.

Persons devoted to formal, metrical poetry are susceptible to a specific disease, much in the same way as light-skinned persons are apt to get bad sunburns, and sedentary persons are prone to hemorrhoids and constipation. You might even call it an occupational hazard, or the déformation professionnelle that warps individuals who spend too much time in a certain job. I’m referring to the fanatical fixation on “perfect meter.”

Meter in English has always been a template or a guideline. An absolutely rigorous adherence to exact and unvarying patterns has never been the practice of our great poets, except occasionally or for comic purposes. In fact, lockstep and totally unsubstituted lines of verse have always been seen as the mark of the beginner, the amateur, the dabbler, and the third-rate poetaster. Chaucer deliberately burlesques this kind of rigid mentality in his Tale of Sir Thopaz.

I won’t quote “perfect” iambic pentameter from anyone here at the SCP, but here’s a sample that was presented to me twenty-three years ago by an undergraduate who was applying for a seat in my Advanced Metrical Poetry seminar. I’ve kept it all that time:

.

I like to watch the bumblebees in flight.
I know they have good honey in their hive.
How nice to see their tiny feet alight
And gather pollen that will help them thrive.
They buzz like little engines at their work.
They are not lazy like us human folks.
They don’t have time to tarry or to shirk,
Or tell each other dumb and corny jokes.

.

I actually gave the author of this wretched piece permission to join my class, and within a few weeks I was able to persuade him not to produce any further saccharine drivel of this nature. I convinced him (largely by showing the class examples of real metrical poems written by masters of the English tradition) that writing end-stopped lines of tedious metronomic regularity, without any substitutions, elisions, or feminine endings, was not writing poetry at all, but only spouting measured sounds that rightly evoke ridicule. (By the way, if you think the above piece is a good poem, maybe you’d better stop reading right now.)

A great deal of the “perfect meter” disease is due to what I have called definitionism, or the impulse to create arguments based on  abstractions that, while schematically true, have little bearing on real-world practice. An extreme example of definitionism would be to look up the word “woman” in a dictionary, read that it says “a female member of the human race,” and then insist that this skeletal statement be the sole basis for discussion of what the term “woman” means. Anyone can see the absurdity of such a simplistic approach—how could it possibly take into account the myriad complexities, nuances, qualities, and velleities that are contained in what it means to be a woman? But partisans of “perfect meter” insist that iambic pentameter must mean a line of five iambs and nothing more. And they cling to this hypostasized abstraction in the teeth of anything contrary, such as the practice of English poets over the centuries to use substitutions, elisions, feminine endings, and other tricks to embellish their lines in ways that deviate from a strict pattern.

Definitions are for mathematics and engineering. They are not governing principles in the arts and humanities, which depend upon the vagaries of human freedom and impulse. Nobody ever became a competent poet by looking up definitions in a dictionary. You become a competent poet by reading deeply and widely in the work of other poets, and imitating their skills and styles and habits of composition. And this, I suspect, is the real problem with the partisans of “perfect meter” and definitionism—they just aren’t deeply and widely read in the history of our literature. If they were, would they be proselytizing for a rigid method of composition that no serious poet in our tradition has ever adhered to?

For all these reasons, I thought it might be illuminating to examine a traditional poem to see precisely how it is put together metrically. I’ve chosen the sonnet “Barmaid” by William Ernest Henley from his collection Hawthorn and Lavender (1901).

Henley was an important poet and literary critic of his time, though he is mostly remembered today for his much-anthologized poem “Invictus.” For a succinct account of Henley’s work and influence, see my articles on him and his publications in The 1890s: An Encyclopedia of British Literature, Art, and Culture (New York and London, 1993), pp. 270-272 and 417-418.

“Barmaid” is from a short section in Hawthorn and Lavender called “London Types,” which presents thirteen Shakespearean sonnets in iambic pentameter. Did you hear that, guys? IAMBIC PENTAMETER. Henley uses some feminine endings, some choriambic (trochaic) starts, some elisions and internal substitutions, and other twists. But the poems in “London Types” are in iambic pentameter, despite all your definitionist thunderings to the contrary. Got that?

“Barmaid” is Henley’s description of a simple English barmaid working in a pub. Her name is Elizabeth. He mentions her character, her appearance, her handling of her tasks, and her plain tastes. Let’s start with the octet:

.

Though, if you ask her name, she says Elise,
Being plain Elizabeth, e’en let it pass,
And own that, if her aspirates take their ease,
She ever makes a point, in washing glass,
Handling the engine, turning taps for tots,
And countering change, and scorning what men say,
Of posing as a dove among the pots,
Nor often gives her dignity away.

.

