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A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Two Poems by Glyn Maxwell -- Poetry Daily, 4/30/2013

from Pluto
poems found here


First lines:
Together they took the least space they could.
Entered each other deeply, to be less,


meter and meaning

— reformatted 9/30/15

(I am trying out including subject headers. We'll see how it goes.)

I was actually hoping something like this would come up, as I've been wanting to show an example of how meter guides reading. And I wrote this whole post out before realizing it was slightly more complicated than I read at first. What I want to look at is scansion, and the meter of a poem relates to the meter of a line.

Take a look at the first stanza of the first poem, "South-East of Eden":

Together they took the least space they could.
Entered each other deeply, to be less,
to throw one shadow only, to be still
for all the world while moving for each other.

Originally, when I read this stanza, I read it as follows:

ToGEther they TOOK the LEAST SPACE they COULD.
ENtered each Other DEEPy, to be LESS,
to THROW one SHAdow ONly, to be STILL
for ALL the WORLD while MOving FOR each Other.

But it didn't take me too many lines farther to realize that the poem is written in iambic pentameter, and that I had misread lines 2 & 3. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is quite alright to establish how the reader is supposed to read a line through the use of the overall meter. Part of learning to correctly speak Shakespeare is learning to read (and speak) the lines as iambic pentameter, and not with whatever other count of stresses.

It is not uncommon that a line in metered poem sounds very different from the same words spoken in casual conversation. Some of Robert Frost's work is very easily misread, if one ignore the meter of the poem. That is part of the aural aspect of poetry: the control of the rhythms and sound. And, by controlling such rhythms and sound, you can direct the reader toward a certain reading, and even a certain meaning. For example, the lines of this stanza could be read like this:

ToGRther they TOOK the LEAST SPACE they COULD.
ENtered each Other DEEPy, to BE LESS,
to THROW one SHAdow ONly, to BE STILL
for ALL the WORLD while MOving FOR each Other.

Saying "to be LESS" is very different from saying "to BE LESS," no?

Except that line 3, actually, is more naturally read "to THROW ONE SHAdow ONly, to be STILL." And once you de-emphasize the one "be," you rather have to the other to keep the very similarly structured lines in parallel. So I believe the correct reading of the stanza is:

ToGEther they TOOK the LEAST SPACE they COULD.
ENtered EACH Other DEEPy, to be LESS,
to THROW ONE SHAdow ONly, to be STILL
for ALL the WORLD while MOving FOR each Other.

I used the recognition that the poem was iambic pentameter to add another stress to the line. And, used parallelism to recognize that the second line should be read as the third is most naturally. But you should be able to see how, if the lines were slightly different, the iambic pentamer meter could be used by a writer to make the reader read the lines as "to BE" rather than "to be."

This is both a natural and potentially powerful tool. But, it is very wrong to force a line into a rhythm that is counter to any of its natural readings. That sounds terribly clumsy to the ear of a sophisticated reader. This is a very common event in popular musicwhere the rhythm of the music overrides the natural rhythm of the speech, and forces stresses where they should not occur. Good lyricism pays attention to how the flow of the lyrics and flow of the music work together. And, sometimes, in music, you can create an interesting lyrical line by having a heavy musical stress meet a soft lyrical one. Though, normally, it does not work so well, and the results sound awkward -- at times very awkward -- to a sophisticated ear. (Not exactly the kind of thing that one remembers, so I do not have an example on hand. If I come upon one, though, I will add it in.)

In poetry, it is not always clear whether a meter is forcing a stress upon a line, or if the line can be read with the stress, though it would not be a common reading. If you need a general rule, if it at all feels like it (or, more importantly, if it at all feels like it to someone else), then you should reconsider the line. When it fails, it sounds so very bad.

So, in sum:

  • The established meter of a poem can influence the reading of a line, telling you that it is meant to be read one way and not another.
  • Which comes into play when lines can be read with different stress patterns.
  • It is quite alright that a reader might have to go back and reread, once they realize the intended meter of the poem.
  • What is not alright, however, is to use an established meter to force a stress pattern upon a line, when the stresses are counter to any natural reading.
  • Finally, most interestingly, is to look at how when the stresses that exist when 2 & 3 are read as pentameter change the meaning of the line. It is a different thing to say "to be STILL" and "to BE STILL." They mean two different things, as the emphasis on the phrase shifts from "still" to "be."


