Friday, February 13, 2015

Dum de, da Dum, da da Dum

Or simplifying the definition of poetic meter. In yesterday’s description of the meter of a hymn, I used the English saying “four beats and then three and a half” in order to avoid cluttering up the post with such phrases as “a trochaic tetrameter alternating with a trochaic tetrameter catalectic.” Now what I call a beat is what poetic tech-speech calls a “foot.” Feet are made of two or three syllables with different stresses. A foot may thus be (with Greekish names and examples added):

Dum de
Trochaic
By the shores of Gitche Gumee
Longfellow
da Dum
Iambic
To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shells
Keats
Dum Dum
Spondaic
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim
Hopkins
de de
Pyrrhic
My way is to begin with the beginning
Byron
da da Dum
Anapestic
On the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond
Dr. Seuss
Dum de de
Dactylic
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring…
Longfellow
da Dum de
Amphibrachic
I think I will call it the Circus McGurkus
Dr. Seuss

The meter I had in mind was a tetrameter, thus a count of four feet by line, with the even lines shorted by a syllable, thus:

Dum de, Dum de, Dum de, Dum de
Dum de, Dum de, Dum de, Dum.

Saying those aloud brings home the flavor of the formation, with a satisfying sort of finish on a stressed syllable bringing a though to a close.

We could, of course, all decide, the world over, to use the metric system of measurement. Similarly we could decide to teach poetry in a simple way and call what now is called trochaic Dum-de, iambic da-Dum. Now if we speak of iambic pentameter, we could say 5-da-Dum, or describe a trochaic tetrameter as a 4-Dum-de and that trochaic tetrameter catalectic as a 3.5-Dum-de.

We’re not going to do it. Poets will (one of these decades) once more use the formal definitions. For the moment people mostly do not bother. In a Democratic society, everybody is a poet. We’re not going to do it because learning is meant to be difficult, and once it is possessed, it gives us a strange kind of lift in status—at least in our own eyes. So that, discovering I didn’t know how to describe poetic meter “properly,” this morning I set to work finding the right way to say it all.

I imagine people three millennia hence vaguely knowing a little English (as now I vaguely know a little Greek) because in that future people will speak tongues none of us today would understand if  (but don’t hold your breath) right after we finally have Artificial Intelligence, we’ll discover Time Travel. But it would please me, needless to say, that in that very distant future some poor guy will, looking up the right way to measure poetry, came across such things as a “3.5-Dum-de” and genuinely wonder what that means.

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