Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Dactyl, Dactyl, Dactyl! [to the cadence of "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!"]

James Joyce pronounced the title of his great work as YOO-lysses, not as the U.S.ian yooLYSSes. Samuel Beckett pronounced his own most famous work as GOD-oh, not as the Frenchian god-OH.

This made Ulysses, like Mulligan, Dedalus, and Ursula, a dactyl. And Godot a trochee.

Milton's "Paradise Lost" is a dactyl followed by a single-syllable stressed foot. So is Joyce's "Finnegans Wake". I think that that is not an accident.*

 - - - - -

Metamorphosis Encrypted:

If you take the letters K-A-F-K-A and keep the vowels as they are, but raise K eight letters counting up from the next letter in alphabetical order, you will get the sequence S-A-_-S-A; if you then count up the same interval from F, the entire cyphered sequence is

Kafka concealed himself under the Samsa carapace thereby, slipping in yet another layer--what Ezra Pound called a "ply"--to the richness of the work. It is like Raphael placing his self-portrait among the figures in a crowd scene aside from the attention-focus of the painting.**

* And Beckett's pronunciation makes Waiting for Godot a dactyl followed by a trochee.
** The word "kavka" in Czech means "jackdaw". A jackdaw is a black bird that is a member of the crow family--a kind of metamorphosis built into Franz Kafka's very name: When you call out "Kafka!" on the street in Prague, do you refer to a man? Or a bird? Or a man-bird chimera? How does the word "kafka" signify?...

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Broader Relevance of Prosody

Prosody is primarily a part of the study of how poetry is put together. The term is also used in linguistics to discuss the rhythmic element of speech. But the point in this blog is the use of the term in the field of poetry. Poetry is a subset of the field of writing, and has become a marginalized, specialized outlier in the field of writing. The basics of prosody are for eccentrics or specialists in academic departments.

For most of the history of writing as an academic study, prosody was a fundamental part of the study of literature. Keep in mind that, with a few exceptions, the novel and the short story are recent developments. Prose was not the default for those who were literary and ambitious.

Elegant prose has its own rules, but the old fields of rhetoric and prosody informed the writing of earlier ages and are a part of modern style as well. Familiarity with the basics of prosody can enrich one's study of prose as well as of poetry, and can enhance one's writing of prose, too. It should be obvious that the study of prosody makes sense for poets--though clearly many "poets" and many academics don't really have much fluency with it these days. As I said, it was once an integral part of education.

In earlier posts, I have used examples of prosodic elements in prose. I have pointed out meter hidden in a lovely passage by Thomas Wolfe and I have discussed the role of prosody in one of the most admired chapters of James Joyce's Ulysses. In both cases, the consideration of prosody allowed for a critical focus that colors close reading in a positive way.

Prosody is not so isolate and irrelevant a field of study. It is a part, consciously or unconsciously, of a lot of what is around us. What gives a prose passage or oratory its aural beauty? Sometimes poetic prose or poetic oratory is so because poetic tools are employed. Is this not reason enough to add it to the toolset of the writer's and the reader's crafts?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Protean Prosody

In the third chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, one of the novel's main characters, young Stephen Dedalus, walks on the beach and wallows in angst and intellection. Stephen is preoccupied with, among other things, prosody. He composes a poem along the way. As he walks and introspects, he tries on different metrical hats, much of it centered around tetrameter.

In drafts, Joyce had named chapters, but in galleys he removed the chapter names. In Joyce studies, the chapters of Ulysses are traditionally referred to by those original names. Hence, the third chapter, which is neither named nor numbered, is known as “Proteus”. Proteus is a sea-god who Odysseus encounters on a beach in Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus seeks information from Proteus, but to get that information from the uncooperative divinity, Odysseus will have to seize and hold him until Proteus relents and tells Odysseus what Odysseus wishes to know. But things are never easy on an odyssey, and Proteus has the power to change form, instantly metamorphosing into different animals, each one difficult to hold on to or terrifying in aspect. The parallel in James Joyce's novel is that Steven walks along the beach while his mind explores many issues with his intimidatingly educated and incisive mind, including the terrifying: mortality, the nature of reality, salvation, and the eternal question of “will anyone see me if, here and now, I....”

