Friday, January 1, 2010

Teaching Meter

This is the lesson I’ve been working on the past couple semesters, and I think it finally works pretty well.  The main idea is just to expose them to meter and to give them the freedom and confidence to play around with it.  If you find ways to improve or condense the lesson, please let me know.  --Ryan

Explanation of iambic pentameter and language
•    English is a stressed-syllabic language very similar to German – we naturally speak with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables (the “Nazi Staccato” used to stereotype German in old war movies is a result of this effect being exaggerated)
•    When people converse, they generally speak in short exchanges.  Ten syllables is relatively close to how much a person might say before expecting another to speak.  (for chemistry or physics students, you can think of this as a “quantum” of conversation…)
•    Romantic languages also have stressed syllables, but these stresses are determined by position in a sentence and not by relation to other words.
•    In languages such as Japanese, no syllables are stressed in relation to other syllables, so iambic (or trochaic, dactylic, etc) patterns are nonexistent in poetry.
•    In German, plays from Shakespeare’s time were often written in iambic pentameter.  German sonnets and other poems also relied heavily on meter.

For Reference (students don’t need to memorize, just need to know they exist):
Iamb (Iambic)        Unstressed + Stressed            Two Syllables
Trochee (Trochaic)    Stressed + Unstressed            Two Syllables
Spondee (Spondaic)    Stressed + Stressed            Two Syllables
Anapest (Anapestic)    Unstressed + Unstressed + Stressed        Three Syllables
Dactyl (Dactylic)        Stressed + Unstressed + Unstressed        Three Syllables

Demonstrations of Meter
Live demonstration is the best way to reveal the inner workings of meter.  For science students, you can compare this to poetic vivisection (real-time dissection of a living, breathing poem…perhaps even a purple dinosaur…)

Demo 1 – The Barney Song:
o    I love you, you love me (Anapestic)
o    We’re a hap-py fa-mil-y (iambic/trochaic)
o    With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, (Changing meter – note the way the anapestic portions split the line into two natural sections)
o    Won’t you say you love me too? (iambic/trochaic)

Demo 2 – Dialoge: A change in stress changes the meaning of a sentence:
    “What did he do?” (i.e. What scandal did that politician pull off this time?)
    “What did he do?” (i.e. I don’t believe the explanation you just gave me – what in God’s name that that idiot actually do?)
    “And what did she do?” (i.e. How did his wife respond?)
Demo 3 – Ask students to provide an example sentence
Any kind of natural sentence will work (don’t use a quote from literature or movies, though).  Write it on the board.  Ask them to identify which syllables are stressed (and encourage discussion when not everyone agrees).  Point out that multiple stresses are possible, and that some changes in stress may change the meaning or impact of the sentence.  Use stressed/unstressed marks above the syllables to show which ones are stressed and which ones are unstressed.

Now discuss the “shortcuts” to identifying which syllables will be stressed and unstressed in natural speech.
•    Polysyllabic words: the stress in these words is carved by God and cannot be changed.  Example: Zom-bies and Were-wolves are always trochaic.  zom-BEES and were-WOLVES simply don’t sound right.  Sounds like some kind of timber wolves went after the beekeeper.
•    Single-syllable words: stress is determined by word type and position in the sentence.
•    Nouns and Verbs: these are the most important words in a sentence, and they are generally stressed.
•    Adjectives and adverbs: these are middling words.  They will be stressed or unstressed depending on their importance in expressing meaning:
•    “My car is blue.” (i.e. “Only a sicko like you would get a forest green Hybrid” – the emphasis is on differentiating my tastes from yours.)
•    “My car is blue.” (i.e. “The reason you can’t find the green shrubbery parked in front of my house is because it’s green and not blue, you idiot” – emphasis is on differentiating the car from the shrubbery.)
•    Conjunctions and Prepositions: These are the least important words.  They are almost always unstressed.  Placing them beside one another can be used to provide a length of unstressed sentence.
•    Articles: These are even less important.  You can bully them around, rearranging them to shift the meter within your sentence.

    Exceptions to these rules happen all the time – they are guidelines only.  It’s important to remember that all words in a sentence carry a natural stress, and that you cannot force stress on words to “make” them fit the needs of your meter.  A poem is considered metrical because the words are arranged to create the stress – a poem that requires stress to be forced has not been written in meter.

Return to the Barney Song Example
Note which words are stressed and unstressed and how this relates to their grammatical role in each line.

Now use these shortcuts to rearrange the example sentence into something poetic.
    Change the word order to put the sentence into iambic pentameter.  Add or remove words as needed, but keep the meaning the same.
    Now rearrange the words in such a way that the stress will make the words take on a sarcastic meaning.
    Then rearrange them to convey emotions like anger, hope, sadness, and resignation. (Depending on the sentence, only one or two might be doable).

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