Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Scansion for Experts

The Poetry Paradox: 

    The simpler the concept the smaller the number of poets who understand it.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #75
    To wit, if you comprehend the difference between iambs and trochees you are in a minority of poets.  Knowing what meter is--something that can be described in one word:  "quantification"--puts you in the tiny group of writers who do.  As we will discover shortly, if you understand the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables you are part of an elite but statistically insignificant subset of versers.


     To hear Content Regents, CoraZoners ("Write from the heart!") and advocates of Convenient Poetics speak, one would think that the science of prosody didn't exist.  All of these take relativistic positions, dismissing prosody as antiquated hypotheses, generating little or no consensus among experts.  In truth, only the cutting edge is controversial;  most of prosody is settled, including everything mentioned so far in this series.  Let me illustrate such a non-issue--that is, something that is controversial only to those unfamiliar with the science.

     For the purposes of examining accentual and accentual-syllabic verse we rely on stressed versus unstressed syllables.  For example, consider this line from Robert Frost's iambic tetrameter "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening":

But I | have prom|ises | to keep

     Dictionaries tell us that the third syllable in "promises" has a "secondary stress".  This one comes in a position where we expect an ictus (i.e. stress).  So is it accented, forming an iamb, or is it not?  The consensus is that, while "-es" is uttered with more strength than the adjacent syllables, it is not sufficiently stressed to form an iamb.  This foot is considered to be a pyrrhus.

     This idea that there are different levels of stress even among accented and unaccented syllables gave rise to Otto Jespersen's 1900 "Notes on Metre", establishing 4 levels of stress: 

1.  Weak

2.  Half-weak

3.  Half-strong

4.  Strong.

    The 1s and 2s are unstressed syllables in the binary (i.e. stressed versus unstressed) system, 3s and 4s are stressed.  Thus, where "^" is accented, "~" not, Frost's line would be scanned as:

 ~  ^    ~     ^  ~ ~     ~  ^   - Binary
But I | have prom|ises | to keep - Frost
 1  4    1     4  1 2     1  4   - Jesperson

    For centuries this "1-2" foot has been called an "iambic pyrrhus".  Here is an example of a "2-1" trochaic pyrrhus, spoken, not sung:

~  ^     ~  ~   ~  ^   ~    ^     ~   ^   - Binary
I fell | into | a burn|ing ring | of fire - Sung by Johnny Cash
1  4     2  1   1  4   1    4     1   4   - Jesperson

    Here is another, line 12 from Shakepeare's Sonnet 27:

 ^      ^      ^     ^    ~     ~     ~   ^      ^    ^   - Binary
Makes black | night beaut|eous, and | her old | face new  - Shakepeare
 3      4      3     4    2     1      1  4      3    4   - Jesperson

    The above line makes the point that whatever pertains to unstressed feet applies equally to stressed ones.  Spondees can be perfectly flat (3-3 or 4-4), trochaic (4-3) or iambic (3-4).  As tautologically obvious as it is to say "stressed is stressed", it is here where most people go wrong.  The whole point of Jesperson's 4-level scansion is that stressed/unstressed syllables never have to be equally stressed/unstressed.

    The same is true of molossi (DUM-DUM-DUM) like the following (in a trinary poem):

~   ~  ~    ^     ^    ^     - Binary
It was a | long, cold night  - Verse
2   2  1    4     4    4     - Jesperson

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #56

    As long as all three syllables in the foot are stressed--3s or 4s--it is a molossus. That said, when speakers encounter more than 2 stressed syllables there is a natural tendency--not an obligation but a tendency--to slow down and flatten out the stresses.  To wit, try reciting the last half of the above line with uneven stresses:  3-3-4, 4-3-4, 4-3-3, etc.  Can you see how difficult that is and, in many cases, how unnatural it sounds?

    In Scansion for Beginners you were advised that if anyone asked you to scan a line your response should be to ask to see the entire poem.  Similarly, if anyone asks you which syllables are accented you should ask to hear the poem recited aloud, preferably by the author or an experienced performer.

    I know what you're thinking. 

   "What is 'expert' here?  Anyone who can count up to four can follow this!" 

    As stated up front, "expert" doesn't suggest complexity here.  Quite the opposite.  In this context, it refers to the gulf between your understanding now and that of 99+% of poets.  Kudos!





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