I will quote the first five paragraphs of Proteus herebelow. The text is as printed in the 1992 Modern Library Edition of Ulysses by James Joyce (Modern 37).

INELUCTABLE MODALITY OF THE VISIBLE: AT LEAST THAT IF NO more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreet, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.
          Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible. Open your eyes. No. Jesus! If I fell over a cliff that beetles o'er his base, fell through the nebeneinander ineluctably. I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do. My two feet in his boots are at the end of his legs, nebeneinander. Sounds solid: made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Crush, crack, crick, crick. Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a'.

                    Won't you come to Sandymount,
                    Madeline the mare?

          Rhythm begins, you see. I hear. A catalectic tetrameter of iambs marching. No, agallop: deline the mare.
          Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? If I open and am for ever in the black adiaphane. Basta! I will see if I can see.
          See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.

So now I come to the point: the 1986 Gabler edition of Ulysses (Gabler 31) introduces an error into the above passage—an error based on a misreading that is itself based on an ignorance of prosody. That error has propagated through other editions and electronic versions of the text. If one has an even rudimentary understanding of English-language prosody—an understanding far below that of Stephen Dedalus, let alone that of Stephen's Author—it does not make sense.

I refer to the revision in the Gabler edition (devision is more appropriate in this case) of  the words “A catalectic” to the word “Acatalectic”.

“Catalexis” is a technique in poetry in which a foot at the end or the beginning of a line has a syllable lopped off. It can be used to emphasize a particular word, impose a startling brevity, to unsettle the reader's rhythmic expectations with a syncopation, or to break up a pattern to keep a poem's form from becoming monotonous or predictable.

For instance, if Tennyson had decided to “change up” the incessant ta-tum of iambic tetrameter in “The Lady of Shallot” and changed “On either side the river lie” to “Either side the river lie” or “And through the field the road runs by” to “Through the field the road runs by”, by dropping a syllable from the opening foot, that would be catalexis. William Blake's “The Tyger” is a famous example of end-line catalexis: “Tyger, tyger, burning bright”. The meter Blake employed was catalectic trochaic tetrameter. If that line were acatalectic, it would read thus: “Tyger, tyger, burning brightly.”

To reiterate: An acatalectic line has no truncated metrical feet. An acatalectic line of iambic (or trochaic) tetrameter has eight syllables, not seven. An acatalectic line of iambic (or trochaic) trimeter has six syllables, not five.

So, for Gabler's change to be appropriate, the lines of verse preceding “acatalectic”--the verses in Stephen's stream of consciousness, so we know what he's thinking about--would have to be acatalectic, not catalectic.

A traditional verse form often used in Irish songs and poetry is the ballad stanza. Ballads are composed of quatrains alternating iambic tetrameter/iambic trimeter/iambic tetrameter/iambic trimeter.

Here are the two lines of Stephen's verse again:

                    Won't you come to Sandymount,
                    Madeline the mare?

These are two catalectic lines from a ballad stanza—seven syllables/five syllables. Here is what the lines look like with an insertion to make them acatalectic:

                    Oh, won't you come to Sandymount,
                    Oh, Madeline the mare?

Admittedly, the “oh” in both cases is ad hoc, but it clearly delineates (“delines”) what the rhythm would be if the lines were acatalectic. The change of “A catalectic” to “Acatalectic” in the Gabler edition is erroneous.

At the root of this error, and its propagation thereafter, is ignorance of basic English-language prosody on the part of a surprising number of scholars, some of whom are quite eminent.

To re-reiterate, the two lines Stephen recites to himself are both catalectic, a couplet, in ballad form. They are, as he says, iambs marching.

And Stephen himself, following the row of seawrack along Sandymount strand, “delines the mare”--mare being Latin for the sea but conflated with the English word for an adult female horse so that Stephen can refer to meter as “agallop”.

All through this passage, Stephen is engaging in metric play. Let's take a look at the intermediary passage between “Madeline the mare” and “a catalectic tetrameter of iambs marching”:

                    Rhythm begins, you see. I hear.

