Print Print | |

Categorized | Reviews

Sapphics for Students 

All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification by Timothy Steele. Swallow Press, Ohio University Press, 1999. 366 Pages ($34.95 cloth, $16.95 paper).

As Reviewed By: Jan Schreiber

It was recently thought that poets of our time writing in rhyme and meter were a weak and scattered lot of lost souls, a pathetic derriere garde sadly out of touch with, or incapable of assimilating, the prevailing trends in free verse and experimental “forms” that eschew metrical composition. But the picture at the end of the iconoclastic twentieth century was more complicated, as the older academics who venerated T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams and dared to admire the Beats were gradually succeeded by a generation at least partly schooled in the very traditions those erstwhile rebels challenged. As practitioners, the members of this generation have been writing verse that, at its best, lays a natural and colloquial diction across a regular but often subtly varied iambic frame. No revolution, it seems, is quite as complete as its makers or its converts believe.

Now comes Timothy Steele with a large and thoughtful treatise on meter and a few related matters like rhyme and stanzaic structure. From our historical vantage point this book may be seen as a summing up of what is known about the art of versification over the centuries since Chaucer. That its examples are drawn not just from the established classics but also from contemporary poems testifies to the continued vitality of the tradition and the impressive skill of such figures as Wilbur, Gunn, Kennedy, and Larkin, who have written flexible, nuanced metrical verse, often in a climate of ignorance and disdain.[private]

Steele’s book in not intended as an instruction manual for aspiring poets, and indeed it is questionable whether any one book could serve that purpose. Those who wish to write formal verse need examples more than precepts, and they will get them by reading, preferably aloud, the writers whose work moves them. If they are lucky, they will also hear these writers read their own work, either live or on recordings. Rather, this book is, in the author’s words, “designed first and foremost for younger readers, especially students who may for the first time be examining the corpus of verse in English.” It is, in other words, a book intended for English classes and for those who would read poems intelligently, but not necessarily write them.

So if the discussion sometimes belabors the obvious, in the view of sophisticated readers and writers, they should not carp overmuch; this work was not intended for them. They are entitled to examine its accuracy, but with this caveat: Steele’s observations and conclusions are primarily descriptive, not prescriptive. And he is describing a variable phenomenon with a large subjective component. A verse line is variable because it is pronounced in different ways by different speakers, and even by the same speaker at different times. Most lines of verse are pronounced only mentally (if at all) by most readers most of the time, and these mental readings cannot be repeated, let alone analyzed reliably and objectively. If they are spoken aloud, the speaker may pronounce them differently when self-consciously conforming to a meter.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

Are the fifth and sixth syllables in this line pronounced equally lightly? Do the next two receive equal stress? If so, shall we call them a pyrrhic spondee (two shorts, two longs in classical prosody) and agree that English verse admits pyrrhics and spondees as substitutes for iambic feet? If not, how do the syllables differ? These questions become surprisingly emotional, especially among metrists who revere classical measures and seek to place English verse practice on a solid classical foundation.

Or take another question: given that trochaic substitutions are common in English iambic verse, is it ever legitimate to allow two such substitutions in successive feet? Steele is permissive on this point, saying (p. 74), “In theory a poet may substitute one type of foot for another at any point in the line, such substitutions being permissible as long as they are not so frequent that they undermine the line’s metrical integrity.” But it depends on the theory. Summing up the practice of some four centuries of English verse, W. H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson adduce a rule “that two successive accents cannot be suppressed or displaced without destroying the underlying pattern” (Introduction to Poets of the English Language, vol. I). Lest you be too quickly persuaded, however, remember Donne’s line, quoted by Steele:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?

and consider Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mountain,” which yields the title for Steele’s book and which Steele uses as an epigraph:

“Warm in December, cold in June, you say?”

“I don’t suppose the water’s changed at all.
You and I know enough to know it’s warm
Compared with cold, and cold compared with warm.
But all the fun’s in how you say a thing.”

The third line quoted contains two successive trochaic substitutions, yet the underlying iambic pattern remains secure.

Indeed, one of the rewarding and confidence-building features of Steele’s book is that it is not tendentious or dogmatic. It pays a great deal of attention to fundamental verse patterns and the variations that may be rung on them, but it is not theory-driven. Faced with a prosodic theory, such as Saintsbury’s notion that elision is merely an orthographic covering that makes three syllables (because they “ought to” fit the meter) look like two or two look like one, without affecting actual pronunciation, Steele resorts to empirical observation and common sense: “So far as I can judge from reading the poets of the past, and from talking with poets of the present, no one urges that three syllables ought to be two. The point is that in some cases, three syllables are two, or somewhere between two and three.” (One of the satisfactions of refuting a cantankerous dead critic is that he can’t rise up and have at you again.)