Notice here that the barmaid is vaguely pretentious—her ordinary name is Elizabeth, but as a chic affectation she calls herself “Elise.” Henley takes note of her Cockney dropped aitches, but also points out that she handles the “engine” (cash register) well, knows how to turn the taps for drawing beer, how to make change, and how to disregard the coarse language of male customers. She maintains her dignity as much as she can, and at least makes some pretense at being a respectable girl. Now let’s look at the meter of these eight lines:

.

Line 1: / x x / x / x / x / This line has a trochaic start, evidenced by Henley’s comma after the first word Though.

Line 2: x / x / x / x / x / This line is all iambic, but note that the first word Being elides its two syllables into a single unstressed one.

Line 3: x / x / x / x x / x / This line has an anapestic substitution in the fourth foot, unless you scan aspirates with an elision as two syllables (AS – prits).

Line 4: x / x / x / x / x / This is a normal iambic pentameter line.

Line 5: / x x / x / x / x / This line has a definite trochaic start.

Line 6: x / x x / x / x / x / This line has a clear anapestic substitution in the second foot. You must scan the second word as COUNT – er -ing.

Line 7: x / x / x / x / x / This is a normal iambic pentameter line.

Line 8: x / x / x / x / x / This is a normal iambic pentameter line.

.

Before we continue, I hope my readers have noticed that so far only three lines out of eight in Henley’s sonnet are “perfect meter,” with no deviation at all from an ideal pattern. All the rest have relaxed that stringency in some degree to accommodate English idiom or pronunciation, and to avoid a mind-numbing regularity.

Now let’s consider the sestet:

.

Her head’s a work of art, and, if her eyes
Be tired and ignorant, she has a waist;
Cheaply the Mode she shadows; and she tries
From penny novels to amend her taste;
And, having mopped the zinc for certain years,
And faced the gas, she fades and disappears.

.

This is a straightforward and uncomplicated closure: the barmaid Elizabeth is physically beautiful despite being overworked and uneducated; she attempts to be fashionable in her dress and she reads cheap literature to gain some polish and sophistication; but in the long run she will merely spend her life in the pub’s gaslight, wiping up spills on the zinc table-tops and the bar, until she grows old and dies. It’s a harsh poem, very typical of Henley’s hard-bitten style. And now let’s examine the meter of these six lines:

.

Line 9: x / x / x / x / x / This is a normal iambic pentameter line.

Line 10: x / x / x / x / x / This is all iambic, but note that the second word (tired) must be elided into a single syllable.

Line 11: / x x / x / x / x / This line has a definite trochaic start.

Line 12: x / x / x / x / x / This is a normal iambic pentameter line.

Line 13: / x x / x / x / x / This line has a trochaic start, evidenced by Henley’s comma after the first word And.

Line 14: x / x / x / x / x / This is a normal iambic pentameter line.

.

Here again, out of six lines, fully half do not follow the rigidities of “perfect meter,” as if that silly phrase actually meant anything. And yet in any traditional and long-accepted understanding of English metrics, this is an iambic pentameter sonnet. Henley intended it as such, and it would have been so understood by Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Milton and dozens of other English poets. To deny it is sheer definitional lunacy.

Platonic idealism is fine in its own way, but in the delicate world of fine poetry we don’t need the kind of homespun, crackerbarrel Platonism that intones “Waal, let’s jest see what this here DIC-shun-erry says consarnin’ meter, and that’ll be enough fer us.” It’s silly, it’s Procrustean, it’s dyed-in-the-wool sophomoric, and it’s embarrassing in its amateurism, like a picture produced from a paint-by-the-numbers kit. And here’s a suggestion—if you like running to the dictionary to find abstract definitions of words, I invite you to look up the word philistine. That’s what these crackerbarrel Platonists are.

I’ve titled this essay The Perils of “Perfection” as an allusion to the old “Perils of Pauline” silent flicks from the pre-World War I period. Those silly one-reelers were melodramatic tear-jerkers about a helpless maiden being rescued from nefarious villains intent upon forcing a fate worse than death upon her, and how she was saved from these evildoers by some handsome young hero who arrived at the last moment to sweep her away to safety and preserved virginity.

Why have I made this recondite allusion? For a facetious but simple reason: the “perfect meter” partisans and their definitionist allies think of themselves as knights in shining armor who are champions of the intact maidenhead of pure meter. They have come forth to “save” the endangered girl from the wicked machinations of Salemi, and any other poet who dares to “violate” meter or “molest” it. When I am accused in these discussion threads of wanting to destroy meter, the sheer idiocy of the charge forces me to come up with the most preposterous allusion I can find.

.

.

Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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40 Responses

  1. Andrew Benson Brown

    I always enjoy your essays, good doctor. Though many poetasters out there are simply beyond help, I hope at least a few will read this and learn something.

