by Daniel Kemper

“Metrical variation” is widely used in discussing late twentieth and early twenty-first century poetry writing. Although this term technically includes both random variation and controlled variation, its use to mean only random variation is extremely widespread. Timothy Steele notes in the Introduction to “The Fun’s in How You Say a Thing,” that “…most pentameters do not feature uniform fluctuations” (emphasis mine). Elsewhere he notes of pentameter, “…the type with five obvious offbeats and beats can claim only a smallish plurality in our verse.” He cites TVF Brogan in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics who “suggests the figure of 25 percent.” Robert Frost, in Collected Poems, Plays, and Prose, observes “…in our language there are virtually two [meters], loose iambic and strict iambic.” (This implies the widespread use and acceptances of “loose iambic” and interestingly, he gives it primacy in the order. “Loose” strongly connotes indifference to purpose, i.e. random. Even top-flight, Ivy League standards seem to reflect the preponderance of the use of “metrical variation” as “random variation”. One such text states flatly, “iambic pentameter as a system (emphasis mine) allows the first foot to be inverted,” without a hint that a purpose would be required; that is, systematically variations need not have reference purpose. The document goes on to cite spondaic substitution used “here and there,” which not only contradicts Frost’s observation about loose and strict iambics, but assumes the randomness of “here and there.” In the end, the notion of variations cannot even hope for standard variations (a meager type of control) and collapses into contradictions.

Nonetheless, such variation might seem to be a necessary feature of formal verse in order to reduce the tendency of some formal poetry to sound stilted, choppy, or mechanistic. Certainly, formal poetry is far more subject to that sort of flaw than informal poetry/free verse. Random variation prevents such “robotism” of perfect meter from forming. From Shakespeare’s feminine endings and trochaic witches to Frost’s “loose iambics” the practice is widespread.

The relief provided by random variation seems to imply that perfect meter will frequently, if not always, inherently and on its own sound bad if it is not helped out by a random variation or two. Although random variation does have an impact in relieving the aesthetic challenge of stiltedness, many other linguistic factors complicate this notion. Factors such as the unmatched vastness of English vocabulary, the subtle qualities of regional voice, the individual interpretation reflected in how a poem is read seem to produce ample relief from that mechanistic feel, while still other factors such as sentence and word length and end-stopping seem to contribute to choppiness independent of meter. Potentially, perfect meter is not a cause of that mechanistic feel. Since the practice of random variation is one of accepting a touch of bad meter to relieve the grip of robotism, then if good meter is not the cause of robotism, we can be freed of making this aesthetic concession.

Assessing the impact of perfect meter on stiltedness requires both the positive case and the negative case to be examined. The positive case is demonstrating that stilted poems do not owe their stiltedness to perfect meter, but to other causes. The negative case is showing a poem in perfect meter that is, first of all, smooth, and second of all, that its smoothness is due to the relief or reversal of those same causes. In the first case, since we will have shown that perfect meter is not the cause of a bad sounding poem, then it does not need to be alleviated by imperfect meter. In the second case, we will have shown by example that perfect meter does not produce a bad effect; therefore, if there is no bad effect to remove, there is no necessity for including random variation. Moreover, identifying factors whose absence causes stiltedness and whose presence removes it implies techniques that can be used in order to free the poet from having to make aesthetic concessions.

Let’s proceed by choosing a poem that can be read as an example of being somewhat stilted or choppy. Let’s work with “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke:


I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.


Note that even this stiltedness is not all that bad. Long live the English language in all its diversities! Nevertheless, there is some choppy feeling. What is the cause? Is it the perfect meter? Or are there other factors at work?

The characteristics of this poem include a host of metrical factors which should be examined in terms of their combined impact on the “feel” of the poem. First, note that being a villanelle, forces are already in play with its refrains and limited number or rhymes which press it towards feeling too repetitious and slightly robotic. Next, let’s note the high percentage of monosyllables. Also note how every line end is end-stopped with punctuation. Note how short the sentences are. Not how few words span an iamb (18/166). Note the simplicity of grammar.

The combination of these effects makes the reader stop very often, if very briefly, as the poem plays out. Is it the perfect meter which creates the feeling?  Of course, this example only illustrates and does not prove the case, but I’d wager the preponderance of the literature will support this observation.

The effect of so few words spanning a metrical foot might be the chief contributor to the characteristic feel of this poem. It sets the reader to an cadence almost like a person learning the waltz: 1-2-pause, 1-2-pause, 1-2-pause. The high percentage of monosyllables introduces still more pauses and certainly those words can never span even one iamb. The end-stopped punctuation is something of a coup-de-grace, but the overall feel of the other characteristics shouldn’t be undersold either. those effects are not properly attributed to perfect meter. These metrical effects seem more than sufficient to explain the choppiness we experience in “The Waking”.
By contrast, let’s consider Roethke’s “The Auction”:

Once on returning home, purse-proud and hale,
I found my choice possessions on the lawn.
An auctioneer was whipping up a sale.
I did not move to claim what was my own.
“One coat of pride, perhaps a bit threadbare;
Illusion’s trinkets, splendid for the young;
Some items, miscellaneous, marked ‘Fear’;
The chair of honor, with a missing rung.”
The spiel ran on; the sale was brief and brisk;
The bargains fell to bidders, one by one.
Hope flushed my cheekbone with a scarlet disk.
Old neighbors nudged each other at the fun.
My spirits rose each time the hammer fell,
The heart beat faster as the fat words rolled.
I left my home with unencumbered will
And all the rubbish of confusion sold.

There is no or little variation in meter here, depending somewhat on the reader yet clearly, this poem reads very smoothly. Certainly at least, the meter is on equal footing with “The Waking”. Although Roethke tends to end-stop his lines – which impact is palpable here—he ends the poem with a sentence that enjambs with no punctuation. Other than the end-stopping, the specific causes of stiltedness in the first poem are alleviated here. Roethke employs many more polysyllabic words and longer, more complex sentences are the norm. This demonstrates that perfect meter is not necessarily synonymous with stiltedness and that the presence of certain phenomena produce stiltedness while at the same time the alleviation of those phenomena removes that same stiltedness.
In sum, there are beautiful poems that include random variations. There is no argument; the argument is against the necessity of using those variations to alleviate a specific defect to which formal poetry is far more subject than informal poetry/free verse. A poet might still be free to employ random variation though; it’s only that the poet is not obligated to use that technique. This notion compels one further thought to be addressed. Since the argument for the use of random variation is one of a trade-off,  accepting a small issue to fix a larger one, if the larger issue can be addressed without introducing a defect into the poem, then why should a poet choose to do so?
A footnote needs to be added. Although the necessity of random variation is disputed here, one still might argue the case for using them because the poet and/or the poets audience simply like it. Non disputum. Nonetheless, if metrical poetry asserts its equality with other fine arts such as music or painting then one wonders why random variations in those arts are consistently regarded as bad, for example missing a piano key in a recital or dripping paint on a still life or singing an off-pitch note in an opera. 



Daniel Kemper is a systems engineer living in California.

NOTE TO READERS: If you enjoyed this poem or other content, please consider making a donation to the Society of Classical Poets.

The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or commentary.

CODEC Stories:

35 Responses

  1. C.B. Anderson

    I liked this essay, Daniel. I’ve always believed that metrical variations are employed, not to make the reading more interesting, but to allow for a greater range of expression. For instance, where would we be if we could not write something like:

    On a dark night we wandered through the woods

    Where the first two iambs are replaced with a pyrrhic and a spondee? But this is controlled variation.

    I think that end-stopped lines are more likely than anything else to cause metronomic stiltedness. Viva enjambment!

    It’s funny, but I remember in high school when we were taught about iambic pentameter. Soon after, we were given poems by the English Romantics to read. You can imagine how disappointed and dismayed I was to find that rather few lines in these poems could be scanned iambically. It was as though we had been studying the Myth of Iambic Pentameter

    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi C.B.,
      I’m right there with you about “The Myth of Iambic Pentameter”. The “on a dark night” variation, might not be enough text to say if it’s controlled or not.

      I’m really happy to have you engage me on this. You know, from my current thinking, the double-iamb lead-in might be controlled or might not. It might be part of a subtle but unvarying pattern to build a feeling of a suspended pulse through the poem or it might be the repeated phrase in a rondeau or a subtle pause to enhance the effect of an action (showing what it’s telling). If truncated to only what’s in place, no essential ingredient is supported by the variation, so I’d question whether it’s controlled or not.

