Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Matter of Meter

By Jonathan E. Quist

One of the things I admire about great writing, whether prose or poetry, is the transcendence of the language into something much more than the communication of ideas. Under the pen of a master, the words of the English language can take on musical qualities that influence the way we read, hear or speak them. At the will of the writer, the words can trip from our tongues or stick in our throats.

I don’t claim to be a great scholar of any literary genre – my formal studies of literature and writing ended in high school – and my background in poetry is perhaps the weakest, but a well-composed poem can also excite me more than any other literary form. Many poems I learned in grammar school are still bouncing around in my head, largely due to their musical nature. In fact, I have set several to music, if only for my own amusement.

A strange dichotomy arises, when form surpasses content. I have always loved the contrapuntal music of J.S. Bach, particularly his fugues, which are at once aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating. Some poetry strikes me the same way, with complex rhyme schemes, and above all, meter – the rhythmic content of the poem. While trying to keep on top of the music my kids’ peers listened to, I became acquainted with rap and hip-hop. If you can ignore profanity – and I sometimes can – American rap music has produced some incredible poetry. Marshall Mathers, known to the world as Eminem, writes incredibly sophisticated poetry in his lyrics, with driving alliteration, multi-leveled rhyme schemes working both within and across individual lines. This has resulted in some songs which, in my opinion, are vile, vulgar exhortations of violence against women, but also stunningly beautiful as a work of poetry, rivaling the virtuosity of Bach's fuges, and making the English language dance, if only a pole dance. I found myself listening on the radio, mentally filling in the f-words that were bleeped out, because the artistry of the lyrics suffered without them. (In all fairness, I have not heard or read anything he has done in the past ten years – I don’t know whether his lyrics are still so offensive, or his poetry still so compelling.)

The other side of the coin is poetry that is not particularly offensive, but not particularly good. And that is what’s on my mind today. We’re in the holiday season, and the passing of the Thanksgiving holiday (or, this year, Halloween), seems to put the poetry police on furlough, and the hacks appear in the belief that the suspension of their poetic license has been lifted without restriction. I speak mostly of advertisers, though there are plenty of amateurs who leap on to the pile each year.

Word to the wise: The very essence of parody is coming as close as you can to the original, and changing as little as possible to achieve your result. If you are trying for humorous effect, that is the rule you must follow – unless you have good reason to break it, and the skill to do so.

Homework for the unbelievers: Compare the original, uncut film version of Frankenstein with Mel Brook’s production of Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein. (You’ll have to dig for Frankenstein – the censored version originally released to U.S. theaters is missing some key scenes.) Young Frankenstein is laugh-out-loud funny, yet remains a moving adaptation of Mary Shelley’s cautionary tale.

So, if you want to sell the public a new TV set, using “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as your holiday-themed hook, do not, under any circumstances, replace

We wish you a Merry Christmas,

And a Happy New Year!


We wish you all Happy Holidays

With our fifty-six inch LED HD TV with automatic commercial skip!

Sorry, it just doesn’t work, and it’s abusive and insulting to the union musicians you hired to record the jingle. Even ignoring rhyming issues (and I’m willing to concede those, for expediency), the meter is just all wrong. Try instead:

We wish you a Merry Christmas,

With our 3-D TV!


We wish you a Happy Bowl Game

On our LED screen!

Or even:

We wish you a brand-new big screen

(It’s got 1080-P!)

To paraphrase Johnny Cochran, “If your verse doesn’t fit, it must be re-writ!”
My expectations of the advertising industry in this season have been so lowered over the years, I just tune them out. The thing that still sets me off more than any other are bad rewrites of the Reverend Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. (There is some debate regarding the authorship of this poem; the Wikipedia entry for Moore provides some background.) The poem is written in anapaestic tetrameter – four groups of three syllables, with the stress on the third of each group:

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house

So to the parodist, your challenge is not only to get twelve syllables, but to put the stressed syllables in the correct place. I confess, in my first attempt (an engineer’s twist on the original, which pre-dates web browsers and is therefore too obsolete to post, so don’t ask), I broke the meter several times. (I also had the audacity to rhyme “stanza” with “panzer”. Don’t ask.) Trust me, these metrical flaws stand out like a sore thumbs, and if you expect the listener or reader to forgive you, the rest had better be pretty darned good. Most versions I encounter aren’t.

It doesn’t help that Moore doesn’t strictly follow the meter – the initial anapest is often replaced with an iamb, dropping the first syllable of the line, as early as the third line of the poem. In most cases, the rhyming line follows suit; in some, it does not:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a luster of midday to objects below,

But even if you’re trying to follow Moore’s version exactly and keep the variations in the same place, it’s still not rocket science. Make your words work for you. If one doesn’t fit, throw it out, and choose a different word. Above all, if you believe that your idea for a humorous parody is good enough to spend time on it, then commit to it, and give it the effort it deserves. And, as the saying goes, don’t be afraid to kill your darlings. If you can’t make an idea work in a sentence, take it out, and use another idea in its place. With a little hard work, you can produce something to be proud of. But if you’re not willing to put in the work, don’t assume your coworkers at the holiday party are laughing with you, as you read your clever verse.

And above all, if you haven’t taken the time to get it right, don’t ask me to read it, or I’ll blog about it next year…

Some poems that have remained firmly embedded in my memory since childhood:

The Table and the Chair”, by Edward Lear

Skipper Ireson’s Ride”, by John Greanleaf Whittier

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Jabberwocky”, by Lewis Carrol

The Charge of the Light Brigade”, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Chester Campbell said...

Interesting comments, Jonathan. I used to dabble in poetry but haven't for years. I've enjoyed doing parodies and agree they need to be done right. I recall the last three from your childhood list, but the Lear and Whittier poems weren't on my radar back then.

Bill Kirton said...

Couldn't agree more - both with the sentiments about rhythms sometimes being so beautiful they almost make what they're saying secondary, and with the tricky nature of parody. You've reminded me, too, of C.L. Edson's parody of Poe's The Raven. The rhythms of the original are spell-binding but Edson's take on them is hilarious. If you don't know it, seek it out. It's worth it, I promise you.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Chester -

Regarding Skipper Ireson's ride: Benjamin "Flood" Ireson was captain of the schooner Betsy, which appeared to ignore a distress flare from the Active during a heavy a storm. When Active's captain and the few survivors reached land and the story spread, Captain Ireson was tarred and feathered, and run out of town in a cart, followed by taunts of the fishwives who'd lost husbands and sons on the Active.

When I studied it in school, our teacher played a professional reading, with all the dialogue in character. The outraged shrieks of those widows still echoe in my mind.

Years after the event, the truth came out - Ireson had ordered the Betsy to give aid, but his mutinous crew, fearing for their lives, turned ashore, and saddled Ireson with responsibility. He never attempted to clear his name, despite most of his crew admitting their part.

By the time the story reached Whittier, Ireson's nickname had changed from "Flood" to "Floyd".
Some years after Skipper Ireson's Ride was published, Charles Buxton Going attempted to set the record straight, but his poem was neither as skillfully rendered nor as dramatic as Whittier's, and Floyd Ireson was doomed to be reviled by literary posterity.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Thanks for that! I found a copy of Edson's "Ravin's of a Piute Poet Poe", and you're right, it's a hoot and a half.

Edson lays it on thick, but well.