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  #1  
Unread 07-16-2022, 02:25 PM
Jonathan James Henderson Jonathan James Henderson is offline
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Default Meter Vs Natural Speech

Spun-off from the discussion starting here: https://www.ablemuse.com/erato/showt...827#post481827

Very interested to hear other thoughts on this, but, first things first:

To Tim:
https://www.ablemuse.com/erato/newre...reply&p=481848

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tim McGrath View Post
Meter displaces natural speech. Meter obliterates natural speech. Like a drummer in a good band, meter provides the beat--the heartbeat--of a good poem. Contemporary critics, fools that they are, like to say, in writing no less, that they admire a certain poem's "conversational rhythms." The problem with this bit of sophistry is that poetry is not conversation, no more than it is prose. If a poet takes the time and trouble to cast his thoughts into rhyme and meter, why in the world would you or anyone want to de-emphasize the music? As they might say in Oklahoma, if you decide to put wings on a horse, you can't just ride around in your backyard.
If you want to state this as a personal preference that's fine, but I can assure you the vast majority of poets now and throughout history have not thought this way. However, I will say that nobody (certainly not me!) is saying one should "de-emphasize the music" of meter; what I'm describing is being alive to the ways in which natural speech and meter/rhythm work with and against each other. This is a complex interaction, and anyone who wants to take absolute, autocratic approaches is going to be missing out on a lot of nuance.

Even a cursory reading of the classics will show that either the great poets of the past (like Shakespeare), who wrote in times when meter was much more of a fixed and studied discipline than it is now, were frequently either inept when using meter to put stress on words that would never be stressed in common speech; or else they utilized metrical substitutions for rhetorical/poetic effect. Since I'm more inclined to think Shakespeare forgot more about poetry than any of us will ever know, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, this means that there will always be a controversy when any natural speech would conflict with the meter: should those syllables be read as promotions/demotions, or should they be read as substitutions? What you're describing, Tim, would force us to, like a robot, read them all as promotions/demotions, and this just doesn't work, for reasons I said above (I had many examples handy years ago when I was studying this in-depth; they've been sadly lost to time). This doesn't mean, however, that we automatically read everything as natural speech. When such conflicts arise, we have to try it both ways: both metrically and naturally. Often times you will find poetry that works well both ways. Shakespeare was also a model here in that he'd often use meter to put emphasis on atypical words to highlight shades of meaning and nuances (I give examples in the thread linked below); that's a perfectly valid way of approaching meter, certainly. However, there also exists expressive possibilities that are only capable via substitutions: Alexander Pope laid out many such examples in his Essay on Criticism.

You mention "the music of meter," Tim, and while this is something I agree with it's useful to expand the analogy to realize that the time signature and ictus of music is no more all there is to musical rhythm than meter is all there is to poetic rhythm. Metrical substitutions can be musical; can, indeed, add to the music (and effect) of poetry, and this is just as true of natural speech rhythms. It's often said that poetry is the navigation between the poles of natural speech and artful (which can become artificial) writing; and meter/rhythm is no different. In the original thread I posted a link to a very old thread on metrical substitution and my posts there discussing this in a slightly different way, but many of those ideas are relevant here: https://www.ablemuse.com/erato/showt...740#post227740

Last edited by Jonathan James Henderson; 07-16-2022 at 02:27 PM.
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  #2  
Unread 07-16-2022, 03:05 PM
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Rose Novick Rose Novick is offline
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A few truths about meter:

• it's made up. it's fake. you can't have firm and fixed opinions about Correct And Proper Scansion without being a crank.

• recognizing the above is crucial to actually using meter well, because it forces you to think about what meter and scansion are for, rather than taking it as some deep truth about a poem

• meter is most useful (I find; ymmv) when it is kept minimal, sharply separated from rhythm. when too much of natural rhythm is stuffed into meter, the flexibility of meter is lost.

• it follows from this that, in reading a poem, one should read its rhythm but not its meter. its meter is a ghost that haunts it.

• corollary #1: any metrical system that recognizes more than two degrees of stress (stressed, unstressed) is baroque and unhelpful.

• corollary #2: relative stress is much more important than absolute stress, because relative stress points to the abstract pattern underlying the line, while absolute stress points to the variation within that pattern.

• corollary #3: with exceedingly rare exceptions, spondees do not exist in English language poetry. relative stress rules nearly always resolve them into either trochees or iambs. one consistent class of exceptions is the {u u / /} pattern, which I prefer to think of as a special two-beat foot, the "double iamb".

