Monday, September 29, 2014

More Handouts from Class

I'm not sure if this will be useful to anyone, but just in case--here's a handout I distributed today in my Reading Poetry class.  More to come, as they show up in the class.

4-Beat (Tetrameter) Worksheet

In English poetry, tetrameter starts as the prestige meter of the ruling class.  An unrhymed, highly alliterative tetrameter is the meter of Beowolf, Caedmon's Hymn, The Seafarer.  The meter thus carries with it some historical associations of archaic or primitive poetry, and of heroic and manly struggle.  Later poets who want to trigger those associations in the minds of their readers will often use the four-beat line, especially in that unrhymed way.

After Norman Conquest, the language of the Court & upper classes is French, not Old English.  The tetrameter line survives and still flourishes, mostly with rhyme added in, as the dominant form of popular or oral poetry, as in magic spells or charms or incantations (“Double, double, boil and bubble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble…”), nursery rhymes, hymns, ballads, folk songs, pop-songs, old-school rap, etc., as well as in later literary verse that wants to conjure up these associations, for straightforward or ironic reasons.

In both its Old English and popular varieties, tetrameter is a "strong-stress" meter.  That means, the poet generally counts the number of stresses per line, not the total number of syllables; it’s often hard to talk about metrical “feet” when we’re reading tetrameter verse. 

Frequently it falls into the 4 x 4 pattern, with four line stanzas marked by end-rhymes.  Another common variant is the 4-3-4-3 stanza with a "virtual beat" (that is, a little pause) at the end of the shorter lines.  This version was once so common that it earned the name “common meter.

Tetrameter is a powerful meter, which tends to overpower or shape the language you use, turning it into a hypnotic chant or sing-song rhythm, even if this means that you’re not putting an accent onto a word that carries meaning.  It is much more powerful in this way than pentameter (five-meter), which can sound more conversational and less chant-like.  Pentameter becomes the prestige meter for English poetry during the Renaissance. 

Scan as Four-Beat (Tetrameter) Lines, marking four heavily accented (“stressed”) syllables in each line.

Dr. Seuss

The sun did not shine.  It was too wet to play.

So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day.

I sat there with Sally.  We sat there, we two,

And I said, “How I wish we had something to do!”

Too wet to go out and too cold to play ball,

So we sat in the house.  We did nothing at all.

And so all we could do was to sit, sit, sit, sit.

And we did not like it.  Not one little bit.


"That Sam-I-Am! That Sam-I-Am!

I do not like that Sam-I-Am!”

"Do you like green eggs and ham?"

"I do not like them, Sam-I-Am."

"Would you like them here or there?"

"Would you like them in a house?

Would you like them with a mouse?"

"Would you like them in a box?

Would you like them with a fox?"

Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes

Star light, star bright

First star I see tonight

I wish I may, I wish I might

Have the wish I wish tonight

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again 

Hymn / Ballad / Song Stanzas  (4/3/4/3 and other common variations)

Just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale,

The tale of a fateful trip (X)

That started from this tropic port

Aboard this tiny ship. (X)

Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I’m found

Was blind, but now I see.

From LOTR: Return of the King

Riders of Rohan!  Oaths you have taken--

Arise, Arise, Riders of Theoden!

Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered.

A sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

Ride to ruin and the world’s ending—

From Beowulf

Cunningly creeping,     a spectral stalker
slunk through the night.     The spearmen were sleeping
who ought to have held     the high-horned house,
all except one,     for the Lord's will
now became known:     no more would the murderer
drag under darkness     whomever he wished.
Wrath was wakeful,     watching in hatred;
hot-hearted Beowulf     was bent upon battle.

Here is a recent poem by Annie Finch, a contemporary formalist poet.  What features of this poem can you connect with features of Old English poetics, both in terms of sound and in terms of naming and renaming?   What features are more typical of later medieval poetry, either in terms of sound or of other kinds of language use?

Annie Finch, “A Blessing on the Poets”

Patient earth-digger, impatient fire-maker,

Hungry word-taker and roving sound-lover,

Sharer and saver, muser and acher,

You who are open to hide or uncover,

Time-keeper and hater, wake-sleeper, sleep-waker;

May language's language, the silence that lies

Under each word, move you over and over,

Turning you, wondering, back to surprise.

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