By calling the passage out isolated and indented similarly to Stephen's lines of verse, it becomes apparent that it is itself tetrametric. But it is not purely iambic: the word “rhythm” is a trochee. “Begins”, “you see”, and “I hear” are all iambs. (“'I am's” is a pun that runs beneath “Proteus” as a tacit organum. Many people are put off by Stephen's introspection throughout Proteus, but a Joycean joke is behind Stephen's angst. The Arranger has Stephen wrestling with prosodic composition; Stephen has no choice as to what he can think about: It is “I am”s all the way down.)

Joycean play is amok through this delightful passage. “Rhythm begins” brings us (by a commodious recirculation) back to Los, the Blakean Demiurge. The music of the spheres is a testament to the rhythm as well as the harmony initiated with Creation. (What Galileo saw, God “hears”.) The conversational “you see” separated by the period from “I hear” turns the period into the crux of a chiasmus. “I hear” is a homonym for “I here”, which is an iamb...so the first-person present of the verb to be inheres: iamb is present, making it “I am here” by yet another commodious circulation—while riffing on Stephen's earlier counterpoint of the modalities of sight and sound: “Stephen closed his eyes to hear”.

An intriguing exercise in tetrameter is in the sound of Stephen's unseen (sea <=> see) footsteps on the seawrack of Sandymount Strand:

                    Crush, crack, crick, crick.

Seewrack heard. But not in iambs--the world speaks to Stephen in monosyllabic feet. It is tetrametric, but in Stephen's slow blind pace. One syllable, one foot, one step. It is an interesting exercise in prosodic composition: To write a metric line in single-syllable, stressed feet. Stephen is trying out his Dedalean wings; a different rhythm to the same beat. And what could be more catalectic than an entire line of missing syllables? After all, the happy patter of little iambs proceeds heel-toe; Stephen's cracking crush on drying wrack is flat: sole, sole, sole, sole.

- - - - -

Addendum I

This is the poem that Stephen composes in Proteus:

                    On swift sail flaming
                    From storm and south
                    He comes, pale vampire,
                    Mouth to my mouth.

We don't see what Stephen wrote on the strand until Chapter 7, “Aeolus”, when Stephen recalls what he had written on a scrap of paper torn from Mr. Deasy's letter to the editor on hoof and mouth disease (Everyman 132). When Stephen hands in Mr. Deasey's letter at the newspaper, one of the newspapermen, Lenehan, notices that the bottom of the last page was torn off, and jests “Who tore it? Was he short taken.” With “short taken”, the Arranger has given Lenehan a winking reference to Stephen's catalexis. [Gabler here makes a change that holds water, changing the full stop after “short taken” to a question mark (Gabler 109), thereby reinstating the punctuation of the first edition of 1922 (Dover 127).]

Note the last line of Stephen's quatrain. The source for the meter employed in Stephen's poem, and in particular for the last line, is “My Grief on the Sea”, a poem by Douglas Hyde (Gifford 62):

                    My grief on the sea,
                    How the waves of it roll!
                    For they heave between me
                    And the love of my soul!

                    Abandon'd, forsaken,
                    To grief and to care,
                    Will the sea ever waken
                    Relief from despair?

                    My grief and my trouble!
                    Would he and I were,
                    In the province of Leinster,
                    Or County of Clare!

                    Were I and my darling--
                    O heart-bitter wound!--
                    On board of the ship
                    For America bound.

                    On a green bed of rushes
                    All last night I lay,
                    And I flung it abroad
                    With the heat of the day.

                    And my Love came behind me,
                    He came from the South;
                    His breast to my bosom,
                    His mouth to my mouth. (Hyde)

Stephen appropriates Hyde's last line for his own last line, but drops the first syllable, producing a catalectic variant on Hyde's original. Stephen's thinking is focused throughout on catalectic meter. To change “a catalectic” to “acatalectic” is simply wrong.

- - - - -

Addendum II

In the Oxford World Classics edition of Ulysses, an edited and endnoted edition of the original 1922 text, a note on the question of whether the text should read “a catalectic” or “acatalectic” quotes a letter from James Joyce to Harriet Weaver in which Joyce writes “divide better A catalectic” (Oxford 785). The editor concludes the note, “That ought to settle the matter.” Indeed.

- - - - -

Works Cited

Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's Ulysses. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988. Print.

