Monday, August 20, 2012

More Seuss: Amphibrachic Tetrameter

The names get worse as we go along, don't they? But the irony is that different meters can shade into one another, so the names only seem to muddy the waters. Such is the case for amphibrachic tetrameter, another popular meter Dr. Seuss often used.

In the last post we started with anapestic tetrameter, the most common Seuss form:
da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
We varied it by subtracting an unaccented syllable from the beginning of the line:
da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
and also by adding an unaccented syllable to the end of the line:
da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM / da
But now… suppose we did BOTH? Suppose we subtracted an unaccented syllable from the beginning:
da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
then we added an unaccented syllable to the end:
da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM / da
and then we redefined the feet so they all look alike, like this:
da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da
This new foot, made up of 2 unstressed syllables with a stressed one in the middle, is called an amphibrach. And when you put 4 amphibrachs in a line of poetry, you get amphibrachic tetrameter. The line has 12 total syllables and 4 total stresses, just like Seuss's more common anapestic tetrameter… but it has a different feel to it.

Try this rhyme from If I Ran the Zoo (as in past posts, the stressed syllables are in italic caps):
And, SPEAKing of BIRDS, there's the RUSSian PaLOOski,
Whose HEADski is REDski and BELly is BLUEski.
I'm actually surprised that Seuss used this meter less often. As I wrote in the last post, one of the most common feet used in English poetry is the iamb, a 2-syllable foot with an unstressed foot followed by a stressed one (da DUM). The first 2 syllables in an amphibrach sound like an iamb, so it would seem to be more natural. For whatever reason, Dr. Suess used this meter less frequently.

But just like anapestic tetrameter, amphibrachic tetrameter can be altered to vary the sound. You can add unstressed syllables; in fact, Suess sometimes substitutes one of his more common anapestic tetrameter lines. That both adds an unstressed syllable in front of the line AND subtracts one at the end.

More often, though, he simply drops unstressed syllables in this meter. He usually drops the last one:
da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM
This one's especially common in If I Ran the Zoo. Of course, you can drop the first unstressed syllable instead:
DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da
And every now and then he drops both of the unstressed syllables at the ends of the line:
DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM
That reduces the line to only 10 syllables. Short lines like this give the reader time to catch their breath. In fact, Seuss often opens one of these lines with a single word sentence, like "Stop?" or "WOW!"

Remember that feminine and masculine ending thing I mentioned in the last post? I think the ability to drop an unstressed syllable from each end of the line makes amphibrachic tetrameter a more versatile meter than anapestic tetrameter. Adding a syllable often sounds more awkward than dropping one.

Remember this: A large part of writing good verse is making sure the stresses fall in the correct place. Most words in the English language don't sound right unless the stress falls on a certain syllable. That's not a problem with 1-syllable words, of course. But once you get to 2 syllables or more… well, nothing ruins a verse like this faster than bad stress placement.

Here's an example of what I mean. The word "horses" is pronounced HORses, not horSES. Here's our little nonsense rhythm with "horses" inserted. Which one sounds right… and which one sounds just plain stupid?
  1. da DUM da / da HORses / da DUM da / da DUM da
  2. da DUM da / da DUM da / horSES da / da DUM da
I'm guessing that you picked the first one as the best one, the one with the proper word stress. But I'll go even further and guess you had trouble even saying the second one. When the stress is in the wrong place, it makes the verse harder to read. In the first line, even with all the nonsense sounds, "horses" fits smoothly into the rhythm.

Seuss used this meter in If I Ran the Zoo, If I Ran the Circus, Dr. Suess's Sleep Book, and The Lorax. Just remember that Seuss makes a lot of substitutions and alterations when he uses this meter.

Next time I'll look at Seuss's "short meters."

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