Let me introduce you

to Timothy Steele. His book, all the fun’s in how you say the thing was one of the first books on  prosody I ever read.   “Prosody is the study of the meter, rhythm, and intonation of a poem.”  I was taught how to scan (determine the metrical “character” of a line of poetry”) from friends I met on the internet in the “earlier” days of the bulletin board system.  There was one specifically who took the time to take me to a “black area” off a private bulletin board and run me through Alexander Pope, and spent the time to break down the confusion I suffered from too many badly taught English classes compounded by my very tin ear.

My approach to scansion is quite mechanical.  I have “friends” on the internet who are much more natural than I am in their approach to prosody.  Still, I have no reputation to uphold.  I make no scholarly claims.  The only claims I do make is that I occasionally attempt to write a good critique.  So, in the interest of sharing information from people who know much, much more than I dbroccoli braino, I’d like to introduce the interested student to Mr. Timothy Steele.  Wikipedia him.  Google him.  Poets.org him.  He’s an accessible instructor and there’s a lot of his technical information littering the web.  They’re well worth reading.

Here are two of his technical pieces:  one on rhyme and stanza and this piece on meter.  If you’re going to do some broccoli reading (reading which is good for your head), this stuff won’t put you to sleep.


I also ran across this old document, notes really, from my “early days” of trying to figure this stuff out:

Basics of accentual-syllabic prosody

Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms,

1st count all syllables
2nd count stressed syllables
3rd count verse feet
 

STRESS

  1. Every word in English two syllables in length or longer will have one strongly stressed syllable.
  2. The general rule for stressing words of a single syllable is this: Verbs and nouns generally take a stress: action words, subjects, or objects.
  3. Exceptions:
    1. verbs that we generally elide: “Have” (I’ve), “are” (you’re), “am” (I’m)
    2. articles (a, the)
    3. prepositions (of, to, on, in, etc.)
    4. coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for)
    5. certain pronouns such as “I” and sometimes “you,” which we tend either to use in an elision or merely to slide over
  4. In any series of 3 unstressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through promotion and will be counted as a stressed syllable.
  5. In any series of 3 stressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through demotion and will be counted as an unstressed syllable.
  6. Any syllable may be rhetorically stressed by means of italics or some other typographical ploy.

FEET

There are FOUR standard feet in English prosody:
(u = unstressed, / = stressed)

  • iamb – 2 syllables – u /
  • anapest – 3 syllables – u u /
  • trochee – 2 syllables – / u
  • dactyl – 3 syllables – / u u

minor feet:

  • headless iamb – foot of 1 stressed syllable (/)
  • tailless trochee – same

One can tell these two feet apart only from their position in a line of verse. They occur, for instance when the unstressed first syllable of an iamb is dropped in order to vary the rhythm of a line of verse, or when the unstressed 2nd syllable of a trochee is dropped for the same reason.

(For the most part, besides the double iamb, I have ignored the “minor” feet which have more than a single strong stress.  At that point, I resolve to one of the more common feet.)

  • spondee – 2 syllables – / /
  • amphibrach – 3 syllables – u / u
  • double iamb- 4 syllables – u u / / – equals 2 iambs in a line of verse. (Oliver, Rules, p. 27: There is something called the pyrrhic foot, which is composed of two light stresses. The pyrrhic foot appears in Greek and Roman poetry; in English verse it occurs only when immediately followed by a spondee, and the two feet together are called a double ionic.)
  • double trochee – 4 syllables – / / u u
  • amphimacer – 3 syllables – / u / – does not exist in English. It is either a headless iamb and an iamb, or a trochee and a tailless trochee.
  • antispast – 4 syllables – u / / u – iamb followed by a trochee
  • tribrach – 3 syllables – u u u – 3 unstressed syllables does not exist in English
  • molossus – 3 syllables – / / / – 3 stressed syllables does not exist in English
  • bacchic – 3 syllables – u / / – iamb & tailess trochee
  • antibacchius (antibacchic) – 3 syllables – / / u – headless iamb & a trochee
  • choriamb – 4 syllables – / u u / – trochee (choree) followed by iamb
  • paeon – 4 syllables – in the following of 1 stressed, 3 unstressed combinations:
    • / u u u
    • u / u u
    • u u / u
    • u u u /
  • epitrite – 4 syllables – in the following of 1 unstressed, 3 stressed combinations
    • / / / u
    • u / / /
    • / u / /
    • / / u /