    Reply
  2. Julian D. Woodruff

    Thanks, Joseph. You could call this piece a chapter in a bigger “poetics of poetry” essay. I hope you’ll go on to related topics from time to time: other meters and line lengths, how off accents can support meaning etc.

    Reply
  3. Mike Bryant

    An amazing essay… clearly the work of a poet who has dedicated untold hours to the pursuit of understanding and appreciation of our priceless cultural heritage. We’re fortunate to have you here.

    Reply
  4. Cynthia Erlandson

    I agree with this. Rigidity is not what real poetry is about. I was also hoping you would include something about the uses of enjambment — maybe in another essay?

    Reply
  5. Paul Freeman

    Maybe I appreciate (and use) rigidity in meter too much. That said ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’, ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day’ are three of my favourite sonnets, and they all appear to my ear to be in ‘perfect meter’.

    That said, I’ll be the first to admit I need to read more widely to extend my range. William Ernest Henley is new to me and I only came across Marilyn Hacker last year after a debate on this very issue of meter last year.

    Thanking you for a most enlightening read,
    Trochees into my verse, when fit, I’ll feed.

    Seriously, thank you for this essay, and may I endorse Cynthia’s request on the uses of enjambment.

    Reply
    • Paul Freeman

      Amazing!

      Reading the poems I mentioned above out loud is bringing out the trochees I was missing, especially in Composed on Westminster Bridge.

      Reply
      • Cynthia Erlandson

        Yes! Also, Ozymandius: “LOOK on my works, ye mighty, and despair. / NOthing beside remains: ROUND the decay…” — the trochees emphasize things that need to be emphasized.

      • Paul Freeman

        Thanks Cynthia. Again, with Ozymandias, it’s so glaringly obvious when you say, or hear, the poem aloud.

        I’ve bookmarked ‘Poetry Archive’, a site where famous actors and poets recite some of the more famous poems.

  6. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe –
    I don’t believe the larger issue in your essay has much to do with iambic pentameter; rather it reaches right in to the heart of so many poems and (gasp!) shrieks of meaning!
    As you well know, meaning is subtle, and not a newspaper headline.
    First last and always, a poem must mean something. Not say; mean. Words have power, to be used for good or ill. Sometimes they just lie there.
    This is the first thing I ever knew about poetry, and it is something you have nurtured in me for years.
    Bottom line: why bother to write a poem if it is only to be a tinker toy?
    Certainly fine poems can be written about bees, but your student’s poem was not at all about bees; rather it was, as you hint at in your illustration, about narcissism. Look at me, writing a poem ! I can rhyme folks with jokes ! Does it have anything to do with the core idea? How could it, when that core idea never existed in the first place ?
    In short, there is a secret to writing a good poem, and that is to have something to say. Those who do not are mere
    poetasters, and no amount of rationalization will ever change that. This is the first thing I ever knew about poetry. It is something you have nurtured in me for years.
    Fine poems can be written about bees, but your student’s poem was not at all about bees; rather it was about narcissim.
    I admire you for shouting into the winds of ignorance and pomposity. Hope others are listening. This is a man who knows.

    Reply
  7. James Sale

    I welcome and agree with Joseph Salemi’s position on meter. The idea of a perfect meter is absurd and contrary to the nature of poetic art as evinced by all the greatest practitioners – and as Dr Johnson would agree, experience always tops theory, howsoever seductive the theory appears to be.

    If we take two perfect iambic pentameter lines from Shakespeare, we see the force of this. Example one, from The Tempest:

    And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
    To still my beating mind.

    Here we have perfect iambic pentameter, which is mimetically perfect too: the meter, in other words, reflects the sense of the passage, which follows after the tumultuous emotion of Prospero’s cloud-capped towers soliloquy. As his emotions resolve themselves, so his heart beat returns to normal, and the ‘beating’ mind collects itself in the regularity of the meter.

    Now take example two:

    Never, never, never, never, never.

    Another perfect iambic pentameter line from King Lear. Oh! Hang on a minute – it’s not iambic, is it? Oh, dear – Shakespeare has it wrong: it’s a perfect trochaic line!!! The exact reverse of an iambic line: not non-stress/stress but stress/non-stress! But he hasn’t got it wrong: it is a perfect iambic line only it’s not ‘perfect’. Why it is right is because mimetically it follows the emotional sense of the preceding lines. King Lear has just realised that Cordelia is dead and that he will never see her again. In musical terms, we have a sudden shift from major to minor. The iambic beat is a rising meter, but the trochee is a falling one. Cordelia’s heart has stopped: beat – stop. Lear’s heart is about to do the same: beat – stop. How brilliant, then, the iambic switches to pure trochee in order to reflect that ‘dying fall’. Yet, for all the reversal it is still iambic, only not ‘perfect’ – indeed, its very imperfection makes it more perfect, just as, perhaps, certain blemishes on a face might make it more attractive.

