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A study of Metrical Writing, Part 20: Syntax and Phrasing.

Published by OJB in the blog OJB's blog. Views: 171

Welcome to part 20 of my study on Metrical writing. Today, I want to look at Syntax and Poetic Phrasing in terms of meter.

There is only one rule I need to stress: Metrical Writing is a MARRIAGE of proper Grammar use, and writing in Rhythm; in other words, no Yoda speak to make the meter work, and no wretching meter to make the grammar work. I know, it's cruel.

Now, (minus the headless iamb) Trochee and Hyper Metrical endings give you 8 different types of line you can write using Iambic Pentameter. So, you have the flexibility of using all types of Sentence constructions that exist out there. Here are the different type of lines

All Iamb: Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb
All Iamb with a Hyper-ending: Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb (hyper)
Trochee openings: Trochee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/
Mid-line Trochees: Iamb/Iamb/Trochee/Iamb/Iamb (Midlines Trochees can be used in the 2nd-4th foot)
Trochee opening +Hyper ending: Trochee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb (hyper)
Trochee opening + Mid-line Trochee: Trochee/Iamb/Trochee/Iamb/Iamb
Mid-line Trochee + Hyper Ending: Iamb/Iamb/Trochee/Iamb/ Iamb (Hyper)
All the above: Trochee/Iamb/Trochee/Iamb/Iamb (hyper)

(Note: At a later date I'll edit in contemporary examples of each.)

With all these line Variations that occur within Iambic Pentameter, one can craft any type of sentence structure to match the Rhythm and visa-versa.

It is not the purpose of this series to inform people on how to construct their sentences, but Iambic Meter can match the simple sentences that Ted Kooser uses in his poems, to the extended, page-long sentences the John Milton writes.


The next thing I want to ever-so-lightly touch on is poetic phrasing.

Poetic phrasing is where the poet makes a statement (using a sentence, a phrase, or a clause) and creates movement within the poem by extending and building on the statement that is originally made. Statements and Extensions are further broken down into Anticipation and Arrival. I've seen some Analyst that break them down into further units but I feel breaking a poem down to 2-3 levels is enough. The idea behind the poetic movement is to understand that the poet is moving the poem to some destination.

How this works with Meter is that the end of a beat (not necessarily a line) ends the poetic movement. This might seem all confusing, but we'll be looking a short poem to help us understand these concepts a bit better.

The poem we will be looking at today is "My Son, My Executioner" by Donald Hall. We will be looking at the line composition, the grammatical units, and the poetic phrasing. I should forewarn, the poetic phrasing of this poem is very straightforward. More complex poems will not be as easy to break apart as this one.


"My Son, My Executioner" By Donald Hall.

My son, my executioner,
I take you in my arms,
Quiet and small and just astir
And Whom my body warms.

Sweet death, small son, out instrument
Of immortality,
Your cries and hunger document
our bodily decay.

We twenty-five and twenty-two
Who seemed to live forever
Observe enduring life in you
And start to die together.


My son, my executioner,
Grammatically this is an address followed by an Appositive phrase. This first line acts as the Anticipation of the statement. We know who the poet is addressing, and what he thinks of his son, but what does he wish to tell his son? This line is Also Iambic Tera meter.

I take you in my arms,
Here is the arrival of the Statement, and it is a beautiful juxtaposition. The poet is addressing someone he calls his 'executioner' and yet takes his son lovingly in his arms. Grammatically, This is the main Clause of this sentence. Metrically this is Iambic Tri-meter. The poem's lines alternate between 4 and 3 beats.

Quiet and small and just astir
Grammatically, this is an object complement (a phrase that describes a direct object.) It also serves as the Anticipation of the extension. After all, we are building on the main clause. This line also starts with a trochee. The scan being Trochee/Iamb/Iamb/Iamb.

And Whom my body warms.
This line is a continuation of the object complement with a noun dependent clause. The Arrival of the Extension shows such love for his son.

Sweet death, small son, our instrument
Grammatically this line is gorgeous. It is an Address followed by TWO appositive phrases. It serves as the Anticipation of the statement as it leaves the question of 'Our instrument for what?" Also, the first half of the line is very slow, while the second half picks up speed. 3/4, 3/4, 1/4, 1/2. Is the Numbering for this line.

Of immortality,
This line is an adjective prepositional phrase modifying instrument. It acts as the arrival for the Statement as it answers the implied question from the previous line.

Your cries and hunger document -Extension Anticipation.
This line has a double subject and a verb.

our bodily decay.- Extension Arrival.
This whole line is a direct object.

We twenty-five and twenty-two- Statement Anni
Subject + Appositive phrase.

Who seemed to live forever- I feel this is a continuation of the Statement Anticipation.
Dependent adjective clause.

Observe enduring life in you -This line acts as the arrival of the statement.
Grammatically this line acts as the first predicate.

And start// to die together. -This is an extension of the statement and has both the anticipation and the arrival (marked with //) and this line acts as the second predicate.

This might seem all confusing, but keep this in mind as when you add Rhetoric to Metrical writing, you need to be aware of how to build phrases. Rhetoric -which will be its own series- is a type of writing where you try to get an audience to agree with a certain point of view.


Well people, this pretty much finishes up my look at Metrical writing. Next week I'll be scanning a poem that puts to use almost everything I've covered in this series as the conclusion.


If you have any questions or thoughts, please leave a comment or a like.

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