Syncopation and coincidence: a problem poem

September 15, 2016

Turning to Robert Browning’s Fifine at the Fair as an exemplar of quantitative meter in English verse requires a disclaimer. I have it only on authority that this poem scans in quantitative dactylic hexameter at all – while of course an alexandrine line can be divided into four groups of three syllables evenly, in no instance does the poem appear to actually use four dactyls in a line, be they accentual-syllabic or quantitative.

What Browning does instead is use syncopation, alternating iambs with anapests in symmetrical lines that scan like this:

The tumbling troop arrayed, the strollers on their stage

u S u s u S u S u s u S

_ __ _ _ _ __ _ __ _ _ _ __

Here there is perfect coincidence between syllables with a strong stress (S) and a long duration (__), but this is actually the exception to the rule – take the stanza this line appears in for example:

Oh, trip and skip Elivire! Link arm in arm with me:

Like husband and like wife, together let us see

The tumbling troop arrayed, the strollers on their stage

Drawn up and under arms, and ready to engage.

Each line again has four strong stresses, two iambs and two anapests, but in quantitative scansion there is no coincidence and no regularity. Take the last line for example:

Drawn up and under arms, and ready to engage.

s S u s u S u S u s u S

__ _ __ __ _ __ __ _ _ _ __ __

The alexandrine (iambic hexameter) line is in French poetry what iambic pentameter is in English – a virtual necessity for serious poets using meter and rhyme. Even Shakespeare’s plays make extensive use of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) for speeches and soliloquies. Browning’s justification for using the alexandrine is clear – his characters in this dramatic poem make up a love triangle drawn from Moliere’s Don Juan.

His short prologue to the poem is in the more familiar English verse form of ballad meter, or alternating four-foot and three-foot lines. These lines achieve syncopation instead by skipping initial unstressed syllables in places and alternating iambs with trochees, as in this meditation on a butterfly seen by a swimmer:

Does she look, pity, wonder,

At one who mimics flight,

Swims, – heaven above, sea under,

Yet always earth in sight?

S u S S u S u

u S u S u S

S S u u S s S u

u S u S u S

The third line might be said to have an iamb (or a trochee) with a skipped syllable, followed by a dactyl, a spondee and a trochee, and in quantitative meter there is almost perfect coincidence, again starting with an iamb or trochee with a skipped syllable:

Swims, – heaven above, sea under,

__ / __ _ _ / _ __ / __ _

Whereas the first two lines have a slightly more awkward pattern of near-coincidence, with perhaps too many skipped syllables for any sense of regularity:

Does she look, pity, wonder,

At one who mimics flight,

__ / __ __ / _ __ / __ _

_ __ / _ _ __ / __

The last line, however, has pleasing near-coincidence, this time without any skipped syllables:

Yet always earth in sight?

_ __ / __ __ / _ __

Overall, there are precious few dactyls to be found, but a triple rhythm is nevertheless evident and significant to the poem’s skipping and tripping style, which makes light of the traditional duple feet of English-language poetry, even though it does not take much forcing of the language to impose a sing-song iambic hexameter on each line. Indeed, if you remove the visual device that primes the ear for a rhythmic subtext, that is, the knowledge of the orthographic code, if you will, the hexameter is the remainder – the most obvious rhythm in each line.

All this leaves me curious as to whether Moliere used any triple rhythms to introduce variety to the twelve syllable lines in his Don Juan – but I have not studied French, so on this I cannot comment.

Measuring rhythms in English verse

September 7, 2016

Taking a break from history for a while, I’ve decided to revisit territory I covered closely several years ago and then set aside, knowing someday I would pick up the thread again, but still unsure where it would all lead. Out of nostalgia for a very energetic period of creative writing, and to take advantage of two book length poems I’ve since been able to acquire my own copies of – Robert Browning’s Fifine at the Fair, and Cayley’s (notably obscure) translation of the Iliad. I quickly found myself making notes in their margins.

When I first began experimenting with quantitative meters in poetry, I had a very definite goal in mind – to write an epic in Homeric hexameters myself. But the more I learned about these exotic classical verse forms, the more academic my interest became. Ultimately, I became reserved about the possibilities of using such a meter (although I am still happy with some of the experiments I produced with it then).

