How We Judge Metrical Poetry: Inverted-A Horn Submissions Guidelines

The Inverted-A Horn Masthead
The Inverted-A Horn Masthead

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.

Objectivity

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:

1) oox/oox/oox/

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 

More by this Author


Comments 21 comments

hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA

This is great.  The musician in me always knew how to smell iambic pentameter when I heard/saw it but no one ever broke it down for me like this.  I feel like I just came out of a great college english lecture. 

to Market, to Market to buy a fat pig

oXo oXo oXo oX

home again, home again jiggety jig

XooXooXooX

Never knew that nursery rhyme was an amphibrach

When I have grand children I am going to teach them that!


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Hot Dorkage, thanks! Your reaction is very encouraging. I was afraid this hub might be a tad too academic. But maybe academic can be good!


nhkatz profile image

nhkatz 7 years ago from Bloomington, Indiana

Within a language, is it true that correctness of meter can vary substantially with dialect. For instance, are there different dialects which pronounce the same word with different numbers of syllables. [How should "Juan" be pronounced in Byron?] {{By the way, I'm really excited to learn from your ads that someone named John Galt wrote criticism of Byron.}}

Certainly pronunciation has dramatic effects on rhyme scheme:

Once I thought your name was Kerr.

I knew precisely who you were.

Now I find your name is Kerr.

Does it alter what you are?


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Nets, yes, the actual pronunciation of specific words varies by dialect, including how many syllables each word has, and how it is to be pronounced. So, it's not so much the correctness of the meter that varies, but the pronunciation of the words. If a poem is meant to be pronounced in a non-standard dialect, then the person submitting it should mention that.

However, it is more frequent that rhyme, rather than meter, will be affected by dialectal variation, as you pointed out!

BTW, it's not true that Byron didn't know how to pronounce "Juan." His rhyming Ju-an and "new one" was a joke. In other stanzas of the same poem Juan had a single syllable,

Sometimes by paying attention to meter or rhyme scheme we are able to make out how a word was meant to be pronounced in a certain dialect. Notice the word "tired" in this verse from Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter":

I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter

I remember well, the well where I drew water

The work we done was hard

At night we'd sleep, cause we were tired

I never thought I'd ever leave Butcher Holler

Clearly, in this song, "tired" rhymes with "hard" and is pronounced like "tarred."

 


nhkatz profile image

nhkatz 7 years ago from Bloomington, Indiana

He seems pretty consistent about his joke in Canto the first. (Or maybe I'm bad at scansion.)

"Narrating something of Don Juan's father,

And also of his mother if you'd rather."

"Dying intestate, Juan was sole heir ..."


maven101 profile image

maven101 7 years ago from Northern Arizona

Thanks for a great and informative Hub...my poetry tends to be more prose,

With much deep thought but poetic flub...you've shown me how I must compose..

Really, thanks for another interesting Hub...


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Nets, yes, you seem to be right about the first line that you quote. The scansion of the third line seems odd whichever way you pronounce Juan. Is it from the same stanza?

Maven101, thanks for your comment!


nhkatz profile image

nhkatz 7 years ago from Bloomington, Indiana

No. It's a different stanza. I swear the correct pronunciation of Juan makes it prose. But I get confused ...


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Nets, I'll get back to you a little later on that point. In the meanwhile, here is a link to the entire text of Lord Byron's DON JUAN, so that others can weigh in on this question:

http://www.geocities.com/~bblair/donjuan.htm


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

With apologies to Lord Byron, I would have to say that if he submitted the following line to us as part of DON JUAN, we'd make him rewrite it:

Dying intestate, Juan   was sole heir

x-o     o-x-o      x(-o)  o     o      x

  DAH-duh-duh-DAH-duh-DAH(-duh)-duh-duh-DAH

The line appears at the beginning of the stanza, in a position where the majority of other lines would have five iambs. But, regardless of how we pronounce JUAN, we don't get that here. "Dying" is accented on the first syllable. It's DY-ing, not "Dy-ING." Yes, sometimes we can stretch normal accent a little, but this is way too much. It's simply abnormal to pronounce the word that way, in any dialect of English that I've ever encountered. You could argue that the line starts with a degenerate foot, so you can add a beat before "dying', but that still doesn't fix the mess that comes after. The word intestate has its accent on the second syllable "test". It's testate versus intestate. The in is just a negator, and it doesn't get the accent, any more than "In-" in "insensible" would.