• mastery of meter is then the ability to create variation within this consistent abstract pattern. some of this comes from outright substitutions; much of it comes from playing with relative stress. again, precisely this sort of play is lost when the distance between meter and rhythm is shortened.

• friendly reminder: meter is fake. it's made up. it's not real. it's bogus. it's garbage. it's crazytown bananapants. it is metaphysically impossible to talk about it without being a crank. I am a crank for typing this post. I am also 100% Correct.
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  #3  
Unread 07-16-2022, 03:21 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
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Quote:
Meter displaces natural speech. Meter obliterates natural speech. Like a drummer in a good band, meter provides the beat--the heartbeat--of a good poem. Contemporary critics, fools that they are, like to say, in writing no less, that they admire a certain poem's "conversational rhythms." The problem with this bit of sophistry is that poetry is not conversation, no more than it is prose. If a poet takes the time and trouble to cast his thoughts into rhyme and meter, why in the world would you or anyone want to de-emphasize the music? As they might say in Oklahoma, if you decide to put wings on a horse, you can't just ride around in your backyard.
This sounds a bit silly to me -- so possibly I'm misunderstanding it.

One can write poetry (metrical or otherwise) that has a conversation feel, and poetry that doesn't. Maybe rather than conversational, it's songlike or oratory or manic or plodding or something else. Conversation and natural speech do, after all, have their own rhythms.

"If a poet takes the time and trouble to cast his thoughts into rhyme and meter, why in the world would you or anyone want to de-emphasize the music?"

This question seems to cede the point that one can write poetry with conversation rhythms, having said that such a claim is sophistry.

The question also seems assume that conversation rhythms come at the cost of metrical rhythm. If the poem is still in metre, it's still going to have that beat. The two things aren't mutually exclusive.

It also seems to imply that all poetry should be musical, as if there were no other moods. What if we want flat and sombre, what if we want to sound like a robot from the 31st century, or a legal document, or someone broken by grief? Unless we're trapped in a musical, why would we always want to sound like we're singing?

Here's my general take on statements like this:

From time to time people want to make limiting claims about poetry. Some people will tell you prose poems aren't poetry. Some people will say poems should only use the language of natural speech. Some people will tell you it should never use the language of natural speech. Others that metrical verse is only true poetry. Others that rhyming verse is past its sell-by date. And so on.

Meanwhile poetry just gets on with doing its own thing without looking around for permission from those who feel the need to lay down the law. And me, I just get on with enjoying it while it does.

Matt

Last edited by Matt Q; 07-16-2022 at 05:08 PM.
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Unread 07-16-2022, 05:05 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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I've always thought that meter and "natural speech" exist in counterpoint. But "natural speech" isn't just one thing. Just like with the script of a play, lines can be delivered with a wide variety of intonations, tempos, pauses, emotional temperature, etc. That variety, depending on the director and the performer, is virtually unlimited, but the different performances share one "meter" at their foundation and they play on and off the meter to achieve the desired effect. Personally, I write in sing-song (I'm a children's poet) but I don't recite in sing-song. Ideally, the expressiveness of the poem is enhanced by these two things going on at once, not exactly at odds with each other but in collaboration with each other.
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Unread 07-16-2022, 06:07 PM
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Allen Tice Allen Tice is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
• corollary #1: any metrical system that recognizes more than two degrees of stress (stressed, unstressed) is baroque and unhelpful.
That corollary I agree with. Corollary #3 I do not, if only because I have spent a lot of effort, and will spend more D. V., making poems with spondees and worse, like three stresses in sequence. Should you want examples, Kelsay Books will sell you a book of mine (Allen Tice) called "Of Course," for $19. I'm disgustingly happy with most of the imitations and changes I have rung on early Greek and Latin metrical patterns, full of spondees and triple stress rows. (I seldom bother with "sapphics".) Music of the spheres for those with 2,000 year-old ears, as satisfying to me in its way as Classical Chinese.

We can both be right in our practice.

PS from the thread linked at the top of the first post:
Quote:
Originally Posted by Allen Tice View Post
Some very eminent scholar of English prose prosody declared that no two adjacent syllables could ever share the same stress. Ergo, no spondees. Well, shut my mouth !

Last edited by Allen Tice; 07-16-2022 at 06:57 PM.
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Unread 07-17-2022, 07:14 AM
David Callin David Callin is offline
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This is all very learned, but it does remind me of what I have been reading about in the book about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, i.e. "the sound of sense".

Turning to SparkNotes, for a neat little summary of it:

"Frost coined the phrase the sound of sense to emphasize the poetic diction, or word choice, used throughout his work. According to letters he wrote in 1913 and 1914, the sound of sense should be positive, as well as proactive, and should resemble everyday speech."