In graduate school, I undertook a self-study course on the subject with the permission of a poetry instructor who had introduced me to Tennyson’s Ulysses and Dryden’s verse. I studied Renaissance and Victorian poetry in classical meters, and learned the Latin rules of quantitative scansion that they had adapted, with difficulty and with no consensus on the best approach, to the English language. The Latin rules, in turn, had been developed in imitation of the Greek classics.

Interestingly, neither Latin or Greek vernacular poetry or spoken language resembled, in rhythm, the movement of the hexameter line so well known from Homer and Virgil. Although the Latin rules bore some correspondence to what is now understood to have been Latin pronunciation, in each instance the rules were orthographic rather than auditory in application – an artifact of written literature that could only be reproduced aurally by artificial elongation of the “long” syllables (a foot scanned according to stress in accentual-syllabic versification is scanned according to duration in quantitative meter; in quantitative music two short syllables equal one long in duration). To complicate matters further, Renaissance and Victorian authors were educated in a Latin that had lost correspondence to classical pronunciation (which has been more successfully reconstructed since then). So to the extent that Virgil’s hexameters could be heard in Latin, these students of classical poetry were at a loss as to how.


Instead, they arranged their quantitative lines orthographically – that is, according to the arrangement of letters into diphthongs, digrams, pairs of consonants, and types of vowels. Syllables with “tense” vowels do tend to be pronounced “long” in English as in Latin, and diphthongs and consonant clusters can also lengthen the duration of a syllable, but often silent consonants were scanned identically to other consonants, and the tendency for English pronunciation to lengthen certain syllables in a line in connection with syntax or word prominence was long ignored.

e.g., the long e in “The scene was beautiful” is longer than the long e in “The scenery was beautiful” (Schuman 1977)

The first English poets to achieve audible quantitative meters were those who exploited coincidence, that is, the tendency of an accented syllable to sound longer in duration than an unaccented syllable. Here the Victorian poets experimenting with classical meters were aided by the phenomenon of isochronism – the tendency of English verse to give equal time intervals between stressed syllables in a line, so that in a line running

/ ‘ ‘ / ‘ / ‘ / ‘ ‘ / ‘ ‘ / ‘

the duration of the first two unstressed syllables is one beat, and the duration of the second syllables in each of the second and third feet is the same as the stressed syllables. Hence in quantitative meter, you have a dactyl and two spondees – spondaic substitution being permissible in all but the penultimate foot in an epic hexameter line, whereas the last two feet must be a dactyl followed by a spondee. This is important for the quantitative hexameter at least, because trochees and iambs are excluded in this verse form, whereas they are almost inevitable in English accentual-syllabic scansion (some experts would argue that there is no such thing as a true accentual-syllabic spondee in English, due to the rising and falling pattern of our speech habits, which strongly favor iambic pentameter lines).

I remember in my term paper on Tennyson’s Ulysses for this same professor, I introduced an alternate approach to scansion which distinguished between strong stress and weak stress to account for the difference between prominent stressed syllables and words that only acquired stress by virtue of their position in the line (i.e., because of rising and falling speech patterns and the momentum of the iambic pentameter rhythm).

My teacher found this system very confusing, but I still find it very useful, because in iambic pentameters, I very often feel I have come across a dactyl-iamb pair that violates the sing-song conventions of versification and introduces a sense of relief from the constrictions of blank verse without interrupting the regularity of ten syllable lines. Take this line – here the downhill movement of the water carries the stress away from the second foot, but the need for a break from the unstressed syllables and the mid-point of the line assigns prominence to a word that would not normally be emphasized (“from”):

e.g., “These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs”

u S u s u S u S u S

Tintern Abbey, Line 3

In contrast, had the waters been rolling breakers on the open sea, the second foot would have laid more stress on “rolling”, I think. Here there are opportunities to introduce tension between verse forms within blank verse, with some lines having a triple rhythm, some a tetrameter, and some passages evoking ballad meter (tetrameter alternating with trimeter for a seven beat enjambed line). The following line, for instance, can be reduced to three beats:

“With a sweet inland murmur.—Once again”

u u S u u S u s u S

Here listening for the beat, in particular for isochronism, as opposed to counting the syllables and enforcing an iambic rhythm on the line, yields a more complex sense of movement and pause to a very familiar poem.

I’ll return to Tintern Abbey later, but first, I want to focus on Browning’s poem. Unfortunately, just introducing the subject has taken up most of my time (and a great deal of space), so I will get to Fifine at the Fair in my next blog entry.