      It’s on me to better define what I have in mind as controlled variation and I’ve been hard at work on that. I think the double-iamb is the most supportable variation though, especially when coming late in a line or at the end. If there is a good run of iambs before and after, the ear is fooled into thinking it heard no variation. The sound’s the thing. If it ends the line, and is matched with contentive context or a clear, internal, musical pattern of ending some lines that way, then it really provides a strong pause for thought or effect. There are other uses, of course. It comes back to me having to get “controlled” variation defined at some length.

      • C.B. Anderson

        By “controlled,” Daniel, I only meant that the variations are deliberate and in accordance with established common practice, not that they are part of some pattern throughout the poem, as with, say, rhyme scheme.

        I’m not sure what you mean by “a feeling of a suspended pulse,” and you might be the first person to have come up with that idea, whatever it means. It might simply be an attempt to hypostatize something that exists only in your mind. In any event, I doubt that something like that would be helpful to anyone who wants to know how to write a good iambic line, or a good poem for that matter. And why on earth would a variation have to support some “essential ingredient?” Again, producing the possibility of a greater range of expression is excuse enough for employing metrical variations.

        Your third paragraph befuddles me. The “double iamb” is the very template of the ideal iambic line; so how can you call it a variation? At the end of the day, the sound (in the mind’s ear) is the thing. As Charlie Southerland once wrote to me, “My ear never lies.”

      • Daniel Kemper

        [I didn’t see a place to reply to your comment below, so I’m posting it as a reply to my own comment.]

        Hi again CB,

        Sorry to have mis-read you. Again. Ug. I’m sorry about that.

        To me “deliberate and in accordance with established common practice” is problematic. First, logical correctness is never a majority vote. Second, it doesn’t seem to me that a poet thinks, “Here I’ll choose to break my IP.” It seems poets write and, if for example, they start headlessly, they think, “Well, it’s a convention.” To me conventions are generally just the most common errors. I don’t mean to banish the notion of convention entirely, just to illustrate a feeling.

        [“a feeling of a suspended pulse,”] A double-iamb can slip by the ear and fool it into thinking only perfect IP has passed. Particularly mid-line. They are so natural that I have seen countless examples of people imposing a purely iambic scansion on them. At the end of a sentence or the end of a line, they tend to induce a pause. That’s the “suspended” feeling.

        I agree with you that the ear is the judge. That’s why the double-iamb seems o.k. to me; it sounds just like a regular iamb. Technically, it is not, of course.

        A variation has to support some “essential ingredient” or it’s random. But what constitutes an “essential ingredient” is no limited matter. It might not be intuitive that it could include auditory qualities. To start every other line in a sonnet with an anapest might play out quite well, but would it make sense to leave anapests in here and there as a “greater range of expression” ? Or using anapests for the internal voice of a character when his fears are running away with him would be a nice touch. There is a huge range of essential ingredients possible, but to my limited experience, rarely used.

        To take the notion of substitution without an “essential ingredient” to its logical extreme: I’ve heard IP defined as merely five distinct stresses per line. By that definition, you could have a line of IP that had no iambs at all!

        [“double iamb” is the very template of the ideal iambic line]. I don’t understand. How can a pyrrhic and a spondee be the very template of an iamb? That is, how can two “not-iambs” be the template for an iamb?

        “The sound is the thing.” I agree. But I’ll guarantee that the ear does lie sometimes. Perhaps Mr. Southerland’s ear lies less frequently as a matter of training and expertise; however, there would not be so much disagreement out there if everyone’s ears were true.

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    A very thoughtful essay, but just using the word “variation” in itself partially begs the question. “Variation” implies that there is some Platonic paradigm of “pure iambic pentameter” out there in the blue (this idealist notion is what causes the cognitive dissonance that Kip Anderson experienced when he went from a strict high-school definition of that meter to an actual reading of English Romantic poets).

    Charles Martin made an astute observation about iambic pentameter when he was asked about it. He said this:

    Rule Number One: It goes like this — da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM.

    Rule Number Two: It only does that infrequently.

    In ordinary life and actual practice, poets have always made use of catalexis, substitutions, unmarked elisions and other “variations” — not just as a way to avoid rigidity and boredom, but simply because that’s the way that it’s done. Rather than putting these variations on trial (so to speak) to answer the accusation that they are not necessary, it seems to me that a more pressing need would be to convince a great many amateur formal poets that an obsession with mindless syllable-counting and metronomic regularity are not signs of skill, but rather confessions of ineptitude.

    In this connection, it should be noted that while both of the quoted Roethke poems have a strict ten-syllable limitation in the lines, they are nevertheless smooth, readable, and free from metronomic tick-tock. That isn’t due simply to the ten-syllable regularity. It’s due to Roethke’s skill as a poet, one who knows that the idiomatic flow of proper English is the VERY FIRST AND MOST IMPORTANT CONSIDERATION in composing a line of verse. But when amateur formal poets get fixated on counting syllables and avoiding substitutions, that fixation inevitably turns their compositions into unreadable botches.

    • Allegra Silberstein

      I enjoyed reading your essay and poem examples very much and also the comments by others.

      • Daniel Kemper

        Hi Allegra,

        Thank you for checking in. I’m hoping that this continues to be enjoyable.

    • C.B. Anderson

      Dear Joseph,

      I’m sure that you will agree that “that’s the way it’s [always been] done” is not a good reason for anything. And here’s another fun fact: In the past two decades, some 800 of my poems have been accepted for publication (or republication), and not once has any editor said to me that my poems were too metrically regular. No doubt, I’ve written my share of “unreadable botches,” but is it impossible to establish a code of conduct for those writers who lack the spark of natural genius? Perhaps so, in which case composing poetry is a subject that simply cannot be taught. As it happens, there are many things in life that can be learned but not taught — self-criticism is one of these things.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Kip, you’re right about that — some things can’t be taught; they just have to be picked up by osmosis. If a Gypsy violinist can play his instrument perfectly, without being able to read a note, then certainly some gifted people can write excellent poems without having to generate any “theories” about meter or “rules” for variations.

        Your poems have been accepted and published widely because they are damned good, and if an editor has eyes and a working ear, he’ll know that at once. But I do note that in the last few years, with the consolidation of the “return to good meter” movement, we are beginning to get some very tight-assed formalist editors who are insisting on an absolutely rigid adherence to a ten-syllable, purely iambic line, with the choriambic beginning and the feminine ending being labeled as taboo. I won’t name any names. But all of them talk about “perfect” meter that fits an ideal pattern. As Margaret Coats says just below, there is no “perfect” meter — only regular meter.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Howdy Dr. Salemi and everyone,

      I want to be slow and methodical here, so it might take me time to get to everyone’s comments. Please bear with me. I think it is very important. I think it can be very provocative and very easy to steer off course.

      The term variation, synonymous with random variation is defined against the simple, empirical, unambiguous, self-consistent definition of IP: five means five, an iamb is an iamb. No Platonic forms needed.

      Perhaps I projected my dissonance onto CB. Mine wasn’t that anthologized poets vary from IP, but the many teachers who try to shoehorn those variations as being perfect IP by imposing a scansion that wasn’t there.

      Two clarifications should keep the heat of discussion at productive levels. IP should simply mean IP, w/o need of “strict”. Varied IP should be noted that way. That’s just accurate and precise and empirical. There’s no necessary follow-on to that, it’s just meaning what we say. Second, I am not arguing against ALL variation. Not one bit. Only random.

      Back to the main.

      [Rule Number Two: It only does that infrequently.] A divot in word choice here creates a landslide of bad thinking. “It”, that is, IP, does not do [that] infrequently. IP does not change. –> That’s the divot. True though, few are poems without variation. But I’m not playing “gotcha”: I’ve seen “perfect IP” defined as “at least three iambs in a five-foot line, meaning 60% = 100% (wha?). Has formalism come to this? –> That’s the landslide: the phrasing permits one to think that IP is only infrequently IP.

      [simply because that’s the way that it’s done.] Descriptivist, that’s true: that’s the problem IMO that’s preventing poetic evolution. This is key: I do not see perfect IP as a tiny box to fit in, I see it as a necessary building block to more elaborate, extended forms. Of which, more later.

      We might have a disagreement in focus regarding “robotism”. In practice, most who focus on the meter first produce that sort of verse. No argument. I’m referring the principles at play.

