Help me appreciate blank verse by being able to compare the "skills" of different poets.
January 11, 2011 6:15 PM   Subscribe

Help me appreciate poetry (I suppose specifically blank verse by the examples below of what I've read) by teaching me to understand the merits of the poet's constructions! I enjoy literature because of their content, and not so much the aesthetics or specific construction of sentences, words, meter, rhyme, and so forth. For the most part, this has been fine for me because conventionally at least when one comes across poetry, its not in the manner of an epic tale and so I don't feel like I'm missing out on too much.

Recently however, I've realized I've read far too much poetry within my likes of having content of an epic nature without truly being able to appreciate it, and it feels like I missed out on at least half if not more of the experience. Sure, I can appreciate the Iliad and Aeneid. I learned Latin and it was a great experience in reading the Aeneid and examining how Virgil composed such an epic tale in the manner he did within the Latin language. Though I don't know Greek, I know Homer did something similar. And discovering the reason behind conventions such as the repetition of certain phrases (i.e. "fleet-footed Achilles" ) is just fantastic.

But unfortunately this ability to understand doesn't seem to translate over well for me into English, and I suppose specifically blank verse. Milton (Paradise Lost), Shakespeare (Hamlet), Keats (Hyperion), Byron (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage), Tennyson (Idylls of the King) are the specific works that are coming to mind that I've read, enjoyed, but feel like I'm really missing out on.

For example, browsing on Wikipedia:

In Hyperion, the quality of Keats' blank verse reached new heights, particularly in the opening scene between Thea and the fallen Saturn:
"Deep in the shady sadness of a vale,
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve's one star,
Sat gray-hair'd Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair."

What makes this quality blank verse that has reached new heights?

A second aspect of Milton's blank verse was the use of unconventional rhythm
How do you determine rhythm from just text?

Gorboduc (1561), the first blank-verse tragedy, illustrates how monotonous such verse could be.
I don't see how it's monotonous.

Then there's so much talk about:

Shakespeare also used enjambment increasingly often in his verse, and in his last plays was given to using feminine endings (in which the last syllable of the line is unstressed, for instance lines 3 and 6 of the following example); all of this made his later blank verse extremely rich and varied.

Milton used the flexibility of blank verse, its capacity to support syntactic complexity

The "Heroick measure", according to Samuel Johnson, "is pure ... when the accent rests upon every second syllable through the whole line The repetition of this sound or percussion at equal times, is the most complete harmony of which a single verse is capable",[87] Caesural pauses, most agreed, were best placed at the middle and the end of the line. In order to support this symmetry, lines were most often octo- or deca-syllabic, with no enjambed endings. To this schema Milton introduced modifications, which included hypermetrical syllables (trisyllabic feet), inversion or slighting of stresses, and the shifting of pauses to all parts of the line.

It is just all so bewildering. It almost makes me feel that all those years I spent improving upon my reading, I ignored poetry/blank verse and am now trying to read beyond my capability. When I read these works, practically none of the things being pointed out above were things I really noticed. I can pinpoint all the themes in these works, but can't find even the most simplest instances of significant/important poetic constructions.

I feel almost the same way with music. I don't like classical music at all, because I can't appreciate it. I don't understand why this piece is great. I don't understand how this song creates X and Y emotions. Adorno probably represents the epitome of my inability to grasp this (I suppose some might say he was reading way too far into it, but that's beside the point). Adorno wrote works on how this or that piece of music was proletariat or bourgeois, and what not.

When I read poetry such as Paradise Lost, I just can't seem to pick up on the poetic constructions that truly make it a great piece of work (enjambment, meter, rhythm, symmetry, stress, flexibility, syntactic complexity, and so on).
posted by SollosQ to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
It works if it captures your imagination.
posted by ovvl at 6:22 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can't answer this question in its entirety, but you might enjoy reading Nabokov's "Pale Fire" (the poem, not necessarily the entire novel), which is a great example of how Nabokov put native English speakers to shame in terms of mastering the language. "Pale Fire" definitely has a plot (and a haunting one at that), but the heroic couplets are so intensely regular that the enjambment in particular is really easy to notice:

