Monday, September 10, 2012

Pesky Accents

I decided to add another post on verse -- poetry in general, not just easy reader verse -- because of a comment Roxy left on the Some Final Thoughts on Verse post. (I guess they weren't final after all!) Roxy had some good observations and I think I cleared up some things I may not have been clear on, but the comment raised an important concern when it comes to verse.

Some of you, maybe a lot of you, think you can't read or write poetry simply because accents drive you crazy. By that, I mean that you have trouble making poems sound right because you put stressed and unstressed syllables in the wrong places. You need to know that it's not entirely your fault. Most of us are never taught how the whole "feet and meter" thing works, and it doesn't always make sense.

I'm going to give you a quick lesson on how to read verse in meter. It'll help you, not only with easy reader verse, but so you can enjoy reading poetry on your own. And since I wasn't taught how to read poetry either -- what I know has been learned by hunting for a lot of help -- I think this will make pretty good sense to most of you.

In the Suess posts I talked a lot about feet, which are just patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and about meter, which is basically just how many feet there are in a single line of poetry. (In free verse poetry, there are no standard feet or meters, which is probably why it became so popular in the first place.) Once you get the feet and meter right, the words almost skip along on their own and pull you with them. In fact, you can probably follow some pretty complex meters just from knowing old nursery rhymes. Many of them focus on the stressed syllables, the way Old English poetry (like Beowulf) does. Try Little Miss Muffet:
LITtle Miss MUFfet
SAT on a TUFfet,
EATing her CURDS and WHEY.
aLONG came a SPIder
and SAT down beSIDE her
and FRIGHTened miss MUFfet aWAY.
Basically this is groups of two lines of dimeter (two feet) followed by one line of trimeter (three feet). As in the Suess posts, I've shown the stressed syllables in ITALIC CAPS and the unstressed syllables in small letters. The feet are complicated, what with a different number of unstressed syllables in each one. But you can probably recite this with no problem because the stresses drive the the verse and just pull you along.

But modern poetry tends to use fairly strict patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and place them in a fairly strict meter. The feet will be varied occasionally for the very purpose of preventing the verse from becoming singsong and pulling you along. But although that sounds really difficult to deal with, it's not. After all, if you can handle Little Miss Muffet, you can handle variations!

No, the problem is understanding how modern patterns are used in the first place. And that's complicated because, unlike Little Miss Muffet, you have to deal with more than just stressed and unstressed syllables. As I mentioned in my comment to Roxy, you have to deal with secondary stresses -- stressed syllables that you might stress in some patterns (feet) but not in others. Most of us say stressed syllables louder than unstressed ones. When we try to say stressed syllables on unstressed "beats" in a poem, or unstressed syllables on stressed "beats," it just doesn't sound right.

That's what makes some of you think you can't read or write poetry. You want to use TWO levels of accent -- stressed and unstressed -- when in fact you're dealing with THREE -- a primary stress, a secondary stress, and then unaccented stresses. And to make matters more complicated, depending on the feet and meter used in the poem, those secondary stresses may sound like a middle level of stress... or they may sound just like the primary stresses... or they may be unstressed.

A lot of what people consider "serious poetry" is hard for us to read simply because the language has changed. Shakespeare's plays were written 400 years ago; trust me, things have changed! I personally fell in love with Robert Frost, considered by some to be America's greatest poet, simply because he "writes in English." Here's the first 4 lines from his poem Mending Wall, which is written in blank verse -- the same as Shakespeare's plays. Just try reading it and see how it sounds:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Here's my "stressed" version. See how you did:
SOMEthing there IS that DOESn't LOVE a WALL,
That SENDS the FROzen-GROUND-swell UNder IT,
And SPILLS the UPper BOULders IN the SUN;
I bet you were pretty close, and a lot of you probably read it exactly the way I've accented it in the second version.

The difference between Shakespeare and Frost is about 400 years. Frost is writing the way we speak now, and your natural instinct is to read it correctly -- even though it's got some weird "feet" in it. For example:
  • The first line begins with a variation -- SOMEthing instead of someTHING. Bet you got that right without even thinking about it!
  • Lines 2 and 3 are both "regular" -- that is, they follow the metrical pattern exactly -- but the rhythms don't sound exactly alike. That's because...
  • At the end of the second line, you probably wouldn't have thought IT would be stressed, but I bet you read it that way anyhow. This is an example of those secondary stresses I mentioned. A word like "it" is usually unstressed, but this is unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse is the short name for it) and if you say that last foot by itself -- der IT -- you'll realize that you really do say IT a bit louder than der in this particular usage. In the third line, SUN is a primary stress word that you would say louder almost anywhere you used it.
  • And in the same vein, that last line seems weird because of how the feet fall. Here's how it divides into feet:
    And MAKES / GAPS ev / en TWO / can PASS / aBREAST.
    You would think "even" would be pronounced EVen, but the feet (notice that the second foot is reversed, just like the first foot in the first line) cause neither syllable to be stressed. And if you say each foot by itself, you'll realize that you do say GAPS louder than ev, and you say TWO louder than en.
The reason you read them properly -- even though it doesn't seem right when you first think about it -- is because Frost is writing the way people talk, not just to fit a metrical pattern. He makes variations to fit the way the words should be said, not the other way around.

And once you start thinking about poetry that way -- not "How do I make these words fit this pattern?" but "What kind of pattern fits these words?" -- poetry becomes a lot easier to read and write. You still need time in order to get the words and meter to match, but it becomes a lot less frustrating because most speech has a basic rhythm of its own. I've been amazed at times -- I would just write what I wanted to say and then read it out loud, and suddenly I'd hear a natural meter that only needed a little shaping. (That doesn't happen all the time, but it happens often enough for me to look for it.)

The best way to start developing an ear for poetry is to read good poetry that you can understand. I usually recommend Frost because I find him very natural-sounding, but you never know who you'll find that you like. Just search the Web for poetry sites -- over at my Will Shakespeare for Hire site I've got links to several poetry sites in the blogroll, if you need help to get started -- and just start reading. You'll be surprised how quickly you can develop an ear for good verse.

Don't stress out over accented syllables. Just focus on smooth rhythmic speech. It's amazing how far you can go with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.