Limericks

Ashley Lister’s monthly exercise at the ERWA Blog is for limericks.  I, personally, suck at writing limericks because of the rhyme scheme, but not as bad as I suck at writing sestinas.  The sestina depends upon knowing the end before you start, imo.  But more on that form later.  Writing a limerick, to me, is like patting my head and rubbing my stomach simultaneously.  It’s a five line form with strict rhyming and rhythmic structures.  There is nothing sadder than a limerick which just goes “da dum da dum da dum da dum” instead of “da dum da da dum da da dum.” Both lines have 8 syllables, however the pattern of light stress, light stress, heavy stress in the first two lines is what gives the limerick its “bounce”.  The other line with 8 syllables, the four feet of iambs, is what makes the beginning for ballad meter.  It’s much more predictable, less bouncy, than the anapests.

Ashley keeps the form simple with a syllable count, but I’d have to add you need to pay attention to the stresses as well because 8 syllables could easily be a 4 foot iambic line instead of a 3 foot anapestic line.  Bob’s Byway has a more technical description of how a limerick is built and I’d strongly suggest because that extra foot makes for a “thump-ish” kind of feel, like a misstep to the piece.  Lewis Turco’s,  The Book of Forms,  adds to the details:

Quote:9781611680355

The limerick is a quantitative accentual-syllabic quintet turning on two rhymes: aabba.  Lines one, two, and five have an iamb and two anapests, in that order; lines three and four have either an iamb and an anapest , in that order, or two anapests.  Line five can be merely a modified repetition of line I (AabbA)…

(p.213, Third Ed.  University Press of New England)

Stressing about stress

I failed in understanding the rules for metrical stress when discussing poetry in high school or college.  I thought trying to evaluate metrical works an insurmountable obstacle based upon a rhythmic deficit which runs through my family.  I inherited my father’s singing voice.   I have a tin ear, and couldn’t carry a tune if I you gave me a bucket. When I tap my foot, I sound like a heart attack.  Not even my husband wants to dance with me.  So, it was a surprise to me that when I was studying in the posh halls of the early internet bulletin boards, I found people who could break rhythm and stress down for me to evaluate.  They showed me an almost mechanical approach to evaluating or drafting works for stress.  I don’t see that as an insult.  I’m an engineer, so of course I love mechanics.

I’ve found these little cheats, little ways of looking for, writing with, or evaluating rhythm work for the most part workable.  The variances though, would fall down along the lines of any dispute about literature.  And since I ain’t an English teacher, I doan worry ’bout it.  If you’ve already got a sense of rhythm, maybe this will help explain what you do unconsciously.  I couldn’t carry a rhythm through an entire poem without conscious evaluation to save my life.  This is just how I do it.

To demonstrate the steps of evaluating for stress in a line of poetry, I’m going to use a stanza of mine from an exercise.  I wrote the poem with 3 lines for each stanza unit (technically, this is called a tercet because there is a rhyme scheme as well) and I wanted each line to have four stresses.   Here is the stanza we will use for evaluation.  It comes from the muzdawidj I wrote called, “Spring Melt”.

He goes to her in the darkness found
in midwinter; slips between the down-
filled duvet and her body, warm

In my simple brain, there are basically 4 steps in the evaluation, with the fifth step being an “excuse”.

To start:

Step 1)  For multi-syllabic words, break the words into their phonetic syllables.

he goes to her in the dark ness found
in mid win ter; slips be tween the down
filled du vet and her bod y, warm

Step 2)  Show the primary & secondary stress on those multi-syllabic words by ALL CAPS the syllable.  When I write stuff by hand, I underline.  When I type, it’s the CAPS.  In an English class you would use the accent mark (‘) to show a stressed syllable and a little curled thingy above an unstressed/less stressed syllable.  This is not an English class.  This is the internet.  For all I care, you could highlight in lipstick.  But if you would like feedback from me, using this email system – just indicate stress using ALL CAPS.