All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs. Whenever I'd permit,
Or, with a silent shiver, order it,
Whatever in my field of vision dwelt--
An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte
Stilettos of a frozen stillicide--
Was printed on my eyelids' nether side...

posted by oinopaponton at 6:42 PM on January 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

I will admit both to having written (and even having gotten published. have gotten published? it still sounds right...) poetry, albeit not epic forms like you seem to be interested in figuring out why you don't like, AND I play in an orchestra. So maybe I can provide some perspective:

- as to long form poetry - look, I'm not always swept away by narrative poetry, and for that matter there's a lot of the more typical one-pager sort in both free-verse and form that leaves me cold. So first, get over the idea that you have to like it all and that you're some kind of a philistine if you don't (ditto for classical).

In terms of understanding rhythms - tremendously helpful if you speak it out loud.

Some of the stuff you may be trying to figure out you might have to get a MFA degree to totally absorb. More of a "walk before you run" approach might be to get some of the popular texts on poetry reading that provide vocabulary of these terms along with examples. Most decent bookstores have them.

Classical music wasn't exactly your question, but it's a similar problem. It's a complex form of music, and unfortunately a lot of what critics and people trying to sell recordings say about it is simply bullshit. A basic music appreciation text/series of videos/course/whatever will help with the vocabulary, if you want to get that deep into it, but if not, there's nothing wrong with just listening to the music, either.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:01 PM on January 11, 2011

Firstly, You have to learn these terms. If you know them already, great! Secondly, you have to read poetry a few times or more to recognize them, in my experience. You're not going to get everything on the first or second reading. Poetry is really a whole different world than fiction. Coleridge defines poetry by comparing it to prose: "Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order." And because of all of the poetic devices, it's even more complicated. Don't be afraid to pick up a book on poetry. Perrine's Sound and Sense is a classic. Have fun reading.

I have a lovely poem by MacLeish in my profile that defines poetry beautifully (Ars poetic). Check it out.
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:13 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

First of all, there's a lot of bad writing about poetry on Wikipedia (though there's some good, too); you just can't trust it by default to be sensible, critical, or aesthetically well-informed.

Instead of Wikipedia, you might want to start with a good book about reading poetry, whether an introduction or a book about poetic form; this previous question and this one have many good suggestions to get you started.
posted by RogerB at 7:18 PM on January 11, 2011

The first time you read, don't think about meaning at all. Treat poems like they're new kinds of food you haven't tasted yet. Read stuff out loud. Feel what your mouth does. Notice when you speed up and slow down, what words you emphasize. Keep a beat with your hand while you read.

Then, think about what the poem is saying and how that relates to the things that happen in your mouth.

Also, don't worry about which poems and poets are "greater" and "lesser" than others.
posted by neroli at 7:19 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

What makes this quality blank verse that has reached new heights?

The bit you quoted from Wikipedia is largely a value statement. It's like saying "I love this song." What the writer means by that is something they'd probably have to explain. I mean, "new heights" compared to what? Ditto the thing about monotony. If you don't find it monotonous, that's fine—you're allowed to respond to poetry and don't have to accept it on faith that another critic is right. A GOOD critic will explain why it is good, or why it is monotonous. Of course, if your question is "What makes these poems good," I don't know if I can answer that. But moving on.

Now rhythm is something you can analyze. Reading aloud will help a great deal, as what you want to do is figure out what syllables are stressed and unstressed. Try diagramming it out in a few lines of poetry and see what happens. In blank verse, more often than not, you'll see very clearly the pattern— unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed, over and over again. Some poets, having set up the ground rules, will then mess with it. Pay attention to these moments as they're often important. Why did the poet mess with it there? What's the effect of that? What's he or she talking about at this moment? Oh, that's cool. Then you'll start getting enjambment and stuff like that. It's difficult and takes study, so don't feel bad that you're not picking it up very easily. It takes work, as well as an attentive eye and ear.

If I may recommend a book by a former professor of mine, Stephen Adams' Poetic Designs is very good and you might find it helpful. For a good critic's analysis of Milton's style, maybe try Christopher Ricks.
posted by synecdoche at 7:24 PM on January 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

What you are missing is the concept of meter as a series of stressed or unstressed sounds with certain rules that govern their construction. There are many short and fun introductions to the science of this craft, which would make reading it and criticism of it more rewarding-- I'd recommend John Hollander's Rhymes Reason, because it is the one (and the man) who taught me: link.

