Friday, August 24, 2012

Dr. Suess and Short Meters

The bulk of verse that Dr. Suess wrote was in triple meters. That simply means that each foot has 3 syllables. (If you've forgotten what those terms mean, just zip back to the Easy Reader Poetry Basics post.) However, he has also done some notable work in duple meter – that is, feet with 2 syllables.

The two duple meters you'll come across most frequently (in many kinds of poetry, not just Suess) are iambic tetrameter and trochaic tetrameter, based on iambs and trochees, respectively. An iamb, which I've mentioned before, is a foot with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, like guiTAR. A trochee, as you might guess, is just the opposite -- a foot with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one, like TARget.

Therefore a line of iambic tetrameter bumps along like this:
da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM
and a line of trochaic tetrameter does just the opposite:
DUM da / DUM da / DUM da / DUM da
Simple enough, right?

Although Suess didn't use these meters a lot, I suspect most children's writers do. The reasons are pretty simple:
  • The lines sound natural to us. Perhaps it's because we're so used to music. The vast majority of songs we learn as children are based on quarter and eighth notes, which bounce along in a similar way to duple meters. Of course, we learn songs that are written in waltz time as well, like Happy Birthday, but most of us instinctively default to that 1-2-3-4 rhythm.
  • The lines are shorter. Children find it easier to read shorter lines because they still tend to read one word at a time. (As you get better at reading, you learn to read groups of words at a time.) While the longer meters can be split into two lines – Suess does it frequently – an entire line in duple meter is usually short enough that a child can read it easily. Because of this, sometimes it's easier to get a complete thought in a duple meter line than in half of a triple meter line.
  • The lines mimic normal speech. Have you ever wondered how Shakespeare managed to write so many plays in blank verse, aka iambic pentameter? It's because most natural English speech tends to fall in pairs of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, here's part of the beginning of this paragraph, divided into feet (and no, I didn't write it specifically for this purpose):
    HAVE you / EVer / WONdered / HOW SHAKE- / speare MAN- / aged to / WRITE so / MANy / PLAYS in / BLANK VERSE
    Although not every foot is an iamb or a trochee (and yes, those other feet have names, but I'm not going to list them all here!), most of them are.
As for variations, you can drop or add an unstressed syllable to the beginning or end of a line, just like any of the triple meters. That means you can create lines with 7, 8 or 9 syllables.

And although I don't recall Suess himself using it, these short meters are very similar to ballad meter. That's a common form that alternates a tetrameter line (one of these short meters) with a trimeter line – that's 3 feet or 6 syllables. Add the variations and that trimeter line can have 5, 6 or 7 syllables. That gives you a lot of flexibility in your verse!

You can even use these two short meters together. A trochaic line with the last unstressed syllable dropped is exactly the same as an iambic line with the first unstressed syllable dropped! So you can use that variation to switch between the two if you feel that it works.

Right offhand I can only think of one example of each style in a Suess book… but they're definitely classics that you'll recognize.

Trochaic tetrameter is used in One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.

Iambic tetrameter is used in the ever-popular Green Eggs and Ham.

Why Bother?

Now you may wonder why I've spent so much time on the mechanics of verse in Suess books. Here's the payoff… and it would make no sense without understanding how meter is manipulated when writing children's verse.

Part of what makes Green Eggs and Ham so much fun is the interplay between Sam-I-am and his reluctant partner. No doubt you suppose it's the constant repetition of questions and answers between the two that makes the book so memorable.

You're only half-right. It works because of how Suess uses the meter in the repetition. I'm going to show you a brief part of the exchange (I've eliminated some of the repetition to save space) but with the stresses shown. The first block is what Sam-I-am says, the second block is his partner's reply:
WOULD / you LIKE / them HERE /or THERE?
WOULD / you LIKE / them IN / a HOUSE?
WOULD / you LIKE / them WITH / a MOUSE?
I DO / not LIKE / them IN / a HOUSE.
I DO / not LIKE / them WITH / a MOUSE.
I DO / not LIKE / them HERE /or THERE.
I DO / not LIKE / them AN- / yWHERE.
I DO / not LIKE / green EGGS / and HAM.
I DO / not LIKE / them, SAM- / I-AM.
Do you see? Sam-I-am ALWAYS questions with the 7-syllable variation while his partner ALWAYS answers with the standard 8-syllable iambic tetrameter line! I only found 2 places where Sam-I-am uses the standard line… and they aren't his normal questions!
  • At one point he says, "A train!" 4 times before he asks "Would you eat them on a train?"
  • And later he says, "Say! In the dark? Here in the dark!" before he asks "Would you, could you, in the dark?"
It's hard to get these kind of results without a knowledge of how meter works.

And that's why you often hear that editors don't want verse. Many would-be authors write verse just because they think it's cute. But the choice between prose and verse has to take your purpose into account. There are things you can do in prose that you can't do in verse, and there are things you can do in verse that you can't do in prose. You should choose the one that lets you accomplish your purpose in the best way. Suess would have found it difficult to create the bouncy exchanges in Green Eggs and Ham with prose... but it wasn't enough to just put the tale in verse. He had to use the mechanics of meter properly in order to get that bounciness.

That's why you should bother to learn the mechanics of meter. You can't properly choose between prose and verse if you don't have some idea about what you can do -- or NOT do -- in each.

I have a bit more to say about verse although this is the last post that deals specifically with Dr. Suess. But if you want to write children's verse, by all means take some time to study how Suess does things. You'll find it's well worth the effort.

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