How We Judge Metrical Poetry: Inverted-A Horn Submissions Guidelines
Meter in Poetry -- Wikipedia Article
How can you tell if something is good? In the case of poetry, aren't all standards of evaluation strictly subjective? Don't we all tend to think that what we write is good? Isn't it all a matter of taste?
In the case of much of modern poetry that is not metrical, this may be true. However, metrical poetry involves both a technical and an artistic component, and while we may sometimes disagree concerning artistic evaluation, the technical part is fairly straightforward.
In this hub, I will explain what we at the Inverted-A Horn look for in poetry submissions. In the process we will discuss the idea of objective merit versus subjective preferences in the selection of poetry.
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The Status of Poets as Stars
Having objective standards in a field of endeavor is something that usually elevates the prestige of the field and ensures competitive earnings for those who excel. Some areas in which it is relatively easy to establish objective standards of evaluation include: athletics, mathematics and music.
Objective standards are present when people are able to judge for themselves that others are considerably better than they are at a particular skill. For instance, I can't stay deluded about my relative strength as a sprinter for very long. All I have to do is measure a course and clock my run to know that I am not in the running for any world record. This does not mean I can't enjoy running, but it does mean that when someone other than me gets a gold medal, I will know that he deserves it, and that it was not all a matter of politics.
The same is true for mathematics. Since the rules of the game are well defined, we usually can tell for ourselves that someone else has solved a problem that we were not able to solve. (Except for a few cranks, mentioned in the link, most people have fairly realistic notions concerning their own mathematical abilities.)
In classical music, too, there is a certain level of objectivity. Many more people can intuitively appreciate good music than are able to produce it. Simply by judging their own output against that of someone who is more proficient, they can tell when they have been outclassed.
The state of objectivity in poetic evaluation was never as rigorously defined as are excellence in athletics, mathematics and music. However, there was a time when people enjoyed poetry recitation even though they were not poets themselves.They were able to judge the merit of a poem by the effect that it had on them when recited. There were even competitions to determine who had greater skill at recitation.
Just as with music, the effect of the meter and the substance of the poem were felt by its audience, and people could readily enjoy the experience of hearing a poem well recited, when they realized that they themselves were not capable of writing such a poem or even of reciting it to the same effect,
In those days, poets had the prestige of composers and reciters were given the same respect as musicians. Those days are long past. Here at The Inverted-A Horn, we are hoping for a revival.
What is meter?
Meter is composed of units called feet. In a metrical line, there will typically be a fixed number of feet and each foot will be composed of specific patterns formed by the arrangement of weak and strong syllables.
What makes a syllable weak or strong? This varies from language to language. Some languages are stress-based languages, like Modern English. In Modern English a stressed syllable is considered strong, and an unstressed syllable is considered weak. In Latin, which was a time-based language, the contrast was between long and short syllables. For the purposes of meter in Latin, a strong syllable was a long syllable. A weak syllable was a short syllable.
Each language has its own way of determining which syllable is weak or strong. The important thing in understanding meter is to note that there are two things that contrast with each other: a dot and a dash, a ying and a yang. It doesn't matter so much what they are. Without the contrast, there could be no meter.
Independently of the definition of weak and strong syllables, which varies from language to language, we can define specific meters in the following way, using x to stand for a strong syllable and o to stand for a weak one.
In any specific meter, you will see recurring patterns of x and o, as in the following examples:
Read it out loud: "Dot dot dash/dot dot dash/ dot dot dash." Or instead you could say: "duh duh dah!" for each three syllables.
2) ox/ox/ox Read it aloud: "Dot dash/ dot dash/ dot dash." Or alternatively: "Duh dah", for each two syllables. You can beat the meter out on the table as if it were a rhythm.
3) oxo/oxo/oxo/ Read it out loud: "dot dash dot/ dot dash dot/ dot dash dot." This time the one in the middle is the strong one.
4) xo/xo/xo Now the strong syllable come first, followed by a weak one. "Dash dot/ dash dot/ dash dot."
A single repetition of such patterns is called a metrical foot
Labels for Different Meters
The different types of metrical feet have traditional names:
1) ox (or a weak followed by a strong syllable) is an iamb, and when used as adjective is calle iambic.
2) oox (or two weak syllables followed by one strong) is an anapest, or an anapestic foot.
3) oxo (or strong syllable sandwiched between two weak ones) is called an amphibrach or amphibrachus.
4) xo (or a strong syllable followed by a weak one) is called a trochee, or trochaic foot.
5) xoo (or a strong syllable followed by two weak ones) is called a dactyl, or dactylic foot.
There are a few others that the books mention, such as spondee, which consists of two strong syllables together or a tribrach, which consists of three weak syllables in a row. When submitting poetry to us, avoid those kinds of feet. They tend to break up the meter.
Regular meter usually avoids two strong syllables side by side, nor does it tolerate having more than two weak syllables side by side before a strong one appears. Why? Because put two strong things together, and one of them will turn out to be stronger than the other. Put three weak ones together, and one of them will turn out to be not as weak, It's human nature not to be able to tolerate that much uniformity. If you do manage it, then it will end up sounding like prose.