I do is work with a dictionary (heresy!  heresy alert!).  My favorite is Wordsmyth.net.  It is American Standard English, so other English variants will not be reflected here.  I love this site because it shows stress with the use of underline & BOLD on the characters in the syllables.  The syllable with the most stress will be underlined and bolded, other syllables which might have stress, but a “lesser” amount (secondary stress) will simply be bolded.  Simple.  Easy to read.  Easy to understand what the heck is going on with the word.  You don’t need a legend.  It’s also got a great thesaurus function.

So, CAPs the multi-syllabic words showing their stressed syllables:

he goes to her in the DARK ness found
in mid WIN ter; slips be TWEEN the down
filled DU vet and her BOD y, warm

Step 3)  Stress is given to parts of speech in progression:  verbs, nouns, prepositions, modifiers, pronouns, articles and so on. So, my next step in evaluating my tercet is to evaluate for verbs and nouns.  I’m starting with just the verbs and nouns and after that will make another pass for the other parts of speech.

he GOES to her in the DARK ness FOUND
in mid WIN ter; SLIPS be TWEEN the DOWN
FILLED DU vet and her BOD y, warm

Evaluate the lines at this point to check if “they’re complete”:

he GOES to her in the DARK ness FOUND
This line evaluation is NOT complete b/c there are only 3 primary stresses and at least three syllables in a row which are the same level of stress – i.e., no 3 unstressed together, no 3 stressed together. Those are: “to her in the”

in mid WIN ter; SLIPS be TWEEN the DOWN
This line is complete b/c there are 4 primary stresses on the line and no 3 syllables in succession with the same “level” of stress shown- i.e., no 3 unstressed together, no 3 stressed together.

FILLED DU vet and her BOD y, warm
Line evaluation NOT complete b/c there are 3 syllables left with the same “level” of stress shown.  Those are “vet and her”

Step 4)  Here’s where the rules start to get sticky.  I have what I call (and others, but not as pithily as I phrase), “The Rule of Three”.  When I was being taught scansion, the guy who was teaching me told me that in English there was difficulty in holding the same level of stress for three words in a row.  So, the quick way to look at a cheat, was three unstressed syllables in a row, middle one gets “promoted”.  Three stressed syllables in a row, middle one gets “demoted.”  So, I just call out Rule of Three in my head when I’m faced with certain choices.

he GOES to HER in the DARK ness FOUND
*** I promote “her” because it is a pronoun and because of the Rule of Three. This finishes the evaluation because there are no further syllables left with the same “level” of stress.

in mid WIN ter; SLIPS be TWEEN the DOWN.
** already completed, so not evaluating

FILLED DU vet and her BOD y, warm
** This is an interesting line. We cannot ignore the stress of the primary syllable “DU” in the word “duvet”, but then we have a lot of light syllables in the middle “vet and her”. I would argue that the word “Filled” should be demoted while the word “and” be promoted because of the Rule of Three. There are a variety of levels of stress here. Often times, you’d see exercises numbering the levels into 1, 2, or 3 instead of the simple (binary) “unstressed” / “stressed” version I’m introducing here. The discussions surrounding the stress levels can be quite heated. Me, I’m not a dogmatist. So, yes, I would agree that “filled” does have “some level” of stress, but I’m really about keeping my scansion simple. So, I’m going to show a demotion on “filled” because the word “and” gets more stress to my mind because of its relative position. I also promote “warm” because it is an adjective.

So, the line looks like this to me now:

filled DU vet AND her BOD y, WARM

One last final “rule” to consider:
Step 5)  You can have fewer than 8 syllables on a line with four strong beats.  That’s because a missing syllable at either the begin or the end of the line could be “counted” as an unstressed syllable.

