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-   -   When there is metrical ambiguity... (http://www.ablemuse.com/erato/showthread.php?t=5397)

Carol Taylor 09-30-2001 03:20 PM

When there is metrical ambiguity--that is, when a line can be read in either of two ways--how shall we decide which way is "right"?

If the poet himself has gone on record as to how he means the line to be read, must we take his word for it? Or may we just assume he didn't know any better and re-write his line for him according to our own preference?

If the poet hasn't gone on record but has followed a recognizable pattern, must we assume that he meant the questionable line to continue the same pattern? Or may we assume that he deviated from the pattern simply because we ourselves might have done so had we written the line? Are we expected to take substitutions in stide, or may we disregard them because we don't like their placement--for instance, an initial monosyllable that might normally be swallowed up in an iamb or anapest, but which needs to be read as a headless iamb to keep the beat?

If there is no firmly established pattern, or if a line breaks radically from the established pattern, at what point can we assume the poet made a mistake? How much credibility does he have to accumulate as a poet before we decide he can't have made a mistake and that the poem must therefore be better than it seems?

Carol



nyctom 09-30-2001 04:42 PM

How much credibility does he have to accumulate as a poet before we decide he can't have made a mistake and that the poem must therefore be better than it seems?

Carol I am not even going to touch the rest of your questions, though I am very much looking forward to reading the answers. But this question posted above particularly bothered me.

When I went to see the Vermeer exhibit at the Met, I went with a friend of mine who is a painter. We were looking at V's painting of Christ and Mary and Martha and he said to me, "The hands are terrible. They look like big chubby formless masses." I completely agreed. Someone also looking at the painting heard me agreeing and said, "But it's a Vermeer!" as if that made up for the fact the hands were badly painted (well, I love Vermeer, so I guess to some extent it does. LOL. Still, those later paintings show how he started off not in control of his technique).

At the same exhibit, all of these wonderful paintings of church interiors with the most unbelievably perfect perspective were completely ignored, while you could barely get a gander at the V's.

It's this designer label mentality that I find disturbing Carol. Why should there be two standards for judging a poem based on the reputation (or lack thereof) of a poet? The poem, I think, should outweigh the poet.

I may be missing your point, but it did bother me. Though, as I said, I look forward to others answering your questions. I think they are important to ask.



[This message has been edited by nyctom (edited October 01, 2001).]

Solan 10-01-2001 12:18 AM

Before the written word there was the spoken. I am moving more and more towards the view that poetry only comes to itself when spoken.

A written poem is really just the poet's attempt to capture his own spoken words in text. I think that should be a minimum allowance when reading a poem. So in cases of doubt, give the poet the benefit. Otherwise you'd have clashes between US and British poets since not all words get the same syllable count in the two dialects. And it is a ludicrous demand that a poet should only use those words that have the same number of syllables in all dialects.

As for stress, we should again refer back to how the poet herself would have spoken the sentence in normal prosy speech. If that fits, we don't need to excuse promotions. The spoken takes precedence over the written. If it does not fit in with the poet's normal speech, we are in more difficult territory with promotions and demotions. I am not fit to speak on those matters.

------------------

Svein Olav

.. another life

Caleb Murdock 10-02-2001 03:31 AM

I am guessing that my debate with Robert Mezey in the other thread prompted Carol to post this.

It wasn't too long ago that I posted a poem by Frost to prove one of my points, and then was shocked when people started questioning the Frost poem. Question Frost? Never!

Tom makes a good point that artists move through stages in their careers, and that an artist's technique does not spring forth fully developed -- thus, an artist's early work is fair game for criticism.

However, there is another way to approach this entire issue. Instead of questioning, "Should we ... ?", perhaps we should just accept the reality of the situation. In other words, different people pronounce lines in different ways, that's just a fact. What good does it do to say that a person "should" say a line in this or that way? Of course, we can always debate how the author intended it to be said (or said it himself), but even then, that doesn't mean that every reader will, or should, say it the same way.

I think I mentioned this before, but I'll say it again:

Judson Jerome, whom I loved, gave a long explanation as to why the reader must pronounce the last line of Hopkins' "Pied Beauty" as "praise HIM". The only problem was, I pronounced it as "PRAISE him", and still do! Even Jerome, whom I admired so much, can't make me change the way I want to say that line. And that's a good thing. Why should I not read my own interpretation into it, as long as my interpretation is not totally far-fetched? That I can bring something of myself into a poem makes it all the more special.


nyctom 10-02-2001 06:06 AM

Caleb:

I am reading Jerome right now for the first time and while I greatly appreciate the clarity of his explanations, I often DON'T hear lines the way Jerome does. So in a sense, it is Carol's original question in another context. LOL. It's like one of those Russian dolls.