    It is possible to write a perfect poem using what is meant by a perfectly regular meter. A great example would be Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening: the perfect meter of this poem is absolutely right for it, and this is indisputably a genius lyric. But note, it is a lyric and a short one at that. For any sustained work, perfect meter is, as Joe has observed, monotonous and a sign not only of technical inability, but of emotional constriction.

    And this leads on to a final point that Joe doesn’t make. For what is true of meter is also true of rhyme. The purists who hunger for perfect rhymes are in the same category as those hungering for perfect meters: the Muse despises them! As Longinus observed, ‘But passion requires a certain disorder of language’ and, further, ‘A mind always intent on correctness is apt to be dissipated in trifles; but in great affluence of thought, as in vast material wealth, there must needs be an occasional neglect of detail. … Is it not by risking nothing, by never aiming high, that a writer of low or middling powers keeps generally clear of faults and secure of blame? Whereas the loftier walks of literature are by their very loftiness perilous?’

    Here we can return to Robert Frost for example of both the meter and the rhyme going askew, yet only because the passion – and its mimesis – demands it does so. Take The Road Not Taken and its final line:

    And that has made all the difference.

    We have the brilliant disruption of the meter with the word ‘all’ and then an even more brilliant flourish with the off-rhyming of ‘difference’ with ‘hence: an unstressed sound, ‘-ence’, with a stressed one, ‘hence’. Very unsettling – but exactly right.

    As Keats said, we need ‘negative capability’ to be a poet: those who insist on this or that rule without regard to the very passions themselves that drive poetry, truly, understand nothing about it. We have to empty the ego and wait on the uncertainty (aka the Muse) if the lines are to flow and we are to achieve the laurel that Apollo grants to those who are his followers.

    Reply
    • Julian D. Woodruff

      Thank you, Mr. Sale, for this informative contribution to the discussion. 2 asides: 1) one remark about imperfect detail reminds me that some Englishman (Beecham?) referred to the “early” horn entry at the end of the exposition in the 1st movement of the “Eroica” as the wort on a great face (or words to that effect)–and never a more deliberate mistake!; 2) in Ada, Nabakov straightened out the Bard’s line, punning “ne vert, ne vert, ne vert, ne vert, ne vert”– though to what end I can’t remember.

      Reply
      • James Sale

        Sir Thomas Beecham. But as for Nabokov, alas, I am not well informed enough to comment! Though that does seem to straighten the line – not in a good way. Thanks Julian.

    • BDW

      as per B. S. Eliud Acrewe

      I would add to Mr. Sale’s comments on the line from Shakespeare’s “King Lear”: It was frequently Shakespeare’s practice to use trochaic meter for intensely charged moments, his musical ditties, his puzzles, charms and suchlike material.

      I think it is profitable to look upon the very nonShakespearean, iambic tetrameter lines from “Macbeth”:

      “Have I not reasons, beldams that you are,
      Saucy and overbold? How did you dare
      To trade and traffic with Macbeth
      In riddles and affairs of death;
      And I the mistress of your charms,
      The close contriver of all harms,
      Was never call’d to bear my part,
      Or show the glory of our art?
      And, which is worse, all you have done
      Hath been but for a wayward son,
      Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
      Loves for his own ends, not for you.
      But make amends now; get you gone,
      And at the pit of Acheron
      Meet me i’ the morning: thither he
      Will come to know his destiny:
      Your vessels and your spells provide,
      Your charms and every thing beside.
      I am for the air; this night I’ll spend
      Unto a dismal and a fateful end:
      Great business must be wrought ere noon:
      Upon the corner of the moon
      There hangs a vaporous drop, profound;
      I’ll catch it ere it come to ground:
      And that distilled by magic sleights
      Shall raise such artificial sprites
      As by the strength of their illusion,
      Shall draw him on to his confusion.
      He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
      His hopes ‘bove wisdom grace and fear.
      And you all know security
      Is mortal’s chiefest enemy.”

      Reply
  8. Brian Yapko

    Thank you, Dr. Salemi, for this brilliant and thought-provoking essay. I feel like I have just received a master class in how to write (and read!) timeless poetry. I will save this and re-read it — more than once.

    Reply
  9. Mark Stone

    Dr. Salemi, I recently wrote a poem that has very tight meter. I am in the process of revising it. Having read your article, I’m going to use somewhat looser meter. It’s actually liberating to know I have more flexibility than I thought. So your article comes at a good time for me. Thank you!

    Reply
  10. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you all for your kind comments. And I’m very glad if I have helped people in their appreciation of good formal poetry.

