It’s Always the Time for Meter and Rhyme

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From The Wall Street Journal:

When my sister was in the sixth grade, she had to memorize the poem “Crossing the Bar” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It was the 1950s and my mother, quite modern, was dismayed. To her, rote memorization wasn’t education. The poem was terribly old-fashioned, and it was about death. My mother’s views back then are now standard.

In ancient times, poetry was part of ritual, not only to placate the gods but as to pass history along. Meter and rhyme made it easy to learn.

Now that we have books and electronics, we can remember without meter and rhyme. But they’re still part of us. An echo of the early uses of poetry can be found in nursery rhymes and in such children’s stories as “The Cat in the Hat.” Parents quickly learn that toddlers love rhymes and can readily repeat them.

But poetry has mostly narrowed to small, constrained passages in intellectual magazines like the New Yorker or the Atlantic. It isn’t for the masses. Shakespeare is mostly ignored. The beguiling rhythms of Amanda Gorman’s poetry are available on special occasions only.

A valiant effort to bring back poetry was Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.” For many years he read a poem on National Public Radio each morning. Another current effort is Poetry Magazine’s poem sent daily by email at no charge. The featured verse is by a contemporary writer on weekdays, a past one on weekends. The magazine has been especially valuable in bringing back little-known poetry by early-20th-century African-American poets.

But a poem sent by email that’s not read aloud must have a small audience. And I don’t know of any poetry clubs comparable to the book clubs that meet monthly around the country.

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Mr. Keillor put some of the blame on T.S. Eliot—perhaps as a stand-in for many modern poets: “Eliot was in a lousy marriage. He was so unhappy, so he took it out on the rest of us. But that doesn’t give you an excuse to be dreary.”

So what can help us when someone does cross the bar? Can poetry soothe? One attraction of funerals is that they are public rituals, and there is the poetic writing of the Bible along with sacred music.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

4 thoughts on “It’s Always the Time for Meter and Rhyme”

  1. Thanks for the examples.

    Iambic Tetrameter is one of the absolutely authentic native rhythms of English, and we know it most subliminally from the alternating 4-beat/3-beat+pause lines of traditional ballads (in unstressed-stressed pairs):

    | – or – |
    “She PUT not ON the BLACK cloTHING,/she PUT not ON the BROWN,/
    but SHE put ON the SHIM’ring GOLD/to RIDE through EDIN’brough TOWN.”),

    which the Emily Dickinson examples also do

    (“BeCAUSE I COULD not STOP for DEATH/he KINDly STOPPED for ME”),

    as well as The Yellow Rose of Texas (being a conventional “ballad” of the more modern sort), not to mention “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord” and thousands of similar religious and marching songs (e.g., “The Girl I Left Behind Me”).

    If you want to write something easy to memorize in English, iambic tetramer is your best choice (Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter not withstanding).

    • K. – I believe this may be the first prosody comment that has appeared on TPV. It certainly is the only one I remember.

      Thank you and congratulations!

  2. My god! Those people reading Emily Dickinson are the dullest people I ever heard.

    Babylon 5 had an episode where they read Emily Dickinson to the tune of the Yellow Rose of Texas. Can’t find the Babylon 5 example, but here is one that’s close enough.

    The Yellow Death of Texas

    It works better when one person is doing it. Yikes!

    Emily Dickinson

    Any Emily Dickinson poem fits perfectly to the tune. It gives the poems life and verve. Try it.

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