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 , 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 doTo 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 willAnd 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.