Here and there Steele ventures into the treacherous territory at the border between sound and sense. It is tempting to impute nuances of meaning to rhythmic patterns or variations. Most of us have an intuitive conviction that some of a poem’s sense, and much of its emotional force, is a product of its sound. Yet attempts to demonstrate the connection in particular poems often have the appearance of an argument after the fact—as if the poet had carefully chosen just this enjambment or this feminine rhyme to produce a calculated effect, whereas as practicing writers we know it doesn’t usually work that way. Citing Browning’s lines in “My Last Duchess”:

The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her…

Steele comments that the enjambment “serves as a rhythmical analogue to the activity of the branch snapper.” But it’s hard to see the snapping of a branch in the run-over line

Similarly, I doubt that Shakespeare, in writing Philo’s speech in Antony and Cleopatra:

Nay, but this dotage of our general’s
O’erflows the measure…

took care that, in Steele’s words, “Just as Antony’s affection is excessive, so the line that expresses this fact spills over its metrical bound.” Steele himself soon draws back from these inferences. The view that form is or should be a reflection of content is, he says, “far from my sense of poetry.” Yet, he adds, “In giving their works distinctive texture, poets can and do vitally connect sense with rhythm.” With that weaker statement few would disagree.

In general it is desirable not to give future writers or scholars a false sense of the act of composition. Writing a poem is not like following a multilayered set of plans and instructions, using a calculator, a dictionary, and any number of reference works to bring manifold wit and verbal polyphony under the dominance of an all-controlling mind. It is hearing words in a rhythmic pattern, words that follow concisely a path through a meditative course one charts, sometimes in advance, sometimes as one goes along. Those of us who come upon a great achievement and attempt to dissect it should remember that not all its ingenuities were planned or even conscious.

Many years ago Sir Donald Francis Tovey analyzed a complex symphonic movement of Brahms involving such intricate musical techniques as double counterpoint at the twelfth. Having winningly displayed the analyst’s erudition, Tovey conceded that Brahms in all probability did not figure all this out, but profited by the luck that goes with genius. That does not mean the artist is an idiot savant, but that he has learned his craft well enough so that certain felicities happen while he is, as Faulkner’s Benjy put it, “trying to say.”

Lest writing in the iambic frame seem easy once you get the hang of it, one might point out evidence that it is hard—at least hard to do while remaining idiomatic. Steele cites a passage from Vikram Seth’s “Prandial Plaint” which is a catalogue of the lover’s charms ending with the lines:

I am your slave. One word and I obey.
But please don’t slurp your coffee in that way.

Steele tactfully does not point out, as I would, that the “in” following “coffee” in the last line is there for the sake of the meter. It is not wrong but it is too formal; it robs the line of its naturalness and the poem of its force. Of all the lines in a humorous poem, the punch line most certainly has to be plausible speech. If you can’t do it with coffee, do it with chocolate milk.

Practitioners will all have pet notions of rhythmic effectiveness, and each will wish Steele had championed his favorites or condemned his bêtes noirs. I might wish Steele had spent more time discussing the play of long sentences over short (dimeter and trimeter) lines, or had noted how feminine endings fit especially well with either a trochaic substitution or a headless iamb in the following line. Others might wish he had picked up on the observation, first made by Richard Moore, that much iambic pentameter verse carries within it the ghost of the older Germanic four-beat line, resulting in one weak foot, or sometimes two, per line. But on balance the author is judicious and evenhanded, threading his way through sometimes arcane debates (e.g. on the scansion of trisyllabic meters) with a diplomat’s dexterity and a scholar’s precision.

If I have any serious criticism of the book, it concerns its organization. It is divided into two parts: one on iambic verse, and one on everything else (rhyme, stanzaic structure, alternate meters, and alternate verse forms such as accentual, syllabic, “free,” and imitation-classical). Part two is thus something of a miscellany, although many individual passages are interesting. Part one is more systematic, even to the point of weariness, as when we are given examples of trochaic substitutions in:

a) the first foot

b) the second foot

c) the third foot

d) the fourth foot and

e) the fifth foot

of a pentameter line. I would not ask for anything as dry as a catalogue or as schematic as a theory. Admittedly the issues are complex and the tradition is rich, but I suspect students would appreciate a few more signposts indicating where we are in a discussion and where we are going with the proliferating quotations.