“Pervy blin narkomom”

August 14, 2016

This summer I tackled my first real history book – real in the sense of first-class scholarship drawing directly on primary sources. The topic was 1930s Soviet industrialization, and the author is Stephen Kotkin. I chose Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, the second of his books on Magnitogorsk, a large planned Soviet-era industrial and mining town. His first book deals with its more recent history, and I may read that one too, or one of his other titles about Russian history in the transition and post-Communist eras.

His research questions, in studying primary sources, included these: What was Russian about Stalinism, what was inevitable (inherent in the project of governance under communism), and what was idiosyncratic about it? This book is especially interesting in light of Putin’s heavy-handed efforts to rehabilitate Stalin, which can best be understood as reactionary conservatism, an attempt to reverse the demoralizing effects hindsight had on the Russian people during the late Communist era of de-Stalinisation, when so many skeletons were taken out of the closets to be buried.

I was largely unprepared for what I learned from this book, having always associated Russian Communism with American Socialism and the progressive movement. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the movie Reds at face value. Socialists and other progressives were persecuted violently under Stalinism, as were any officials who questioned the official line, not to speak of rank-and-file Party members. And I was completely surprised to learn that Party membership was far from universal in Communist Russia. Apparently the Communist Party itself was made up of a highly selective new ruling elite – membership was tightly restricted, and yet at times during the Party’s history, Party members were the first to feel the brunt of a violent purge.

Kotkin paints a vivid portrait of everyday life for both workers and officials under Stalin, and the picture of a society in turmoil is engrossing. He documents ordinary workers’ adoption of communist values in everyday life as well as their grumblings, some violently suppressed and others blithely noted in passing by the keepers of official records. One witnesses rapidly rising expectations in terms of standard of living, and a glaring gap between these utopian promises and the reality on the ground. The lightning-speed eradication of illiteracy in the early years of Communism is documented alongside the extreme cultural paucity of the radical censorship regime. Promises to meet every citizen’s material needs are juxtaposed with images of famine, sometimes episodic and sometimes prolonged, but never equally distributed across the population.


It becomes difficult to see Stalinism as a civilization when it seems that everything we associate with civilization today was banned under Stalinism, with the notable exception of jazz (which was always considered suspiciously bourgeois, but never quite fell out of favor with the ruling elite). But Kotkin convincingly attributes a sense of ownership of the revolutionary project to the Russian people in this era, and a deep sense of popular commitment to the goals of rapid industrialization, however traumatic the pace.  As a sense-making project, the book is definitely a success.

Perhaps the most valuable lessons to be learned from this book are the lessons of the purges within the Communist Party – while the author barely describes the purges of non-Party members, which were in fact far more extensive. Very likely this bias reflects a bias within the official record, with far more evidence available from which to describe the Party purges vividly. Kotkin recognizes the “housekeeping” rationale of the iterative bloodbaths alongside the vicious cycle of recriminations and careerist incriminations fostered by Stalin’s murderous directive that the Party engage in “self-criticism”, a byword which survived as a tenet of Party ideology even into the Khrushchev thaw.

If there had been any “housekeeping” agenda at work in the purges, it was a desperate and double-dealing project from the outset. Take the example of an official “purged” for engaging in illegal trade with state resources in order to finance his mandated quota of services and goods provided. His motive was simple: he had orders to deliver, and no budget with which to work. And had he not found ways to meet his quota, very likely he would have been “purged” for nonperformance.

The vulnerability of the Communist elite can be explained by the redundancies built into the Russian government under Communism: there were two chains of command, the state pyramid and the Party pyramid. Every organ of the state thus operated under two chains of command, the ordinary one and the Party one, which was to serve as an ideological watchdog and which was liable for the successes and failures of its counterpart. Hence the redundant Party bosses could easily be painted as self-serving leeches on the system, if any flaw could be found in their performance.

The first to be purged were the ideological non-conformists, lumped indiscriminately under the banner of Trotskyists. Later purges associated their victims with the fascist threat from abroad, and accused officials lagging in industrial performance (or guilty of ruining their equipment in an overeager attempt to exceed its production capacity to meet official targets) of sabotage and espionage in one breath. Kotkin illuminates an enduring level of xenophobia and ignorance of the outside world that could explain how some officials were purged simply for having foreign-sounding names.

