Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Scansion


I was talking today with Alia, and later with Zöe, about scansion. I'm not an expert on the subject by any means, but it seems to me both on the basis of my own experience as a reader and writer there are several reasons why a writer might choose to work within a defined rhythmic framework, and that those reasons are usually not discussed in English classes. (They were never discussed in any classes I took, and I've never heard them discussed by any of my colleagues.)

The first and perhaps most important reason is that by subjecting yourself to the discipline of attending to the rhythmic pattern as you write, you are voluntarily forcing yourself to attend to the sound patterns of the words you are choosing, which adds an extra level of care in the deployment of words. You're not just blurting or free-associating, you're selecting words by virtue of the way they fit. In poker terms, you're upping the ante, you're making the stakes higher. Not any word will do. The first word you think of will often not do, so you're forced to create a language which is by constraint out of the ordinary. You put yourself in the way of coming up with pleasant surprises.

Another significant reason is that by setting up a pattern of language you are giving yourself a way of creating emphasis when by choice you vary the pattern. If you arrive at a picnic in an evening gown, you're going to stand out because in that context you are likely to be the only person dressed that way. It's not that there's anything wrong with how you're dressed, it just doesn't fit, and so you stand out, just as you would if you wore shorts and a t-shirt to the senior prom. Likewise, once a pattern of language has been established as the default, any variation is going to have the effect of calling attention to the "offending" words. The effect may very well be subliminal, especially for readers who don't read carefully enough to make conscious note of the anomaly. But it's still there.

By way of illustration, here's a sonnet by Donald Justice.

The Poet at Seven
And on the porch across the upturned chair,
The boy would spread the dingy counterpane
Against the length and majesty of the rain,
And on all fours crawl under it like a bear
to lick his wounds in secret, in his lair;
And afterwards, in the windy yard again,
One hand cocked back, release his paper plane
Frail as a May fly to the faithless air.
And summer evening he would whirl around
Faster and faster till the drunken ground
Rose up to meet him; sometimes he would squat
Among the bent weeds of the vacant lot,
Waiting for dusk and someone dear to come,
And whip him down the street, but gently, home.

Okay. Standard sonnet form, iambic pentameter, established quite precisely in the first two lines. The first wrinkle appears in line three: "Against the length and majesty of the rain." Majesty doesn't fit the rhythm. (There's an extra syllable in there.) Nor does it fit the level of diction establish in the first two and a half lines. It's a surprise of sorts, not the word you or I might perhaps have predicted, and the denotative and connotative surprise of the word is reinforced by the fact that it's breaking the pattern of iambs.

Scanning the rest of the poem, we can make note of a number of other places where the rhythm shifts either subtly ("among the bent weeds") or exaggeratedly ("faster and faster"). Like this:


And on the porch across the upturned chair,
The boy would spread the dingy counterpane
Against the length and majesty of the rain,
And on all fours crawl under it like a bear
to lick his wounds in secret, in his lair;
And afterwards, in the windy yard again,
One hand cocked back, release his paper plane
Frail as a May fly to the faithless air.
And summer evening he would whirl around
Faster and faster till the drunken ground
Rose up to meet him; sometimes he would squat
Among the bent weeds of the vacant lot,
Waiting for dusk and someone dear to come,
And whip him down the street, but gently, home.

In each case, once the shift has been noted, it's not so hard to either infer or intuit the logic of the variation. "Frail as a May fly," for example, is another place where an unusual choice of words is reinforced by the rhythm shift: it's an invitation from the author for us to stop and attend, to linger, not to just read through the figure of speech and cruise on. That whole line, "Frail as a May fly to the faithless air," is worth lingering on for a variety of reasons. It's a very elegant and artful and surprising way of focussing our attention on the evanescence of the experience which the poet is at such pains to recall to memory. "Faster and faster" generates excitement in three ways: by the denotative meaning, by being the only repetition in the poem, and by the fact in both words the substitution of trochees (BAdum & BAdum) for iambs (baDUM BaDUM), highlighting the FASTer part. The spondaic "Bent weeds" are rhythmically bent as well. The poem returns to exact iambic pentameter in the last line, but two commas serve to interrupt their flow just enough to gently emphasize—visually and aurally—the word "gently."

I love how the explicit, exquisite tension that the boy feels, (or the author feels, looking back), between the constraints of obligation (time to come home, which might for another boy be heard as "Get your ass in here!") is balanced by the love he feels: "someone DEAR to come, and WHIP him down the street, but GENTLY... home." It seems like this must have been, at least in this respect, a wonderful childhood.

If you're still with me and not overflowing yet with objections, perhaps you'll entertain one more hypothesis or hunch: it seems to me that the way in which this sonnet mirrors or enacts the balance between a predictably structured environment and the pleasure and advantage to be taken in pushing against or playing within the edges of that structure is an almost perfect analog for the childhood experience of "The Poet at Seven." His life is bounded, and grounded, and structured in predictable ways, within which he is able to play wonder-ful games. But when the adventures are over, how nice to be able, however reluctantly, to arrive at... home.


4 comments:

bicyclecomics said...

I think musicians/composers may be better-disposed to understanding this point than (most) poets. Writing in a given structure/meter/form is akin to "I'll write this song in 4/4 time in the key of Bb." It may be better to hum a few bars (or write a few stanzas) before committing to a given structure, but committing to one in no way hampers creativity.

"The first and perhaps most important reason is that by subjecting yourself to the discipline of attending to the rhythmic pattern as you write, you are voluntarily forcing yourself to attend to the sound patterns of the words you are choosing, which adds an extra level of care in the deployment of words. You're not just blurting or free-associating, you're selecting words by virtue of the way they fit."

Very few musicians/composers would claim that key signatures and time signatures restrict their creativity, no?

Zoe said...

Thanks, Bruce, for an elucidating post. I've always felt that some of the loveliest use of meter is found in Gerard Manley Hopkins's sprung rhythm poems. Reading his work helped me understand how meter can be used to manipulate the tension or energy of a line. It seems Hopkins breaks a lot of metrical conventions while still attending to the effects of the syllabic emphases.

Jennifer Gavin said...

Thank you so much. May I share this with my students? I know they would find it helpful.

Bruce Schauble said...

Hi Jen,

Of course. Hope the new school year goes well for you...

- Bruce