      [ten-syllable] I don’t want to slide terms to syllable-counting. True, exact IP will have ten syllables. But the reverse isn’t necessarily true. We’re counting feet.

      I don’t agree that both poems are *completely* free from the metronomic tick-tock. One is (though it’s still pretty good) and one isn’t. –Perhaps I take your words a bit too far. It’s a good transition though, to the “idiomatic flow of proper English,” whose importance I do not contest.

      Perfect IP vs. natural language is a false dichotomy. Both can be achieved and it’s a flaw when a poem slips on either ground. Generally it seems that the untrained bruise their content to fit the form; the trained bruise their form to fit the content. Less emotionally put, the untrained err disproportionately in syntax, logic, simplicity of grammar (etc.) vs. IP and the trained err disproportionately in IP vs syntax, logic, simplicity of grammar (etc.).

      I believe our era could be at a tipping point, or more accurately, at the beginning of a series of tipping points for a flourishing of new poetic forms, much as there were a series of tipping points that led from Gregorian Chants and monophonic forms to the Classical and Baroque. But we can’t build it on non-controlled variations in meter. We need Both.

      I think it is incumbent upon me to define better what I mean by controlled variation. An essay is coming. That will beg the question of scansion; if not to propose a unified system, at least to propose something that will be simple, extensible, audible, self-consistent, and achievable by the poet. One thing at a time 🙂

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Three questions:

        1) Why should any of us be concerned about “poetic evolution”? The primary task of any genuine poet is to be focused on the quality of his own work, and not worry about what’s going to happen in 2095.

        2) When you write “But we can’t build it [i.e. the future you envision] on non-controlled variation in meter,” then I ask what Tonto asked The Lone Ranger: “What you mean WE, white man?” Why try to dragoon other people into your dreams for the future?

        3. If there’s going to be “a flourishing of new poetic forms,” why should that be of any importance to us here and now, and why is it our obligation to help the process along?

        These are not hostile questions. They merely ask you to address issues of personal motivation, both your own and ours.

      • C.B. Anderson

        In my opinion, and in my praxis, there is an ideal iambic pentameter form, and if I deviate from it I should know that I am doing so and why I am doing so. If, by “idiomatic English,” one means language that is not wrenched out of a normal way of speaking, then I am all aboard. And yet there is also the expectation of elevated language in poetry. I try, as much as possible, to write idiomatically while cleaving fairly closely to the ideal IP model. Sometimes I succeed.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        The “ideal iambic pentameter form” may exist, but only as a template that provides boundaries and guidelines. It functions very much as when you set your left and right margins on an old typewriter. You don’t type outside of those margins, but you are free to make whatever indentations or spacings you think proper in the course of composing your letter.

        And to consider it correctly, the “variations” that one makes in an iambic-5 line are not really “random” (in the sense of being purely arbitrary or aleatory). I can begin an iambic-5 line with a trochee, but I can’t begin it with a spondee. I can finish the line with a feminine ending, but I can’t have TWO unstressed syllables at the end instead of one. In short, all the possible variations are already “controlled,” to use Kemper’s language, in the sense that they are fairly limited.

        The biggest problem in literary criticism today is the metastasis of SYSTEMATIC THEORY, and the impulse to come up with theoretical precepts to complicate what we do.

  3. Margaret Coats

    Daniel, your point in this essay seems to be that poets should avoid “random” metrical variations because these are unnecessary aesthetic defects. You define “random variation” as “accepting a touch of bad meter to relieve the grip of robotism.” That’s a pile of pejorative language. I don’t accept metrical substitutions; I make them. No robot produces them by random chance. They derive from idiomatic use of the English language, where words and phrases never fall into iambic rhythm for long, despite iambic being the most easily used meter for English poetry.

    I agree with Joseph Salemi above that we should not fear metrical variation, but avoid the effort to achieve ten-syllable lines. Ten syllables in English may have four or six stresses in an awkward rhythm (neither pentameter nor iambic). Counting five well-spaced stresses on the fingers of one hand is better than counting ten syllables using both hands.

    There is no perfect meter, only regular meter. To you, Daniel, it can seem stilted or choppy, as in your first example poem. I disagree, considering the poet’s topic and the tone he creates, in part with the meter. But your second example suggests that refrains and repetition in the first one (a villanelle) contribute more to “robotism” than did its “perfect” meter. This is a matter of taste or fashion. Where free verse predominates, writers fear form, especially artistically repetitive form, as well as fearing meter, regular or varied.

    The concluding reference to the other arts misrepresents music. If I sing an off-pitch note, that is no variation in the composition. It is a performer’s mistake. Composers ALWAYS employ variation in musical works. Perfectly regular meter makes a boring melody, and without variation in meter, there is no harmony or polyphony or orchestral music. In non-metered music such as Gregorian chant, meaningful variation is the beauty of the whole.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Two or three years ago there was a fight here at the SCP about the proper way to compose iambic pentameter lines, and it got heated. When I pointed out (with several quoted examples) that many of the lines in Shakespeare’s sonnets had nine or eleven syllables, and that Shakespeare frequently used substitutions, feminine endings, and the non-iambic start, I got the kind of reaction that some devout bishops gave Galileo when they refused to look through his telescope.

      And quite right — a mistake in musical recitals is a performer’s mistake, not a mistake in the musical composition itself. No more than a printer’s typo in a book is the error of the author.

      • Daniel Kemper

        [I’m replying here to your three questions, because at the moment I don’t see a reply button beside it.]

        Hi Dr. Salemi,

        I receive the questions as jocular, not hostile. Which I enjoy. They seem essentially the same question to me, though: “Why bother?”

        In brief because of “a desire for a refined and impassioned portrait of the presence and the power and the possibilities of the human spirit.” I lift this from “Premature Autopsies”.

        Two chief complaints I hear about formal verse are: “Where’s the feeling?” (e.g. John Martin, Bukowski’s publisher) and “Where’s the freshness? Sonnets have been done to death.” Those are serious concerns, though perhaps largely made by people who haven’t sufficiently explored the world of formal verse. The latter is my concern right now. In my mind, I’m presenting opportunity, not obligation although in my exuberance, I presume everyone would love to take the opportunity. The time line that I observe isn’t the focus, but the context.

        When free-verse hit the world in the 1920’s (though Whitman pre-dates it), it was a new development in artistic expression and had a huge movement, era even. {My history is sketchy, but go with it for now.} Just observing that we could be at the point of another big shift.

        My personal motivations. First, I personally can’t stand contradiction. Especially in a venue where precision is otherwise so important. Five is five; iambs are iambs. I see four lights.

        Second, I did not begin as a Systems Engineer. I’m a lit major originally. Not close to good enough to earn a living back then. I want to earn a seat at the table through essay and verse.

        Third, — please excuse the broad strokes in which I’ll have to paint — for love of verse I deplore its market position relative to prose. Thinking about that over the years has had some unexpected ends. In contrast to prose, most books of verse are compilations of unrelated poems, certainly not structured to draw the reader from one page to the next; instead, there are frequent stops and starts. And epic styles take a lot more energy to read than prose and are monotonous. How to make a work sustain? What hit me though wasn’t something likely to be a page-turner like a novel. What hit me was symphonic form. Not a new fixed form, but a way of generating new fixed forms of arbitrarily extensible length. Since it’s a form of writing forms, I favor calling it “meta-formal”. These essays are my attempt to lay the building blocks for describing it.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi Margaret,

      “Pile of pejorative language” — Tell me what you really think; don’t hold back. HA! I love it. I guffawed out loud – fair enough. (I *think* I heard a verbal substitution for something four letters long in there somewhere 🙂 )

      I think we might possibly be pretty well aligned about music and poetry in at least one sense. Controlled variations are not defects. My notion is precisely that if the meter is not really clean, we cannot build anything like those elaborate structures you note. If you make controlled choices, then that puts you in the latter case and we don’t disagree. We might, however, disagree on what constitutes “controlled”. Random variations ARE defects, but hear me when I say with equal passion: controlled variations are not.

      Perfect IP does not necessarily remove natural voice. Must we accept the dichotomy of choosing one or the other? Here’s the thing about one-off substitutions. In them, a poet might make a deliberate choice to vary from IP so that the meter reflects the content. “Bang-bang” for a screen door closing could be an example. The issue is that the poet chooses to do it in one place but not others without overarching purpose of “why here and not there”. That *typically* renders the metrical variation essentially random, despite the poet’s (one-off) intent. ”

      That iambs are not sustained for long in idiomatic English is true; you’re right — yet rhymes almost never occur in idiomatic English and never in a consistent pattern over the space of, say, seventy words. Doesn’t that seem to indicate that “Idiomatic English” excuses too much? It’s cited with no reason of why here and why not there. Perfect IP and idiomatic tone aren’t necessarily always mutually exclusive.