So, to summarize (bends over, puts hands on her knees, takes a breath)…

To analyze your metrical works:

  • The basic unit is a line
  • Break all your words into their phonetic syllables
  • Show the primary (and if it exists, secondary) stress on all multi-syllabic words
  • Show stress on your verbs and nouns
  • The “Rule of Three” – begin evaluating the remaining syllables based upon three unstressed syllables or three stressed syllables in succession.  Promote first based upon parts of speech, but also, commonly, the word in the middle is either promoted or demoted.

Drafting and drafting rhythms

Often times people who are new to writing metrical poetry are curious as to the process.  These are my notes as to the development of the metrical piece.  I am the first to admit that my understanding of writing formal verse is mechanistic as opposed to “natural.”  I am not someone who grasped what an iamb was, or how to recognize the stress within the syllables of the word “banana”.  I have the natural rhythm of a tone deaf bull elephant.  While I’ll go further into the details of the rules of

These are the first and second pages of my drafts for the April 12, 2014 NaPo poem, “The Garden”. I begin working with the rhythm on the 2nd attempt. I signify stress with underlining the syllable. The numbers underneath the underline are where I’m tracking the stresses on a line.

pg1 pg2

At some point, I felt comfortable enough that I wouldn’t “lose” my word choices that I moved to typing my draft on the computer.  This is about draft 8 or 9.  The work is shown below.  I literally break each of the words into syllables and go through first highlighting & CAPping the stressed syllables of multi-syllabic words.  Then I take a “look around” and proceed with indicating stress on verbs, nouns, then modifiers and pronouns.  Then I begin implementing “The Rule of 3” (3 stressed syllables in a row, demote the middle; 3 unstressed syllables in a row, promote the middle)

There are intimacies of the body
which only come with ten thousand days.
The mechanics can be as trite as saffron crocus,
but a moment arrives and your lover leans across
your softening body, touches you

with unexpected appetite.  They bloom
a black trillium when they take your left toe
into their mouth – that soft wetness a surprise
to a part of the body which knows only work
and occasional pain.  Or maybe they stroke

the back of your knee with their tongue.  Your scent – long gone
to the bite of pepper as your own roses withered
and dried at least five years ago – draws them
to sniff then take a tiny bite; their breath
alive on your skin. It is not a sin –

but time has furrowed you blind, not indifferent.
And the field  which surrounds you with each passing night
draws you into that furrow and you forget you sleep with a stranger; rather it is
the depth with which squill roots and spreads which brings
the sea of blue to a dry land.

There are in ti mac ies of the bod y

which on ly come with ten thou sand days.

The me chan ics can be as trite as SAF fron cro cus,

but a mo ment a rrives and your love r leans a cross

your soft en ing bod y,  touch es you 

with un ex PECT ed AP pe tite.  They Bloom

a black tril li um when they TAKE YOUR left toe

in to their mouth – that soft wet ness a sur prise

to a part of the bod y which knows on ly work

and oc ca sion al pain.  Or may be they stroke

the back of your knee with their tongue. Your scent – long gone

to the bite of pep per as your own ros es with ered

and dried at least five years a go–  draws them

to sniff then take a tin y bite, their breath

a live on your skin.  It is not a sin

that time has fur rowed you blind not in dif fer ent

to the field  and you for gEt that each night you sleep

with a strang er; rath er it is the depth with which squill

roots and spreads which brings

the sea of blue to a dry land.

The last stanza would not conform to what came before.  I actually wasn’t happy with l5 of each of the stanzas being only 4 beats and I couldn’t get a fifth beat up onto that l5 of s1, so I scrapped this format and began considering words to cut, like “saffron” on l3.  This is how I scan the finished work.

There / are in / ti mac / ies of / the bod (y)

which on / ly come /with ten thou / sand days. / The me chan (ics)

can be /as trite /as cro / cus, but / a mo  (ment)

a rrives / and your love/ r leans / a cross your soft / en ing

bod  y,  /and touch /es you  /with AP /pe tite.