Hyde, Douglas. “My Grief on the Sea”. Poemhunter.com. Poemhunter.com, 1 January 2004. Web. 20 March 2015. <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/my-grief-on-the-sea/>.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Facsim. 1922 ed. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2009. Print.

---. Ulysses. New York: The Modern Library, 1992. Print.

---. Ulysses. Ed. Gabler, Hans Walter, Wolfhard Steppe, and Claus Melchior. New York: Vintage Books, 1986. Print.

---. Ulysses. Ed. Johnson, Jeri. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Common Three-Syllable Feet Used in Poetry in English

The three-syllable feet that are common in English poetry are the "dactyl", the "anapest", and the "amphibrach". Here are examples to illustrate each of these feet:

dactyl: "Mulligan". A stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

anapest: "a balloon". The opposite of a dactyl. Two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.

amphibrach: "Obama". Two unstressed syllables with a stressed syllable between them.

And, to follow that theme, "Kenyan" is a trochee (stressed-unstressed) and "Hawaiian" is an amphibrach--unless one pronounces the "ii", which is not the usual pronunciation. ;-)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Uses of Poetic Form; Intro #1

In an earlier post, on John Dryden's "Marriage a-la-Mode", I mentioned Dryden's and William Blake's use of specific metric devices to convey meaning. It is a sort of meta-onomatopoeia.

I mentioned that in the fifth line of "Marriage a-la-Mode", Dryden alternated between iambs and anapests because starting as two and adding a third syllable to the foot echoed the argument of the poem--that of movement from a married couple on to a relationship with a third person.

And I mentioned that in Blake's "The Tyger", he employed a line that was a catalectic trochaic tetrameter. The point of the end-catalexis was to impose a sudden brevity on the line. The famous first line, "Tyger, tyger, burning bright", would be more grammatically correct as "Tyger, tyger, burning brightly", but see how different the line becomes. The double trochees set us up to expect the third foot to be a trochee, but lopping off that last syllable causes the last word to be intensely emphasized in the meter's abrupt truncation. It sears the final word, "bright", into the mind. It conveys a drumbeat of menace cut off in the wilderness, like a cry of fear that suddenly stops. The contrast is sharp and violent. The missing syllable is a silent shout of present absence. Blake chose the meter of the poem because it suits the content and the atmosphere of the poem. The word "bright" is not fraught. It can be a very positive word. But a "tyger" is a fierce creature, a symbol of power and menace. The repetition enforces the syncopation of the rhythm and emphasizes the tyger's presence. The word "burning" is another menace. The reader is threatened by tooth and talon, fang and claw, then immolation; "bright" refers back to the burning flames, high and hot and all-consuming, and to the orange of the tyger's coat. Peril is what we feel. But as T.S. Eliot said of the season that we are departing even now: "In the juvescence of the year / Came Christ the tiger." ["Gerontion", lines 19 and 20.] The tiger, in its power and beauty and danger, is an age-old symbol of Christ. And the Bible says of god, "for he is like a refiner's fire", an ancient metaphor in Abrahamic tradition (Malachi 3:2).

As Shakespeare's Polonius says, "brevity is the soul of wit". The limerick's short line supports a focus of attention and a feeling of quickness. If one can convey an idea complete in trimetric and dimetric lines, the very brevity seems to manifest wit. But galloping along with the brief dimeter/trimeter lines is a foot that is longer than the common two-syllable feet--dot-dot-daaash, dot-dot-daaash....It is a rollicking, rolling, waltzing rhythm. The limerick conveys a sense of wit and precipitous movement; the use of rhyme ties ideas together compactly. (That is the purpose of rhyme.) In extreme brevity, an idea is tied off and cut. The limerick with its dancing brevity is an ideal vehicle for ironic humor. It most easily conveys jocularity, but the close juxtaposition of ideas make it a play of thoughts or of puns. The strictness of the structure is closed and rigid, but the rhythm is the opposite, creating a formal internal dissonance. The packing of the component ideas so tightly together makes the verse pop like a kernel of corn in the mind of the listener/reader.

Form is not arbitrary. A serious poet weighs form before embarking on the work. Form, whether sonnet or limerick, blank verse or heroic couplet or free verse, must suit the poem, just as a fashion designer selects a fabric that will drape correctly for the design of a dress. This is one of the points I hope to explore in this blog.