Is that relevant? I thought it might be.
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  #7  
Unread 07-17-2022, 12:02 PM
Jonathan James Henderson Jonathan James Henderson is offline
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Some very good posts so far (as I expected), so thanks everyone for contributing, but I do want to explicitly address Rose's interesting points:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
A few truths about meter:

• it's made up. it's fake. you can't have firm and fixed opinions about Correct And Proper Scansion without being a crank.
Very true. Meter is an attempt to abstract the most common patterns of natural speech and make them into fixed patterns for musical/rhetorical effect. It's artificial by its very nature, but all art is made up of some amount of artifice.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
meter is most useful (I find; ymmv) when it is kept minimal, sharply separated from rhythm. when too much of natural rhythm is stuffed into meter, the flexibility of meter is lost.
I don't entirely follow here; perhaps some examples would help. It seems perhaps you're saying that meter should be a spice that's thrown in rather than the main dish from which variations or "natural speech" deviates from? This is kind of how I think of Whitman. We know Whitman for innovating the use of free verse, but there are many lines in Whitman that scan perfectly and stand out by contrast from the rest. The famous "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" ends on a line of perfect pentameter after a string of Whitman's trademark anaphora.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
it follows from this that, in reading a poem, one should read its rhythm but not its meter. its meter is a ghost that haunts it.
In that old thread I linked to I talked about "the ghost of meter" haunting lines in other rhythms as well, though I'm not sure I would agree that we shouldn't read meter at all. It really depends on the poem. Some poems are meant to be read in meter, other in different rhythms with meter as a background. I've experimented with both and both have different potentialities for expression and poetic effect.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
corollary #1: any metrical system that recognizes more than two degrees of stress (stressed, unstressed) is baroque and unhelpful.
Generally agree, but my one caveat is that multiple degrees are probably more accurate for mapping natural stress patterns, and I think keeping in mind that there's a broader range than two degrees also helps us in thinking about how to categorize those two degrees when there's ambiguity. Perhaps an example later.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
corollary #2: relative stress is much more important than absolute stress, because relative stress points to the abstract pattern underlying the line, while absolute stress points to the variation within that pattern.
Absolutely, but, continuing from the above, relative stress can have more than one relation ranging from the foot it's a part of to what follows it to a more general pattern.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
corollary #3: with exceedingly rare exceptions, spondees do not exist in English language poetry. relative stress rules nearly always resolve them into either trochees or iambs. one consistent class of exceptions is the {u u / /} pattern, which I prefer to think of as a special two-beat foot, the "double iamb".
This I don't agree with. Unless someone can point me to a scientific study that says people never put roughly equal stress on two subsequent syllables I'm going to trust my ears that people do.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
mastery of meter is then the ability to create variation within this consistent abstract pattern. some of this comes from outright substitutions; much of it comes from playing with relative stress. again, precisely this sort of play is lost when the distance between meter and rhythm is shortened.
Agree.

OK, here's the most illustrative example I can think of that I also used in the previous thread, though I'm going to take a slightly different tact here (CAUTION! What follows is a grade-A example of meterbating. Consider this a warning that what follows is pedantic and honestly worth nobody's time including mine):

Bright star, Would I were steadfast as thou art

I honestly don't know of a single line of IP that could be naturally read in a greater variety of ways. Here's just some of them:

Bright star, Would I were steadfast as thou art
Bright star, Would I were steadfast as thou art
Bright star, Would I were steadfast as thou art

I think you mix and match variations on these, such as keeping the opening a spondee, but making reading "steadfast" and "though art" as natural trochees, or keeping the IP reading but not stressing "as". This is one line where I'd love to get 1000 random people to read to study the different ways it would be stressed. It's also the first line of a poem, so we can't even be clued in by any prior context. We could clue ourselves in by reading the rest of the poem, but that kinda feels like cheating; how should we read it on a first reading? Just follow the traditional "rules" of IP? But, as I've said, we know poets used substitutions, even if some were more stricter about when and what kinds, though I think those restrictions loosened up more in the 19th century compared to the 18th and 17th. Further, if we read this in IP, with or without substituting a trochaic inversion of the first/second foot or a spondee for the first foot, I think it reads really awkwardly to stress "as" as opposed to either "fast" or "thou."