      “Syllable counting” misreads me. “Well-spaced” needs definition. Perfect meter vs. regular meter: I don’t know about all that, I’m just defining terms. As poets, we’re all concerned with precision and accuracy. Shouldn’t we keep that sensibility in our meta-language as well as our language? Five means five. Iambs mean iambs.

      I have a hot-cold relationship with the academic use of the word “suggest”. Here’s what I’m saying. First, the villanelle format is a challenging one to use and remain speaking naturally throughout. That’s just the nature of using those repetends. Second, that repetition is not *the chief* cause of robotism. Third, the form has *some* and not *no* effect, regardless of the writers skill. I love villanelles, especially ones that take the sodium of one repetend and the chlorine of the other and unexpectedly produce salt at the conclusion.

      Repetition — or bringing a phrase back around again in new contexts or bringing a metrical substitution around again in the same way is a very high and satisfying art. That’s classical music, right? At its most extreme in a fugue. My contention is that you couldn’t bring around a well-chosen metrical substitution again if the meter surrounding it is not perfect — the signal would get lost in the noise.

      You are right about a misstep I made in one of the fine arts, but it’s easily adjusted to keep the point maintained. A composer might write an errant note vs. a singer missing a properly composed note. Of course, if one considers IP to be a composer and a poet missing that composition, that too, maintains the comparison. The comparison is sustained in the other arts.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        “Perfect” iambic pentameter does not occur in spoken idiomatic English, and neither does regular, sustained rhyme. Yes, of course.

        So what?

        Both of these things are human artifacts, created by poets in particular cultures working in particular poetic traditions and in particular languages. Rhyme is not “natural,” in the way that digestion and metabolism are — rhyme is a device that was developed in Late Latin and Early Romance, and then adopted in some Germanic languages as a way to identify a completed line after the older Germanic alliterative method of marking two hemistichs fell into disuse.

        The main point is that since these devices were created (and are used) by human beings, it is incongruous to come up all of a sudden with special new rules about “variations” that actually working poets don’t want to follow. You call that “descriptivist”? Sure — OK. But your approach is “definitionist,” which is much more commandeering and imperious. You don’t become a poet by defining terms. You become a poet by reading, listening, and imitating other poets.

        Another tip: No one wants to read a lengthy poem in “symphonic” form. Trust me on this one.

  4. Ryan Watch

    Thank you Mr. Kemper for providing this informative article on metrical variation. This would be helpful for me as a budding poet because it provides a fresh and detailed insight into the poetic metrics that I am already familiar with.

    I am also grateful that you have expounded on the iambic pentameter and offered a new perspective on that meter. Most of my poems utilize iambic pentameter and a small minority of them apply the trochaic meter. Reading this has also educated me further into the pros and cons of iambic pentameter and once again I am grateful that your article has enlightened me to the rules of poetic metrics.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi Ryan,

      I am very happy that this is useful to you. I think what I am writing should apply to all meters and I love reading well-executed poems in meters other than iambic; however, I’m not very good with the other meters. I do a “cheat” thing to try to get a decent trochaic meter: I write a draft in iambic, remove the first syllable from the first line and manually re-enjamb the poem to end in the unstressed syllable that starts each line. It doesn’t work great and has to be applied to an early draft before I’ve painted myself into a corner. It’s a useful prod to creativity though — remembering that trochaic and iambic are like sin and cosine: the same thing just shifted a phase in time.

  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Daniel, thank you for a thought-provoking, intelligently written, and engaging essay. And, thank you to the commenters for giving me the benefit of their wisdom in this field. I don’t even know whether my words are worth much, and I’m still not sure that I can be considered a fully fledged poet… but, here goes:

    I’ve written poetry since the age of six, with very limited knowledge. I went on to receive a classic education that taught me all the poetic devices I needed to continue with my poetry. I went on to gain a BA Hons in English Literature, and learned even more. But, and here’s the rub, I know the science of poetry, if you will, and choose to let it guide me, but I will not let it inhibit me. If I were to focus too heavily on the scientific structure of a poem, it would lose all its fun and meaning… for me, at least.

    I believe every poet should know the foundations; the structure every formal poem is built upon, and to be respectful of those roots, but, there are so many pitfalls. The rules are extremely difficult to adhere to. Pronunciation – regional and international. Veering from strict meter to make a point… here, we break into your evolution concept (I think). But, isn’t that dealt with every day? Wendy Cope (a hero of mine) springs to mind with her innovation with form. Her modernization of the sonnet, rondeau redouble and villanelle have inspired me.

    Being a British speaking poet in America, I am fully aware of the metric variations, rhyme variations, and variations in meaning, which makes me think it’s very difficult to set hard and fast rules on the composition of poetry, be it in iambic pentameter or any other metrical choice. I run up against the aforementioned challenges every time I write… but, I will never let that stop me because I’m smitten – smitten with the written word.

    I conclude – every poet who strives to write classical/traditional/formal poetry should be educated in the basic foundations of meter and the history of form. They should then write with those aspects in mind, but they should never let them overshadow their passion.

    • James A. Tweedie

      Susan, I must say that your final paragraph well sums up what seems to be the consensus opinion of the majority of commentators–to which I shall add my own. Like C.B. I try to keep as close to textbook IP when writing in that form but, after several years of gleaning wisdom and guidance from SCPers more experienced than I in the art of poetry, I have allowed myself the freedom to include lines which, while “regular” (as Margaret puts it) are not necessarily “perfect.” Sometimes such may cause a reader to stumble, but more often as of late, it has turned out to have improved the poem by giving it the chance to breathe even as it sings.

      I look forward to seeing what Daniel has to say in Part II.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi Susan,

      Sorry to be a bit tardy~

      [know the science][guide not inhibit] Yes! Studying music theory is not playing music, right? The most contentious of the points I made seems to have been the simplest: that IP should be IP. That “with devotions visage and [natural language], we do sugar o’er the devil himself.” 🙂

      [The rules are extremely difficult to adhere to.] True! It is hard, even heart-breaking sometimes. I’m getting slowly better, but it really hurts when I have to rip out 1/3 of a sonnet for a single word because there’s no other way to circumlocute and keep natural language, the wit of the moment, the correct meter, rhyme, verb tenses and person etc. etc.

      [Pronunciation – regional and international.] Not really a pitfall, IMO. A poem can be read many ways; just so long as there is one good way that keeps things right, that’s all which is needed. Songs often take a little while to learn how to sing, so also with performing a poem.

      [Veering from strict meter] Yes, evolution in two senses. One is that meter as a tool for expression isn’t done much and really has huge potential. Almost everything you express can have an augmentation in the meter somehow. One must be judicious though, too many alterations in meter will lose the signal as it were. The second is this notion of Symphonic Form whose edges I’ve only sketched so far.

      [Wendy Cope] I don’t know her. Just skimmed a couple online posts. Pretty nifty. Open to more! Forms variations, I love.

      [variations in meaning, [etc.]] I find somewhat non-sequitur. Those types of things are not impacted by IP to my way of thinking.

      “because I’m smitten – smitten with the written word.” –> This has such a beautiful ring. I’m betting that seed crystal is forming a sonnet around it in your mind as I type. 🙂

      [conclude] – One feeling I’ve had as I begin to USE meter more for a matter of expression (something beyond what I’ve written about so far) was that of an endoskeleton vs an exoskeleton. If meter just sits there it does sometimes feel like a prison within which I must write, an exoskeleton. But when I begin trying to USE it, it feels like an endoskeleton and I feel freer. Does that make sense?

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Daniel, thank you very much for your reply and the effort you have taken to explain your position.

        The paragraph I have the main problem with is the pronunciation – regional and international. You say it isn’t a pitfall and that; ‘A poem can be read many ways; just so long as there is ‘one good way that keeps things right’. That begs the question, what is the ‘one good way’?

        My husband, of American accent, thinks his way is right. I think my British accent is right – isn’t the correct way to read a Shakespearean sonnet with a British accent – any other way is heresy, surely? 😉 And then there’s the problem of the British accent – 16th century British-English was different from 21st century British-English… that’s why the Bard himself may sound a bit off… there could well be a metrical variation all down to Elizabethan intonation.

