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One of our regular members, whose work has always been novel and a pleasure to read, has of late been producing some sonnets. Backchannel, Eclipse asks (re his recent "sonnet for Newcastle (practice)," "hi Tony does the meter scan in that sonnet?-Barry." Reproduced below is the text of my reply to him which he has graciously allowed me to share so that others also may (hopefully) benefit from the analysis. Eclipse wrote this sonnet in an hour. It usually takes me a lot longer than that to even formulate an idea (or ideas) for shorter poems. Then again, I'm pretty slow, lol.
I submit five poems of Edgar Bowers for examination: THE ASTRONOMERS OF MONT BLANC EDGAR BOWERS (four more) These poems are all written in flawless iambic pentameter that is mostly strict (meaning, in addition to other accepted substitutions, they contain only the occasional anapest). Read each one out loud, but do not try to read them according to some preconceived notion of what iambic pentameter is or should be. Rather, read them naturally and trust that the meter is there. Notice how the musicality varies in each of the poems, how the language speeds up and slows down at various points as you read, the syncopation present in the various parts. This effect is produced by Bowers' expert handling of the language and meter. Metrical poems like these, in which the meter is flawless, sound natural when read out loud. A poem in which the meter is "off" in whole or in part will sound "off" in those parts in the same way a musical composition would sound off if a drummer were to veer off and alter its beat while the other musicians continued to play in the previously established time signature. This is not only the case with iambic pentameter. The same holds true for all metrical (accentual-syllabic) poetry. I'll submit something in a different meter to illustrate this later on if this topic takes off.
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