Liberties Taken

Hoss. JMN, oil on canvas.

“Hoss.” JMN, oil on canvas.

I want to think out loud about how poetry works, but without being too scrupulous about terminology. It just slows me down to try to re-research what the proper name for everything is.

For a specimen I want to take the meter most familiar to me, the two-syllable foot with stress on the second syllable repeated five times in a line. It’s the only one whose name I can keep in my head: iambic pentameter. I want to represent it like this, with stresses capitalized:

ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM.


he CAN’T be-LIEVE you GAVE his SHIRT a-WAY
me-THINKS the SCOUN-drel DOTH pro-TEST too MUCH
with BRAINS he IS not O-ver-LY en-DOWED
and BEAU-ty IS her ON-ly CLAIM to FAME

I want to call it an act of “scansion” when one measures an utterance against a meter. I want to say transitively that I’m “scanning” an utterance. I want to say intransitively that an utterance “scans” in a certain way.

I want to distinguish impishly between “poetry” and “poesy.” The former is authentic, the latter is ersatz. Say I want to create a couplet with this utterance: “You came to my window, / Now I’m the one to blame.” But wait! I see an opportunity to inject rhyme, so I change it to: “To my window you came, / Now I’m the one to blame.” I’ve created poesy. How? I’ve modified a natural speech pattern to fit my rhyme requirement. The result is a perfectly “legal” English utterance, but it now has a rosy twinkle of yesteryear to it. It’s slightly quaint. I fight against poesy in my own versifying, and strive for doggerel instead.

Beneath this presumptuous (and amateurish) judgmentalism lies a bias, which is: One comes closer to poetry by crafting verse with syntax (word order) that stays faithful to unembellished, contemporary speech. It squares or even cubes the difficulty of finding unforced or non-trivial rhymes, and of conforming to meter, for that matter, if rhyme and meter even DO matter — and for many poets they don’t. But now that you mention meter, here’s where it gets interesting as well as stressful (pun intended).

I want to distinguish between speech stress and prosodic stress. Speech stress is the stress that falls on certain words and syllables when we talk more or less neutrally or unemphatically. (See how I don’t strive for much rigor in my terms?) Prosodic stress is the stress that conforms to a certain meter — the ta-DUM thing.

I gave five examples above of utterances whose speech stress, to my ear, conforms rather closely to the prosodic stress of iambic pentameter. It becomes apparent that to read or recite fourteen or ninety such verses would quickly ring singsong. Come to think of it, it might sound like poesy. Poetry craftily manages to profit from the counterpoint of verses whose speech stress doesn’t match the prosodic stress. Consider the following lines by Yeats:

Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

Scanned against the iambic pentameter pattern, they look like this:

ce-RE-mo-NY’S a NAME for THE rich HORN,
and CUS-tom FOR the SPREAD-ing LAU-rel TREE.

With speech stress they can look like this (rudely — I’m not accounting for secondary stress):

CE-re-mon-ny’s a NAME for the RICH HORN,
and CUS-tom for the SPREAD-ing LAU-rel tree.

This excursus, this disquisition, this nattering over the motes in God’s eye, has already run far too long for any but the most obstinate reader. In shorter followups I want to have more loud thoughts about ways I don’t understand how poetry works, with specimens from Auden, Yeats, Millay, Roethke, Whitman, Arnold, Thomas, and possibly poets I haven’t read yet.

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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