What does prose sound like? It is unmelodious. It violates the easiest flow of syllables. Prose does this, because there is a tension between metrical rules imposed in a word and metrical rules imposed on a phrase. In a multisyllabic word, two strong syllables will never be found side by side. In a multisyllabic word, more than two weak syllables will not go together. In a sentence or phrase, this does sometimes happen, because, for instance, a word ending in a strong syllable can be followed by a word starting with a strong syllable.The difference between poetry and prose is that prose has irregular meter. Prose doesn't scan.
We at Inverted-A don't have a preference for any particular meter. As long as it is regular, any meter will do. Different poems can include regular combinations of specific numbers of particular feet in each line. For instance, we all have heard of iambic pentameter, which consists of five iambs per line.
Do you need to to know the name of your meter in order to submit poetry to Inverted-A? Absolutely not. Do you need to sit around counting weak versus strong syllables? Again, the answer is no. If you write metrical poetry instinctively, all that will take care of itself.
Why do I mention it then? If you submit a poem with perfect meter, there will be no scansion problem. (Your poem may still get rejected, because of content issues, but that's a different story.) The only time we may end up talking about the meter is if there's something wrong with it. In which case, it's nice to have a vocabulary for discussing it.
Assigning Stress to Syllables in a Line of Modern English
The trick to metrical poetry is that it selects patterns that a language naturally has plenty of, but it just makes them a little more regular. Listening to poetry is like listening to someone talking -- only more so! It's an idealization of a regular pattern that is natural in a language.
In the case of monosyllabic words in English, here is a rule of thumb: in the average phrase or sentence the content words will get the stresses, while the grammatical words will not be stressed:
1) The man was not at home.
2) His phone was off the hook.
3) It's good to feed the dog.
These are all simple sentences in Modern English that just naturally fall into iambic feet. There are many more such sentences, and this is why writing poetry in iambic feet is easy in English.
Words consisting of more than one syllable in English have a stress assigned to them on a word by word basis. That is, you have to be familiar with the word, to know where the stresses go. What makes things even more complicated, if you bother to notice, is that some English words are so long that a single stress in not enough. According to some theorists, these words have both a primary and a secondary stress. In addition to this, some words have syllables that are not only unstressed, they are actually reduced. For purposes of metrical poetry, though, there are only two kinds of syllables: weak and strong. A syllable with a stress, primary or secondary, is a stressed syllable, and therefore, strong. A syllable that is unstressed is weak. A reduced syllable is weak.
Here I will show you the meter of specific multisyllabic English words:
1) con-sti-tu-tion x-o-x-o
2) spin-ach x-o
3) re-port o-x
4) un-for-tu-nate-ly o-x-o-o-x
When stringing words together in a sentence or phrase, their internal metrical structure rarely gives way to the metrical demands of the phrase. That's why choosing the right word to suit your meter -- or the right meter to suit your word - is important.
In the following line from E. Shaun Russell's poem, "State of the Union", which appears in Inverted-A Horn # 28, the word "constitution" fits neatly into an iambic meter, as follows:
"In-voke/ your con/-sti-tu/-tion and/ feel proud"
Most of the meter in this line flows naturally and there is no other way to read it except as a series of iambic feet. Can you identify the one foot where a metrical reading does not necessarily coincide with a natural one? It's the one where the word "and" bears the stress. Because the meter in the rest of the line is so strong, it's not hard for us to follow the stress pattern and stress "and". Words like "and" do occasionally get stressed because of the context.(Example: "Do you want the water or the juice? I want the water and the juice.")
Your metrical poem is most successful when the natural reading and the metrical reading coincide.
The Process of Selection
What happens when we start evaluating a poem at the Inverted-A Horn? The first thing we do is read it out loud, to see if it scans. It doesn't matter what it looks like on the page. What matters is how it sounds.
Take this paragraph, for instance, which was written by Roy Moore and published as part of "The Ranchman" in Inverted-A Horn #13: "...The mountains rise purple with far off horizons. The sky overhead is blue, silver, and chrome. The valley is tranquil in sunlight and shadow. This is my heaven, this place I call home."
Was that paragraph prose? No, because it scanned. You can tell something is a poem with your eyes closed. You're not going to fool us into thinking a prose submission belongs in our poetry section by cutting it up into short lines. (We do publish prose, too!) Some of us are not looking at the paper. We're listening to somebody else read it. We can tell if it scans.
Must a poem rhyme? No. We like rhymes, but they are optional, like the icing on a cake. We will not accept something that rhymes but doesn't scan. We will accept it if it scans and doesn't rhyme. But it has to be good!
Of course, what "good" is has its subjective side. That's where personal taste comes in. About half the poems we get are rejected because they don't scan at all. That decision is easy, because it's completely objective. We then proceed to divide the rest of the poetry submissions into three piles:
1) Those that simply don't move us, even if they do scan.
2) Those that move us but scan imperfectly.
3) Those that move us and also scan perfectly.
Here's what happens: We reject the poems in the first group on substantive rather than formal grounds. We offer suggestions to correct the scansion of the poems in the second group. We accept without reservation the poems in the third group.
So what tends to move us? We like romantic/heroic poems. We don't like to think of humanity as helpless and without redeeming value. We want to see beauty, but we're not looking for trite sentiments. A poem can be sad and yet good. It can be lyrical, narrative or philosophical. We accept many different subjects.
If you want to get a better idea, send off for a sample issue of The Horn.
(c) 2009 Aya Katz
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