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tonyv

A Fantastic Book on Meter

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tonyv

I recently contacted an expert on meter at a well-known internet poetry workshop with a few questions that I had. He answered my questions and recommended that I get a book which is unquestionably the best work on the subject of meter available today. In other words, it's a contemporary standard. The book is by Timothy Steele, a professor of English at California State University in Los Angeles, and it's called "All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing -- an Explanation of Meter and Versification." (Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1999)

 

None of my local Borders or Barnes and Noble stores had the book in stock, but I did it order it through one of them (B&N), and my copy came yesterday. The book really is a fantastic treatise on the subject. It's 366 pages long, written in clear English that's easy to understand and not highfalutin.

 

One of the questions I presented to the moderator at the workshop site concerned the scansion of line two in Philip Larkin's poem FRIDAY NIGHT IN THE ROYAL STATION HOTEL:

 

Clusters of lights over empty chairs

 

... which I scanned as follows:

 

 

CLUSters / of LIGHTS / ^O / ver EMP / ty CHAIRS /

 

/ trochee / iamb / headless iamb ?!? / iamb / iamb /

 

 

My question went to the the third foot in the line. I knew that, generally, headless iambs can only occur at the beginnings of lines of iambic pentameter. Yet, if that was the case, then what was the peculiarity that appears in the Larkin line above?

 

The question is answered in the book. Steele discusses the convention, starting on page 84, in a section called "6. Other variants: Divided Lines, Clipped Lines, Broken-Backed Lines, and Feminine Caesuras." Although Steele does not scan the line above, it appears that the omission of an unstressed syllable in that line does not amount to a headless iamb in the middle of the line. Rather, it's an example of a "broken-backed line."

 

On the broken-backed line, Steele writes (on page 85) that, "Another Middle English variant is the unhappily named 'broken-backed' pentameter. Broken-backed pentameters lack a metrically unaccented syllable in the middle of the line. Generally, the missing syllable is the fifth (i.e., the line's third offbeat)." This is exactly the case in the Larkin line above!

 

On page 87, Steele even states that Larkin uses this convention of the broken-backed line often and goes on to provide two more Larkin lines as examples. They are:

 

 

/aNO / ther CHURCH / ^MAT / ting SEATS / and STONES /

 

 

and

 

 

i FELL / aSLEEP / ^WAK / ing AT / the FUMES /

 

 

I look forward to learning much more from this book. I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to understand meter.

 

Tony


Here is a link to an index of my works on this site: tonyv's Member Archive topic

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Lake

Tony,

 

This sounds very interesting and fun. It seems this book does answer your questions on Philip Larkin's poems. It looks like that the omission of an unstressed syllable appears at the beginning of a phrase (the three examples here), doesn't it?

 

I'll try to get one.

 

Thanks for letting us know.

 

Lake

 

PS: Funny question: was there a rule first or a line first? :rolleyes:

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tonyv
It looks like that the omission of an unstressed syllable appears at the beginning of a phrase (the three examples here), doesn't it?

Well, the missing unstressed syllable is actually denoted by the carat (^), Lake:

 

CLUSters / of LIGHTS / ^O / ver EMP / ty CHAIRS /

 

I'll try to get one.

I hope you, do. It's inexpensive, too! :)

 

PS: Funny question: was there a rule first or a line first? :rolleyes:

:)) I would have to say the line, only because it's not really a rule, just an observation. ;)

 

Tony


Here is a link to an index of my works on this site: tonyv's Member Archive topic

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Lake
It looks like that the omission of an unstressed syllable appears at the beginning of a phrase (the three examples here), doesn't it?

Well, the missing unstressed syllable is actually denoted by the carat (^), Lake:

 

CLUSters / of LIGHTS / ^O / ver EMP / ty CHAIRS /

 

Sorry, Tony. I'm afraid I didn't make my point clear - I read

 

clusters of lights/over empty chairs

 

as two phrases, and the unstressed syllable denoted by the carat (^), appears at the beginning of the second phrase of "over empty chairs". So does this

 

i FELL / aSLEEP / ^WAK / ing AT / the FUMES /

 

I feel asleep/waking at the fumes

 

There can be a little pause at ^ if you want to read it like that. I don't know how other people read it.

 

Yes, yes, observations, not rules. :))

 

Lake

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tonyv
Sorry, Tony. I'm afraid I didn't make my point clear - I read

 

clusters of lights/over empty chairs

 

as two phrases, and the unstressed syllable denoted by the carat (^), appears at the beginning of the second phrase of "over empty chairs". So does this

 

i FELL / aSLEEP / ^WAK / ing AT / the FUMES /

 

I feel asleep/waking at the fumes

 

There can be a little pause at ^ if you want to read it like that. I don't know how other people read it.

No, Lake, your writing was clear. You're quite right: the missing syllable is, in each of these examples, at the beginning of a phrase. Good observation!

 

Tony


Here is a link to an index of my works on this site: tonyv's Member Archive topic

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waxwings

I have not seen this book, but there are many sources, and, among them, there are several 'explanations' for how to interpret Larkin's lines.

 

For one, there is such a thing officially known as a monosyllabic foot, one stressed syllable, and "headless iamb" may be another name for it, one I may have heard but paid no attention to. My attitude is that it could be called a "tailless trochee as well, and no one could say that is a misleading appellation.