Blank Post, to Open This "Blog" Up for Dialogue (Diablogue?)

This is a blank post, intended to be a locus for your queries. If you'd like to initiate a discussion or have a question, please post as a "Reply". :-)

John Dryden's "Marriage a-la-Mode"

 Marriage a-la-Mode

Why should a foolish marriage vow,
     Which long ago was made,
Oblige us to each other now
     When passion is decay'd?
We lov'd, and we lov'd, as long as we could,
     Till our love was lov'd out in us both:
But our marriage is dead, when the pleasure is fled:
     'Twas pleasure first made it an oath.
If I have pleasures for a friend,
     And farther love in store,
What wrong has he whose joys did end,
     And who could give no more?
'Tis a madness that he should be jealous of me,
     Or that I should bar him of another:
For all we can gain is to give our selves pain,
     When neither can hinder the other.

The traditional "ballad" verse form in poetry is four lines rhymed ABCB, with the second and fourth lines rhymed and in iambic tetrameter while the first and third line are in iambic trimeter.

The verse form that Dryden uses in "Marriage a-la-Mode" is a variation on that form, executed with great skill. It is a polished, well-crafted poem using a traditional rhyme and meter, but the metrical feet vary within it, which keeps the poem from becoming stilted or formal. (Longfellow and Tennyson can be unrelenting in their strict and stiff adherence to a meter and rhyme-scheme, but Dryden avoids the dullness that overdone strict metrical repetition can result in. Tennyson and Longfellow are often criticized for a "lack of invention" in their verse, but Dryden certainly avoids that criticism here.)

The poem consists of two stanzas of eight lines each.

The lines alternate with odd-numbered lines being tetrameter and the even-numbered lines being tetrameter.

Both stanzas begin utilizing iambic feet, but switch to anapestic feet in the second quatrains. Iambs are two-syllable metrical units, called "feet", in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed. "Anapests" are three-syllable feet that consist of unstressed-unstressed-stressed syllables.

In the first stanza, the lines are iambic for the first four lines. The fifth line transitions from the strict marriage of two syllables to the freer marriage of three syllables in the line in which the marriage being discussed breaks down and interest in a new, third party introduced in the second stanza is foreshadowed. Very cleverly, the meter mirrors the subject. The first first foot is iambic, the second anapestic; the third is iambic, the fourth is anapestic: "We lov'd, and we  lov'd, as long as we could." [I indicated stressed syllables by use of boldface font and indicated the feet in which the syllables were connected by underscoring the words.] The remaining lines are composed of anapests. The last line of the first stanza might seem like an iamb, but it is functioning as a catalectic anapest. The first syllable is swallowed up in the "it" that disappeared into the contraction "'Twas". A catalectic first or last foot is often used in lines in anapestic trimeter to give brevity (the soul of wit) and abruptness, which lends itself to humor or irony: "There once was a lad from Cathay...."

There once was a lad from Cathay
Who could never know quite what to say.
     He would soon start to balk
     When in medias talk--
Like an ass, he would titter and bray.

[Limericks are properly entirely anapestic, five lines, trimeter-trimeter-dimeter-dimeter-trimeter. But very often, the first foot on the first line has two syllables but functions as an anapest. The limerick, with its brief lines with long, rollicking feet, is well-suited to the kind of ironic (or off-color) humor one associates with limericks. The Irish have a wonderful sense of fun in their speech and verse, but the limerick form is English. There you go, the English blaming the Irish for their own naughty sins yet again....]

The term for a foot being a syllable short is "catalexis". A famous example is William Blake's "The Tyger", which is in trochaic tetrameter, but the final foot is short and renders the line abrupt and the final word emphasized: "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright." A "trochee" is a two-syllable foot in which the first syllable is stressed and the second unstressed; it is the opposite of the iamb.

The second stanza of "Marriage a-la-Mode" proceeds in iambs for the first four lines, and then reverts to anapests for the remainging four lines, with, again, a catalexis at the beginning of the last line: "When neither can hinder the other."

