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Thursday, October 30, 2003

To those 3 of you who've been waiting with baited breath for my promised explanation, my apologies. At my paying job we've been entertaining Swedes—they teach us, we share food and alcohol—and I've barely been able to read my mail this week. The explanation's still coming, but I've got to tell this little story first.

Several times a week, someone at the one of the poetry mailing lists I subscribe to will post a poem by someone else as an example of something they've enjoyed. Now, I do have CRS1, but in the 2 1/2 years of this particular list's existence, I don't recall any extended criticism of any of these posts. Usually there are few comments at all other than a "Thanks!" or a "Nice!" or an anecdote about some interaction with the author.

But twice this last month someone posted a metrical, rhyming poem, and hell broke loose.

Both poems had problems, one many more than the other. The better poem was in a difficult form—mono-rhymed iambic pentameter triplets—and even with its flaws it's pretty good. One line of that poem had an apparently forced rhyme; another line had a metrical glitch which I'll illustrate with the following line I wrote for the purpose:


 -   /      -     -    /      -   -   /     -   /

The war | ships that cruise | in the gulf | at night

You can't hear that line as pentameter, despite its ten syllables, unlike this simple revision:


 -   /      -     /      -   /    -  /     -   /

The war | ships cruis | ing in |the gulf | at night

In this version, there's not much stress on "in," but what matters is that there's more stress than on the adjacent syllables, and that allows the line to be read and heard as perfectly regular pentameter. Not that perfectly regular pentameter is required:


 -   /      -     -    /      -  /     -   /     -   /

The war | ships seen cruis | ing in | the gulf | at night

Not a great line (none of the three are), but still iambic pentameter, with one anapest in the second foot.

Why all the fuss, both on the list and here? It's easier to recognize and discuss basic competence in a metrical poem.2 The obverse is that it's easier to bullshit about free verse, which turns disagreements into shouting matches. If you're smart, you learn to avoid such things, and so bad free verse sometimes gets a pass. This is especially true if the person presenting a particular poem has an impressive reputation—how can you tell the difference between bullshit and real depth, and how do you convince other people in the face of that impressive reputation?


1Can't Remember Shit

2I don't think it's easier to attain.


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