    Reply
  11. Andrew Benson Brown

    Regarding the opposite problem of unvarying meter, and also touching on James Sale’s comments on the passions driving versifying, who can forget that ‘classic’ model of poesy that devotes all to perfect rhyme:

    Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay
    Alas! I am very sorry to say
    That ninety lives have been taken away
    On the last sabbath day of 1879
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

    The world still awaits the essay that analyses at length the relation between the terms ‘McGonagall’ and ‘negative capability.’ Certainly a large-scale public tragedy evokes more empathy and uncertainty than any other subject? Which, if arguably true, means that William McGonagall is up for a long overdue (Popean) panegyric that places him on the very heights of Parnassus!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I’ve written an essay on McGonagall for the SCP. You can find it at:

      classicalpoets.org/2020/08/16/understanding-bad-poetry

      Reply
    • James Sale

      Er…. nice try Andrew, but I think not. One of the strange properties of being such a bad poet – McGonagall – is that it is almost impossible to parody, for what could a parody achieve? Nothing in excess of the bathos that is already present! But thanks for the blue-sky thinking on him.

      Reply
  12. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    The beauty and benefit of being on this remarkable site are educative and entertaining essays such as these – thank you very much, Dr. Salemi. It answers many questions and validates my train of thought when it comes to the creative process. I would also like to thank James Sale for his insightful and delightful observations, all of which serve to clarify this ongoing issue of meter and rhyme. In fact, of late, my main source of literary enlightenment are the comments sections on SCP. I’m filled with gratitude for every adept poet and commenter here.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Susan. Purism in this area is defeat; it’s important to know the rules and then – like a master – to break them when the context justifies it. The context here being the emotions that one wrestles with as a poet. But I think what one is being driven to say precedes even the choice of form, though one may well set out to write a sonnet, for example, and so thinks the form dictates what one is saying. In some sense, of course, it does, but the meaning paramount – given, too, that sometimes (often in fact) we find we discover the meaning rather than know it. This is, I think, most true with our very best lines. Thanks again.

      Reply
  13. David Bellemare Gosselin

    Good intervention. I fully agree.

    One can even argue that great classical art is actually a means of breaking “the rules.” Beethoven brokers the “rules” all the time. The question is how to do some in a way which is not arbitrary, and which actually points to a higher lawful development of an idea.

    There is the story of the players who tried to play Beethoven’s late quartets for the first time. After giving it a try they stopped and said “we don’t know how to play this.” Beethoven replied something along the lines of “don’t worry, this is for the future.”

    A good poet or artist knows how to break the rules. He is confident enough that he can do it in such a way that it always remains natural and beautiful. Nature and beauty should be the guide, rather than “rules.”

    The uncreative person, the Kantian needs rules, because they are not creative, they cannot actually think, so they rely on perfect mathematical formulas and checklists. The truly creative artist knows how to use the rules to create something truly original and nee, all the while never violating the laws of beauty or nature, only furthering them.

    One could argue the same applies for morality. There are those doctrinaire folks who get off on checking all the right boxes, making sure everyone else is following the rules, but there is no love there, there is no desire for improvement or betterment, it’s self-righteousness. These are the most uncreative and uninspired folks of all.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks David – you are right, and beyond morality, the principle applies spiritually, as in the words of Jesus: man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man. Hence healing (that is, poetry) is permitted on the Sabbath – indeed, is essential. It is a right ordering of perspective. Or to enlarge on the poetry itself, as Proust put it: “The tyranny of rhyme forces the poet to the discovery of his finest lines”. Here is where yin meets yang.

      Reply
  14. Margaret Coats

    Of course I appreciate your essay greatly, Joseph. Since I was mentioned by name in the discussion thread to which you refer, as someone engaged in destroying meter, I will assist you a bit here, in what is really a defense of meter and of English poetry. “Perfect meter” partisans who attack metrical variations intend to cancel our poetic heritage.

    Even “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” mentioned by James Sale as a rare example of entirely regular iambic pentameter, is not rigidly regular–because good poetry never is. Look at lines 2 and 8 as I read them:
    His HOUSE is in the VILLage, THOUGH . . .
    The DARKest EVEning of the YEAR.
    I have indicated quiet pyrrhic substitutions in these lines, but a “perfect meter” reader must thump loudly on IN and OF, even though the meaning and mood of the poem require the very lightest stress, if any at all. Note that there are no possible pyrrhic feet in the third stanza, where the little horse shakes his bells to liven things up. In the final stanza, there may be one in “PROmises to KEEP.” It’s appropriate that unfulfilled promises fade off softly.

    The reason “perfect meter” propagandists insist on strict ten-syllable lines is that they can apply equal stresses even where they don’t belong. This is impossible if a poet is so bold as to begin a 9-syllable iambic line with a single stressed word (headless iamb), or if he employs feminine endings and thus adds an eleventh syllable to iambic pentameter lines. And the ultimate reason for “perfect meter” silliness is to re-define any metered poetry with any variation as free verse. Thus, free verse is the mainstream of English poetry, rare metered poems are so rigid as to be unreadable, and poets attempting meter are wasting their time. Whom does this benefit?