The sixth and eighth lines of the second stanza close with what is called a "feminine rhyme". Feminine rhyme is when an extra, unstressed syllable occurs at the end of the line. At the end of a line, such a rhyme is not counted (usually) to change the type of foot. In iambic lines, it is not considered to transform an iamb to an amphibrach (an "amphibrach" is a three-syllable foot that is unstressed-stressed-unstressed), and feminine rhyme does not metamorphose an anapest into some ancient Greek tetrasyllabic teratologic foot.

"Marriage a-la-Mode" is witty and ironic, and Dryden has chosen the perfect form to match the content of the poem...and executed it skillfully indeed.

 - - - - -

In an earlier post, I pointed out that John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, is not the most skilled of poets. I proposed that the first two lines of “A Satire Against Mankind” begins with an awkward meter and a rather poor off-rhyme:

Were I (who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man)

Rochester had talent to do much better than that, but he was clearly too hasty to strop and whet his verse. He was happy enough with it at an earlier, duller draft than Milton, Dryden, or Pope (or Johnson) would ever have allowed.

Just to illustrate that he didn't have to stay with the errant trochee on the second line or the failed amman rhyme, I decided to change the catalectic first line of the ad hoc, ex tempore limerick I incorporated above so that the initial anapest would be complete. Voila! All Rochester had to do was to knapp the rough matter of the original more finely into form, then polish it a bit.

When a Mandarin came from Cathay,
He'd a struggle to find what to say.
     He would soon start to balk
     When in medias talk
Like an ass, he would titter and bray.

Well. The point being, that Rochester could have done better, and Johnson knew it. Johnson, like Humpty Dumpty, made words do what he wanted.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Little Feet

Music has analyzed and notated its rhythmic elements with great precision. People all around the world can read musical notation and understand and play a composer's work, regardless of their language background. I once looked over the shoulder of a young man playing a piano at a university in Taipei, and the score was a composition by Scriabin. It was an American edition of a Russian composition played by a Chinese boy using the system of notation native to all three peoples. Poetry, alas, needs translation to cross so many borders.

Poetry's analysis of itself is far less precise and comprehensive. The system of analysis of poetic rhythm is called "prosody".

As musical rhythm is broken down into units of rhythmic counting called "measures", poetry is usually broken up into "lines". Measures and lines are analogues.

A common rhythmic measure in music is 4/4 time; a common line of poetry is iambic pentameter. (I will explain "iambic pentameter" below.)

Measures in music are divided up into "beats". The prosodic analogue for a beat is called a "foot". The nomenclature of prosody dates back to the ancient Greeks, and the words in English tend to trace quite directly back to Greek roots. Roman and Greek prosody used the words "pes" and "pous"--among others--but the Roman pedal tones became the English "feet".

In music, basic counting from which measures subdivide is indicated by the "time signature"; again, a common example would be 4/4 time: a count of four beats per measure, with the beat being indicated by a quarter-note (crotchet). A waltz is indicated by a time signature of 3/4: three beats per measure, with the beat being indicated by a quarter note. A time signature of 6/8 indicates a measure of six beats, each beat indicated by an eighth-note (quaver). The subdivision of line by foot is called "meter".

The most fundamental measure in English is called "iambic pentameter". "Pentameter" means a line of five feet. Other common metrical line lengths are "trimeter" (three feet), "tetrameter" (four feet), and "hexameter" (six feet). An "iamb" is a type of foot.

There are many types of metrical foot, and this is where things become complex or hard to define. Greek and Latin were languages in which vowels in words were differentiated by time--long or short. The term for verse employing metrical count by foot based on vowel duration is "quantitative verse". English is a "stressed" language; vowels in words and sentences are stressed or unstressed.

For a recent popular example of quantitative speech, think of the first Harry Potter movie, in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione were learning to use their wands to move a feather. "LeviO-O-Osa" they'd intone while flourishing their wands, the "o" in "leviosa" held longer than any other vowel in the word. The "i" is held for a much shorter duration than the "o" it precedes.

