Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ballad Stanza

A stanza form that is quite common all through poetry is the ballad. As that name suggests, it is often used in songs.

The ballad stanza usually employs the iambic foot, and is a quatrain--that is, four lines.  The first and third lines have four feet (iambic tetrameter) and the second and fourth lines have three feet (iambic trimeter).

The rhyme scheme of ballads is most commonly ABAB. The first and third lines rhyme and the second and fourth lines rhyme.

Here are some verses of ad hoc doggerel in ballad form:

The “ballad” stanza starts with four
      The next line shifts to three—
The iambs march to keep the score
      As in this verse you see.

This is the meter you must use
      For ballad form that's clear:
The iamb is the foot to choose,
      First four, then three—like here!

The ballad is a four-line verse,
      A quatrain, if you please…
The meter flows and then is terse
      And sets to song with ease.

The rhyming scheme is A to B
      Repeating that once more—
And if you want to get to C...
      Another round's in store.

The rhythm of the ballad stanza, with all else removed, is thus:

Ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM
     Ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM
Ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM
     Ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM.

Lewis Carroll often employed variations on the ballad in his work. He was not always strict in adhering to iambic feet, giving his verse a rollicking feel suitable for humor. Here is an example from "You Are Old Father William":

"In my youth," said his father, "I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life."

In "The Walrus and the Carpenter" he employed a sestet that kept the overall iambic foot and the tetrameter-trimeter sequence but dropped the alternating rhyme:

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings."

The most famous of all Lewis Carroll's verses, the first (and last) stanza of "Jabberwocky", is another variation on the ballad form, with only the last line in trimeter, the first three being all in tetrameter--but with the iamb being the main foot throughout:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
     Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
     And the mome raths outgrabe.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Limerick Meter

In my last post, I composed a limerick to illustrate the use of catalexis in the opening beat of the limerick. Most commonly, limericks open with an iamb that should really be thought of as a catalectic anapest. Here is the limerick in question:

There once was a lass named McGoo
Who had met her true love at the zoo.
   He'd the face of her Ma
   And the breath of her Pa
And was hooked by her Mulligan stew.

This is what the rhythm looks like with all else removed:

Ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM.

The very first foot is an iamb. An iamb is a foot (a foot is a unit of rhythm in poetry, which, overall, is called meter) that consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable: "There ONCE" (ta-TUM). The rest of the limerick is composed of anapests. An anapest is a foot composed of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (ta-ta-TUM).

Technically, any line in a limerick can begin with an iamb. But the remainder of the line must be composed of anapests. From a purist perspective, all the feet in a limerick should be anapests; but having said that, Edward Lear, the popularizer of the limerick, was not strict about the first foot at all--and his limericks are great fun.

To contrast the lines with initial iambic feet, I composed another limerick that is exclusively constructed of anapests. I feel that this is the more pure form of limerick. Compare the rhythms and see what you think. However! Before you assume that I have presented the basic form of the limerick in its optimum application of metrical strictures, I have thrown in another twist: The primary rhyme is a "feminine" rhyme--a rhyme that ends with an unstressed syllable. A "masculine" rhyme ends on a stressed syllable, as above.

There are two ways to vary a masculine to a feminine rhyme; to choose, say, a different foot for the place on the line where the rhyme occurs, or to add an extra syllable. What I chose to do was to add a syllable. I chose to count feet rather than syllable counting; more on that below. Here is the second limerick:

In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit
Who had sought out a dragon to rob it.
   When he came to its lair,
   There was gold everywhere--
And a skull that was missing its jaw bit.

This is what the rhythm looks like with all else removed:

Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM-ta
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM-ta.
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM,
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM--
ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM-ta.

In the realm of classical poetry, ancient Greek verse had more types of metrical foot available because Greek could have more vowels in sequence than modern English can. We tend to want to place consonants between vowels, and the Greeks were perfectly happy to have three fully weighted vowels in a row with no intermediate consonants. The very word from which we get our word "poetry"--"poeia"--consisted of a single consonant followed by four vowels. So tetrasyllabic feet were common in Greek ("poeia", for example); but as you might expect, not so common in English. There is a term for the rhythm of the final foot on the first, second, and fifth lines of the "hobbit" limerick above, but it is outdated and more precisely referential when considering classical Greek meter. I would consider what I employed, in this case, to be a feminine anapest rather than a "tertius paeon".

We do have in English a trisyllabic foot that could be made to fit, called an amphibrach. An amphibrach proceeds unstressed-STRESSED-unstressed (ta-TUM-ta). But I don't want to replace an anapest in a limerick with an amphibrach, because the almost waltz-like lilt we expect in a limerick is provided by the stuttering unstressed syllables that proceed the strong beat of the triplet [of course, in triple time in music, putting the strong beat on "three" would syncopate the measure: it would be one-two-THREE, one-two-THREE rather than the standard ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three of the Viennese waltz, but the limerick relies on the third syllable being stressed].

