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Old 03-19-2009, 04:42 AM
Gregory Dowling Gregory Dowling is offline
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Default Successful syllabics?

As Alicia suggested, I'm opening a Mastery thread on the subject. And I'm taking up her proposal of Plath's poem, "Mushrooms", as a successful example of a syllabics poem. Here's what Alicia wrote over on GT:
Quote:
This is a subject I am very interested in--and I do wish I saw more successful syllabic poems, as I think it a very fruitful exercise. Purely free verse poets aren't very interested in it on the whole, and there is some snobbery against it in formal circles. Sylvia Plath's "Mushrooms" in five syllables is a successful one--it occasional slips into a dimeter swing, but resists that impulse often enough to be truly syllabic.
I confess to the fact that I find it difficult to read this aloud without imposing a "dimeter swing" (although some lines resist my imposition, as Alicia points out), but that presumably is due to my lack of familiarity with the way syllabics work. If anyone can teach me how to break myself of this habit, I'd be grateful.

Anyway, I now declare the Syllabics Mastery Thread officially opened and look forward to seeing more examples and comments.

Mushrooms

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

(Sylvia Plath)
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  #2  
Old 03-19-2009, 09:44 AM
E. Shaun Russell E. Shaun Russell is offline
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See, I too read that as largely dactyllic dimeter with a few substitutions. There is a consistent rhythm to it.

O vernight VER y
WHITE ly dis CREET ly
VER y QUI etly

That stanza sounds like two lines of dactylic dimeter, then iambic dimeter with a dactylic substitution at the end.

OurTOES our NOSE s
Take HOLD on the LOAM
A QUI re the AIR

Trochaic dimeter followed by two lines of dactylic dimeter with an initial iambic substitution.

Line-by-line prosody aside, each stanza has six feet, making the entire poem feel distinctly hexametric.

In other words, there's more here than syllables -- there is a clear meter to it. It's not trying to defy rhythm, nor is the rhythm overly subtle.
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Old 03-19-2009, 12:06 PM
A. E. Stallings A. E. Stallings is offline
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I do think it is wrong to talk about "feet" here. Sure, you can scan individual lines, and much of this can be read having a dimeter swing to it--perhaps that is arguably even a failing here, a sign Plath hasn't totally broken into syllabics; though again, to talk of subsitutions doesn't make sense--it is importing another system. We are very used to doing that (hearing the beats), and it can override thinking of this in another way. But I think you have to go back, read slowly, and feel the syllables rather than worry about beats (beats also exist of course, even as syllable counts exist in accentual meter), feel how she is using the syllable count in each line.

Feel the expansion of:

The small grains make room.

Five monosyllables and five BIG monosyllables, with lots of consonants and long-ish vowels.

Or the shouldering through of this:

Shoulder through holes. We

with its shouldering through enjambment.

Very different to the use of syllable real-estate here:

We are edible,

"edible" being one of the longest words in use here and so itself called attention to, even as it devours the last three syllables in the line.

And again the emphatic monosyllables prying into the door:

Our foot's in the door.

In an accentual syllabic poem, the "in the" isn't very emphatic, it is likely to get swallowed up as unaccented syllables. But here, those syllables ARE emphatic (by which I don't mean accented, I mean emphasized) because they make up 2/5 of the line.
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Old 03-19-2009, 12:12 PM
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Wintaka Wintaka is offline
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Default Show me the money!

Why can't we accept syllabics as a perfectly valid meter in other languages that has never caught on in English? Where is the "snobbery" in pointing out the obvious?

-o-
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Old 03-19-2009, 12:19 PM
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Maryann Corbett Maryann Corbett is offline
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Can someone point me to a really good introductory essay (or even book) on writing syllabics in English? Seriously, I'm not sure I understand what the goal is except that the lines should have the same number of syllables. Some of us admire lines in syllablic poems that have an even rhythm; others are saying that the evenness is arguably a failing. How could I not be confused?

I'd also like to know more about how people decide whether a given poem is (a) free verse, (b) a metrical poem that's flawed, (c) something in the class people are currently calling "semi-formal," or (d) syllabics. What gives you the clue that you should count syllables rather than perceiving one of the first three types?
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Old 03-19-2009, 12:46 PM
A. E. Stallings A. E. Stallings is offline
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"Snobbery" is a provocative word, admittedly! But of course, journals like The Formalist used to refuse to look at syllabics, and one often hears the idea that they are pointless because "you cannot hear them". One way, of course, to make them rather easy to hear is to rhyme them, as Wibur does. My point though is that they produce interesting results--are another limitation against which to work to see what new sounds and rhythms result. Just because it hasn't caught on much in English (which I totally agree with), doesn't mean it isn't something to try, or that it isn't a valid experiment.

Sometimes very curious line breaks (such as ending on "the") lead me to check out syllable count. I don't know--I think you get a feel for it after a while. A hunch. You can tell the poet is playing against something, and that it probably isn't traditional meter.

Here's another Plath syllabic poem. I'll leave folks to work out the pattern:

Frog Autumn

Summer grows old, cold-blooded mother.
The insects are scant, skinny.
In these palustral homes we only
Croak and wither.

Mornings dissipate in somnolence.
The sun brightens tardily
Among the pithless reeds. Flies fail us.
The fen sickens.

Frost drops even the spider. Clearly
The genius of plenitude
Houses himself elsewhere. Our folk thin
Lamentably.


(By the way, I might add, I do find that syllabics work particularly well for "organic" things, the natural world, etc. Though I should also add that I do not have a theory as to why.)

PPS: the "goal" is surely just to get a good, interesting poem, and on the technical side to feel the tension of word/syntax against syllable count. Which in syllabics might also amount to letting in prosy rhythms that would have trouble slotting into more metrical templates.

