History of Poetry
February 1, 2005 10:36 AM   Subscribe

How did people learn how to write poetry back in the days when rhyme and meter were standard? [mi]
posted by nebulawindphone to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
More inside?

What do you mean "when rhyme and meter were standard?" There have long been many different types of rhyme and meter. Many famous writers (Chaucer, Shakespeare) contributed to the canon by creating new forms or definitive examples of existing forms. An Exaltation of Forms is a good book on the subject.

Perhaps you can clarify, though, as the question doesn't make much sense as it is.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:53 AM on February 1, 2005

By imitating the masters.
posted by inksyndicate at 11:16 AM on February 1, 2005

The same way they learn today -- imitation, awkward juvenile efforts, and much revising.

They also read an incredible amount of poetry. This is one of the saddest effects of progressive education -- that we are no longer asked to read, remember and recite great poetry. That was a centerpeice of every educated person's schooling until the early 20th century, and it's very easy to see how a deep familiarity with the styles, modes, topics, and structure of many poets would create the scaffolding upon which new poets could build.
posted by Miko at 12:06 PM on February 1, 2005

I second Miko's point, and add this:

English is a language that begs, just begs, to be spoken. That's what rhythm and meter are about; the magic of the architecture and music of words. Reading poetry aloud-- any and all of it-- is the best way to connect with the past masters.
posted by koeselitz at 12:33 PM on February 1, 2005

I understand your question is sincere --
(Unless you post it anywhere but here) --
To clarify iambic meter. You
Suppose that current language – (call it prose)
Cannot be written in the style of old.
Fear Not! Pentameter is still alive!
I hope this answer validates your five.
posted by grateful at 12:47 PM on February 1, 2005

Response by poster: Ah, shit. I did add more. Must've forgotten to hit post. Anyway:

I'm curious about the education that would-be poets would have gotten a century or two ago. If you take a creative writing class nowadays, you get a lot of exercises designed to give you the skills valued in modern poetry -- exercises in stringing images together, in putting words together in unusual ways, in dredging up autobiographical details to use as material, etc. Similarly, there's lots of how-to-write-poetry books that give the same sort of advice.

I'm assuming that there's similar advice that would have been given to a budding poet in the 19th or early 20th century -- tips on rhyme, practical exercises in working with meter. I'm curious what that advice would have looked like.

(grateful -- Yeah, I know that people are still writing rhyme-and-meter poetry. But it's not what they're teaching creative writing majors to write at any university I've seen.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:37 PM on February 1, 2005

There was no "education" for would-be poets a century or two ago. Poetry was part of everyone's education (not just "until the early 20th century" either -- I had to memorize poetry in the '50s and early '60s), and if you were interested/inspired you just started writing it based on the models you'd read/memorized. If you were any good you got encouraged and eventually published. (Incidentally, periodicals paid far more money for poems a century ago -- you could actually earn a decent income that way. But then again, back then poets wrote the kind of stuff people were eager to read/hear. Now it's all about self-expression, and surprise! -- people don't want to read it.)
posted by languagehat at 2:00 PM on February 1, 2005

Miko- You'd like my son's English teacher. She made the students memorize Shakespearean sonnets & soliloquies and recite them verbatim. Then she made them write their own. My sons: "To skip, or not to skip?"
posted by Doohickie at 2:19 PM on February 1, 2005

That "studying the masters" comment goes further than just reading/ translating/ copying/ memorizing/ reciting Classical (and more recent) writers. It was also a matter of learning rhetoric and being able to apply that knowledge to oratory and non-poetic writing. That, too, figured into how a poet learned his or her craft and is also something that American public education has lost.
posted by kimota at 2:29 PM on February 1, 2005

Great comments here. Nebulawindphone: a number of well-known poets of the 18th and 19th century spent lots of time writing lengthy treatises on their philosophies of poetry. You can read Wordsworth's, Blake's, and Shelley's thoughts on poetical composition in your basic Norton's Anthology of English Literature (see your nearest English major, or just check out this link). Just as in the present day, poets corresponded with one another and thought a great deal about their craft.