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Excuse me, James Sale mentioned Frost’s poem as regular iambic. It is not pentameter.
      The absurd, novel ten-syllable “requirement” applies to poems written in iambic pentameter.

      Reply
      • James Sale

        Yes, Margaret, I think we are in agreement and I wouldn’t want to split hairs on this, and it would have been better if I had written ‘near perfect meter’, for Frost, as in the Road Not Taken, has a genius ear for the off-rhyme/meter as I observed in that latter poem. But if we return to your analysis, which is true, and take, say, the line you annotate thus:
        The DARKest EVEning of the YEAR.
        The thing is, we don’t have to thump it to hear the beat – the paradoxically ‘hidden’ beat – on the word ‘of’. Frost hides it in plain sight, but we catch it anyway, which is why I consider it to be perfect because it is ‘there’. And of course what Frost is doing is what I am claiming real poets do: sound is mimetic to the sense and enacts it, as you point out with ‘though the meaning and mood of the poem require the very lightest stress, if any at all’ – thanks.

  15. Joseph S. Salemi

    Yes, Frost generally believed in a looser kind of meter rather than a very strict one, though he was always very careful to keep to the natural and idiomatic flow of proper English. That’s one of his great strengths.

    Margaret, as I have mentioned in another thread, you are on to something very important. This insane attempt to reduce meter to a restricted syllable count and to an unvaried pattern looks very much like a free-verse false flag operation. If these people can straitjacket traditional meter, whether out of definitionism, or out of some alleged desire to clear the decks for the birth of new “symphonic” structures, then we are dealing with deliberate and conscious wreckers. They are either unhappy with traditional verse as it has always been composed, or they want to get it out of the way for something new. And like all Gramscian operations, it works by pretending to be what it is not. Also note that what it proposes is writing formal poetry by means of an algorithm (Kemper’s “controlled” rather than “random” variations), another sign of contemporary theorists and abstractionists.

    This “perfect meter” crusade only benefits the hegemony of free verse, which right now is where all the money and power and influence lie as part of a well-established academic racket. Traditional English verse is now being revived and reborn. This new attempt to redefine “perfect meter” is just an attempt to strangle the infant Herakles in the cradle.

    Reply
  16. James Sale

    Ha ha ha!!! – Herakles – great image/allusion! ‘Free verse’ was a vision ( of questionable sorts); it became a business; and now as you rightly point out, it is a racket. And if I may quote myself from StairWell, Canto 4 (yet to be released), it’s this:
    … We go and soon will see just why
    Every civilisation mankind’s made,
    No matter how glorious or how high,

    Descends from high vision to paltry trade,
    And last becomes a racket and a cheat
    Through which its own citizens dig their grave.’

    Reply
  17. Daniel Kemper

    Notes on the substance:

    “Meter in English has always been a template or a guideline.” Overly broad and mischaracterizes the strains of poets to put lines to meter; few if any have struggled over how to break it as they have with how to make it.

    First example poem shows “end-stopped lines” “without any …elisions”. Over 80% monosyllables could have been added. Such things are accented by issues of content: plain diction, places of awkwardly selected rhyme-driven diction. How is it then that perfect meter is then blamed for the poor quality? More issues could be listed: the meter is actually the only thing the poet got right, yet it is described as the chief (though not only) thing he got wrong. Perfect meter being the culprit is exactly what was rigorously disproven in “Metrical Variation: Part I, Freedom from Concession.” This example sustains that conclusion.

    “While schematically true,” the buried truth at last. “Schematically” need not be added.

    Definition of “woman” compared to definition of “IP.” Category error 1: Definition of woman used is qualitatively insufficient. “IP” is a quantitative statement. Category error 2: Definition of IP is used as definition of poetry. [sole basis for discussion on what woman/poetry means has never been asserted.] Category error 3: Mixes a practical, common use-case with a formal definition.

    A car with three fourths of its tires is still *called* a car. But what to think of the sales professional who declared it was in perfect condition?

    “Definitions are for mathematics and engineering.” Strict definitions of words are the only source of nuance and flavor in poetic content, e.g.: rouge vs. blush vs. scarlet vs. crimson vs. cherry vs. rust vs… red.

    Precision in the use of words *in* poems is no more or less important than precision in our use of words *about* poems. (These two skills, while seeming connected, are independent of one another. Commonly any given writer’s skill in one is far better than the other.)

    [How to become a competent poet], non sequitur, straw man. Refutes an assertion never made and in so doing attributes the assertion to the basic claims made of meter.

