Friday, August 17, 2012

The Basics of Seussian Verse

You've got a little basic poetry theory under your belt (courtesy of my last post). Now it's time to get a handle on children's verse – at least, as it was written by Dr. Seuss.

Before we start, let me make one thing clear. The poetry forms Dr. Seuss used are not the only acceptable forms for children's poetry. However, Seuss chose the forms he used because most children already have some familiarity with them. That makes sense; he was writing easy reader material, and the more familiar the form, the easier it was for the kids to learn how to read. So bear that in mind.

Anapestic Tetrameter

Horton Hears a Who! coverVirtually every verse Seuss wrote was in some kind of tetrameter, which means that each line of poetry has four feet. (Tetra = four.) I suspect he chose this because it's the most common meter for nursery rhymes and a majority of popular English poetry. Even most greeting card verse is tetrameter! So he could be pretty sure most of his young readers would be able to follow it as well.

Where he varied things was in the type of feet he used in each line. By far the most common lines he wrote were in anapestic tetrameter, which means each line has four anapests. An anapest has three syllables – two unstressed followed by one stressed. That means each line had a rhythm like this:
da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
For example, Horton Hears a Who! opens like this (the stressed syllables are in italic caps):
On the FIFteenth of MAY, in the JUNgle of NOOL,
In the HEAT of the DAY, in the COOL of the POOL,
He was SPLASHing… enJOYing the JUNgle's great JOYS
When HORton the ELephant HEARD a small NOISE.
The problem with such a regular rhythm is that it can start to sound singsongy. Part of the genius of Dr. Seuss is how he avoids that. Take a good look at the fourth line. See how he left off the first unstressed syllable? All four lines have four stresses – if they didn't, they wouldn't be tetrameter anymore – but the first three lines have 12 syllables and the last line only has 11. The rhythm now looks like this:
da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
It's a small change but it helps "mix things up" a bit so it doesn't put you to sleep.

This is something Seuss uses quite often, as in this 11-syllable line from McElligot's Pool:
I MIGHT catch a FISH
With a TERrible GROUCH
Yes, that's just one line of verse although it's two printed lines on the page. Suess sometimes uses odd line breaks like this to help "mix things up" as well. I'll come back to that in a later post. For now I'll just say that the breaks happen where they make sense. There's a good example in the next verse.

Here's another common alteration Seuss makes when using this meter.

Later in McElligot's Pool you'll find this verse:
Or I MIGHT catch a FISH
From a STRANger place YET!
From the WORLD'S highest RIVer
In FAR-off TiBET,
Where the FALLS are so STEEP
That it's DANgerous to RIDE 'em,
So the FISH put up CHUTES
And they FLOAT down beSIDE 'em.
Eight printed line breaks but only four lines of verse. But look closely; there's more here.

First, look at the line break between the third and fourth lines. If Seuss broke them evenly – according to the anapests, as he typically does – he'd have to hyphenate the word "river." That wouldn't make much sense to his young readers. So he puts the entire word on the third line, although that means the lines look uneven. It doesn't affect the rhyme when you read it, though.

Second, note that the 3-syllable word "dangerous" is pronounced as only 2 syllables – dang'rous. Occasionally you find words that you can contract that way to get a bit of variation.

But most importantly, the last two lines each have 13 syllables! Seuss has added an extra syllable at the end of those lines.
da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM / da
In case you're interested, the poetry term for this extra unstressed syllable at the end is a feminine ending. When the line ends on a stressed syllable, that's a masculine ending.

So Dr. Seuss usually started with anapestic tetrameter:
da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
and prevented it from getting too regular by:
  • subtracting an unaccented syllable from the beginning of a line –
    da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
    – or
  • adding an unaccented syllable to the end of a line –
    da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM / da.
Although – technically speaking, that is – anapestic tetrameter has a 12-syllable line as its primary line length, many writers will use the 11-syllable variation as the primary line length. That 2-syllable (unstressed – stressed) first foot also has a name – it's called an iamb – and it may be the most frequently-used foot in English poetry. For example, most of Shakespeare's work is in iambic pentameter – five iambs per line:
da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM
Because of that, starting the line with an iamb instead of an anapest sounds more natural to many people. If you want to do that, it's ok as long as you know that you're doing it! You can still use the 12-syllable and 13-syllable lines as your variations.

Suess uses this meter in The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Yertle the Turtle, Happy Birthday to You! , and The Sneeches, among other books. It's also the basis of the popular Clement Clarke Moore poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas. You remember that one, don't you? "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house…"

The important thing to remember here is that you don't make these alterations in any sort of pattern. You have to make them by ear. The big question is "Does this sound good?" Reading your verse out loud will help you write better verse. After all, if it doesn't sound good when you read it out loud, why would it "sound" good when read silently?

Besides, if your verse sounds good, the kids will probably read it over and over until they memorize some of it… and then they will recite it out loud!
That's Seuss 101…
But it's only the start.
In the next post I'll help you
Learn more of his art!

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