Thanks to Michael Snider for his interesting and informative comments on my analysis of “To A Critic” (The poem can be found here). He suggests that because of their more readily identifiable rhythmic nature short lines can better handle substitutions than longer lines such as IP in opposition to my statement that there were too many substitutions. I think that there is certainly some truth to that, but it brings up an interesting question.
I have heard countless discussions of poetics in which iambic pentameter was referred to as embodying the “natural rhythm” of the English language. I had always found this somewhat distressing, since when composing poetry, my phrases naturally tended to fall into tri- or tetrameter. Now I begin to wonder if the “natural rhythm” of the English language hasn’t changed somewhat since IP was established as the meter of choice for great English poetry. I found at least one reasonably respected source who has a similar leaning, at least with regard to American speech: Ronald Wallace, PhD. (scroll down a ways or search twice for tetra). Our language has been transformed from the highly inflected Old English to a much more word order driven paradigm. Contractions have abounded, especially in American Idiom. Our basic beliefs about the pragmatics of communication have changed. Have we lost syllables along the way, poor syllables waving goodbye as we march on without them? I’m not sure about this, for certainly when I do write Sonnets, I generally stick to IP rather than to the variation that allows tetrameter. But then, I am very concerned with my “free verse” friends’ criticisms of my predilection for a lack of enjambment.
Mr. Snider, at least, doesn’t seem to think so. He says of IP, “no other line is as capacious as the pentameter.” So we have a dichotomy between the fit of the English language to IP and the idea that it is at the same time less amenable to substitution than other line lengths. What is the resolution? Perhaps the type of substitution is important? Perhaps it is the placement? I could write an entire sonnet with headless iambs beginning each line, and no one would blink an eye or argue that it was something less than IP. In the same way I could write one with trochaic substitutions beginning each line, or with the last or next to last foot always anapestic. Is it then consistency that matters? And regardless, is it possible that shorter lines are actually a better fit, but that we have been conditioned so well by history and tradition that to consider another line length is virtually impossible? Not that either, I don’t think. I don’t have any answers, only questions. Which brings me back to my thoughts on shorter meters and the fact that they often seem more natural to both my ear and my tongue. I feel like I have noticed more sonnets lately (though of course I can’t locate any examples at the moment) written in iambic tetrameter, though as I said I can’t be sure. But I have digressed rather far (interesting though it has been for me) from my initial topic.
Ok, back to the trimeter of “To A Critic.” Looking back at it, I realize I may have stated my case a little to harshly, though I stand by my evaluation with the following caveat. The trimeter is well established, and I am not trying to suggest that it ever breaks down to the point of unrecognizability. What I am saying is that the points where there are significant departures cause a slight hiccup if you will in the reading in places where that hiccup doesn’t accent the content. Let me just give one concrete example:
The final two lines of the first stanza read “I have known only two,/Dick Wilbur and Tony Hecht.” I’ll take the next-to-last line first. I can scan it without much difficulty in two ways: trochee/iamb/iamb or iamb/iamb/iamb (I suppose you could also claim headless iamb/anapest/iamb but I apply Occam’s razor and remove this possibility). Now, since the meter up to this point has been unfailing iambic trimeter, I am willing to read it the second way, but the meter has brought itself to my attention. The first way is the way that I would read it if I had no established meter to go on, and the need to accent the first person pronoun followed by a typically unstressed helping verb at the beginning of the line is difficult to surmount. I notice the substitution in the first foot though I may choose to regularize it. The final line can also be read in two ways: spondee/anapest/iamb or iamb/anapest/iamb. Again, the first is the way that it would be pronounced without the influence of an established meter. And in this case, neither of the stresses of the Spondee are easy to demote, which gives us four stresses for the line. Not only that, but we have two substitutions out of three feet! And all of this, immediately following a line with a difficult conversion to make.
What do these significant blips in the meter imply about the content, or what purpose do they serve in drawing our minds so forcefully to the meter? As far as I can tell, none. Now, the really bad part comes. All that has to be done to remove the difficulty with the meter is to remove the word Dick. The use of the last name only is perfectly acceptable, even when combining it with a first/last name combination, and then the final line’s meter matches the penultimate’s: trochee/iamb/iamb. When multiple lines make the same metrical “burble” our ear just accepts that meter as the norm for those lines. So to summarize, not every substitution in a short line is a problem for me (in fact no substitutions may tend to the boring), and it may well be that IP can handle substitutions less well than shorter rhythms, but in this particular piece there are at least a couple of occasions in which the substitutions work against the flavor and flow of the whole.
Now all of this is not intended to somehow shore up or defend my analysis from one critical remark (though possibly to extend and explain that analysis). I am perfectly willing to be taught. It is simply the thoughts, questions, and re-evaluations that Mr. Snider’s awesome comment engendered. Thank you again Mr. Snider. (Oh, and thanks to Chris Murray as well, who commented even as I was writing this response. We missed you Thursday!).