Of course, free verse is not exempt from these considerations, however much quotidian practitioners of free verse may refuse the idea.


  1. The way you have scanned the opening line is most definitely not iambic! You need to shift the stress from 'took' onto 'they'. This is a reading that's not at all obvious if you disregard the meter: I would suggest that, as well as stressing 'they', we should also linger slightly on that word.

    1. Hmmm. Three part reply.

      First: Coming back to this post, I have to admit it's a weak presentation. I don't think the verse is a good example for what I was wanting to do. That said,

      Second: If you put stress on "they" (a pronoun) as opposed to "took" a verb, it is stressing a minor word and diminishing a major word, which means putting emphasis of meaning on the minor word. When a person says:

      Together THEY took the least space they could

      as opposed to

      Together they TOOK the least space they could

      It is emphasizing "they" as the focus of the sentence, isolating the "they" against all others. Thus, it is saying

      Together THEY took the least space, when no one else did.

      But that's not the point of the sentence in the verse. The sentence is not telling how THEY took the least space and no one else, the sentence is saying they took the LEAST space as opposed to taking a lot of space (or, even, adequate space). The verse not about about how they took the least and everyone else took not-the-least. It is using the idea of "the least space" to create the idea of condensation, compaction.

      Third: as to whether the line as I have scanned it is iambic, it is. It is because the verse as a whole is iambic pentameter line and the line as I have scanned it does not clash the established rhythm.

      - ' / - - ' / - ' / ' / - '

      It is the same scanning as yours, but with two feet swapped.

      - ' / - ' / - - ' / ' / - '

      Though that is normally written out

      - ' / - ' / - - ' ' / - '

      Which is a more conventional way of perceiving the line. And written that way, my way is not a ready transposition of feet. So, in that context, the way I read it is in a way _not_ iambic. . . . . You've pointed to something quite interesting. Here I would give far too brief a reply. Nor do I want to give mere reply; I want to explore. I want to come back to this in a new post where I can go on at length with the exploration you've prompted.

      You've gotten me thinking, perhaps given me an opening to a post I've long wanted to write. So, thanks much for the comment.

    2. I mis-stated something in the above.

      When I say

      "as opposed to

      Together they TOOK the least space they could"

      that should read

      "as opposed to

      Together they took the LEAST space they could"

      I originally pointed to the change in scansion, when I should have been pointing to the change in emphasis in the sentence.

    3. You're welcome! Reading it back, I think I probably made a mistake in suggesting a lingering on the word 'they'. If you pronounce the word on a light, quick, high pitch, and immediately carry on, the effect is actually very naturalistic, not at all opposed to the sense, and consistent with the repeated references to 'each other'. Lingering on 'they' does, I agree, produce a rather more strained effect. Such are the subtleties of verse!

      Incidentally, have you taken a look at my blog page? I am always looking for feedback, whether complimentary or critical!

  2. I have. It's very informative. Though, it is a different approach to meter than I would have reason to take. (Am I saying that right? My studies and arguments would lead me to and out of meter along a wholly different path.)

    Here's a direct link to part 1 for anyone who might be looking. (Versemeter's name goes to the most current part.)


    Though, if I may one request. You should offer sources/references/etc. That's the kind of thing I would like to have on the shelf. (I have found with things like this, it is always good to have multiple voices saying the same thing different ways.)

  3. I have duly added a list of further reading to the end of Part 3 of my posts!

    1. Beauty. The only one I'm familiar with is the Groves, of which I read large chunks in a used store. (When I went back on a subsequent day to buy it was gone.)

      To say to anyone else reading along, the Groves is mostly aimed at actors, but don't let that dissuade you from checking it out: to speak requires first to read.

    2. I have added further detail to my reviews of these books.

      I have also added descriptions of my own personal notational system for scansion: the bulk of it I describe at the end of my second post, and then I add more detail at the end of my review of 'The Strict Metrical Tradition'.