 

Moreover, many experts state that caesuras, natural pauses between phrases (as Lake states) or pauses caused by punctuation, permit the 'collision' of a stressed last syllable of a bona fide metric foot with a stressed first syllable of another such foot. If it weren't so, we would not be able to voice smoothly many a wonderful passage from a famous poem.

 

As far as Larkin's line is concerned, my scan is as follows

 

CLUSters / of LIGHTS || over / EMPty CHAIRS /

 

i.e., officially, a trochee, a iamb, a caesura, a pirrhus and an amphimacer.

 

Please note that a most wonderful rhythm, perhaps a cadence, does not have to conform to a frozen metric. As I have said elsewhere and before, sentence stress does overrule word stress, thus I and other readers would not insist on stressing the first syllable of "over", come hell or high water.

 

It is unfortunate we are getting stuck in trying to see poems' lines as more likely written in strict iambic. Yes English tend toward iambic but not exclusvely unless we thing doggerel is the better example.

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tonyv

I kind of anticipated you would take exception to my scansion of the line, Ikars. I don't notice a caesura when I read the line, and tailless trochee aside, why not then just scan it as such:

 

CLUSters / of LIGHTS/ over EMP / ty CHAIRS /

 

trochee / iamb / anapest / iamb /

 

Now it's a real mess. It's no longer even pentameter; it's some kind of tetrameter.

 

If we use the numbered system, really, we would still come out with this:

 

 

CLUS(4) ters(2) / of(1) LIGHTS(4) / ^O(2) / ver(1) EMP(3) / ty(2) CHAIRS(4) /

 

trochee / iamb / "broken backed" iamb / iamb / iamb /

 

 

No matter how much you want to count the pyrrhic, "over" is O_ver with a stress on the first syllable. Though it may be barely audible, the stress is nevertheless there. So says the dictionary. And probably so would say a scope set to measure the voice.


Here is a link to an index of my works on this site: tonyv's Member Archive topic

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waxwings
I kind of anticipated you would take exception to my scansion of the line, Ikars. I don't notice a caesura when I read the line, and tailless trochee aside, why not then just scan it as such:

 

CLUSters / of LIGHTS/ over EMP / ty CHAIRS /

 

trochee / iamb / anapest / iamb /

 

Now it's a real mess. It's no longer even pentameter; it's some kind of tetrameter.

 

If we use the numbered system, really, we would still come out with this:

 

 

CLUS(4) ters(2) / of(1) LIGHTS(4) / ^O(2) / ver(1) EMP(3) / ty(2) CHAIRS(4) /

 

trochee / iamb / "broken backed" iamb / iamb / iamb /

 

 

No matter how much you want to count the pyrrhic, "over" is O_ver with a stress on the first syllable. Though it may be barely audible, the stress is nevertheless there. So says the dictionary. And probably so would say a scope set to measure the voice.

 

I have not , and that is my main point, taken an exception to your scansion. Same applies to how others interpret the , say, more 'theoretical' points on such as scansion and the like. I know there is hardly any sub-topic touching the art of poetry which obeys only one somehow prescribed viewpoint.

 

I think your trochee / iamb / anapest / iamb / is a better solution than mine, if we are sworn to permit only one mode of scansion, somehow managing tonot see any other than the classical metric feet. Your solution is not a mess, because that line is rhythmically pleasing no matter how you scan it.

 

There is much about various features of rhythm one can find in dozens of text, esp. the Princeton Encyclopedia of POETRY & POETICS, and in the Wickipedia and other sites on the web.

 

I must defend the caesura, because, after just having finished looking up various sources, I find that my gut-feel generated (and not dictated by any authority) thoughts are well supported elsewhere.

 

Here are various excerpts from sources open to peer review.

 

“In terms of acoustics, the prosodics of oral languages involve variation in syllable length, loudness, pitch, and the formant frequencies of speech sounds. In cued speech and sign languages, prosody involves the rhythm, length, and tension of gestures, along with mouthing and facial expressions. Prosody is absent in writing, which is one reason e-mail, for example, may be misunderstood. Orthographic conventions to mark or substitute for prosody include punctuation (commas, exclamation marks, question marks, scare quotes, and ellipses), typographic styling for emphasis (italic, bold, and underlined text), and emoticons.”

 

“In most cases, caesura is indicated by punctuation marks which cause a pause in speech: a comma, a semicolon, a full stop (period), a dash, etc. Punctuation, however, is not necessary for a caesura to occur.”

 

“Another component of a verse's meter are the caesurae (literally, cuts), which are not pauses but compulsory word boundaries which occur after a particular syllabic position in every line of a poem. In Latin and Greek poetry, a caesura is a break within a foot caused by the end of a word.”

 

One curious observation reads “odd lines have caesura after the 4-th syllable while the even lines are without a caesura.”

 

And yes, there are ways of 'scoping' the human voice. Typically, each vowel and syllable seems to consist of a set of parallel and simultaneous vibrations produced by various parts of the vocal apparatus, each part vibrating at a different frequency w/o seemingly interfering with the others. Hey, my voice and yours each is an orchestra. :icon_razz:

 

My thinking is that the sounds issuing from a person are unique, meaning we could not define by scansion which is the more pleasant, but that each person of adequate speech skill can produce sound trains that are pleasant w/o being the same as that of another individual.

Edited by waxwings

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