Oh, I have been dilatory and dumb, as Whitman says! It's been ages since I posted anything substantial here, either about teaching poetry or about anything else. Time to get back on track, with some thoughts about rhythm.
It seems to me that there are really only four things we want our students to do when it comes to rhythm and meter, and it helps to recognize how different these four things are.
We want them to:
1. Recognize the whether any meter is there—or, to put it in a fancier way, to recognize where the poem falls on the “metrical continuum” between hyper-regular verse and utterly free verse. Recognizing a meter might entail noticing duple and triple patterns (ti-tum vs. ti-ti-tum and ti-tum-ti, say); how many stresses there are per line (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), and so on.
2. Notice Local Expressive Effects: that is, how particular variations in the poem's rhythm (stresses packed together or lots of speedy unstressed syllables) can plausibly be said to "act out" whatever movement or description the words in question mean--or, perhaps, how they comment on it in some other less obvious way. "The sound must seem the echo of the sense," as Pope rather too-famously says.
* A succession of stressed syllables can reinforce local meanings and effects of
weight, difficulty, inertia, or slowness, the stretching out of time.
* A succession of unstressed syllables can reinforce local meanings and effects of
rapidity, lightness, ease.
* An unanticipated reversal in the rhythm--i.e., a trochee where you’d expect an iamb--can reinforce a sudden movement, literal or of thought: a discovery or illumination, a new direction of thought, a new tone of voice, a change or intensification of address. This needn’t happen only in a metrical context, by the way: any change from expected patterns or sounds is noteworthy.
3. We want them to think about Thematic Relevance. How, they should ask, is this use of a particular meter--or with modern poems, writing in meter at all--plausibly connectable to the theme or mood of the poem at hand? Two examples will illustrate what I mean. You can connect the mix of duple and triple, rising and falling meters in Hopkins's "Pied Beauty" to the poem's thematic material (the beauty of everything mixed-up, shifting, couple-colored, etc., as it shows the glory of God). Or you can connect the little dip into iambic pentameter at the end of "Those Winter Sundays" to the poem's closing effort to bestow dignity and honor on the father's sacrifices. These are all ways to connect the emotional drama of the poem to the particular element of linguistic drama found in meter and rhythm.
4. And, finally, we want them to think about Historical Associations. Most meters (and many stanzas) have picked up an assortment of historical associations through the centuries. Poems in ballad meter or hymn meter may want to raise balladic or hymnal expectations in your mind, either to match them or to play with them. Poems in strong-stress 4-beat lines may want to remind you of how archaic, even primitive, the 4-beat line can sound (with its memories of Beowulf, say, or with the way it sounds like a hypnotic chant). Pentameter poems may want you to think of such famous predecessors as Shakespeare or Milton, Pope or Wordsworth or Keats, in order to carve out some place for themselves in relation to the noble dead. Naturally there are more associations with any given meter than will fit any individual new poem, but the more poetry you read the more you should become able to sift out which associations shed new light on the poem at hand, and why.
In my next post I'll show how some of this can be particularly engaging, at least for students who aren't completely flummoxed by the challenge. What do you think, though? Any thoughts about meter and rhythm from your end?