In the last century many modern poets rejected traditional tools of meter and line form, tools poets have used for thousands of years, because they found them limiting and enslaving. Modernism was about rejecting enslaving old authority and tradition, and creating new seemingly liberating art. But modernism itself because a canon and an enslaving authority of its own.
But there is something to the modern complaint, what I want is to re-claim traditional tools and devices because of their sheer power and beauty. That and their rigor. It takes intelligence and effort to use these tools well. Modernist free verse is often beautifully inspired, and brilliant.
But what did they throw away, to gain freedom? A freedom that now enslaves many poets and requires them to re-learn basic things to take their art to another level.
The chains of formal meter are less chains than a lover’s silk scarves, tied about the wrists and bedpost. It is not slavery, or if it is it is a pleasant one. In reaction to the past I think we often lose sight of this.
And this becomes a tragedy. There is a pleasure to well crafted formal verse with prosodic meter that can be felt in the body and mind. It’s not just intellectual.
Shopping in Kroger’s with Abu Abdullah Maghribi, he hit on part of the key : “Kamal, it’s about the heartbeat. Seriously, meter imitates the heartbeat”
Recite strongly metered poetry and there is an entraining of rhythm, of motion. English metered poetry does this crudely, the metered poetry in other languages like Greek, or Arabic, or Persian, or even Latin, does this in a more subtle way.
I’m also personally convinced that other body rhythms are involved, like brainwaves. The same rhythm that lulls a babe to sleep in a rocking basinet, is what sooths our excites, stimulates or quells, our hearts when we read or hear certain words.
My problem is that high modernist poets, and the post modernists that came after them, often essentially created poetry that was esoteric, obscure, and lacking in rhythm. They threw the baby and the bathwater out from a 15thfloor penthouse.
The problem is that by the Victorian era English poetry and prosody had become moribund under conventionalism. There are some modern formalists today who seek to react against this but much of their work has been trite.
There are, however, a few examples of modern neo-formalist poets who accomplish great things. One is A.E. Stallings who I truly think is one of the most talented formal English poets today. She manages to use meter and rhyme while maintaining the light conversational tone, even when dealing with mythic topics, that modern Western poetry often prizes. There are others.
William Carlos Williams, a high modernist, tried to find a uniquely American prosody. I don’t think he fully succeeded though his poetry is brilliant and often moving. He certainly did help re-mold American poetry in different directions.
Exotic foreign forms – Ghazals and Rubayyat:
Recently English language poets have been increasingly enchanted by the Ghazal, a poetry form innovated in Arabia but quickly transplanted to, and mastered by, Persian, Turkic, and Hindustani poets. The Ruba’i also has been with us for a couple of centuries.
Before exploring them, there is often some resistance to looking at foreign forms. As if our own native language forms are “not good enough” well the reality is that a massive amount of the English poetic tradition was inspired by, and borrowed from, outsiders.
True past traditionalists had nothing against this, in the past Westerners were able to look at art forms of other cultures and see their beauty as inspiring, some things fit Western tastes, other things didn’t – but what characterized the Occident during its rise a few short centuries ago was an openness to the outside world.
English poetry has always been invigorated by foreign poetic and literary forms, something excessively conservative pseudo-traditionalists often gloss over.
Indeed what allowed the British and French to rise as Imperial Civilizations – while much of Europe remained closed to other cultures as a backward barbaric and stagnant area – was a new found cultural openness to the outside, and curiosity.
When the Occident threw off some of the Church’s old strictures that kept it an inward looking and culturally barren feudal mass, and embraced some degree of “cultural miscegenation” the Occident ended up with neat things like soap, baths, popular garden parks, tea, coffee, rhyming poetry, multi-course meals, anti-skeptics, and other nifty things. What preceded Western advance was a change in attitudes towards the outside world, and openness to other civilizations that preceded the latter attitudes of hardened arrogance and self-sufficiency that characterized later stages of Occidental civilization and Empire building
And as they say, the Pride before the fall.
So it is a strength to be able to look at other artistic and poetic forms and benefit from them, taking what works in one’s culture and making it one’s own. Exploring new forms and other culture’s forms strengths native forms, this is a type of cultural hybrid vigor – done with the best of others, not the worst. This discernment and discrimination are needed.
What can be more British than the Sonnet? Yet the Sonnet as we know it is a corruption of an Italian form, and the high Italian Sonnet itself derives from a specifically Sicilian form that evolved in the Arabized milieu of Fredricki Sicily from the Spanish Arabic Zajal and Muwashshah.