Last edited by A. E. Stallings; 03-19-2009 at 12:59 PM.
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Old 03-19-2009, 03:25 PM
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Wintaka Wintaka is offline
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Default If only all of our failed experiments worked out this well!

Alicia:


Quote:
Just because it hasn't caught on much in English (which I totally agree with), doesn't mean it isn't something to try, or that it isn't a valid experiment.
It was a valid experiment in the centuries following 1066, as English poets mimicked French examples. On its own, English syllabic poetry failed the test of time long before Shakespeare was born. Do we believe its desuetude since has been mere oversight? Fashion, perhaps? Was the original experiment flawed? Were two and a half centuries not long enough as an experiment?

Unaccented languages have developed entire prosodies around syllabics. In our accented language with its fungible syllables, what would our syllabic prosody be? Will it take the same number of centuries or eons of dominance to define? Would its successes come because of, in spite of or irrespective of the meter? How would we judge what, to an audience, may sound like free verse minus the polyrhythmic riffs and interesting variations in line lengths? Speaking of audience and bearing in mind the difficulty in selling even accentual-syllabic poetry nowadays, where will we find people interested in a format that people rejected for 6+ centuries before the 20th? In short, how will we test market something when we have neither a test nor a market?

I'm all for experimentation but wouldn't it seem more productive to try out approaches that haven't failed to hold an anglophone audience in the past?

I hate to sound so negative so I'll end on this bright note: the post-1066 experiment did lead to the accentual-syllabic hybrid that eclipsed accentual meter in English poetry. It brought us Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, the Brownings, et al. And, of course, you. For this I think we can all extend a heartfelt "Merci!"

-o-
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Old 03-19-2009, 04:09 PM
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Janice D. Soderling Janice D. Soderling is offline
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Quote:
where will we find people interested in a format that people rejected for 6+ centuries before the 20th?
You can find one here, I am waving my hand like mad.

Maryann, a quick plundering of my bookshelves yields the following and I am sure you have some of these on your shelves. None are totally devoted to the subject, but have sections you can weigh against each other.

Being a know-nothing, I am hanging on every word that Alicia says, but one thing I am good at is being a looker-upper.

Prosody Handbok; A Guide to Poetic Form (Robert Beum and Karl Shapiro) gives a little history, and examples from the pioneer of the form Robert Bridges (Elizabeth Daryush's father).

I mentioned elsewhere the chapter by Margaret Holley in (eds.) Finch & Varnes An Exaltation of Forms.

In Annie Finch's The Ghost of Meter in the chapter T.S. Eliot and the Metrical Crisis of the Early Twenthieth Century.

Tim Steele's All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing, Chapter 9 Alternative Modes of Versification in English Section 2 Syllabic Verse.

A Formal Feeling Comes, (ed) Annie Finch, a chapter by Rosellen Brown, On Syllabics and Cora Fry. (Explaining her poem Cora Fry).

A Linguist Guide to English Poetry -Geoffrey N. Leech though not specifically about syllabic verse has two interesting chapters on sound (6) and meter (7).

That should give you some insights. If I knew everything in these books I would be one smart gal, but I am a looker-upper, when I have the need to know something. Quick and fragmented is not good, but better than nothing.

Tell me when you need more, and I will do another shelf raid.

Some like to experiment, some do not. I do. Those who do not, can stick to rigidly defined ip, poetry's missionary postiion, with a bit of blank verse on Saturday night. Whatever turns you on, friends.

Reading instructions. This is a humorous post.
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Old 03-19-2009, 07:14 PM
Mark Allinson Mark Allinson is offline
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Quote:
My point though is that they produce interesting results--are another limitation against which to work to see what new sounds and rhythms result.
This is my position also. It is a creative/restrictive device for the production of a poem which could not have been produced other than by this compositional technique.

To argue against syllabics on the basis that one "can't hear" the effect is absurd, since the entire poem is the result of this device.

I think this is a good example of the form, in 7s.

"In my craft or sullen art"


In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

- Dylan Thomas
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Old 03-19-2009, 07:51 PM
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Maryann Corbett Maryann Corbett is offline
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Janice, thanks for all those references. I've pulled out Steele and am rereading the relevant section. There's probably something in Frances Mayes too. And I'm tickled to learn that Leech (whom I know from the terrifying comprehensive grammar Quirk-Greenbaum-Leech-Svartvik) has a book on poetry.

I'm a little chagrined to ask such basic-seeming questions, but the simple fact is that I don't know what esthetic to use in judging syllabics. I'd need to see many more analyses like Alicia's of the Plath poem. And let's remember, among the questions that got this thread started was the question of what forum syllabics belong on--a question that rattles me because I feel unfit to evaluate them. Although I wasn't around when the decision was made to have syllabics put in Nonmet, I feel sure it was made to avoid arguments over which measuring stick should apply, and to give critics a hint by one's choice of board.

For example: Steele opens his discussion with Daryush, and gives her poem "For _______" in full, pointing out that "many readers may hear its lines as iambic trimeters with anapestic substitutions." Then he points out that she's unusual and that "One principle of syllabic verse is that no pattern of accent should establish itself." If one of the chief exemplars of syllabics violates the principle, how is it a principle?

Clearly I have a lot more reading to do. But I've already got basic questions like, Does syllable count create different values concerning line breaks? Does it become okay, or less bad, to break lines on articles (yuck) or prepositions (ick)?

Obviously, we need to see more such poems here if we're to get a feel for them. If I thought we could get enough poems, I'd suggest a Distinguished Guest event. Perhaps we could generate enough if it were run in the way Lee Gurga and Stephen Collington ran the haiku event, as a teaching exercise.

Pardon me for rambling....
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