Yesterday I discovered an anecdote about Shostakovich and his Symphony No. 5 that illuminates the era of the Great Purge nicely. The symphony was written while the composer (living in Russia) had fallen into disfavor, in the late 1930s. His opera Lady Macbeth had been a great success until the day Stalin came to see it, but the composer was “white as a sheet” by the end of the performance. Stalin had laughed during an explicit sex scene and had later walked out. The next day Pravda carried a scathing editorial about the opera, and not until Symphony No. 5 brought the audience to their feet with tears in their eyes was Shostakovich restored in stature. You can judge for yourself what the symphony is about.

The Russian proverb I used as the title of this blog entry appears untranslated as an epigraph to Kotkin’s last chapter, and he says it is untranslatable. But I was able to find the source:

“‘How was that as a first try?’ asked Trotsky. [Vladimir] Mayakovsky answered with a devastating pun: ‘The first pancake falls like a People’s Commissar’ (pervy blin lyog narkomom), a play on the saying ‘the first pancake falls like a lump.’”

This and other gems make Kotkin’s description of the “little tactics of the habitat” under Stalinism a real page-turner, and I am looking forward to checking out more of his work. But for now I am chewing through Khrushchev’s memoirs, the first half of which are profoundly depressing in this context. Over and over again he shares anecdotes about directives from Stalin that he carried out against his own better judgment for fear of the consequences of gainsaying the boss. I’ve made it up to the point of Stalin’s death now, and I’m hoping the second half of the book will show up the author’s engaging personality more fully, out from under the shadow of pervasive sycophancy in an environment of totalitarianism.

Planned obsolescence

August 12, 2016

When it rains, it pours, and this month one household appliance after another has broken down. I’ve spent more money than I normally spend in a year on electronics, replacing products that were only a few years old when they finally stopped working. I didn’t immediately blame planned obsolescence, the decidedly seedy side of capitalist consumerism, but I had to when it came to shopping for a new desk lamp.

It was nearly impossible to find a desktop lamp with a replaceable bulb! The shopping catalogues I browsed offered countless models of LED lamps with bulbs that were built in and could not be replaced – meaning as soon as the bulb dies, you have an expensive and oversized paperweight on your hands. Some of them even looked like paperweights – one had a pencil holder attached to it, and another was designed to look like an artificial plant. The angry and surprised customer reviews all harped on the same theme: the bulb had died, and the lamp was useless.

Looking at my outlays on high tech devices this month set me thinking about my ecological footprint, which has shrunk considerably since I became vegan. I took several quizzes to calculate my carbon footprint and “how many planet earths” it would take to support the world’s population if everyone shared my lifestyle habits. The results were surprising and encouraging.

According to a fairly comprehensive Earth Day quiz, most of my ecological footprint comes from the distance my food is transported, and it would take 3.4 planet earths to support my standard of living sustainably. According to the Islandwood quiz, it would take only 2.9, but most of my footprint in this calculation came from excessive water consumption, which the other quizzes don’t cover. According to Forterra, which sells carbon offsets to individuals and businesses, I produce 7.7 tons of CO2 a year, which is the equivalent of about 1.6 planet earths, and according to the Nature Conservancy’s calculator, the total is 6.3 tons of CO2 or 1.3 planet earths.


Taken together, it’s clear my lifestyle choices aren’t really sustainable. But I’m doing far better than the national average, and these calculators point to concrete ways in which I can improve my score. Shorter showers, purchasing green energy from the grid and buying more locally produced food would make a huge dent in my ecological footprint. The carbon dioxide can be offset with credits that would cost less than I spend on electricity and transportation already, which is very little. By not using heating or air conditioning, by walking to work and taking the bus on errands, and by avoiding meat and dairy, I’ve managed to do about 60% better than the local average.

Where food transportation is concerned, I’m lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest, where many vegan processed foods are locally manufactured. And finding local fresh produce isn’t difficult, although I can’t see myself giving up coconut milk ice cream any time soon. As far as other goods go, I’m not sure how to weigh the trade off between used books, which ship separately from scattered book sellers, and new books, which ship from Amazon’s amazing warehouses together. I buy quite a few of each, either way.

As low-end as my consumption level is relative to the American average though, I wouldn’t give up the luxuries that consumerism has to offer lightly. There’s something liberating about doing your own shopping out of your own income, and that feeling is mediated by the marketplace and the sheer variety of goods and services it has to offer. I have far more respect for markets now, also because I’ve started reading a few history books about life under communism, and the myriad incongruities of anti-capitalist social planning. I’ll probably write reviews of some of those books here later.