This is a good example of how context helps to determine stress because humans naturally want to stress more important words in sentences. In grammatical hierarchy, nouns and verbs are usually first, with adjectives and adverbs second, then prepositions, then articles and conjunctions. However, this hierarchy runs up against English being a stress-timed language in which stresses should be (roughly) equal distance from each other. Often times those two paradigms conflict or present ambiguities, and this is a great example. Here, "as" is an adverb, which might take stress after following an unstressed syllable (like "fast" could potentially be), but given that it's followed by a pronoun it almost never would when spoken naturally. But if we speak it naturally that leads to a metrical problem as it was never acceptable to end a line of IP on a trochaic inversion, which would mean that last foot would be a spondee.

If we scan the first three feet we run into similar-but-different issues. If we make "Bright star" a trochee, especially after the caesura of the comma, it's difficult to argue that the verb "would" wouldn't take stress; but then we begin the poem with two trochees, which makes us want to completely ruin the IP by using a weird trochee/dactylic hybrid meter (second reading above). That works for "natural speech," but not for meter. It would seem on metrical principles we could rule that out. The grammatical hierarchy doesn't help either because we have an adjective/noun/verb/noun/verb. The only one of these that one would naturally demote would be the adjective, but it's at the beginning, and I defy anyone to say "bright star" and tell me with a straight face they don't sound silly. Further, it would seem "stead(fast)" has to be stressed. So, what do we have for sure? That "bright" and "stead" must be stressed; that leaves "star, would I were." If we stress "would" there we run into the problem of ruining the meter completely, as I said above, so it seems "would" shouldn't be stressed. However, if "would" shouldn't be stressed it would seem "star" should be just due to stress-timing paradigm; and when you put a caesura after "star" and the meter tells us we shouldn't stress "would" that leaves putting the stress on "star" and then "I" since there's nothing left.

The above is a long justification for why my preferred reading here is actually the one with the three spondees. Besides the above, there's an artistic/poetic reason that I analyzed in the old thread, so to pretentiously quote myself:
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jonathan James Henderson View Post

The major thing I--and I think most--would notice here are the three pairs of consecutive stressed syllables: "Bright Star," "stedfast," "thou art." Once one picks those out I think you also notice a strong semantic correlation between them; it's almost the poem in little right there. In fact, inverse it and you have "Thou art stedfast Bright Star." So what's left over? Well, you have "would I were" between the 1st and 3rd spondee and "as" stuck between the 3rd and 4th. I think it makes sense to group these together to form an amphimacer and catalectic unstressed foot.

What's the use of this? Well, besides pointing out the semantic relation between the spondee set, I think it contrasts well with the two "leftovers:" "would I were" places the stressed "I" between an "island" of unstressed syllables while poor "as" is left out on its own. The differing rhythms of these two groupings contrasts wonderfully with the strong, consistent spondee pairs, seeming to enact the very thing it's describing: the speaker, like the words associated with him, are not as 'stedfast' as the 'bright star / thou art' subject.
My condolences to anyone who actually read all that. Have a smile:
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Unread 07-17-2022, 01:43 PM
John Riley John Riley is offline
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I’ve given up wondering why people are so silly when it comes to meter. Is it really difficult to understand why poetry and fiction and all art changed into the 20th century. There used to someone here who said Larkin had killed modernism. So silly. As the world speeded up and became fragmented—think stoplights, for example—poetry with uniform lines that all ended at the same place no longer fit. You can call it prose or chopped prose or whatever but it isn’t going away. Write what you want but why spend so much energy lashing out at the last 150 years? The only indispensable thing is rhythm, as in all art, and rhythm is much deeper than meter.
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Unread 07-17-2022, 03:08 PM
Jonathan James Henderson Jonathan James Henderson is offline
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John,

I'm not sure to whom or what your post is directed at. I don't think anyone here is lashing out at free verse or the last 150 years of poetry. My only qualm about free verse is that much was sacrificed for that freedom, and not always for the better. Meter (and rhyme) satisfy fundamental human desires for patterns, both for meaning and for the sheer pleasure. Free verse kind still utilize other patterns, but most will not be as intuitively discernible as meter and rhyme. I don't think any poet "killed" anything; poetry just evolved/changed as all art forms do, and we can sit around and debate whether that change was for the better or not, but I'd rather just appreciate what's out there and ignore the rest. This thread was mostly concerned about the relationship between meter and natural speech; it wasn't intended as any kind of commentary (positive or negative) on the the evolution of poetry in the last 150 years.
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Unread 07-17-2022, 03:36 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jonathan James Henderson View Post
John,

I don't think anyone here is lashing out at free verse or the last 150 years of poetry.
You started your first post with a quote from another member decrying contemporary critics as "fools" and "sophists". This might be what John's responding to.

Matt

Last edited by Matt Q; 07-17-2022 at 03:39 PM.
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