As an example, and in answer to your question of how Keats blank verse reached new heights, consider the lines: Sat gray-hair'd Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair."

The first verse is in iambic pentameter (5 pairs of iambs--which is an unstressed sound followed by a stressed one, represented sometimes like this: U/)
Then when he says:
'Still as the silence round about his lair.'
The first bit breaks the rhythm--it replaces the first foot with a trochee (/U, stressed unstressed), then flows back to perfect IP again. It is a momentary pause that mimics the poets words, the stillness around the god's keep.

Of course poets have been doing this trick since Milton, but it's a neat one. Keats big advances, as far as I know, are more in how crazy long and fluid his sentences are...but this is all related to the rigid structure that underlies the art. Learn it and enjoy even deeper how great words on a page can be.

As you intimated, the awesome thing about poetry is that it's just words in a line, but it expresses, like a code accessed merely by reading it aloud, the music of language. And it does so by the method of carefully juxtaposing stressed and unstressed syllables.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:25 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

What you're asking for is something like a year or two (or more) of undergraduate English lit classes in an AskMe answer; you're asking to be taught close reading.

You might want to work through a poetry textbook. I happen to like the way The Norton Introduction to Poetry is organized, but I don't know that it's better than any of its competitors. Poetic Designs by Stephen Adams has been recommended to me but I haven't read it yet.

Do you know how to count stressed and unstressed syllables and identify the meter of a poetic line? When you say "I just can't seem to pick up on the poetic constructions," do you mean that you don't know what they are, or that you know what they are but don't notice them as you're reading?

If you're serious about this project, I suggest that you get a handbook of literary terms; you can find several options by typing "literary terms" into an Amazon search. The handbook will not teach you how to read poetry, but I find it helpful to have concise definitions and examples at hand, organized or indexed alphabetically.

The next step after you've learned some literary terms is to look at a piece of poetry really, really closely. Don't start with all of Paradise Lost; you could start with the invocation to book I of Pardise Lost, but I'd suggest starting even smaller, like with an eight-line Emily Dickinson poem where there's a lot going on in a small space. Re-type it in a word processor and add triple or quadruple line spacing and two-inch margins so there's lots of white space in and around the text. Then print it out and mark it up with a pencil. You'll have to develop your own private marking system (circling words, underlining, squiggly underlines, arrows, etc).
  • What do you notice about the language? What makes it different from prose?
  • Mark the meter. Mark caesurae, if you see any.
  • Mark up the rhymes. Are they true rhymes, off rhymes, eye rhymes? One syllable or more syllables rhyming? Stressed or unstressed syllables rhyming? Are there any rhymes happening within the lines (internal rhymes, as opposed to end rhymes)? Don't skip this step if you're looking at blank verse or other "unrhymed" poetry; if you take the time to look, you'll probably find some words that could be rhymed. You might not see any significance in the rhymes, but at this stage, you want to just take in all the possibilities.
  • Read from line to line looking for enjambment. If you see enjambment, mark it up. If you see no enjambment, then circle the punctuation at the end of each line and you've got a strong visual notation showing you that the lines are end-stopped.
  • Continue to work your way through a list of maybe 8 - 10 different poetic constructions that you want to understand. In addition to the ones you listed, I suggest looking for assonance & consonance, figurative language (similes and metaphors), sensory language, repetition of words, unusual words, Biblical and literary allusions . . . I could go on. The point is, you should be starting to look at the content/meanings of the words as well as their formal features.
  • With any poem, there are also some questions you can ask such as: Does this poem have a first-person speaker? Is this poem directly addressing a reader/hearer? Does this poem have, or evoke, a particular setting in time and space? The answers to these questions will be based on the text but may not be found in the text as a "construction" the way you find enjambment or iambic pentameter.
That's how I learned to "pick up on" the formal features of poetry—I did the above exercise, or something very similar to it, on dozens of poems.