        Isn’t setting the standard for the ‘one good way’ nigh on impossible without causing offense to many? I know many British poets with a strong Northern dialect who pride themselves on their industrial backgrounds and revel in their roots. They don’t want to express themselves in ‘the one good way’ if the one good way in the UK means the Queen’s English. They want to read their poem their way, which will fall short of rigid rules surrounding both meter and rhyme. Is their ideal to be dismissed as wrong?

        This is one of the many pitfalls with rigid rules. I would like to echo Margaret in asking, what is random and what is controlled variation? Surely, only the author would be able to tell you which path he is treading to those ends… and, if I wanted to appear as if I were following the rigid rules set for the ‘one good way’, my answer as an author, would be ‘controlled’ every time.

        I am going to go off on a tangent here and say, I think there is something of the spiritual in the creation of a poem. I like form and try my hardest to adhere to the rules… but, sometimes, just sometimes, something happens that shifts my poetry to something greater than conformity… something that’s not easy to explain, but it’s there in the music, the flow and the ultimate meaning of my work… it’s that little pinch of the inexplicable that lifts the usual to greater realms… that hypnotic wonder that removes the reader from the words and paints a picture before them that they are part of. It’s that little pinch of je ne sais quois that makes the soul sing.

        Douglas Bader said; “Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.” To my mind, this is the attitude that pushes the great to be the greatest. These are the words of the innovative, the fearless, the words of those who know every rule in the book, yet know if they break from rigidity at that moment in time, it will be an immense success.

  6. Margaret Coats

    Daniel, you’ve made some clarifications I’m happy to see. I’m also glad to see that your personal aim of writing some symphonic poetry has emerged. I continue to disagree that formal poetry is any more subject to choppiness than free verse is to sloppiness. When you say that most who focus on “meter first” write robotic poems, I have no idea whom you mean. And how do you know they focus on meter first?

    You say your most basic point is that iambic pentameter should be iambic pentameter (presumably meaning without variation). But you are not opposed to variation. This is inconsistent. I take it you want to define good and bad variation, but you have not defined terms at all. Your most important words, “perfect,” “controlled” and “random” are poorly chosen and poorly used. As I said above, there is no perfect meter. By “perfect,” you seem to mean “without substitutions or feminine endings.” But what about such a line where some stresses fall on unimportant words, or on syllables that lack stress within the word or phrase? Is that perfect meter because it’s regular? I say it’s best to keep “perfect” for talking about rhyme, where it has precise meaning.

    Neither of the novel terms, whose contrast is central to your discussion, is defined. Saying that random variation is “accepting a touch of bad meter to relieve the grip of robotism” is not a definition; it is just the best I can draw out of what you wrote. That pile of pejoratives (my words chosen solely for alliterative value) only lets us know that you consider random variation bad. It does not say what random variation is, or how to tell the difference between it and controlled variation. The difference, as far as I can tell, is subjective. It’s where you look into the poet’s mind and judge that he made a purposeless decision. And this happens all the time, with the vast majority of variations!

    “Controlled” will take another essay to define–except that it is your term for what happens when iambic pentameter is not iambic pentameter, but nonetheless is not bad meter. Or do you consider that a controlled variation should count as an iambic foot although it is not one? For an example, take the trochaic substitution beginning Roethke’s “Auction.”

    Although we can talk about iambic feet and lines, a poem’s meter is simply the predominant meter of the poem. This should be easy to determine for anyone who knows what meter is, and has learned a few names. If it isn’t easy, the poet has made unskillful use of too many substitutions. Contrary to your quoted experts, most English poetry is iambic. Current experts may hope to re-define any meter with variations as tending to free verse–but English iambic meter (insofar as those words describes a poet’s obvious choice for his poem) allows substitutions and feminine endings. This is not my opinion; it is the practice of centuries of English poetry. Knowing it comes from reading.

    As you are interested in writing a symphony poem, check out John Gould Fletcher’s “Blue Symphony” and “White Symphony.” He may have written other colors as well, and my footnote gives some of his comments on them from his volume “Goblins and Pagodas” (1916). I might have called these modern odes. Best of luck to you!

  7. Daniel Kemper

    Hi Margaret,

    There’s quite a medley of items to respond to. I’d spent a lot of time this weekend trying to craft a manageable-sized reply, when I realized that a great number of your comments were really anticipating things I am in process of putting in essay form. One of which is the “Part 2”, which I have to rip up big chunks of now (see below) and one of which will be regarding meter and scansion without contradiction or unaddressed cases.

    One is the promised “part 2” regarding a better definition of “controlled variation,” which is a great place to start for this post. You mention my use of the terms “random”, “perfect”, and “controlled” variation. I think “random” and “perfect” are simple dictionary definitions; however, I see where you are coming from regarding “controlled”. The term is poor, I agree. I’ll have to find a better word (perhaps “patterned”, not sure yet). It includes too much as is. For example, an author might make a “deliberate” choice in one instance, but apply the principle by which that author made the deliberate choice in an inconsistent manner. In this case, the variation could be considered “controlled”, yet the output would be structurally random, and so not be what I have in mind for “controlled” at all. Thank you for a sharp eye on that: I would not have been able to see it without you.

    A second issue you identified for me was my use of the word “defect”. It puzzled me for a long time, then I realized what I did wrong. I shifted what I had in mind as the referent of “defect” without specifying it in text. Initially, I’m talking about a defect of IP; however, when the confusing mention comes up, I’m thinking not of a defect of IP, I’m thinking of a formal poetic or formal artistic defect. That is, we might decide to write a sonnet that concluded each quatrain in anapests, rather than iambs. Depending on subject matter and execution of course, it could be quite pleasing and well-honed, but in a hyper-technical sense it would be considered “defective” IP, those artistically, there would be no defect. Now, that case is clearly a trivial example, selected only for clarity’s sake. The practical application comes if a poet breaks IP for the reason that a character in a poem is, say, shouting, and the poet substitutes spondees in one place that the character is shouting, but not in another place. It’s also some issue, structurally and rhythmically, if these are at irregular locations in the poem, so that there’s no “musical” way to “feel” the variations approaching. Or be surprised if the author intentionally does it three times in a row and meaningfully breaks off in a new pattern the fourth time round after our expectations are built up.

    It’s easy to get into the weeds here, but I think I’ve made my use and misuse of “defect” clear, albeit this post might be sort of a throw-pasta-at-the-wall approach.

    Thanks for your sharp eye and wit.

  8. Will

    Mr. Kemper:

    I admire the detailed thought and diligent effort you put into crafting your poems — and I respect your willingness to deal matter-of-factly with both your detractors and those giving encouragenment and counsel. Your “seat at the table” is indeed being earned the hard way and the experience will return significant dividends.

    Sadly, however, it would appear here — if I understand you correctly — you in truth have come to bury meter, not to praise it. I hope I am wrong. You have not explained your concept yet, so I, like all others, can only react to what I seem to hear so far.
    You have at least made a great point, though, and it applies to each of the meter types, not just iambic, and it applies to any specified number of feet, not just five.

    Merriam Webster’s agrees with you that meter, in poetry, means:


    Thus, to your very well made point, if a line is not five successive iambs, it IS NOT iambic pentameter. Period. If it’s not three successive anapests, it IS NOT anapestic trimeter. Period. Etc.

    By extension, people who don’t really write in meter, say iambic pentameter, but claim they do, are phonies. If every line of their verse is not iambic pentameter, the verse is NOT iambic pentameter. Period.

    But it still might be magnificent rhythmic poetry and might contain many iambs. Or it might still be great dialogue for a character in a play that shoud not be confused with the monologue of a sonnet.

    You also seem to assert correctly that argument suggesting iambic pentameter (or any other meter) is “not idiomatic” misuses the truth.

    Although meter and rhyme are indeed not the way we ordinarily speak and think, they are the proven, very effective way we get people to sense what we mean in the tone we intend, to remember how we said it, and to recite it like we meant it verbatim to someone else — across generations perhaps! Meter is hardly “unnarural”. The ear is very receptive to it. It can become integral to making our thought immortal. That’s one of the reasons fixed length meter defines traditional forms.

