Tag Archives: Timothy Steele

Poetic meter: maths and music

I just finished reading Timothy Steele’s excellent book on prosody, all the fun’s in how you say a thing. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in writing or reading metrical verse. Reading through the table of contents, I had some initial misgivings about, for example, a 35-page chapter on the history of elision; but it turned out to be a gripping read.

One of the main lessons I took away from the book was not to think about metrical stress as a binary on/off, but as a range of numerical values. Steele suggests 4 as a handy number, but you could think about it as a musical scale or any range of intensities. An iambic foot should always have the second beat stronger than the first, but emphasis between feet can vary up and down like a mountain range. He gives this line as an example, where the last 4 beats he would assign stress levels 1-2-3-4, so the weak beat of the last foot is stronger than the strong beat of the penultimate foot: “Drink to me only with thine eyes”.  As well as the initial trochaic inversion, the varying stress strength gives the line its driving shape.

People who dislike metrical poetry often see it as a plodding kettle drum – da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum — but the English language is more melodic than that. Cadences rise and fall and vary like a tune, but meter provides the overall beat. Free verse likes to dispense with that, but the result often strikes my ear like Spinal Tap’s Freeform Jazz Odyssey. So very modern. So very dated.

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Forewarned by the Forward

Two more recent reads… Timothy Steele is one of the founder members of the Expansive Poetry movement I sort of belong to, so I was interested to read his first collection, Uncertainties and Rest. I particularly enjoyed his epigrams – I always like to see a mix of funny and serious poems in a book, and it’s especially brave in a first collection. The feel of New England was captured well in many of his serious poems. But like New England, they could be a bit cold and bleak for my taste. Still, I’d read more.

The other book was highlights of poems from a recent Forward Prize competition (2010?). This is probably the biggest annual British prize – I don’t think you submit to it, I think the winners are culled from books published. They name the poetry book of the year, best individual poems, and best first collection. I disliked most of it, which is a pretty good indication I will never win such a prize. Even so, it was good to be exposed to a lot of different well-regarded modern writers, and the occasional poem was striking. Afterwards I sought out a book by Derek Mahon, because one of his was my favourite of the lot. And then it turned out I had just been reading his poem ‘Antarctica’, which bears some similarity to my recent poem on Iceland.

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