The next step is harder to teach, especially in an AskMe answer: you have to look at your marked-up copy of the poem and ask what the effect is of all the stuff you marked up. For example, a poem with lots of enjambment can feel conversational or even rushed; a poem that's fully end-stopped can feel slow and exacting; but there's not always the same effect. It depends on the interplay between the enjambment / end stops and all the other features of the language.

For me, one of the most enlightening things is to do this exercise twice, on two different poems, and then compare the results. Sometimes you don't really appreciate the effect of something like strong end stops in a poem until you compare it to a poem that doesn't have that feature. Ask why each poet made the choices that they did.

What makes this quality blank verse that has reached new heights?

I don't know. I haven't looked at the Wikipedia article, but if someone made this assertion in an academic paper (which is unlikely, since academic literary studies have moved away from evaluative claims), I'd expect a lot of reasoning to back it up; just putting the lines in front of me doesn't show me how they "reach new heights."

How do you determine rhythm from just text?

I'm a little fuzzy on the distinction between rhythm and meter, but I'd guess that you start by counting the meter.

Gorboduc (1561), the first blank-verse tragedy, illustrates how monotonous such verse could be.
I don't see how it's monotonous.

I've never read Gorboduc so I can't really explain this assertion, but I can imagine that blank verse could be monotonous, as could many other verse and prose forms. Anything that goes on at length without much variation can be called monotonous.

When I read these works, practically none of the things being pointed out above were things I really noticed.

Well, you don't have to notice things like caesurae, inverted stress, and feminine endings; noticing such things is not necessary to understand and enjoy a work of poetry or verse drama. Noticing them and thinking about the interplay between form and meaning can, for some people, add to the enjoyment of literature, but it's not going to be an automatic or even an easy thing without practice.
posted by Orinda at 7:37 PM on January 11, 2011 [7 favorites]

If you really want to enjoy accentual-syllabic verse in general, you have to hear it somehow, at least in your mind but preferably out loud. And usually what's most interesting are the ways the poet deviates from the pattern they establish. This may indeed take practice to detect.

As a random but probably vivid example, listen carefully to the three 15-line stanzas in the song Tightrope by Janelle Monae. You've got 7 lines in each stanza that are really, really monotonous--machine-like. I mean, you might find them catchy in themselves, but they're certainly repetitive, considered as a pattern of accented syllables.

But there's a marked change at lines 4, 6, 12, and 14. You can't miss it. There, you have lines that shift from iambic tetrameter catalectic to full lines of iambic tetrameter, taking away a beat from 5, 7, 13, and 15 to make them shorter and trochaic. On those full lines, you hear the singer, you know, do a lot more--hold beats a little longer, change pitch, etc.

It's not blank verse, since there's a lot of rhyme going on too, but it's close enough given that the rhymes are mostly just repeated words and not really the focus of what's going on. It's the skillful play with meter that makes pretty long stretches of this song fun.

People who write blank verse often break it to do things like that too, creating odd rests and heavy spondees and whatnot to make a point. And when people talk about enjambment being interesting, it's because the default assumption is that a line of a poem will be a complete phrase--a noun phrase, a complete clause, whatever--but if the enjambment is interesting, it's because a thought is expressed that's longer or shorter than a line.

So, basically, just read out loud, and listen for the stressed/unstressed alternations and how long a line feels to you. You don't need to know the terms for everything--you only need to feel like you know what rhythm the author intended for most of the poem such that you can hear the ways it sometimes isn't that, so that you can decide if the deviation was somehow clever.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:42 PM on January 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

Some really good advice in this thread, and I can't stress enought he importance of learning about metre and rhythm in regards to poetry. I learnt everything I know about rhythm from a first year uni course, and it really opened my eyes/ears/brain up to the significance of poetry. Before that course I just couldn't quite "get" poetry - which was odd as I had been writing songs for years.

