1. Davi_Alan
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    Davi_Alan Member

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    Sonnet - Stressed Syllables - Subjective?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Davi_Alan, Mar 4, 2011.

    Hi Everybody,

    What I'd like to get clear is this: I have a real problem with understanding this stressed/unstressed syllable thing in poetry. The concept itself seems pretty simple and straight-forward (we have the trochee [stressed/unstressed], iamb [unstressed/stressed], spondee [stressed/stressed], and phyrric [unstressed/unstressed] aside from other foots [imperfect, amphibrach, bacchius, ect]). The problem comes to me when I try to apply that to my own poetry. I often try to scan or "dissect" other poems to try to see how the poet uses the meter, so I can better understand it. But it's during this process that I get confused. Here's an example. I once scanned Shakespeare's first sonnet by myself to identify the iambic feet in the lines. Since I'm not really sure how to place the stressed/unstressed signs over the words, I'll make it red the stressed syllable and blue the unstressed syllable. So (and correct me if I'm wrong please) we have:

    From fair/-est crea/-tures we/de-sire/in -crease

    That there/by beau/ty's rose/ might nev/-er die

    His ten/-der heir/might bear/ his me/-mo- ry

    But thou/con-trac/-ted to/thine own/bright eyes

    Correct me if I'm wrong again, but should not words like "bright" and "might" be accented as well? As far as I know, if you get a good dictionary that will show you the stressed syllables in words, one should find that "bright" and "might" are stressed words. So why would they be unstressed or fall in the unstressed part of the iamb in Shakespeare's sonnet? There are countless other examples which I could post it here, but I nearly lost 40 minutes just writing these four lines above. What my question comes down to is this - is this stressed/unstressed syallable thing something that is subjective instead of a constant rule? Meaning, are there words that usually are stressed that become unstressed when we place them next to other words? Because if we were to go by the dictionary and make "might never" foot or "bright eyes" they would no longer be iambs, but spondee, which leads to my next question - are all of Shakespeare's sonnets in perfect iambic pentameter? If not, does that mean that adding a different foot (like a spondee) to a sonnet should not alter that all in all, it's still a sonnet?
     
  2. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    1: Spondee is the best word ever

    2: I'm pretty sure it's contextual - "own" is a very heavy syllable to say, and eyes is equally demanding when spoken aloud. Many words sandwiched between them will seem softer, and the "i" in bright is a nice soft sound. Every word has its own internal stresses - looking them up in a dictionary with no context WILL give you a stress, whatever you look up.

    3: I personally suck at writing sonnets - I can get the number of lines, rhymes and syllables in, but I can't make it iambic pentameter to save my life. However, unless word choice is exceedingly poor - think someone mashing words that all sound the same together - then you'll get some sort of natural rhythm, and can fudge it one way or the other. It's why so many poets writing to a strict meter use apostrophes to shorten words.

    Iambic pentameter, I've heard, is one of the most natural rhythms because people tend almost to speak in it anyway - and I have heard people who stress their words in an up and down sort of way - I know when I'm speaking I might change the way I say a word depending on how it falls in a sentence, speaking it up or down, just so it sounds better, and I do it unconsciously, and only later think that I don't normally say it like that. As long as you're writing in a way that's natural to you, there shouldn't be too much of a problem for fudging it and pretending it is. Use the poet's refuge of grabbing the page back and wailing, "You're not saaaaying it right!"
     
  3. Silver_Dragon
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    Silver_Dragon Senior Member

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    The scansion you wrote above is correct.

    Meter and rhythm aren't the same thing...I think this is why you're confused. Meter is not subjective. It's a set pattern for the number of feet and pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. It can vary somewhat--for example, there can be added unstressed syllables in a foot, or dropped beats--but for the most part, it remains unchanged and does not necessarily agree with the spoken rhythm of the language. Poets may also add a foot or even several feet in a line or two for dramatic effect...I can give some examples if that would help. Generally, though, the meter doesn't change throughout a poem.

    Rhythm is more subjective. You mark rhythm as you would speak naturally. Therefore, you could mark that separately from meter and stress important words, such as "bright eyes."

    Here's an example from King Lear (stressed syllables in bold):

    Meter:
    never,/ never,/ never,/ never,/ never!

    Iambic pentameter, but you'd never say it that way.

    Rhythm:
    never,/ never,/ never,/ never,/ never!
     
  4. Davi_Alan
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    Davi_Alan Member

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    So, Silver_Dragon, I see what you're saying - kind of. I understood your distinction between meter and rhythm. I didn't know that there could be variations from the meter, as you've said. I mean, I have seen instances where a poem is in iambic pentameter, and on the first foot there are two unstressed syllables then followed by a stressed one. Well, in those instances I usually thought I was scanning it wrong, and told myself my scansion couldn't be right then. It's good to know that a poet can vary a little bit then - I think I would drive myself mad by trying to get the meter 100% right otherwise. So, what your saying is - say that I was to try to write a sonnet. I could allow myself the luxury of going astray from the foot in a very few instances, but it doesn't necessarily means that it won't be a sonnet anymore then? Yes, if you wouldn't mind giving me some examples, I'd greatly appreciate that.

    Well, ok, that leaves me to ask yet another question - in the determination of any foot (be it iambic, trochic, spondee, etc), what would weigh more than? The meter (going by the book) or the rythm (the way one speaks aloud a line)?



    Going to your example - how would that line (never, never, never, never, never!) be iambic pentameter? I can't be iambic pentameter because both in the dictionary and in normal speech, it is the first syllable, the never that is accented.