These two Muslim forms, enthusiastically embraced by Spanish Jews and Christians also molded Troubadour verse in Occitan and Province and led to the development of numerous other lyric and ballad like forms.
Western Arab poets who developed the Muwashshah and Zajal were in turn influenced by Spanish Christian folk poets, and took certain basic forms as a rebellion against the Ode (Qasida) of High Classical Arabic, which really wasn’t well suited to a poetic conversation with common people, and also made lyrical love poetry difficult (though the Ghazal came to dominate this for Eastern Muslims).
Many traditional English forms were borrowed or improvised based on foreign inspiration – even in prosody where the accentual syllabic Iambic Pentameter metre was inspired by French counted syllables – combined with the traditional Teutonic prosody of four Strong Stress on a line – with a backward inspiration from Classical Greek quantitative meter. But, in turn, French syllabic poetry is an artifact from the Troubadours who used it to approximate Arabic metre as learned from (and the point of my wandering and tiptoeing around) Spanish Muslim and Jewish poets.
Quantitative prosody does not work very well at all in French, but simply counting out Syllables and intuitively finding a rhythm in it does. It works a little better in English and considerably better in Spanish and Italian, but still not well enough to be used on a systematic way.
So the compromise, was to take the Greek and Roman foot forms, the Iamb, Dactyl, Trochee, and so on, and use them but apply them to accent, based on the stress we give words. Read this paragraph out loud in a natural way and you will notice – clearly – levels of stress and accent, some words naturally fall from your lips and strong bright little pearls, clear and standing out – other words or syllables are muted, or eaten up partially. This is because English and German is naturally iambic –
We have an intuitive understanding of when an utterance has too many or too few syllables.
The prosody of most modern European languages, especially Germanic ones, is quite different than the prosody of older Indo-European and Semitic languages. Accent plays a strong role in these languages and regular long syllables are not often to be found, often where there is accentual stress you will find a long syllable, but so too at times you won’t.
Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Persian poetry all use a quantitative meter based on Long and Short Syllable weights. The syllable weight is independent of the actual accent placed on the syllables.
French and English are somewhat incapable of this type of prosody, though the few experiments made with it have produced interesting and subtle effects. English long and short syllables are too unpredictably placed, and the mono-syllabic nature of the basic Saxon structure of Language, with the bi-or tri-syllabic nature of much of its romance borrowings makes the longer foot lengths of some quantitative prosodies difficult.
So we come back to the Ghazal and Rubaiyyat
The Ghazal is like the Orient’s version of the Sonnet, it is the form of love poetry bar none, but it can also be used for metaphysical poetry, and even nationalist and patriotic poetry in some cultures has found a home in the courtly Ghazal.
Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet, has guided many English language poets in exploring the Ghazal though it’s to be noted that American poets have occasionally explored the Ghazal going back a hundred years, and Goethe himself wrote several German ones.
The Ruba’i, a specific Quatrain, also has been with English poetry lovers since the late 18th century. FitzGerald’s mis-translations of the Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam (a mistranslation that often projected Fitzgerald’s anxieties and interests as a secular and atheist early Modern Britisher on Khayyam) did, at least, open the form of the Ruba’i to English writers.
Ruba’iat are similar to Ghazal verses in that there is a discontinuous nature to them, this irritates some westerners though post-modern Westerners, Germans, Americans, and English mostly, are better able to appreciate the Ghazal’s unique gift that the Victorians and Edwardians of the Previous century.
Ruba’iat are able to express philosophical and metaphysical concepts, as well as erotic and amorous feelings, and even simple folk wisdom, in a highly concentrated form, Ghazal verses (called Sher in Hindustani, Misras in Persian, and Bayts in Arabic) are also capable of this but the Ruba’i allows more complex treatment of one topic.
The basic tools of the Ghazal can be pulled off in English verse, the Matla, the Takhallus, Qafiyya (rhyme) and the Radif (Refrain) but what eludes many English poets, the few brave, or crazy, enough to try it, is the meter.
Ghazals and Ruba’ia must be done in one meter through the whole poem. Fair enough, but every past culture that borrowed the Ghazal and it’s cousins also borrowed the whole system of prosody. Of course, they made it theirs just like English and American poets bade the Greek and Roman Iambs and Trochees work for them, but the metre system that governs the Ghazal is considerably more complex than the prosody most modern English speaking poets are used to.
