, open form.

Style has a way of tagging traditionalist, modernist and post-modernist poets . Style is synonymous with poetic diction which is all about the choice of words, phrases, sentence structure and figurative language in literary work; the manner or mode of verbal expression, particularly with regard to clarity and accuracy. We know that poetry is one of the genres of literature. So the aforementioned holds true. Poets weave their style into content for the expressed desire to captivate the audience or readers. Hence, style has to do with the manner, in which individual poets say, do, express or perform their poetic works. In the western world, Aristotle remains the originating plank for thinking about the use of language in poetry and prose; so according to the English translation by Ingram Bywater (1920) of Aristotle’s Poetics, Aristotle asserted that the perfect style for writing poetry was one that is clear and without meanness. He defined meanness of style as the deliberate avoidance of unusual words, but warned against over-reliance on strange words as seen in this extract from Poetics.

“The perfection of Diction is for it to be at once clear and not mean. The clearest indeed is that made up of the ordinary words for things, but it is mean… A certain admixture, accordingly, of unfamiliar terms is necessary. These, the strange word, the metaphor, the ornamental equivalent, etc., will save the language from seeming mean and prosaic, while the ordinary words in it will secure the requisite clearness. What helps most, however, to render the Diction at once clear and non-prosaic is the use of the lengthened, curtailed, and altered forms of words.”

I greatly admire the style William Wordsworth used in his lyrical poems. In his poetic style, he replaced the lofty and eloquent style used by poets of his era. His style reflects his use of clear and simple language of the people as he bonded intensely with nature.

(to be continued in Part II of this blog)

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Natural disasters whenever and wherever they occur impact on all of our lives. The Good Book says we are our brothers and sisters keepers lead by the Holy Spirit. Hence, we must do our part when disaster shows its ugly face. Any assistance, great or small, given from generous and loving hearts has equal weight. I'm passing on this information I received that Barbadians can go to First Caribbean Bank to donate to the Disaster Relief Fund for Haiti. The banking information is shown below:

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