    Poetry written to approximate the way we ordinarily speak and think is, for good reason, “free verse”. It has its place too, and its best practitioners share some skills wirh formalists, but the two disciplines, both avenues to great poetry, are incredibly different. Both are done very well and done very poorly.

    But back to meter…determining whether verse is, or was when written, in meter — by the definition we agree on — requires three things:

    (1) accurately stipulating the language context (ethnic, national, regional, etc. at the point in time the work conveys (if applicable) and-or the point in time at which it was, or is being, written.

    (2) actually verifying, using the best available authoritative reference for the context established,:

    (a) syllable separation and pronunciation by usage

    (b) the permissible effects of marking and punctuating to denote or alter such pronunciation.

    (3) diligently examining the work’s content, usage, and established tone, for stress, often somewhat weaker than authoritatively verified, arising from:

    (a) inflected intent
    (b) word position in the line
    (c) part of speech usage
    (d) transition of sounds within words and from the ending of one word to the beginning of the next.

    These are the sort of secondary stresses that the most technically inclined will tend to say are not there and for which there is no authoritative source.

    Those expecting artistic refinement, on the other hand, will find them, and the ensuing debates are not easily resolved. The ear of the beholder becomes the final arbiter.

    It is worth noting that the same sentence in English can be inflected in many different ways simply depending on what the reader tends to emphasize most in the expression. If meter is well established and maintained, sentences written are far more likely to be read with the emphasis intended…the first time.

    Such power that meter has, however, should not be abused to impose false stresses artificially simply by encouraging mispronunciation to accomodate meter.

    Mr. Sedia has essentially made the case for chronological context in a fascinating essay here that describes the evolution of English pronunciation and the issues it creates for the modern reader examining very old works.

    By Mr. Sedia’s logic, then, to believe Mr. Salemi”s syllable counting and stress assessment of Shakespeare’s works, one has to believe he proved his claims, under such a context and context authority, as he dutifully listened for subtleties of arguably inherent stress..

    Where Mr. Salemi did so and where he believes his claims indeed seemed valid, he nevertheless proved only that Shakespeare or his editor chose not to write iambic pentameter lines exclusively.

    He did NOT thereby also prove that the definition of iambic pentameter is or ought to be fluid. Nor did he prove it amateurish.

    Where he found lines greater or fewer than ten syllables, he might have found lines begun as iambic but truncated. He might have found lines with five feet, some but not all of which were iambic. He might have found lines not at alll iambic.

    To your point, though, if he found lines not ten syllables in length, they were indeed NOT five successive iambs and therefore NOT iambic pentameter.

    That said, there is the possibility that adjacent 11 syllable and 9 syllable lines could logically, though not physically, comprise two iambic pentameter lines. The artistically inclined would find that acceptable, the technically inclined might not.

    Where Salemi indeed found ten syllable lines with non-iambic feet “substituted” for one or more iambic feet, he actually found lines rhythmic with no claim to meter of any sort. The feet were not successively the same. Such interruptions could be expected in dramatic dialogue predominantly done in iambic pentameter.

    And all that explains why I fear you are about to bury poetic meter, just as Ms. Coats and Mr. Salemi have. Your apparent agreenent, for any cause, with extension, truncation and “substitution” as “variations” oblitetates fixed length meter, if not meter entirely. The poetry might still be wonderful, but it is no longer in the succession of pattern we call “meter” and-or fixed length.

    Mr. Anderson, for example, extends and truncates lines with masterful consistency to produce striking effect. Unless he were entering a contest requiring say, bona fide iambic pentameter, however, no one would take exception to his consistent eleven syllable lines and many I suspect, would be in awe.

    Further, your use of the words “random” and “controlled” to describe respectively, “unacceptable and acceptable variations” by alleged cause seems pedantic and unnecessary. Once meter is violated, scansion and characterization of the exceptions are not meaningful, except to academics. The only pertinent question at that point would be whether sufficient stresses to establish defensible consistent rhythm.

    Any such “variation” is an intentional act and they all — by definition — destroy fixed length “meter”. And that matters with respect to form compliance, but beyond that, again, the degree to which “variation” diminishes or embellishes poetic excellence is in the ear of the beholder.

    In essence, by admitting “variation”, you are agreeing with Coats and Salemi that fixed length “meter” is no longer essential to compliance with traditional form. Meter is dead. Long live accentual rhythm you can count on your fingers.

    Your take, if I understand you correctly, though, is at least a tad more honest sounding than the doctrine that Coats and Salemi, espouse. They literally falsely equate “accentual” rhythm and “meter” for the purpose of form template compliance. They believe in the 60 to 80 percent rule. Else they would not use the word “substtution” which implies the validity of the original “paradigm” and its intactness after the fact far more strongly than your word “variation” that correctly implies the paradigm itself has been amended.

    The effect, however, is the same, regardless of the language used to describe the action. The form becomes far more broadly defined and fixed length meter, as a requirement, is obliterated.

    Again, to be clear, none of this very objective “meter” discussion addresses the far more subjective assessment of verse “quality” (except to the degree that meter becomes one of many measures one could use to infer ‘quality” by consistency or form template compliance).

    Inferring quality, however, is a matter entirely different from inferring “formality”, which appeared to me to be the crux of your concern.

    Your point at first appeared to be that “meter” is the essence that truly distinguishes formal poetry, and that while less rigid forms — if rhyrhmic — can also be admitted, you believed that writing high quality poetry in “meter” is the crowning achievement of the formal poet.

    I fully agree, whether the verse is blank or truly rhymed, though my personal preference is the latter. And that in no way diminishes my appreciation for the potential quality of less formal “rhythmic” verse.

    Ms. Coats and Mr Salemi clearly do not agree. They imply that accentual rhythm IS said essence and that it suffices as the crowning achievement. Salemi apparently doesn’t believe meter can satisfactorily exist.

    They are both of course entitled to hold such personal views as inarguable.

    They are not, however, entitled to proclaim bizarrely that “meter” can’t be achieved in “professional” poetry and is amateurish by default. Nor are they free to insist that meter is idiomatically alterable without violating its definition. The former must be proved verse by verse, and the latter is indefensible.

    It is worth noting, again, that meter tends to enforce correct reading of tone, musicality, and intent. For the poet expecting works to be remembered, attributed, and recited, it becomes critical beholder facilitation. That’s why it’s a feature of traditional forms. And that’s why as poets we should aspire to it’s flawless exection unless we can confidently make a very strong case for exception, as Mr. Anderson suggests. And when we do, we should freely confess the resulting works are no longer in fixed length meter and do not therefore fully satisfy traditional form requiring it.

    Mr. Mantyk in the interest of SCP has cleverly skirted this issue by declaring, without precise definitions, that formal poetry is EITHER metered OR rhymed. In fairness to him, he is cutting a wide swath to make the formalism he is marketing a bit less intimidating, especially to children who can grasp rhyme and syllable counting much more readily than rhythm or meter.

    In any case, the broadening to “OR rhymed” cleverly enables embracing the work (of folks like Mr. Salemi) that IS NOT in “meter” but IS arguably rhythmical and rhymed if not “blank” and exceedingly well done. Such broadening also, however, embraces works not at all consistrntly rhythmical, and that is problematic.

    Mr. Mantyk does so, moreover, without explaining exactly what passes the “metered” or the “rhymed” test, enabling him to admit verse for publication that diminishes meter, rhyme, or both in mid stride. He’s in the “60 or 80 percent is OK” camp as you would call it.

    And his approach encourages folks like Mr. Sale to shift the focus of fornalism away from form (beond fhyming) to particular suject matter, which Mr. Salemi correctly reminds him is errantly narrow.

    Again, all this is significant mostly because of the relationship meter bears to traditional forms. Folks want to claim they have written works in traditional forms even though their efforts don’t pass the applicable fixed length “meter” test (or where applicable, the rhyme test).

    Thus, to your point, there is corrosive form definition degradation by forced mutation going on right now that has been present since forms were formalized. And as it proceeds, the underlying concepts of formalism — meter and true rhyme — are deliberately being undermined. We are rolling downhill toward free verse domination like the snowball Merle Haggard made famous.

    I mistakenly thought you were championing a return at least to recognizing the extraordinary skill that excellence of message in meter, musicality, and rhyme requires (i.e., true traditional form compliance). I believed you were on to something.

    After reading your comment replies, however, I now with disappointment believe your new, “acceptable variation”, “symphonic” formalism is the wholesale destruction of meter that Salemi, who doth protest too much, prays for. Right now, it smells like it could pass the free verse sniff test.