Lilith 10-02-2001 02:28 PM

All this makes me wonder -- is it safe to assume that mastery of the poetic craft works mathematically, that if one were to make a graph of sorts plotting years spent writing poetry against quality of poems written there would be a direct relationship? (Forgive me if I'm unclear or incorrect about the math terminology -- perhaps our resident math whiz can help me out if I'm off track?) In other words, will the later poems in a poet's career always be consistently better than the earlier ones? This seems to be the underlying assumption for claims that a poet's early poems are "fair game for criticism." (Or are we simply assuming that a more experienced poet will be better able to discard the weaker poems she writes and only let the stronger ones out into the world?)

Wasn't it Robert Lowell who said something to the effect that as a young poet he worried a great deal about the fact that editors wouldn't publish anything he wrote, but once he'd made a name for himself the editors would publish *everyhing* he wrote... and this worried him even more?

If we're going to assert that an established poet has earned some sort of license to make apparent mistakes that others of us do not have (or that his "mistakes" aren't really mistakes), then it seems to me that we quickly get into all sorts of problems. When it comes to assessing the success or failure of a poem, I'd much rather take the poem on its own terms rather than worry about the poet's credibility. If the poem is strong enough, it should work as a poem without having to rely on its author's reputation. I think this is as true of metrical substitution as it is of anything else.

Lilith


robert mezey 10-02-2001 04:06 PM

Lilith is absolutely right about stages in a poet's
career being irrelevant. In fact, it's often the
other way round: the early work is fresh and good, the
late repetitive and lazy. Wordsworth's a good example.
I can think of a dozen or so celebrated contemporary
poets whose good poems were written 30 or 40 years ago
and who haven't done much (or anything) since. One
of the many admirable things about Larkin was that when
the Muse stopped calling and he wasn't able to write
at the height of his powers, he stopped writing.
As for the main question, of course there are lines---
some---that can be read in more than one way. But not
any way. There might be two, possibly even
three plausible readings of a line; but all the rest
are simply wrong. And there will always be a few lines,
even by a great master, that don't seem to work or at
least must remain ambiguous. But most of the time,
there is no problem. As my late friend Hank Coulette
said, "Meter is the basis of intimacy between reader
and writer," meaning, among other things, that a good
reader of verse will almost always know how a line
should sound, will recognize the tune and be alert to
the various little dips and twirls. For example, in
Caleb's example, I agree that Jerome is wrong if he
says, unequivocably, Praise HIM. But if he means that
an iamb is somewhat closer to the sound than a trochee
would be, then he's right. I don't think you can read
PRAISE Him---Hopkins makes Him a rhyme word and
that accentuates the stress, so to speak. Of course
Caleb can go on reading the line as a simple trochee if
it pleases him---no harm done; but he's misreading the
line. Still, that's not a particularly ambiguous example.
Take this passage which ends Frost's gorgeous and little known poem, "Maple"---

BANNED POSTBANNED POSTThus had a name with meaning, given in death,
BANNED POSTBANNED POSTMade a girl's marriage and ruled in her life.
BANNED POSTBANNED POSTNo matter that the meaning was not clear.
BANNED POSTBANNED POSTA name with meaning could bring up a child.
BANNED POSTBANNED POSTTaking the child out of the parents' hands.
BANNED POSTBANNED POSTBetter a meaningless name, I should say,
BANNED POSTBANNED POSTAs leaving more to nature and happy chance.
BANNED POSTBANNED POSTName children some names and see what you do.

If you've read enough Frost, that second line is not a
problem. He has made the substitution of two anapests
for three iambs enough of a convention in his verse that
we've grown used to it and even like it. The last line
is very odd but perfectly metrical and not a problem:
the rare ionic major (S S o o) followed by three
trochees. But what about that antepenultimate line,
"Better a meaningless name, I should say"---? You could
read as another of those lines ending with two anapests,
and I couldn't deny that possibility. But the line
sounds better, much better, if you read the third and
fourth feet as a peculiar ionic---peculiar because the
two accented syllables, name, I are not only
separated by a caesura but the I gets a little
more stress than name---the rhetorical stress,
differentiating what he says from what others may say.
Something like S o o S o o s / S o S---although
like any notation that's too crude to be altogether
accurate.



[This message has been edited by robert mezey (edited October 02, 2001).]

Carol Taylor 10-02-2001 05:47 PM

Bob, I read the Frost passage as alternating pentameter and tetrameter lines. If he left instructions for me to read it any other way, I will try.

Carol

RCL 10-02-2001 06:52 PM

Ditto.

------------------
Ralph

Caleb Murdock 10-02-2001 07:18 PM

I'll be savoring this special moment for a long time. http://www.ablemuse.com/erato/ubbhtml/smile.gif


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