"Sonnets and Limericks" A Review of "Poetic Meter and Poetic Form" by Paul Fussell
Dog Eared and Missing Its Cover.
One of the most influential and useful books on the topic of writing poetry is a collection of essay's by Paul Fussell entitled "Poetic Meter and Poetic Form." I have kept this book by my bedstand for many years and have read it from front to back multiple times. The cover is missing and a little duct tape holds the binding together but the amount of knowledge in this small gift is immense. The year I was introduced to this book was the year I was introduced to Patricia Goedicke. I was eighteen years old and not one for good decision making. I knew I wanted to write poetry and be an actor. The acting part of the plan did not work to well since I was excommunicated from the theatre department due to excessive drinking, missing classes, and not really showing the responsibility necessary to be an active participant. I was unaware of the need to finish my core curriculum, maybe unaware is a strong word. I was actively ignoring this requirement and ended up taking two classes before the University dropped me like a hot potato. I took a graduate level Tolstoy class, that I loved, and a Traditional Prosody course taught by Patricia. I was also unaware that Patricia Goedicke was University of Missoula Montana's Poet in Residence and that I was in the presence of an award winning American Poet. Fussell's book of "Poetic Meter and Form" was one of the assigned texts for my Traditional Prosody class and I read the book and began my collection of dog ears. A lot of life has passed since and I have finished my education and now have a family. This little text that Patricia had assigned has stayed by my side.
"The poet...brings the whole soul of man into activity." Samuel Coleridge as quoted by Fussell in "Poetic Meter and Form"
Dog Eared and Missing its cover
"According to John Crowe Ransom, a poem is an organism like a person, and, like a coherent person, the poem approaches to merit and even to virtue when its head, its heart, and its feet are all cooperating economically." Quoted from "Poetic Meter and Poetic Form" by Paul Fussell.
Meter The term meter comes from the Greek term for "measure." There are four metrical systems. These systems are syllabic or strong stress, accentual-syllabic or syllable stress, and quantitative. Syllabic meter counts syllables without any concern with stress. It is important to know that even though syllabic may not contain stressed or unstressed syllables in a form, each spoken syllable can be used for it's four phonetic qualities. These qualities are pitch, loudness, length, and timbre. So when writing syllabic poetry the poet can pay attention to whether each syllable is loud or soft, with perfect pitch or dissonance, long or short, or with a certain quality. Accentual-syllabic counts the syllables and whether the syllables are stressed or unstressed. Ginsberg pointed out that stressed tend to take a long time to get out of the mouth and unstressed take a shorter time. Most conventional forms have a set placement of stressed and unstressed syllables. This set placement of stressed and unstressed syllables is called a foot. A foot would be an unstressed stressed in Iambic or a stressed stressed in a spondee. In the world of Iambic feet there are two ways in which an iambic foot is presented. An Iambic foot can be loose or strict. Strict Iambic feet tend to fall into a conventional form like a sonnet and loose tend to move away from a convention. Quantitative meter measures how long the accentual foot is or how short. It is similar to your regular stressed or unstressed syllables yet more attention is paid to the long sounds of the stressed. This type of poetry was used by the Greeks and Romans and by the Epic english poets around the time of Spenser. When you look at some of the conventional forms of the Greeks and Romans you see a lot of Trochee or Dactyl, feet that begin with either a stressed syllable or an unstressed syllable. On a similar note triple meters like Anapestic and Dactylic, both feet start with two unstressed syllables, make the verse sound joyous, or comical. This is why limericks that have Anapestic feet tend to be humorous even if they would not be very funny otherwise. This brings me to the theory of prosodic "tension." This theory states that conflict can arise between perfect and imperfect use of feet and tone in metrical patterns and that this conflict can peak the interest of the reader and add tension to your verse.
SCANSION To scan a poem one would mark all stressed syllables (/) and unstressed syllables (u) based on the length of the sound of the syllable. This can be done loosely to get a general idea of what the poet was trying to accomplish. Also a Ceasura (//), or a pause, can be marked within the poem. I am going to list some metrical feet that can occur in poems and you can use this information as a guide to determine the form of the poem the poet is writing in or to see if they had a planned event within their poem based purely on the use of stressed or unstressed syllables. Iambic and anapestic feet are called rising or ascending feet. Trochaic and dactylic feet are called falling or descending feet. Two syllable feet like Iambs or Trochees are called duple feet and Anapest and Dactyls are triple feet. Let us talk a little about ceasura, or pause. A ceasura at the beginning of the line is called initial ceasura. Ceasura in the middle is medial and at the end terminal. Ceasura can be used to produce two opposite effects. One, you can use the ceasura to enhance the formality of the form you are using. This works great when using Greek or Roman triple feet. Or you can use the pause to make the formality of the poem seem more conversational. This works great in Iambs that can sound a little too poetic at times.
"Most arts attain their effect by using a fixed element and a variable." Ezra Pound
NAME OF METRIC FEET Name of the Feet and Placement of Stress(/) or Unstress(u) Iambic u/ Anapest uu/ Trochee /u/ Dactyl /uu Spondee // Pyrrhic uu Amphibrach u/u Antipast u//u Bacchic u// Choriamb /uu/ Cretic /u/ Epitrite u/// Ionic a Majore //uu Ionic a Minore uu// Mollossus /// Tribrach uuu
TERMS TO DEFINE LINE LENGTH Number of Feet and Name of Line Length one foot - monometer two feet - dimeter three feet - trimeter four feet - tetrameter five feet - pentameter six feet - hexameter seven feet - heptameter eight feet - octameter
SOME FUN USES OF METER I am going to introduce some time tested results of using certain meter within your poem. For instance a long line of stressed syllables reinforces slowness and a long line of unstressed syllables brings on a certain rapidity. A sudden reversal of meter can intensify a moment of illumination in the poem. Let us look at this for a little bit longer. If you use a pyrrhic rhythm and you suddenly change to a spondee this can mark within your poem a change in ideas or a sudden shift in motion. The spondee is pretty miraculous and if a sudden spondee substitution is placed within the poem it helps to support the wonder of physical beauty as used by Pope in his poems. You can also lead the reader into a sudden bout of action by using spondee substitution. Where spondee is considered a slow substitution, pyrrhic is considered fast. A pyrrhic substitution can produce a quick stepped dance effect. Trochaic substitution is commonly used within the line and not at the beginning or end and can produce a feeling of horror in the reader as done by Milton in "Paradise Lost." Trochaic substitution not only can produce feelings of horror, but can cause extreme surprise, or even a feeling of violence.
"We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick." A quote by Robert Frost.