Here is an example of a limerick in which I did exactly that: I replaced all five final anapests with amphibrachs. I think you will feel that the meter falters and the lilt that makes the limerick both rollicking and euphonious is lost.

In a hole in a hill a hobbit
Met a quest to find hoard and rob it.
   There were gems quite tiny,
   Though a few were shiny--
So the hobbit replied, "Go sod it."

This is what the rhythm looks like with all else removed:

Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-TUM-ta
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-TUM-ta
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-TUM-ta
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-TUM-ta
Ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-TUM-ta

Beside the importance of maintaining the form of the verse, what I would like to convey in this post is that meter is also more than mere syllable-counting. Syllable-counting is the lowest level of versifying; the greatest poets were foot-counters. Ten syllables per line do not blank verse make; five feet per line of primarily iambic pentameter does. But a masterful poet will vary lines to keep them from becoming monotonous. I think others will agree; the feminine-rhymed limerick is more beautiful in sound and more true to the form than the catalectic, initial-iamb limerick. There was an extra syllable per line, but the feet remained true.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Limerical Catalexis

I was recently reminded of some verse I composed four or five years ago to illustrate the meaning of the word "catalectic" in James Joyce's Ulysses to a group of students who were mostly unacquainted with the terms and concepts of prosody. A more detailed discussion of that passage in Ulysses is in my post of March 20, 2015 titled "Protean Prosody" in this blog, which you can scroll down to, if you so wish.

Below is the text of my verse and its gloss:

His Grandmother to the Fox: "Iamb that I Am"
Delining the (Night)Mare

The verse we read has rhythmic feet
That measure out prosodic beat;
And if the poet's sense is sure,
The game's afoot in meter pure:
Unstressed, then stressed, the iambs trot,
While stressed-unstressed is trochees' lot.
The count of feet within each line
Is one more thing to here define:
A tetrametric line is thus;
A catalectic line's this.

[This relates to the third chapter of Ulysses by James Joyce. Those familiar with Stephen's seaside introspections will recognize the passage this illumines.]

The last line loses a syllable without losing a foot, thereby becoming catalectic. It falters, rhythmically. And the rhyme falters, too, becoming more an alliteration or a slant rhyme, whereas the previous eight lines were perfectly rhyming couplets. I did this to emphasize the effect of the catalexis.

One further note, in case a point above is misunderstood: Losing an entire foot is not usually considered catalexis. Sometimes, poets deliberately employ lines of different length--as in the traditional ballad form, which alternates four feet, three feet; four feet, three feet in each stanza. The form itself calls for the second and fourth lines to be shorter by a foot than the first and third. Usually, catalexis consists of a single dropped syllable with the foot-count remaining consistent to the pattern established.

A further example employing meter change and catalexis to show the difference: A limerick.

Limericks are composed of anapests. An anapest is a triple-syllable foot in which the syllables are unstressed-unstressed-stressed. The metrical pattern of limericks is anapestic trimeter/trimeter/dimeter/dimeter/trimeter. In other words, the first line should have three feet, the second line should have three feet, the third and fourth lines should have two feet each, and the last line should return to trimeter, with anapests throughout. The anapests give the limerick its rollicking gallop [Touchstone to Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It: "This is the very false gallop of verses"]. But, it is most common for the first line of a limerick to be catalectic with the first foot an iamb: "There once was a lass named McGoo"....

Note the stresses and rhythm:

There ONCE   was a LASS   named McGOO
ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM   ta-ta-TUM

I'll improvise the rest to show the rhythm.

There once was a lass named McGoo
Who had met her true love at the zoo.
     He'd the face of her Ma
     And the breath of her Pa
And was hooked by her Mulligan stew.

Here the limerick is, again, with the stressed syllables in bold. Hopefully, you can see the catalexis in the first line, now, and can see the difference in metrical count in the third and fourth lines--which are defined by the conventions of the form, and are therefore not examples of catalexis.

There once   was a lass   named McGoo
Who had met   her true love   at the zoo.
He'd the face   of her Ma
And the breath   of her Pa
And was hooked   by her Mu-lligan stew.

I hope this clarifies catalexis sufficiently to be of use. :-)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tennyson, the First Stanza of "The Last Tournament"

This is an excerpt from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Idylls of the King.

A couple of notes on pronunciation: I had heard from an early age that in the case of Tennyson's long masterwork on Arthurian themes, the word "Idylls" was to be pronounced as if it rhymed with the family that the Reverend Dodson knew in Oxford, the Liddells. And so I carefully became habited to call it. But then I read somewhere (I don't recall where, I won't search for it today) that Hallam said his father pronounced it in the same way as what a car does at a stop light in the United States--i.e., as "idles".

Gawain can be pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, as is most common: "GaWAIN" with the first syllable sounding schwa, OR with the stress on the first syllable, as I did here. Given the place on the line--and that Tennyson was too skilled to not have been able to compose the line elsehow to fit the meter--I expect that, here at least, Gawain was stressed on the first syllable.