The thing I enjoyed doing most is typing, or writing out a poem by hand, leaving space between each line, then marking in stressed and unstressed syllables, marking foot length (feet length) and noting the rhythm. Anything that is contrary to the norm is probably there for a reason - why did the poet add an extra stressed syllable to that line, for eg? How does it relate to the themes being expressed and other poetic devices being used - simile, metaphor etc

Another thing I loved doing was rewriting poems (and songs) in the phoenetic alphabet. it really draws attention to rhyme, alliteration and assonance - and also feels like your writing in some arcane script.
posted by robotot at 8:11 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

A three part answer:

1. Read poems aloud.

2. I have an MFA in poetry. I've seriously studied poetry with award-winning poets both as an undergraduate and in graduate school. I've taught poetry. And I don't really care all that much about meter.

I think it's a damaging myth to both poetry and poets that readers and writers should still be slaves to meter, that poems can't or shouldn't be appreciated for content, that poems should be obscure and difficult to understand and that their value should come primarily out of their form.

Because frankly, I know what a trochee is and all of that, and while I can appreciate how these restraints impact a poet's word choice, it doesn't even begin to get to the bottom of what makes me feel in poetry--the magic of poetry. The whole world shrunk down to a page.

If you want, go get Versification by McAuley; it's what William Logan, who is all-sorts-of-jazzed about formal poetry, had us read in his graduate workshops. But don't let anyone tell you that your appreciation and understanding of a poem aren't sufficient, that poetics are like this arcane magical system that you can't understand without knowing what a feminine ending is. That can add another layer of understanding, sure, but it's only a small sliver of the world of poetry.

3. Read poems aloud. Especially with this older stuff, the plays and the epics, they were never meant to be a silently-absorbed artform. If you read Gorboduc aloud, you start to hear the blank verse--the plodding baDA baDA baDA rhythm. It's almost hypnotic. It's certainly monotonous. Which is why Shakespeare and other later playwrights mixed things up a bit. You can't even begin to start understanding meter unless you get used to actually hearing poetry, and not just in your head.

But even if you decide, like me, not to give a damn about meter, reading poems aloud is good for your poetic education. It slows you down. It helps you savor the words. And it just sounds nice.

Read poems aloud.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:40 PM on January 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with those who say to read aloud. The thing about good poems is that they are just fun to say. Words bounce off of each other in cool ways, vowels find themselves strangely juxtaposed. This happens even in blank verse. Reading over the Keats you post above, I find the phrase "healthy breath" endlessly enjoyable to repeat, and I notice that "hair" and "lair" rhyme, though they are not in the same position in their respective lines.
posted by Gilbert at 8:59 PM on January 11, 2011

Some lines from Gorboduc:

Ne would I with you yield to such a loss...

Is this no wrong, say you, to reave from me...

Rid me of fear? I fear him not at all:
Ne will to him, ne to my father send...

And some lines from Alexander Pope's "Essay on Criticism," which is 300 years old but still well worth consideration:
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.
Don't get dismayed if you can't discriminate between the good and the bad in formal verse straight off. It used to be that people learned the rhythms of iambic pentameter from the cradle. Newspapers were full of hack verse on sentimental topics of the day. Classrooms were full of students reciting "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck" and "Evangeline."

Since that's no longer the case, many technically daring old poems, reliant on subversions and manipulations of then-familiar tropes and sleights, have lost their power to surprise and please the ear. While the average modern listener can generally decide for themselves that Tennyson is better than Whitcomb Riley is better than "Topaz" McGonagall, it's unfair to expect them to explain why.

The only way to claim that familiarity for yourself is to read a massive amount of formal poetry - not only from brilliant technicians like Pope or Keats or Owen or Auden or Frost, but also from forgotten hacks and minor scribblers. (But not too many hacks and scribblers. Reading The Stuffed Owl should suffice.)

While you're doing that reading, you'll inevitably come across a few poems that will utterly reconfigure your perception of the world and your place within it. These are the poems to learn by heart: not because the memorization of poetry is the heroic turnpike road to true appreciation (and it is); but because it's one of civilization's great and inalienable pleasures. You might lose your books, your money, your home, your clothes; your lover, family, and friends may desert you; your health might fail you and your sight may go. But nothing short of death or the bluntest sort of head trauma can knock a great poem from the heart.
posted by Iridic at 9:37 PM on January 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Stephen Fry wrote a rather lovely, entertaining yet genuinely useful book on appreciating and understanding the mechanics of poetry. I recommend it.
posted by Decani at 3:05 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

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