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Old 10-02-2001, 04:06 PM
robert mezey robert mezey is offline
Master of Memory
Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Claremont CA USA
Posts: 573

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

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