Tennyson has fallen from favor. In part rightly so, in part not. As Ezra Pound said, referring to early in his re-working of the poetic diction of English in the 20th Century, "To break the pentameter, that was the first heave". But as a result, we fail now to hear what readers a century and a half ago heard. There is much beauty in much of Tennyson's work. But there is much tedious rumpty-tum, too. Tennyson was the towering figure of the Victorian pentameter that Pound needed to break in Modern poetry. Of all poets, Tennyson was probably, apart from the flocks of bad late Victorian and Edwardian poets that thought they had the aesthetic well in hand, the poet most antithetical to what Pound saw as needing to be done to create a new, Modern, poetry.

In Tennyson's further defense, The Idylls of the King was a long narrative work, and he made it cohere. It was no mean feat, and it is deserving of our 21st-Century attention. [And I had another reason to turn my attention this way recently; an interesting currency to Tennyson in American Modernism that I will discuss elsewhere.] :-)

A "carcanet" is a necklace or jeweled collar. "Fool" means the court jester.

Monday, December 28, 2015

End-of-the-Year Prosody: Setting the Bar for the New Year

A thought in passing:

Poetry should be the most demanding of the ways of writing, not the least. All too often, people think that poetry is a matter of "expressing yourself", and it requires no mastery of any aspect of writing.

That is absurd.

One MUST be able to write a complete, grammatically correct, syntactically appropriate sentence before thinking that one can "write a poem".

The reason poetry is more demanding than prose is that it has the same strictures, but then imposes far more in addition. While adhering to form and metrical pattern, etc., one must write clearly and well.

Writing poorly is not "breaking the mold", it is laxity. Such laxity is not "creative" or "expressive" or "reflective of one's roots". Dialect, ethnic, or regional speech within a poem is appropriate, if it provides the effect one seeks; but if, otherwise, one is not in control, one is not competent. For example, if one is a mechanic but doesn't know how to use the tools in the toolbox or diagnose what needs to be repaired, one is a joke as a mechanic. But in "art", people think things are different.

If one wishes to be good at writing poetry, one needs mastery--not self-expression. Any person's self can be expressed. A poet is not distinguished by feeling, a poet is distinguished by using words to create an effect.

This post is not an apologia for writing passages in unvaried iambic tetrameter, for example, or any other repetitive or "traditional" form. But one needs to be able to do iambic tetrameter--or pentameter, heroic couplets, ottava rima, or sonnets, ballad stanzas, and so on--to learn to control the words within a phrase, a line, a stanza, a poem. Before one can master free form, one needs to master restricted form. Crawling before walking; scales and arpeggios; sketches before oil; etc.

DON'T make the mistake of thinking that Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, or Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott didn't work within form and rule, however "free" their work might seem, and DON'T think that they couldn't turn a well-wrought sentence, complete with correct grammar and appropriate tone, voice, and syntax.

If one can't rhyme perfectly, one can't rhyme competently. If one can't wrestle a form to one's message, one is not a poet. Shakespeare didn't write sonnets because Shakespeare is an old dead white guy and that is just the stuffy way they did things then. Shakespeare wrote sonnets with mastery, and within their artificial form his sonnets speak to us profoundly and affectingly and with powerful authenticity.

People err in thinking that writing well is restrictive and deadening in poetry. Failing to write well, in the end, expresses slack lax ineptitude. Perhaps that is the self that some wish to express; but if that is not the hoped-for result, craft is necessary.

Or, to put it another way:

If you set your sights to the ground, you will hit your target--a very unfortunate success. If you set your sights to the stars, you will fail...but that failure might be glorious.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Declining Readership for Poetry

According to an article in the Washington Post, readership of poetry in the U.S. is down to this appalling stat: Only 6.7% of those surveyed admitted to having read poetry within the last year.

It is time to take to the books and prove these statistics failed.


Monday, April 13, 2015

"Feminine Rhyme"

For those of us reading "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth, "feminine rhyme" is rhyme in which the final syllable is unstressed.

Most often, feminine rhyme is created by turning an iamb into an amphibrach,* so that an iambic line ends with an extra syllable. (So syllable-counting won't work. A line of iambic trimeter is usually thought to have six syllables. A syllable-counter would see these lines as, perhaps, catalectic, having seven syllables rather than six. Syllable counting misses the flexibility of variable feet within a metrical line.)

The example given in "Lost in the Funhouse" is

What's good is in the Army;
What's left will never harm me.

Barth prefaces the quoted lines with the words "Ambrose's mother sang an iambic trimeter couplet from a popular song, femininely rhymed:". (Barth does not mean that something about the couplet is somehow effeminate. "Feminine rhyme" is the technical term for such verse elements, as stated above.)

Masculine rhyme consists of rhyme in which the final syllable is stressed. To turn the above into an example of iambic trimeter ending in a masculine rhyme, one could change it thus:

What's good is on the farm;
What's left will never harm.

* An iamb is a foot composed of two syllables, with the first syllable unstressed and the second syllable stressed: "What's good". An amphibrach is a foot composed of three syllables with only the middle syllable stressed: "the Army".