Now, as for the disyllabic pronunciation of Juan as JU-an, remember that Byron previously rhymed it with "true one", so the implication is that the stress is on the first syllable.

I just don't see how pronouncing "Juan" as two syllables could save the meter in this line, when a normal line in that position in the stanza runs like this:

"I want a hero: an uncommon want," 

o-x/o-x/o-x/o-x/o-x/

duh-DAH-du-DAH-duh-DAH-du-DAH


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States

Great hub Aya! It'll take me awhile to digest it, but you always seem to have a way of making things make sense in a new light.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Jerilee, thanks!


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 5 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

Oh Dear, I don't think T S Eliot would have had much of a chance with your high-minded standards.

But I'm sure you know better than the likes of him and his admirers.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Twilight Lawns, T.S. Eliot and I belong to different schools of thought. We also follow different paths. Inverted-A was founded in part as a reaction to progressive schools of literature that de-valued and undercut metrical poetry.

Your comment seems to imply that because we at Inverted-A are less well known than Eliot, then anything he wrote and his type of poetry trumps anything we have to say. But we follow a long line of poets who came long before Eliot.

Do you think Eliot necessarily knew better than Shakespeare, or Wordsworth or Shelley? Does anybody recite Eliot by heart? How many ordinary people derive pleasure from reading him?


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 5 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

Understood. I was recommended your site as I got the impression that there was a way forward out of the fog that was HubPages, but reading your rather spiteful "we know better than you or anyone else" reply, it seems that you hold the banner of ‘Reactionary Thought’, both high and proud. (Please excuse my use of an adjective instead of an adverb),

Please take a look at my meagre little comment, and see that I do not say that Eliot is better than Byron or Shakespeare; Wordsworth or Coleridge. I just feel that you dismiss him, and the likes of him, out of hand. I like poetry as well as the next man (which isn't much to say, in this country), and have taught literature and poetry as part of my teaching career, and am appalled at puerile prose being dressed up as poetry, just because it stops and starts at the end of a line, and may, or may not, have a rhyming word thrown in here or there. There is enough of that going on on HubPages already, but if you subscribe to strict Petrarchan Sonnet forms and iambic pentameter to the exclusion of a little development and an attempt to forge into the late twentieth century, then it is your right.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Twilight Lawns, there are number of different things you are confusing here. The Inverted-A Horn is a newsletter that we publish on paper the old fashioned way, and we only print our kind of stuff: libertarian political commentary, romantic heroic poetry, and short stories with real plots. We also publish books, in softcover: novels that we consider to be well written.

But if you came here from the recommendation of one of the alternative online publishers, that's a completely different story. You can publish whatever you like at inverteda.com, if you sign up, and we will neither endorse it nor delete it. (Assuming it doesn't violate Google TOS and carry adsense.)

So, there are two things going on here. We are a press. As a press we have very high standards. But we've also opened a spot for the public to just express itself, and there anybody can say just about anything, provided it's not defamation or doesn't get us in trouble with the the mighty G.

BTW, we aren't some kind of reactionaries that only publish Petrarchian sonnets. Even with our press, any poem that has a meter -- a consistent meter-- has got a chance of being published, even if nobody has used that particular meter before. It has to fit our definition of what a meter is, but we don't need to have heard of it before to recognize it as such.

By the same token, we don't publish everything that scans, either. It has to move us!


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 5 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

Thank you for your prompt and civil response. If I have offended, it was not my attention, and I will still look into the site. Maybe I was just feeling that there were no standards being maintained, and my bruised psyche suddenly thought there were too many standards being insisted upon. As I said earlier; the standard of poetic endeavour on HP makes me cringe... frequently because there seems to be the idea that, if there is a vague attempt at meter, and an obligatory adherence to rhyme, that there is poetry going on.

Forget the meaning; forget the sense.

Once more, apologies.

I will now get off my soap box or high horse, or whatever.

Ian


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Ian, no problem. I can see how it might have been confusing coming from the online persepective. You might say that we have a double-standard: very high for print publication, but very open for people who just want to express themselves on the web.

I hope that you do sign up with us for online article publishing. I think we will get along just fine.


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 5 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

I am capable of metrical poetry (rhyming even) and I have written even a Petrarchan sonnet or two. It's not too easy writing in the saddle of a high horse. Thanks again, for being so understanding.


Caterina Mercone Maxwell 5 years ago

Your article is excellent and refreshingly elucidating. Thank you for your fine work.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Caterina! I looked forward to reading your works on Inverteda.com.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working