Another major influence, of course, was classical writing. The Neoclassical poets of the late 18th/early 19th centuries read Roman and Greek poets and philosophers (as, on preview, kimota points out), and picked up and carried on the conversations begun by Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Plutarch, and others. In the days of the ancients, poetry was simply one part of the art of rhetoric, which was part of training for leadership and public prominence. So you can find how-to manuals and discussions of composition that are a few thousand years old.

Even though I have welcomed many of the changes brought by modern education, I believe there has been much of value lost when it comes to the rhetorical skills. There are many practitioners of free verse whom I admire, but I'm sorry to see that today's poets work almost exclusively in that form, failing to challenge themselves by working in the style of their forebears. I actually believe that the difficulty of working within a strict prescribed form like the sonnet, sestina, or even simple iambic pentameter forces a writer to wrestle with and clarify language until it expresses a thought more succinctly, memorably, and elegantly than it would in free verse. The downfall of free verse is that it just doesn't make poets work hard enough, much of the time. A clever turn of phrase or surprising metaphor, and they're ordering a fresh chai tea, blowing away the pencil dust, and dropping another manila envelope in the mail to Sun magazine. Come on! Try a little harder!
posted by Miko at 2:57 PM on February 1, 2005

(grateful -- Yeah, I know that people are still writing rhyme-and-meter poetry. But it's not what they're teaching creative writing majors to write at any university I've seen.)

It is at Carnegie Mellon University where I study creative writing. The intoductory poetry class is called Survey of Forms: Poetry (I'm taking it with Terrance Hayes), and the book I linked above is one of the texts. We're studying different forms, looking at examples of their use, and creating our own. And again, there are many different rhymed and unrhymed forms and types of meter that go beyond iambic pentameter.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:58 PM on February 1, 2005

It's great to do it in class. I did too. The real question will be whether anyone continues practicing in those forms after graduation.
posted by Miko at 3:03 PM on February 1, 2005

i'm just going to agree with others that an education in formal verse is useful to poets ... and seems to be neglected by many ... i don't think it's necessary to write in formal verse all the time ... the discipline and knowledge gained enables one to write free verse that's more exact
posted by pyramid termite at 5:19 PM on February 1, 2005

Reading, imitating, writing. Simple as that. A decent place to start looking is the first volume of the Twickenham Edition of Alexander Pope, which contains his earliest extant work. (And the later 'On The Art Of Sinking', which pokes fun at his really juvenile efforts alongside some of the poetasters of the age.) The Pastorals, in particular, cover the ground from Theocritus to Spenser. While Pope writes, later, that 'I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came', he's slightly glossing over the work involved in respecting a tradition while crafting an individual voice.

A grammar-school education that included Latin (and perhaps Greek) would have included the writing of metric verses, although that's syllable-length metre rather than stress-metre.
posted by holgate at 8:22 PM on February 1, 2005

Edward Bysshe's manual, The Art of English Poetry (1702), is available online. In its day, this was one of the most popular how-to guides to English poetry; so if you were an eighteenth-century gentleman wanting to turn out some passable verses in praise of your mistress's eyebrows, this is the book you would probably have looked at.

You might also be interested in Peter Groves's essay on Bysshe, The Chomsky of Grub Street: Edward Bysshe and the Triumph of Classroom Metrics, which is readable and entertaining though slightly technical in places. Groves's argument, in brief, is that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century linguists weren't up to the task of constructing an adequate theory of English metrics. Instead of codifying a set of rules for writing English poetry, they simply advised would-be poets to rely on their ear and intuition. As far as they were concerned, having an 'ear' for poetry was like having good taste or good breeding -- either you had it or you didn't; it couldn't be taught -- so (according to Groves) this non-theory of English metrics very conveniently reinforced the English class system.

I'm not sure I entirely buy this argument, but it is interesting and well worth reading -- and Groves does make one very important point, which is that the rules of English poetry are not written on tablets of stone, and never have been. In that sense, there has never been a period "when rhyme and meter were standard", because people have always disagreed over what the standards should be.
posted by verstegan at 2:22 PM on February 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

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