Poetry: Meter, feet … and toes?
Raymond Ramirez | Wednesday, September 23, 2015
I really enjoy poetry, though this was not always true. In college, I was blessed to learn a poetic trick or two. One of the first things to know is not to take poetry so seriously. Sure, a lot of it seems heavy and emotional, but the poet has worked hard to make it that way.
Let’s take Emily Dickinson. Here’s a portion of a real crowd pleaser, “Because I could not stop for Death”: “Because I could not stop for Death- /He kindly stopped for me- /The Carriage held but just Ourselves- /And Immortality. We slowly drove- He knew no haste /And I had put away /My labor and my leisure too, /For His Civility.”
So far so good, and while I don’t want to spoil it for you, let’s just say it continues in this same grave tone.
Now for the technical poesy: Many of Dickinson’s most popular poems were written in stanzas with ABCB rhyme schemes, alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter (four and three metrical feet, respectively; the ‘feet’ are unaccented and accented syllables marching heel-and-toe through the poem). One commonly known result is that many of her poems can be sung to the melodies of familiar songs such as “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Amazing Grace.” Go ahead and give it a try — I’ll wait.
Unfortunately, these melodies continue the same dirge-like tone of the poem. To make the poem more entertaining, the tune should contrast with the poem. Many of Dickinson’s poems work well with “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and take on a whole new feel in the process. Now the protagonist in the poem is not trudging along a road while Death stops its slow-moving coach — Death now waves a big, “Howdy, and c’mon in,” and the ensuing trip feels like a welcome adventure. You can also get the same jaunty experience with the theme from “Gilligan’s Island.” Does this ruin Emily Dickinson for you? I think not — and it might help you appreciate the meter and cadence of poetry all around you.
Other poets, including some of my favorites, are more challenging. The heroic rhyming couplets of Alexander Pope do not bend easily to popular music. The first lines of many of Pope’s couplets are remembered as famous quotations: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” and “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” The second lines usually resolve the thought and close the rhyme (e.g., “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; /Man never Is, but always To be blest”).
The challenge for singing this poetry is that the iambic pentameter — five metrical feet — that dominated poetry for hundreds of years since Shakespeare spun sonnets is simply not how we speak today or how we sing.
First, let’s grab a snippet of Pope’s work from “An Essay on Man”: “All nature is but art, unknown to thee; /All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; /All discord, harmony not understood; /All partial evil, universal good; /And spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, /One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.”
The “Yellow Rose of Texas” won’t cut it here; clearly, we need a songwriter of equal wordiness. Any number of tunes might do, but when it doubt, look to the Boss for your dreams and visions — Bruce Springsteen. Alexander Pope would be pleased to know that his poetry works well with “Born To Run,” with a bit of crunching and stretching of words, à la Springsteen. I leave it to you to see if other Springsteen melodies fit.
As for the excerpt from Pope, just because it rhymes does not mean that it is true. Good poetry, like a good song, is persuasive in its beauty. Writing during the Age of Reason, Pope clearly wanted to make the case that just because we cannot see the order and divine purpose in the universe, it does not mean it is not there — we just are simply not astute enough to see it. We know that conclusion is not correct. Otherwise, we would be comfortable accepting the ignorance, crimes and prejudices of earlier generations instead of working to overcome and correct them.
So draw life lessons from poets or songwriters carefully, and think of what they are really saying while you marvel at the technical skill in constructing their art.
John Keats declared, at the close of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
If that were truly so, then you could save yourselves at least four years of work, drop the microphone now and walk off the stage. I suggest Keats might be correct, but here’s the catch: discovering what is beauty and what is truth is a journey of discovery you will be on for the rest of your life. In any event, Keats cannot be taken seriously unless you can set him to a popular tune.
Postscript: The “Last Supper” painting that hangs in South Dining Hall’s west dining room inspired this verse: “All gathered to feast before Friday’s woes, /Seated and somber, with some extra toes.” Polydactylism as a sign of the divine?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.