Trying to Write the Mighty Line

sapphicFor years, now, I’ve taught a mixed-genre “Introduction to Creative Writing” course with a very specific poetry component. Each student in the class must choose a poetic form he or she loves; I suggest two dozen of them, and leave books explicating several dozen other choices on the shelf outside my office. Each student gives a short presentation on their chosen form — its provenance, history, development, parameters, and best-known practitioners. They recite from memory at least 12 lines of a poem written in that form. Finally, they write a poem in that form for class critique.

This unit gets the highest praise and deepest criticism from students in the class. Invariably, on student evaluations, some student recommends (usually in ALL CAPS) that the unit be removed as tedious and too hard. Almost always, though, at least one student reports something along the lines of this semester’s note, that “This assignment … was the first time a professor has challenged me to reach out of my comfort zone … yet my favorite piece of work is the octave I wrote.”

My challenge, each year, is to tune students’ ears to the accentual language they speak. English is a strongly accented language. We inherited verse initially from Greek and Roman poets, whose long and short syllables created the music of the (often sung) poetry. But we don’t lengthen syllables in English so much as we stress them, pronouncing the second syllable of a word like believe louder than the first. Very early English poetry was not unlike hip-hop today, in that it paid attention only to the stresses in the line and more or less chanted the lines so each foot, regardless of syllables, had the same tempo. Later, we began adding in the nonaccented syllables, so the “music,” if you will, emerged from the tantalizing pattern of stress to nonstress. Thus the iamb, the anapest, the dactyl, the troche, and so on.  As Mark Liberman put it in Language Log, in English, “Metrics is applied phonology.”

Not all students choose to write in forms that feature meter, but some do, and for them, I find that hearing the stress patterns inherent in the language they speak has become increasingly difficult. I once heard the renowned contemporary formalist Marilyn Hacker say that if she saw a student mentally counting stresses on her fingers, she knew she had the beginnings of a poet. I would be loath to apply that standard now. One student recently chose to write in blank verse. “Marlowe’s mighty line” and Shakespeare’s staple for all his plays, blank verse eschews rhyme but cleaves to a mostly iambic pentameter pattern, whose perhaps apocryphal justification is that the iamb (lub-DUB) echoes the heartbeat, and the five-meter line is about the length of a human breath. Examples are almost countless:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (Shakespeare)

You stars that reign’d at my nativity (Marlowe)

It little profits that an idle king (Tennyson)

Each night at eight my neighbor hacks and spits (John Canaday)

When I see birches bend to left and right (Frost)

I emailed her. I haven’t heard from her. (Marilyn Hacker)

My student, like most others in the class, had been taught to count syllables (10 to a line) in order to “calculate” iambic pentameter, just as she had been taught to count syllables in order to write haiku — a favorite of high-school poetry-writing exercises because of the form’s short length, but also a form that translates with difficulty from the linguistic structures of Japanese. Syllable-counting is useless in trying to achieve musicality in English, and even on its own terms, the exercise fails because (given the propensity of spoken English to “swallow” many syllables) students fail to count, say, the -en or -ing endings of many words.

But in earlier times, I was able to sit with students, read lines aloud, ask them to note the stresses they heard, and establish where there was (or was not) some sort of metrical pattern. With my blank-verse student, we read her lines — lurching combinations of anapests, dactyls, and iambs, with as many as six and as few as three feet to a line — aloud over and over, and she could not hear what was loud and what was soft. Discouraged, she asked how she might learn where the accents lay in words or phrases she wanted to use. I pointed out that, while one-syllable words derived their stress from syntax, any time she went to look up the pronunciation of a word with more than one syllable, the dictionary would show her where the stresses lay. “But I would never look in a dictionary to pronounce a word,” she said.

“If you didn’t know the word,” I said, “how else would you learn to pronounce it?”

“I go to Google translate,” she said, “and they say the word for me. But I don’t hear the stress.”

I sort of threw up my hands at that point. A half-hour later, a poet who had passed earlier by my office door stuck her head in. “I CANnot WAIT for CLASSes TO be DONE,” she said, with a knowing grin.

At the risk of becoming one of those hand-wringing old-timers, I wonder if the ways in which our text-based language and its oral counterpart are operating today is affecting our ability to hear the music inherent in English. If you are a high-school teacher reading this, I’d like at least to ask you to stop telling students to count syllables. Have them listen, instead. They could start with this:




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