The chapter on elision, a practice far less evident today than in the past, is interesting and impressive in its historic sweep. I only wish the numerous examples, not all from well known poets, carried with them an indication of the date of publication. When did Mary Leopor write? Does everyone remember that Cyril Tourneur was Shakespeare’s contemporary? Or Alice Meynell Henry James’s? Because the use of elision is powerfully affected by the spoken language of the day, we want a reference point when evaluating a writer’s verse. Was he or she reflecting prevailing practice or being self-consciously archaic?

What we can conclude from Steele’s survey is that poets of earlier times took more care than we do to guide the pronunciation of their verse, perhaps because pronunciation among educated readers varied more widely before radio and dictionaries than it does today. From the twentieth century on, when phonetic ambiguities arose, poets tended to assume the reader would resolve them “correctly” without typographic guidance. Stevens did not write, “Coffee and or’nges in a sunny chair.” Nor do many modern poets who write in regular meters use indentation to show that some lines have fewer feet than others, though most still separate stanzas with line spaces. I think in general today we want to avoid appearing fussy or forewarning the reader that he’s about to encounter a highly structured artifact. Form may have lost some of its horrors for readers, but it’s not yet universally welcome. Writers may prefer to allow it to sneak up on the unwary. (On the other hand, many are the free verse poems that are arranged on the page in imitation of a structure, though it is a structure wholly unhearable. These poems remind me of the plaster bananas and apples in the bowl in Grandma’s house: they look good but you can’t eat them.)

Steele’s discussions of rhyme and of non-iambic meters are helpful and stimulating. It is interesting to notice when rhyme becomes useful as a pointing device: as soon as a clear, standardized line (defined strictly on metrical principles) cannot be heard in Latin quantitative verse or when alliteration loses its hold on the bifurcated Germanic line. Thus the Goliard poets, who spoke their Latin with stresses and presumably far less attention to quantity, discovered the utility of declensional endings as a riming technique. In our time we have complex views of rhyme. Relatively few poets use it unabashedly and constantly; some avoid it altogether, some contrive such clever disguises for it that it can scarcely be found, and many skip from one strategy to another, sometimes avoiding rhyme, sometimes using slant rhyme (which Steele discusses briefly but perceptively), and occasionally embracing it with enthusiasm.

Discussions of non-iambic meters inevitably start with recognition that iambic meter particularly well suits the genius of spoken English. With that understood, we can look at what is gained, or at least altered, by casting a poem in trochees or in dactyls. The difficulty is that such poems are inevitably more than a little self-conscious. They have to be, for the meter draws attention to itself, and the writer must have a reason for this flagrancy. Sometimes the reason is simply to show that it can be done; sometimes it is to create a distinctive mood or feeling (Longfellow in Hiawatha), whether genuine or not the reader must decide. At any rate, these meters have a tendency to resolve themselves into more familiar ones. The trochaic line must be very insistent if it is not to be heard as a headless iambic. The dactylic line needs to shed an unstressed syllable now and then to give the reader a rest, but as soon as it does so it becomes a trochee, and two or more together are likely to be heard as iambic. These meters lie off the mainstream of English verse, but Steele gives them their due and offers examples that honor the effects deft poets can achieve with them.

With so much to praise here, is it uncharitable of me to question what is missing? Implicitly this book is a guide for students seeking out poets who write effectively in form. And the preponderance of examples from contemporary writers are drawn from a narrow range. I mentioned Wilbur, Gunn, Kennedy, and Larkin. To them one should add Davis, Winters, Cunningham, Daryush, and a handful of others. (Many of these are writers championed by Yvor Winters.) But there are no examples from Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, Derek Wolcott, or Robert Pinsky (to name just the notables), all of whom have written formal meters with skill and dexterity. If some of them have written a “looser” iambic line, that fact is also noteworthy and, I think, merits attention and discussion in a book designed to familiarize the young with verse practice. At any rate, these suggestions might be considered when the second edition of this book is prepared—an edition I am confident both readers and publisher will in due course urge upon the author.

Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared in Expansive Poetry & Music. In addition, Timothy Steele will be given the Robert Fitzgerald Award, for his contributions to the study of metrics, at the West Chester Poetry Conference, June 9-12, 2004. [/private]

This post was written by:

- who has written 21 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Jan Schreiber is a poet and critic. His books include Digressions, Wily Apparitions, and Bell Buoys, as well as two books of translations: A Stroke upon the Sea and Sketch of a Serpent. His poems and reviews have appeared in the Hudson Review, the Southern Review, Agenda, the Formalist, and many other publications, as well as on-line journals and anthologies. A song cycle, Zeno’s Arrow, based on seven of his poems, was composed by Paul Alan Levi and premiered in 2001.

Contact the author

Leave a Reply