They Bloom  / black tril / li um / when they TAKE /your  toe

 in to / their mouth /- that soft wet / ness a / sur prise

to a part /of the bod /y which knows on / ly work

and oc ca/  sion al pain.  / Or may / be they stroke  / the back

of your knee / with their tongue E / ven though / your scent

has long gone / to the bite / of pep / per – your / own ros (es)

with ered / and dried / at least / five years / a go

still it draws / them to sniff / then take / a tin / y bite,

their breath / a live / on your skin.  / It is not / a sin

that time / has fur / rowed you blind / to the field  / and you

for gEt / that each night / you sleep / with a strang / er; rath (er)

it is / the depth / with which squill roots / and spreads

which brings / the sea / of blue / to a dry land.

Which works out like this:

There / are in / ti mac / ies of / the bod (y)
lame foot iamb (missing leading light beat) / iamb / iamb / iamb / hyper-syllabic iamb

which on / ly come /with ten thou / sand days. / The me chan (ics)
iamb / iamb/ anapest / iamb / anapest – hypersyllabic

can be /as trite /as cro / cus, but / a mo  (ment)
iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb (because of Rule of Three – promotion of “but”) / iamb – hypersyllabic

a rrives / and your love/ r leans / a cross / your soft  en ing
iamb / anapest / iamb / iamb / hypersyllabic iamb

bod  y,  /and touch /es you  /with AP /pe tite.
trochee / iamb / iamb/ iamb / iamb

They Bloom  / black tril / li um / when they TAKE /your  toe
iamb / iamb / iamb / anapest / iamb

 in to / their mouth /- that soft wet / ness a / sur prise
trochee / iamb / anapest / iamb (promotion of ‘a’ because of Rule of Three / iamb

to a part /of the bod /y which knows on / ly work
anapest / anapest / double iamb / iamb

and oc ca/  sion al pain.  / Or may / be they stroke  / the back
anapest / anapest / iamb / anapest / iamb

of your knee / with their tongue E / ven though / your scent
anapest / double iamb / iamb / iamb

has long gone / to the bite / of pep / per – your / own ros (es)
anapest / anapest / iamb / iamb /  hyper-syllabic iamb

with ered / and dried / at least / five years / a go
trochee / iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb

still it draws / them to sniff / then take / a tin / y bite,
anapest / anapest / iamb / iamb / iamb

their breath / a live / on your skin.  / It is not / a sin
iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb / iamb /

that time / has fur / rowed you blind / to the field  / and you
iamb / iamb / anapest / anapest / iamb

for gEt / that each night / you sleep / with a strang / er; rath (er)
iamb / anapest / iamb / anapest / hyper-syllabic iamb

it is / the depth / with which squill roots / and spreads
iamb / iamb / double iamb/ iamb

which brings / the sea / of blue / to a dry land.
iamb / iamb/ iamb / double iamb

So, all this technical work drove my word choices, line breaks, and then which imagery went where.  The final work looks like this:
The Garden

There are intimacies of the body
which only come with ten thousand days. The mechanics
can be as trite as crocus, but a moment
arrives and your lover leans across your softening
body, and touches you with appetite.
They bloom black trillium when they take your toe
into their mouth – that soft wetness a surprise
to a part of your body which knows only work
or occasional pain.  Then maybe they stroke the back
of your knee with their tongue even though your scent
has long gone to the bite of pepper – your own roses
withered and dried at least five years ago –
still it draws them to sniff then take a tiny nip;
their breath is alive on your skin. It is not a sin
that time has furrowed you blind to the field and you
forget that each night you sleep with a stranger; rather
it is the depth with which squill roots and spreads
which brings the sea of blue to a dry land.

Other Questions, Other Answers

I was working with the idea of trying to communicate gender neutrality in this piece.  For this year’s NaPo I’m writing 30 days worth of directly erotic work.  One of the things I want to address during the thirty days is the variety of ways in which humans can worship the body of other humans – the variety of sexual love that there is.
I specifically did not want there to be a M/F, M/M, F/F, he/she/it pronoun usage.  So, I chose to use the pronoun “they”, not to indicate polyamory, but to indicate a non-gender specific singular pronoun.  In the reading I did, this is controversial, but Chicago Style apparently is sitting back to watch how it all turns out.  I particularly disliked the s/he “pronoun” in this context, they/their seemed less intrusive, less self-conscious.