For inspiration I flipped through a couple of 19th century manuals of versification and prosody, and was shocked at how little modern poetry sources teach things that were basic features of Victorian age versification. Some of the more complex 3 and 4 syllable feet – borrowed from the Greeks to apply to English verse, do fit the more complex quantitative metres. Reading through a Missionary Society translation of a book on Persian prosody by Jami set some thoughts rolling in my head.
The most common metres used in Urdu/Hindustani and Persian Ghazals and Ruba’ai are often variants of the Hazaji meter. The meter used in Mathnavis is mostly a Hendecasyllabic meter with 4 variable syllables that can be long or short, and a few set ones that are always long. The Greek Sapphic meter is an example. It’s been successfully done in English verse countless times.
The key to adopting the rhythmic possibilities of the type of longer Quantitative feet used in Persian, Urdu, and even (though more difficult) Arabic poetry – not to say Greek and Latin -s the Amphibrach.
Yep, the little known but highly useful Amphibrach. It’s like an iamb with a tail. In fact some verse explicitly written as Amphibrachic is often mistaken for a pentameter with iambs and trochees. It takes some practice spotting amphibrachs. I used to use them all the time without realizing it, you have to think of the foot length – not syllable length – of the line, and then count groupings. For example an amphibrach is -/- so if you have
-/–/-/- this might get mistaken for an iamb, anapest (oh my dead Annabel lee!) and an iamb with some syllable sticking out. it’s not, it’s
amphibrach, amphibrach, trochee. 3 feet
The spondee is useful. // so mix spondee’s with amphibrachs.
Pyrrhic’s are also useful —
Now, in order to approximate the meters of Persian, Hindustani, or Arabic (much less than Greek) you will also need to use these two feet, at times.
A choriamb /–/ e.g. “What a mistake” is a choriamb, it’s essentially a trochee /- followed by an iamp -/ but considered as one four syllable foot.
An amphimacer or cretic /-/ e.g. See you Later, /-/-
Here you have an amphimacer followed by an unstressed syllable, but there are additional things to keep in mind, just reflect on them and soak them up. Combining an iamb with a spondee or pyrrhic may be necessary, or even getting OUT of the framework of conventional Western prosody metrics, and doing something like -//-
“and Shall I remind you” -//- /-
It takes motivation, but the benefit is musicality and subtle regularity – exotic foreign meters add something to English verse that traditional staid iambic of trochaic pentameter lacks. Regularity and movement, but with variation, felt excitement. Also fidelity to a form. But how to pull this off?
The REAL key is word order, poetic diction isn’t supposed to sound like a reasonable orderly conversation if the poetry is rapture’d passionate and inspired. The even orderly iambic pentameter of classical English verse reflects an excessive preoccupation with perfect orderliness. But the best poetry often has an inspired diction, inverted word order, substitutions.
Just wrapping our head on diction, different ways to say what we want to say, opens up to our hearts and minds new possibilities. Think it over.
Now, where this comes handy. There are specific meters in Urdu, Hindi, and Persian that are commonly used for Ghazals and Ruba’i.
The reason these meters are used is the emotional effect of the rhythm on the reader or listener. The actual meter compliments specific concepts and ideas or imagery. Also, boring conservative tradition dictated using the same formal meters for centuries. But it originated in the emotional effects.
The challenge of making meaning fit in a strict meter scheme is what adds to the brilliance of the poetry, it is a difficult intellectual task and requires a sharp mind and contemplation.
Since these meters originated largely in Arabic a Semitic language but were most highly developed by Persian and Urdu (though in Africa, Hausa and Fulani both re-worked and developed many of these meters), highly dissimilar Indo-European languages, the intellectual effort of making them fit into their languages suggested new ways of expression, of saying things to convey meaning.
The very act of trying to meter something or searching for rhymes often activates a hidden process in our heads in which complementary meanings just seem to “come to us” taking our verses in strange directions, suggestion new lines of conversation and thought.
Post modern poets, many of whom write in really artificial free-verse forms themselves, are often somehow put off on the “artificiality” of meter and rhyme, this is a nonsense objection – it’s poetry, poetry is by its nature artificial, different from normal speech, the form in poetry molds the meaning intensely. The main reason objections like this are sincerely put forth by talented poets who sincerely mean them is that somewhere, a long time ago, a contrarian decided to simply just be contrarian, and it became a fad, and people followed it.
I’ll probably poke around a bit more on specific Persian, Urdu, and Arabic meters that can be highly useful in English language poetry sometime.