    [“Got that?” etc.] Argument by mere statement, passionate or not, is no proof. One must start with a poem agreed upon as good by those of contrary viewpoint to the subject being debated. Not agreed upon as good by oneself and those with whom one agrees. That is a separate debate to find an agreed-upon example.

    Capturing regional accents, etc. — every accent is a regional accent in the respect to this facet of poetry. Has it ever been established why one accent is immune to IP and not another?

    [three lines out of eight] Note: Quantifying meter might be done by lines or feet. By line is not appropriate because it would equate a poem in substituted IP that had seven total substituted feet with a poem written in half IP and half anapestic pentameter.

    The point of the second example seems to be that a metrically flawed poem still be a poignant expression? Who has claimed otherwise? The case for free-verse is made here, metrically flawed from the POV expressed here, yet potentially poignant.

    Arguments on the basis made here do not sufficiently define why a variation is made, e.g. why “here” in a given poem, but not “there” ? Thus far, these have all boiled down to a poet declaring, “Because I decided to.” The consequence of this argument is that there is no qualitative difference between free verse and formal verse, only difference in quantity of variations used. One is free to choose one’s actions, but not free to choose their consequences. But it is not so: Formal verse is qualitatively different, but to rest on the sorts of arguments presented here does not demonstrate that. They leave the gates wide open as it were.

    The two examples bookend bad poetry. The flaws of the first come from meter-driven content; the flaws of the second is content-driven meter.

    Regarding “traditional and long-accepted understanding of English metrics,” there continues to be substantial debate on the matter. Milton was accepted as having written Paradise Lost in IP for hundreds of years (and this seems to be widely taught even today) before Robert Bridges disproved that. Think about that. Hundreds of years.

    Reply
  18. Joseph S. Salemi

    The only thing that you’re “proving,” Daniel, is that you are obsessed with definitions, algorithms, theory, and mathematical constraints.

    You haven’t proved a damned thing in your “Metrical Variation: Part I.” Just because there can be good poems in “perfect meter” (whoever denied that?) doesn’t mean that such “perfect meter” has to be privileged over the normal practice of poets throughout the English tradition. Yes, we have “decided” to compose in the way we do — but you seem to be offended by that choice. Is that really any concern of yours?

    Furthermore, we don’t have to explain “why’ we have a certain variation in one place, and not in another. Don’t you understand the lockstep rigidity of your entire approach? Our way of writing does NOT lead to free verse, because we have internalized the basic template and guideline of our chosen meter, and that internalized guideline makes us produce recognizably metrical verse — recognizable, that is, to anyone well-read in the corpus of traditional English poetry

    You have already admitted that your motivations are personal, in that you “can’t stand contradiction,” and that you worry about the opinions of free-verse editors, and that you are upset that poetry “doesn’t have the same market share” that prose writing has. In the first place, your animus against contradiction should govern your own poetry solely, not that of others. Go ahead and write your “symphonic,” overly intricate, epic accounts of a date. But why preach to the rest of us that this is the way to go? It’s presumptuous and arrogant. In the second place, free-verse editors are hardly the people we need to worry about or concern ourselves with. (Bukowski’s editor doesn’t like sonnets? Tough titty for him). In the third place, when has good poetry ever had a big “market share”? Is art to be judged by the prices paid for it?

    In short, all three of your admitted motivations are extra-literary and extra-aesthetic: 1) personal pique, 2) concern for the opinion of outsiders, and 3) popularity and sales issues.

    You argue that a qualitative reality like a woman and a quantitative reality like iambic pentameter are not subject to the same kind of definition. You don’t understand that all definition, by its very nature, is quantitative, abstract, and schematic. That’s why dictionaries are not always useful in understanding the real world. You insist on thinking mathematically and schematically when some realities are simply not graspable in that manner alone. And such is the case with the real-world existential FACT of English meter. Theorists have always hated real-world FACTS.

    Henley’s sonnet “Barmaid” is “flawed” and “bad poetry”? Really? Stick with your day job, Daniel.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      If we look at the two styles of writing prose (as above) – Daniel Kemper’s and Joseph Salemi’s – we notice something immediately: one is actuarial, pedantic, laboured and boring; the other is combative (verging on aggressive), vivid, direct, colourful and persuasive. Which one of the two, therefore, is likely to be correct in understanding how meter works? Sadly, Daniel, I have to report that you are completely wrong on this matter and a cursory look at your own style of writing will tell you this. You need to stop writing prose like an accountant, and once that is corrected you may be in a position to do something about poetry. I am not trying to be impolite in saying this to you – but really – take a look at your own style.

