Playing with meter

BULLETIN: Kay Logsdon took my sunset picture on yesterday’s post as inspiration for a lovely metaphorical piece on the sunsets of our lives. Please go over for a look. Thanks to Kay! http://foodchannel.posterous.com/the-sunsets-of-your-life

Hi everyone,

Returning to a recent conversation about setting up and sticking to metric patterns when writing in verse: I said that it’s important to maintain the established pattern to spare the reader from losing time trying to figure out how to scan the poem. Scholarly poets engage in serious debates about the underlying dynamics of poetic expression, but for most purposes it’s sufficient to decide on a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables for the idea at hand and not go wobbling off that track far enough or often enough to confuse the reader.

We’ve talked about the poetic foot and its most usual configurations of accented and unaccented elements.
u/ = iamb
/u = trochee
uu/ = anapest
/uu = dactyl
// = spondee
uu = pyrrhus

Armed with these tools, the verse writer can create a variety of meters. Spoken English is a mishmash of iambic and anapestic words and phrases seasoned with the occasional trochee and garnished, now and then, with a dactyl. You’d need to be listening to pick up the odd pyrrhus, if you don’t count “uh-huh,” but spondees pop up rather routinely, especially in such throw-away expressions as “good grief” or “you go” or “who knew.”

Because iambs come to mind so easily and often, a good many poets rely on the comfort of writing lines of iambic meter.
u/u/u/
u/u/u/
u/u/u/
u/u/u/

or

u/u/u/
u/u/u/
u/u/u/u/
u/u/u/

or

u/u/u/u/
u/u/u/u/
u/u/u/u/
u/u/u/u/

etc.

But there are so many other alternatives! Think of us as composers writing music for an ensemble of six instruments. To give them enough numbers for a concert, we’ll have to create variety. We may like the trumpet and drum best, but there are four other musicians sitting there waiting their turn to play.

I’m not talking about formulaic structures — limerick, villanelle, sonnet — or number of lines. I’m talking about using our six most important tools to create enough metrical variety that our concert won’t sound like (to me) so many of today’s musical groups: one basically indistinguishable from the next in terms of instrumentation, leaping ability, and decibels of delivery.

Here are two examples that show how we can sometimes mix meters for special affect. In “Helping Momma,” the first reader speaks in iambic lines: “We love to help our” (u/u/u). The second reader seems to be speaking in spondaic feet: “mom cook” (//). This makes an unusual and interesting break in the conversation between first and second voice.

Now run the lines together and it’s apparent that the first beat of the spondee is actually the last beat of the iamb that proceeded it.

We love to help our mom cook: u/u/u//

I borrowed the last beat of the foot (our mom) and put it to work as the first half of the concluding spondee. So do I now have an incomplete iambic foot for the first speaker or a partial spondee for the second speaker? I don’t know. What do you think? Does it matter which way we call it? What matters, to me, is that it works. It works because I stuck with the goofy little plan all the way through. In the end, the poem takes on a rhythm you could almost dance to, deep into the evening when people start snaking around the floor with their hands on the hips of the person in front of them.

HELPING MOMMA
(Opening lines from a poem in LEARNING THROUGH POETRY)

(1st voice)
We love to help our
(2nd voice)
mom cook.
(1st voice)
We think we do a
(2nd voice)
fine job.
(1st voice)
Our momma says we’re
(2nd voice)
good boys,
(1st voice)
But now and then we’re
(2nd voice)
big slobs.
***

The second example employs a similar tactic but it’s more complicated. Here I have two different speakers engaged in dialog. Big sis is cajoling while little sis snores on with her one word response. Big sister starts out pleasantly and conversationally. As in “Helping Momma,” the first line is 2 1/2 iambs long: “Good morning, Sweetie” (u/u/u) and the response line supplies the missing accent (“Snore”). In the completed line there is no spondee involved.

But follow the number of syllables big sister uses. As her vexation grows, so does the length of her warnings. She goes from 2 1/2 beats in the first line to 3 in the second to four in each of the next two lines. I let the meter waver a bit in favor of establishing a more realistic sounding big sis tirade.

Good morning, Sweetie! = u/u/u
Time to rise and shine. = /u/u/
Get up now or you’ll be late. = u//u/u/
Don’t make me have to ask again. = u/u/u/u/

If you’re counting syllables, she uses 5,5, 7, 8 as the coming storm brews. Also, as she becomes more forceful, her lines end on an accent — shine, late, again — which gives more oomph and irony to little sister’s one beat refrain, “Snore.”

WAKING UP SIS
(Opening lines of a poem in PARTNER POEMS FOR BUILDING FLUENCY)

(big sis)
Good morning, Sweetie!
(little sis)
snore
(big sis)
Time to rise and shine.
(little sis)
snore
(big sis)
Get up now or you’ll be late.
(little sis)
snore
(big sis)
Don’t make me have to ask again.
(little sis)
snore
***
When you go back through the verse poems in your files, check to see how much variety you’ve built into them. If too many have a sing-songy sameness about them, consider ways to create more distinctive meters.