    And Melzaar, yes, Spondee is delightful to say (doesn't it tickle you? Spondee Yupeeee! But evanescent is one of the prettiest words in the English language to me). And yes, I think that in that foot (thine own) both words are pretty stressed, I mean, "own" is pretty stressed, but to me, in speech, so is the "i" in thine - which for me whould make a spondee (yay, there we have it again).
     
  5. Silver_Dragon
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    Silver_Dragon Senior Member

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    Yes. You can add or drop an unstressed syllable in a foot, but each foot must contain only one stressed syllable. Again, we are going based on metric pattern, not by the stresses indicated by the dictionary or by normal speech.

    For example (From Raleigh's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"):

    And we /will all/ the plea/sures prove
    That val/leys, groves,/ ~ hills,/ and fields,
    ~ Woods,/ or stee/py moun/tain yields.

    The squiggles indicate dropped unstressed beats. The meter still maintains the overall pattern of iambic tetrameter, though.

    And I/ will make/ thee beds/ of roses

    The last foot finishes with an extra unstressed beat.

    Your sonnet should be structured according to a particular meter. I don't think you'll need to worry about marking out rhythm...I just thought the distinction was important to make to point out that if there are areas where the meter doesn't quite sound the way you'd speak, or doesn't match patterns of stress in the dictionary, you don't need to change it.

    The meter should usually match up with normal speech patterns most of the time, but not all of the time. If you scan a sonnet and the whole thing sounds awkward when you read the stresses, you've probably done something wrong. In the lines you scanned in your original post, it matches up pretty well, though not completely...which is a good sign that it's a correct scansion.

    It's still a metric iambic pentameter because that pattern has been established in the lines leading up to this one regardless of the pronunciation of the words as stated in the dictionary (you can Google it and check the passage out if you want...the previous lines are all pretty regular). This was kind of a bad example because the rhythm in this line clashes with the meter completely, but it's done for a particular effect.

    Anyway...I hope that was somewhat helpful.
     
  6. Davi_Alan
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    Davi_Alan Member

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    I'm sorry, if I am not to go by the dictionary, then how oh...you say the metric pattern. But I thought that the metric pattern goes along with how a dictionary would classify the stresses of a word's syllable(s). If that's not so, then I think I'm in desperate need of a review as to how mettric pattern works. Any good links on mind for me Silver_Dragon?
     
  7. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    You don't stress 'bright' because the 'eyes' are more important here. But in poetry, if you want to make sure the 'bright' is stressed, you'd turn it, to say: 'eyes so bright'.
     
  8. Silver_Dragon
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    Silver_Dragon Senior Member

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    I was looking at various websites, and I'm not sure that everyone's taught to work with two sets of markings as I was. Is this for a classroom assignment? If so, do you need to scan your sonnet as well as writing it?
     
  9. Davi_Alan
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    Davi_Alan Member

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    Hi Silver_Dragon,

    No, this is just for my personal amusement. I like challenges, and I'd really like to write a sonnet before I die (not that it should happen any time soon, but we never know), and it's been 6 years since I've been trying it in English without success. What gets to me is not the rhyming scheme or the number lines, it's the metric pattern. I've written a couple in my native tongue, but the rules for a sonnet in Portuguese are different from the ones in English - it's still as hard as hell in my native tongue though. I'd love to know how those poets of old seemed to be able to write them with such ease. Nowadays, I don't know many who still write in these old fixed styles. Things in poetry seem to be more free now, and I don't really like it that much. I wonder if the ability to write sonnets, like any other fixed type of poetry, is organic (meaning, inborn in the individual) or if it's something that can be learned or mastered.
     
  10. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Poetic forms like sonnets traditionally required extensive study before anyone was allowed to write one. An education in poetic forms was considered crucial to any good education, and reserved almost exclusively for men. So yes, fixed-form poetry can be learnt, but there's nothing organic about the form itself.
     
  11. Davi_Alan
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    Davi_Alan Member

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    Hi Argon,

    I did not refer to the form of the poem, but the intelectual constitution of the poet. Meaning, if the talent for writing them is a unique trait to of an individual, or if it can be learned by all, due to their difficulty. For example, Stephen King (my idol) opens the writing part of his book On Writing by saying that according to his opinion, there are such thing as bad writers and that a bad writer can never become a good one. I, for one hand, disagree with him, and think that if a person is a keen observer and an avid reader with a tinge of creativity, then they can become writers. However, in poetry I differ. I love poetry, but it is the hardest thing for me to write - I'm not talking about the free verse type of poetry where a poet has the liberty to write as he/she pleases, but in fixed form poetry. When I am scanning a fixed form poem, I can not help but be awed at the skill in which the poet chose his words to say what he/she wanted to say in a brief manner and still rigorously obeyes the rules. This is why I wonder sometimes if the ability to write poetry (in fixed form) is something unique, like a talent, or if indeed, can be learned.
     
  12. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I guess it depends on the poet. Personally, I find fixed form poetry much easier than free verse because my choices are so much more limited. The format, the stresses, the length, the tone, even the content with some forms are all dictated by the form itself, so all I need to worry about is putting in the right words. It's like a jigsaw puzzle; as long as you have all the pieces and an idea of what it should look like, it's a simple matter to put it all together. Really, a lot of fixed form poetry is quite simple; relatively few poets take any great risks with them, but favour a simpler approach that gives them more flexibility within the form (it's relatively uncommon to find a word longer than two syllables when writing in iambic pentameter, for instance), so I think once you get over the incredulity after first reading them and really start to study them in depth, you'll find they're not as challenging as you may expect.
     

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