      Reply
  19. Margaret Coats

    As Daniel Kemper has invited those of us following this thread to look at his essay, I offer an invitation to look at my review of Amanda Hall’s “Gift of Life.” Amanda has actually written an epic of 600 sonnets that she considers to be in “perfect meter.” I have given her an opportunity in the review to respond to my criticism of what she does in fact achieve: a perfect ten-syllable count.

    Due to technology problems, Amanda may not be following these discussions on the matter, and I am not sure whether she can easily make any contribution or comments.

    Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Here’s a direct quote from Amanda Hall:

        “I think any break in iambic pentameter is a flaw.”

        This doesn’t leave any room AT ALL for variations.

      • Margaret Coats

        Please take a look at what Amanda herself says within the review. She does not favor variations or intend to make any, because she considers variations to be metrical flaws.

  20. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I’ve watched this debate on meter with interest and listened intently to the views put forward, all of which I’ve learned from and I am grateful for.

    After much deliberation, there are a couple of things that strike me about this site. Firstly, its motto: ‘rhyming, rhythmic, and rapturous’. For me, this is exactly what poetry should be about. Secondly, the atmosphere on the site is that of a group of poets who are striving to do their best to maintain rhyme, rhythm, and rapture in an age where these fine qualities are trampled on. After all, The Society’s mission is “to preserve humankind’s artistic traditions”.

    Sadly, I’ve found the call for more rigidity in this area off-putting. If one has a foundational knowledge in meter and rhyme, isn’t half the fun of writing one’s own poetry the discovery of one’s own voice? It took me a fair few poems and a fair few years to find mine – including a spell of writing free verse. I’ve always used rules for guidance, not as an absolute, and that has been pivotal in finding my own voice.

    For me, rigid rules equal rhyme and rhythm but no rapture. Surely, this would be evident to the reader as well as the author of poetry produced under such stringent regulations. And, isn’t the proof of the pudding in the eating? Do excuse my no-no of a naughty cliché. I believe a poet should always write first and foremost with themselves in mind, and by that I mean with no fear of what the current in-crowd may think. For me, that element of fearless honesty is what drives literature forward – not a check list of dos and don’ts.

    I am sure most poets have their own method of writing. By all means create your own check list. I have one myself that I wouldn’t dream of foisting upon others. I don’t want to see poetry that follows my personal rules… I want other poets to blaze their personal trail and have me gasping in its wake. I want to be inspired, not coerced. I want to be surprised, not bored. I want to cut poetry from my own cloth with my own pattern, not be given a template that someone requires. To do that, I need to read poems, lots of them, all by bold poets who haven’t been constrained by the rigid rules. I am of the mind that over-analysis kills art – that’s why school kids hate Shakespeare. I gained far more from watching the art in action at The Old Vic and The Barbican than I did from my school teacher banging on endlessly about iambic pentameter…

    that could be why I often get my iambs in a twist. 😉

    Reply
    • Mike Bryant

      I love what you’re saying about over analysis. I know that you are especially right on that front. In business, as well as in every other type of human enterprise, there is a fatal disease known as analysis paralysis. As a bonus… it rhymes! I think that if Willie Nelson had carefully thought about the limitations of his voice, he would have never entered a recording studio. I am thrilled that you found your voice. I think you found it when you were eight years old. The rules really are only for fools.

      Reply
      • James Sale

        Mike, you are absolutely right (and I like the Willie Nelson parallel) and obviously you are hopelessly in love: it’s a very attractive quality, especially on a SCP website!!!

  21. Mike Bryant

    The benefit of this back and forth is that we are all thinking more about poetry in more depth. That can only help. I think that English, just like all other languages, has some built in limitations that prevent perfection. A language is musical, but not music. It would be preposterous to assign whole, half or quarter notes to every syllable of every word. If you listen to a book being read aloud, you can hear the musicality of language. I’m sure a mathematician could assign values of length and comparative loudness to every syllable, every word… but he wouldn’t be writing music… he’d be trying to make a computer sound more like a human. I’ve heard, on YouTube, people declaiming poetry… emphasizing the stresses in a dramatic and, in my opinion, ridiculous way. These performances may have been what has made great poetry less appreciated, at least in part. When great poetry is read in a natural voice with no effort to make the stresses clear it is beautiful. I think a discussion about reading classical poetry aloud might have a greater impact on its popularity than anything else.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Mike, you are absolutely right. When traditional poetry is read in a normal voice, without an absurd fixation on stress points or syllable counts, there’s never a problem. And this was the way that everyone read Shakespeare’s sonnets or Milton’s Paradise Lost, with clear idiomatic speech and regular iambic pentameter flow.

      The problem today is persons with a computerized, mathematical, and theorizing frame of mind, who can’t tolerate “irregularities” or ‘blips” or “glitches” or anything that deviates from geometric precision. They are the ones pushing this “perfect meter” paradigm.

      Reply

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