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Tearing Apart Iamb for Iamb

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Apr. 14th, 2009 | 02:33 pm

How not to write Iambic pentameter is as much about how not to write it by Patrick Gillespie. He starts with purple prose and plays with the materials...I like this. He tears things back to base ideas, building blocks. An idea isn't too precious to mess with. Edits are substantive yanks. This I can grasp.

He was talking about process of moving from idea to vividly written and metered. It doesn't matter the idea or the starting point. It's what you apply to it.

Where do you start?
The first thing you might do is to lineate the prose. [...]

Ta da! We now have a free verse poem. And this is probably where 99 out of 100 modern poets stop. Free verse is the easiest and least demanding literary form ever created. But for those who like to juggle with more than one ball, let’s try two. The next step is to transform this passage into Iambic Pentameter.

[...]The blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) is competent and passable poetry. And  this is where many poets stop (those who write meter); but this is still juggling with just two balls. Now let’s juggle three. Let’s vary the meter and give it some life. [...]

Study closely how little additions and adornments turn ordinary prose into poetry. It’s not the content that makes the poem.


To paraphrase what he says of the next stage, you could add characters. Convert to dialogue. Add internal linkages of extended references to one base of metaphor, add wordplay and style.

It's a mechanic bent, but more can be said with that than talking from the perspective of poetry as mystic.

I like the exercise point of view rather than let us make something which is complete and true in first draft which is no more than tweaked for spelling. I'd rather tear something to component parts. All is lego.

I like making a long poem then just tearing the right margin words off and keeping those, or a subset of. It's not a pride issue to spend 2 or 3 hours on a poem and then throw it out. Process can be more interesting than product. And more useful.

To build into a structure or disassemble something which has structure are both interesting. For example, I took this Yeats poem and looked at it's structure, from rhyme (ABCD EBFD GBHD IBJD) to which sounds are most used and their place of articulation to see if there was a pattern (mostly voiced sounds but nothing strongly disproportional to normal, a lot of short i, and long o but not a strongly leaned on, dominant device of sound in this way). And then I reparsed the meaning.

S1-S2 things (example list of 1,2,3, then #3 expanded on, each line end stopped semantically) are dissonant against the memory of your beauty.
S3 world's too ugly a setting for you. I'll redo it.
S4 the new earth as your casket, and a casket for my dreams of you, my unattainable/inaccessible love.

The lines are ragged lengths with uneven number of syllables but it has a regular feel. What's going on? Yeats and Swinburns and the 19th century are characteristic for mixing iamb and anapest. I next looked at the meter which wraps around lines, so here I'll condense the couplets into one line since that how the meter neatly falls.

iamb iamb anapest anapest spondee iamb
iamb anapest anapest iamb anapest anapest

iamb iamb anapest iamb anapest iamb
iamb anapest anapest anapest anapest anapest

iamb iamb iamb anapest iamb anapest
iamb anapest anapest iamb anapest trochee beat

anapest anapest anapest anapest anapest anapest
anapest anapest anapest anapest anapest anapest

That much regularity in meter cannot be by accident. It's not the same length of line by syllables but it is regular length by counting accentually. Each line has 3 long (or stressed) syllables.

There's one exception, that last line of the second last stanza. (The word knoll throws the rhythm, foot, and pattern of 3 stressed syllables, couldn't not be accidental. It's also the pivot point of attitude where it shifts tone. The rose goes from hidden and protected to dead and buried. Is this a love poem? or smitten from afar; can't have you; wish you to be dead; how romantic manic.)

12 feet per stanza and 4 stanzas but the base is 3. 3 stressed beats per line. There are 6 stressed beats per 12 feet. Some are iambs, some anapest, increasingly over length, anapest. The last stanza which is fastest (since one speaks an iamb in the same speed as one speaks a three beat anapest but with 1/2 more content) also has the most even roll with regularity and consistency giving a stronger resolution underscoring the summative feel.

Does this make sense more when we add back the words?

The Rose in the Deeps of His Heart

All things uncomely and broken,
all things worn-out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway,
the creak of a lumbering cart,

The heavy steps of the ploughman,
splashing the wintry mould,
Are wronging your image that blossoms
a rose in the deeps of my heart.

The wrong of unshapely things
is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew
and sit on a green knoll apart,

With the earth and the sky and the water,
remade, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms
a rose in the deeps of my heart.

- William Butler Yeats

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