    If perchance I have not understood you correctly, however, and you are championing purposeful innovation in which meter remains uncorrupted, I humbly apologize and will look forward to your more definitive essays and examples.

    If you are codifying specific extension, truncation, and foot combinations as plausible “standard” accentual rhythms to give birth to new ‘traditional” form specifications, I applaud you so long as you recognize those altered forms for what they are and you leave uncorrupted fixed length meter forms as formalism standards.

    • The Society

      Dear Will,

      The rule is not “either metered or rhymed.” Some years ago, we might have said that and it may be floating around on the internet now somewhere (maybe you could let me know where and I can see about having it fixed), but the current rule indicated on the submission page is “Some type of meter, such as iambic pentameter, is required.” There is no absolute requirement to rhyme. Blank verse is fine. Strict meter is fine, and looser meter can be fine too, the only usual exception being haiku, which is based on syllables. There are many other factors to consider other than meter, of course.

      Evan Mantyk, Editor

    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi Will,

      I am indeed pursuing the unlikely case that you make space for. I am championing a purposeful innovation in which meter remains uncorrupted; further, such an extension is not possible without uncorrupted meter. The “symphonic” formalism I have in mind is not the wholesale destruction of meter, nor free verse as you fear; it is exactly the opposite as you hope.

      As for those who have given me challenging rebuttals, those challenges are in the right places because my prose is so bad. They are largely reacting to what I’ve written and not what I thought I’ve written. I have a clear vision and clear thinking but have been off in a cave so long as it were that my expression of it is very flawed. More soon, I hope.

      As to Evan, I really can’t show him enough appreciation for all he does and the skill and heart with which he does it.

  9. Joseph S. Salemi

    This guy uses the word “compliance” more frequently than a government bureaucrat. It’s kinda scary.

  10. Daniel Kemper

    Hi Susan,

    I don’t know how your second post slipped past me, but it did and I’m sorry. I love that you are digging into regionalisms. They’re a spice I really like.

    Let me say again with a warm smile, “It isn’t a pitfall. A poem can be read many ways; just so long as there is ‘one good way that keeps things right’.” This time though, let me add that I mean at least one way, not only one way.

    That might change the question that it begs to what makes one way good and another way bad? Well, that’s also actually two questions, right? Musically/poetically good or bad is one consideration. Metrically good or bad is the second.

    For the second consideration, meter is still just meter. If it’s read “in meter” then any regionalism that doesn’t break the meter is fine. There are many ways to read in the single good meter that a poem has because there are many other musical qualities contributing to the poem.

    BTW, your husband is right. 🙂 Just kidding. Which of your ways is right, metrically, is only determined by whether or not the pronunciation stays in meter. (I’m ignoring the case where one tortures any likely way a verse might be spoken to shoe-horn it into meter.) Even when in the strictest cast of IP being IP, there can be more than one correct answer regarding the delivery of a poem. This is not necessarily true of all poems, especially if a poem contains regionalized vocabulary.

    Ironically, there are places in America where the Bard’s accent is better preserved than in England. At least in the 20th century there were. America’s size and varied geography allowed little pockets to go untouched. Niches in the Appalachians and barrier islands on the coast.

    One of my struggles with meter is that I was impacted by one of these regional accents — not the bard’s speech, but a preserved dialect called The Outer Banks Brogue. (Plus my southern dad and my northern mom, I’m a mess of pronunciation.) That accent is, I think, the only American accent consistently identified as being foreign. An expression of my native mix: Royt nah-ow, I’m gonna get my bottle of rum on out from underneath of the cabinet; I’m fittin’ teh get mommucked tehnoyt.

    Musical features such as pitch, speed, tempo, logical pauses, practical pauses (you have to breathe sometime when speaking out loud), as well as accent all contribute to a good read. Or better yet a good recital. For me, although it seems covid has decreased our true auditory involvement with our work, lately I’ve been going on walks trying to memorize my own poems. It really changes me. (I’ve started wearing an iPhone headset so people think I’m in conversation and don’t mark me as crazy.) Notice that we always talk about “reading” and not “reciting” or “performing”. That’s a true ‘we’ not the polite “we-meaning-you”. 🙂 It impacts my writing at least because the sound we suppose we make in our mind’s ear isn’t always what our mouths make. There are gifted people on this site that clearly produce the right stuff, perhaps by doing it out loud, perhaps just through their gifts.

    Random vs. controlled. Where there’s more than one good way to deliver a poem, there’s only one way to write in IP. Varying from that — keeping the tight frame of meter only for the moment — is more easily seen for its randomness if we just look at the scansion marks. This is not an exhaustive test or a proof, so don’t let anyone strawman me here. It is a powerful illustration though. In those scansion marks, first are they honest? Do the words truly produce them? If there are some “close calls” or ambiguities, let’s for the purpose of the exercise try each plausible read to see what patterns emerge. Is there any pattern to the breaks in the meter? 99% of the time there is not. From a purely metrical standpoint that makes it random.

    But yes, hastening back to the poem as a whole and not merely its skeleton, more is at play. Confusion on what is random or not (trying to abandon my poorly-chosen “controlled”) begins when the author chooses to vary based on content. That’s a valid artistic choice, when it’s actually a choice and there’s a poignant moment highlighted by it. But let’s face it, those “choices” are done far more often than is really supportable. It IS cognitively, emotionally painful — I’m not kidding or euphemizing or sensationalizing — to have to tear up a big chunk of an otherwise great poem to fix a single flaw. It hurts. It hurts for a long time because the fix takes a long time. And there’s that awful uncertainty that you can get it fixed and still say, mean, feel the moment you had in mind. Almost always you can, I believe, but it’s harrowing.

    Elsewhere, a poem remaining “rhythmic” is often cited as a defense of variation. The fact that rhythm is repetition makes declaring breaks in the rhythm as “rhythmic” hard to swallow. If however, there were a metrical pattern to the variations, then the poem is growing into a sort of polyphony. English has not been around as long as the western classical tradition in music. My vision, and I might be a sort of Hiroo Onada here, is that English poetry is near an inflection point in its development.

    Maintaining a little pinch of the inexplicable: I agree, I just don’t think one needs to concede on form. I think that the vast majority of variation is not doing the spiritual act you mention. For me, it’s really hard to hit that moment more than once on a page.

    I tend to think of rules like I think of rules of grammar — according to Chomsky’s notion of generative grammar. In the crowd of poems, there are sloppy usages, and there are unusual usages that seem at first to violate a rule, but actually reveal the rule it violates was only an approximation of the actual rule in play. One can create spiritual experiences in free verse too; if the formal is to have meaning, we just can’t play around with foundational definitions (which you have not done with your well-placed questions, but just to be complete in my mention). I hope I’ve not inadvertently offended, I’m just straining for the right expression.

    Here’s my favorite spiritual moment in free verse. Have tissues ready.

  11. Margaret Coats

    Daniel, the more you say (and adding to it what Will has said), the easier it is to see where you’re going. Put together the words you let slip about meter that is not “perfect” to you. That meter is bad, flawed, defective, and robotic. By contrast with your desire for “clean” and “uncorrupted” meter, it is corrupt and unclean (or filthy or dirty). When a poet produces it, he is careless and purposeless. You seem to have politely chosen “random” as your name for bad meter because it is your least offensive term. You say it has dictionary meaning. Do you really think it is NOT insulting to tell SCP we do all the bad writing you think we do by random chance, and not by artistic choice? Most English poetry employs variations, and you find 99% of variations bad. Logically, most English poetry is metrically bad (in your personal opinion). You want to abandon our heritage. Go ahead, but stop spewing CANCEL CULTURE.

    Will is clearer. 100% of variations are bad. Variation is such a departure from meter than a poem with a single variation is not metered but is free verse. Didn’t I predict this a few days ago? “Perfect meter” is an attempt to re-define meter itself. Free versers are just formalists who accept going awry as normal; there is really no difference. You, Daniel, are right to say that we are at a tipping point. Free versers see the growing influence of formal and classical and traditional poetry and want to disparage it, just as you are doing. Yes, you think there are some beautiful formal poems with random variations, but you want us to listen to your favorite free verse. I think of Mao Zedong, who himself wrote poems in traditional forms, but nonetheless brought out Cultural Revolution dunce caps for anyone else who did the same.