English, on the other hand, is a stressed or accented language. For example, the word "English" is accented on the first syllable: "ENGlish". Most metered verse in English is measured out in unstressed-stressed verse. Some poets writing in English have counted their verse by vowel-length, but the great majority base their meter on patterns of unstressed-stressed feet. There are many types of foot, and they can be tricky to define, because meaning can influence where stress is placed--and sometimes stresses move. Consider a common word: "umbrella". In many regions, the stress is on the penultimate vowel: "umBRELLa"; but in the Southern U.S., it can be pronounced as "UMbrella", with the stress on the first vowel. Put the word in a verse, and a Southerner might end up with a line that is metrically variant from a New Englander's intent.

An iamb is a foot that consists of two vowels and the pattern of stress is unstressed followed by stressed syllables. The last word of the previous paragraph, "intent", is an iamb: "inTENT". Consider the first sentence of Thomas Wolfe's novel, Look Homeward, Angel: "...a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door." The following are iambs: "a stone", "a leaf", "an un-found door", "a door". The word "of" can be viewed as a single-vowel stressed foot "...a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; OF a stone, a leaf, a door. (It is a hauntingly beautiful opening to the novel. Not less so because Wolfe hid poetry in his prose.) The "of" could also be viewed as an unstressed syllable connected to the next two, making a three-vowel foot known as an "anapest", which is unstressed-unstressed-stressed, as in "a la carte". I feel the meaning is better served by stressing the "of" very heavily, which makes it clearly the crux of an ironic chiasmus.

The word "iamb" is itself not an iamb, but a trochee--a stressed foot followed by an unstressed  foot.

So let's look at some examples of iambic pentameter. From "A Satire Against Mankind" by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester:

Were I (who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man)
A spirit free to choose, for my own share,
What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I'd be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,
Or anthing but that vain animal
Who is so proud of being rational.

Droll, but the meter is a bit forced. For example, the second word on the second line, "of"--a word that in this case shouldn't really be stressed--is in a stressed position on the line. It is not an intentional syncopation. If we assume it to be unstressed, "one of those" becomes a dactyl (more on dactyls below) and "strange" becomes an especially heavily stressed, single-vowel foot...which can be done, but is subtle for Wilmot. Rather than knapping out a line of good iambic pentameter, he's syllable-counting: ten syllables make a line.

Although he was working in "heroic couplets" (pairs of rhymed iambic pentameter), the rhymes are not perfect: am--man would not be acceptable to more skilled poets than Wilmot, and animal--rational is not quite spot-on...though 'twill do.

Rhyme will be a discussion for another post or few, but note that the excerpt has a rhyme scheme of AABBBCC, so it is not quite a strict rhyme scheme, either. 'Twouldn't do for Pope or Milton. They'd knapp it into form.

Another example of heroic couplets, more featly crafted, is the following excerpt from the beginning of Abraham Cowley's (Cowley is pronounced "cooly") ambitious epic on the life of David named so as to claim association with, if not the mantle of, Virgil's Aeneid, Davideis:

I sing the Man who Judah's Scepter bore 
In that right hand which held the Crook before:
Who from best Poet, best of Kings did grow;
The two chief gifts Heav'n could on Man bestow.
Much danger first, much toil did he sustain,
Whilst Saul and Hell crost his strong fate in vain.
Nor did his Crown less painful work afford;
Less exercise his Patience or his Sword;
So long her Conque'ror Fortune's spight pursu'd;
Till with unwearied Virtue he subdu'd                       10
All homebred Malice and all forreign boasts;
Their strength was Armies, his the Lord of Hosts--
Thou, who didst David's royal stem adorn,
And gav'st him birth from whom thy self wast born.

On line 9, the word "Conque'ror", while a dactyl itself (a "dactyl" is a three-vowel foot of stressed-unstressed-unstressed accentuation), with the preceeding unstressed "her" is accented as "her KONkerer", a rare tetrasyllabic foot. Those were common in Greek, a language that far more often than English has vowels in sequence without consonants between them, which lent itself to more complex feet and longer lines.

Next is an example of unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is known as "blank verse". These are the very last lines of John Milton's titanic masterwork, Paradise Lost, which closes with our first ancestors, Eve and Adam, exiting Eden, doomed to all that followed thereafter:

  They looking back, all th' Eastern side beheld
  Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
  Wav'd over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
  With dreadful Faces throng'd and fierie Armes:
  Som natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
  The World was all before them, where to choose
  Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
  They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
  Through EDEN took thir solitarie way.