    Notice that Will’s authority for defining meter itself as Cancel Culture’s “perfect meter” (with everything else being free verse) is Merriam Webster. SCP poets have recently caught Media-Webster doing quick changes to meaning. I checked my printed College Webster and found nothing like what Will quotes. As usual for any word with long usage, there are several definitions–none of them requiring meter in poetry to have strict regularity. One definition speaks of the meter of a poem being its “prevailing meter,” which of course presumes variations.

    Joseph Salemi cites some “tight-assed” formalist editors now demanding “perfect meter.” Will may be one of them, with his long list of other demands he would like to impose. You are aligning yourself with a very novel usage in vocabulary and theory, which is quite suitable to someone with futuristic outlook and ambitions. In your most recent response to Susan, I see you making an apologetic feint involving music, readings, regional speech, and performance, but remaining adamant on the badness of English meter as you find it.

    Daniel, I really do wish you well, but go write the future instead of theorizing it. You might get a few imitators rather than these few arguments. You probably do have to write out the bee in your bonnet, but don’t be disappointed if readers do not love your poetry because you are true to your theory.

    • Daniel Kemper


      If I were doing what you are saying, I would willing take a lashing to be corrected. Stigmatize, isolate, incite: Your rhetorical skills are classic and formidable, but I am not the target you describe. Still, blessed are the wounds of a friend.

      The points made in the essays and clarifications are precise; they go so far and no farther. Yet, the words left open the possible mis-interpretation that all variation is bad. Such an interpretation overextends the argument, which overextended, is logically rejected.

      The case was established that metrical variation in this era is synonymous with random variation; that is, variation without a reason. To date, all established formalists present no distinction *in the value* of one type of variation vs. another. Whether a variation is present for a carefully crafted, deliberate purpose or nothing of that kind seems un-addressed. A “default purpose” of relieving too much regularity seems to be assigned to variations with no other discernable purpose.

      Since unrobotic poems exist in perfect meter — and since robotic poems in perfect meter do not have their robotism caused by the meter itself — there can be no such real “default purpose”. Without purpose: that is dictionary definition of random. (What about all of those sections Shakespeare’s where there are no substitutions — e.g. the stretches between the substitutions — Are they robotic?)

      Thus far, and no farther. Not all variations are random. An essay only has so much space; one topic at a time. Addressing distinctions in variation is promised.

      Yet, the words also left open the possible mis-interpretation that all poems with variations, random or not, are bad poems. Such an interpretation overextends the argument, which over extended, is logically rejected.

      This mis-interpretation was disclaimed by reference to both formal poems which contain variations as well as works where ONLY variation exists (i.e. free verse). Both are legitimate and can be beautiful.

      Note: Free-verse is not properly taxonomized as poetry at all; however, for many that’s a triggering declaration because immediately inferred that I mean that because it’s not formal verse, it’s trash and should be thrown out. I am at pains to prevent that reaction. Free verse is its own art form, neither prose nor poetry, just as plasma is its own state of matter, neither solid, liquid or gas. I’m at pains to disclose that two of my lifelong favorites, Bukowski and Eliot are free-versers. If forced to shoe-horn free-verse into the category of prose or poetry, I’d call it “hetero-linear prose.”

      To start again, a formal poem with variations can still be very beautiful. For that, Keats is my guy, he, and his romantic crew, plus Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton. But often, it’s only honest to admit, a formal poem with variations in meter is like an Aphrodite de Milos with spinach in her teeth — who really notices? Or would turn her away?

      It’s an example of the reflexive property to observe that formalism ought to have a formal foundation. The literature on this is contradictory and often ill-reasoned.

      These are serious cracks in the foundation; I mean to do my part, whether big or small, to shore them up, not tear them down. I do not mean to argue that they should be left in place as-is. That would leave the castle vulnerable to the attacks that I have been accused of mounting. Further, more, and bigger can be built on a better foundation.

      Thus far, other-than-random-variations are all content-based. The possibility of variations which are form/meter based are rarely noted.

      My overall concept has been to examine the use and mis-use of variation (essay 1) and make some actionable distinctions (essay 2); however, essay two will require reference to a single scansion system, else we cannot tell what we are varying from. A scansion system to use for this (since there are many scansion systems and many interpretations of each) is to be essay 3. Finally, essay 4 is to give the vision of symphonic or meta-formal verse. THAT’s where I’m going.

      Here’s a sketched-up example of the vision.

      Consider alternating meter every other line. Or perhaps starting iambic for a few verses, then stretching it into double-iambs for a verse, then back to iambs, then contrapuntally flipping it into trochees. What if the iambic beginning is scene-setting with characters in a house by the sea (S1), the next stanza switching into double-iambs as a character contemplates the rolling groundswells and the emptiness (S2), then the trochees introducing the central conflict (3). Critically, let’s consider we maintain those patterns in this changing meter across several stanzas S1, S2, S3, S1, S2, S3, S1, S2… –perhaps at the third use of S2’s format we decide to use that stanza to observe that emptiness could eliminate the central conflict as a pivot to an extended exploration of group dynamics and emptiness. Thus, having set the reader up with a pattern to expect S3, we go to S1 instead and riff on dynamics by repeating S1, S2, S1, S2, S1, S2… Later in this poem perhaps our character, say a kind of courtly lover who hits that moment of despair it seems we all go through, has his empty inner monologue written in double-iambs rather than iambs, to recall the ocean. Let us also imagine that the stanzas of double-iambs come in a pattern of intervals, not necessarily every third (e.g.). Now we are really building something of enormous expressive value. Eventually, perhaps we bring the overall pattern to conclusion by three repetitions of S1’s pattern in the finale. Note: it’s written generatively and not by completely designing a complicated framework and then fitting everything in.

      ***We are keeping perfect meter, but we are using variations consistently and purposefully.***

      If we keep the variations in their own pattern and meld that to the contentive expressiveness, we’ve a real symphony on our hands. We might build a brief, “Fur Elise” or an extended “The Fifth.” Untapped opportunities abound.

      But none of them are possible if the meter is muddy.

      Some specific points.

      Definitions. “Prevailing meter” describes a use case, not the delineation of what the term is and is not. If we see a car that’s been in a wreck and had its hood dented, we still call it a car. A poem in IP with several feet not in IP is still functionally referred to as IP. It does not mean that those feet which are not IP are actually IP.

      [“tight-assed” formalist editors] – I think you might be on to something here. Among the editors that do this, it’s likely some are making disingenuous ploy meant to destroy formalism by reducing the quantity of formalist verse that gets posted. Deny the means of communication seems to be their basic tactic. It would be nice to hold their toes to the fire to define “perfect” — some will probably have clear definitions, but others will have unreachable ones: That would probably smoke out the Marxists, like I remember Dr. Salemi doing to a Fabian here, if I recall. Actually, he didn’t smoke them out, he took the gloves off and “smoked them”. It was a pleasure.

      [go write the future instead of theorizing it.] – I have. I am. I have completed two pieces in what might be called symphonic form and I am in the middle of a third. They are hard and take a long time, and being a new idea, are certainly flawed in the execution. I fear the idea being discarded for mistakes made rather than developed for the potential it has. It would seem important to introduce the concepts first to give the best chance for the idea to be a real contribution to the table and not merely a seat at it.

  12. Joseph S. Salemi

    I believe you’ve hit the nail directly on the head, Margaret. There’s something rather authoritarian and dictatorial going on in these proclamations about “perfect meter.” When Kemper says “There’s only one way to write in IP,” and when Will says “If a line is not five successive iambs, it IS NOT iambic pentameter. Period.” …well, I get a distinct whiff of the Commandant in Stalag 17 issuing orders for the day.

    Why the angry insistence? Could it be that this is a desperate attempt by persons who are really free-verse partisans to compel traditional poets to adhere to the rigidities of unvaried meter, and thereby make ourselves perfect straw men for easy dismissal?

    Kemper says that he “personally can’t stand contradiction,” and that is why he champions “perfect meter.” OK, so let him write in his chosen style. But why should he attempt to convert the rest of us to it? It looks like what he really “can’t stand” is poets who write differently from the way he wants to write. Will goes on (with great intensity) about “form compliance,” as if he were Dr. Fauci haranguing us to get vaccinated.

    These guys have some sort of unspoken agenda. Could it be that the godawful “Goodbye” YouTube clip is the sort of “poetry” that these fellows really prefer?

  13. Will Dunn

    Mr. Kemper —

    Keep going. You are on to something. Looking forward to the second installment.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.