by Kenn Amdahl
A pride of mountains, restless, rolling sure,
Quenching flatness, as the blind man’s flute
Satisfies the silence, or day obscures
Dawn’s subtle shades; their brawn transmutes
The small to nothing, the huge to little more.
Shudder – as creatures near a lion must,
Their life or death a whim, their will ignored–
At granite-fisted rage and craggy thrust,
Made small by mountains, shrunk and awed by stone,
As God or Truth would do, as they are known.
Most of you have seen this poem of mine, it was published years ago in a literary journal. I recently had a conversation about poetry and rhyme schemes and it made me think of this poem. I couldn’t recall if it was a sonnet, so I pulled it out. It’s not– I ran out of juice a few lines early. It’s technically a “decastich” or ten line poem, which is a form that has gotten some notoriety recently, but that story would be completely boring to just about everyone. There are other names for this form– one would probably call it a “Sonnetina tre” or “miniature sonnet” if you wanted to impress an English Lit professor. But then, why would you?
Historically, poems were described by their rhythm as well as by their rhyme scheme. A rhyme scheme is “which lines, if any, rhyme with each other in a repeating way?” As far as the rhyme scheme, this one goes- ABAB, then CDCD, then finally EE. That is exactly what a “Shakespearean sonnet” would do, but guys like Shakespeare added four more lines before the last couplet. This is a lazy poet’s sonnet.
The rhythm is also (mostly) like a sonnet and it has a special name, “iambic pentameter.” English teachers love it when you use words like that. The “iambic” part of that refers to the rhythm of the words– the syllables naturally feel like they come in pairs, the first one soft, the second one accented. ta-DUH, ta-DUH, ta-DUH. That’s iambic. Each “ta-Duh” is a beat.
Pentameter means five beats per line. This is the most interesting aspect to me, because it’s just like music. In waltzes, the notes are grouped in sets (or measures) of three beats. Songs like Down in the Valley are waltzes– you can tap your foot along as you sing and the lines come in groups of three beats. “down – in – the… (one – two – three…)”
Nearly all music today is built around four beats per measure. You can count to four over and over again while you listen to the radio and seldom get confused. In fact, the snare drum almost always bangs extra hard on beats two and four, if you get lost. After you’ve been listening to music as long as I have, this will drive you crazy. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you listen to- rock, folk, bluegrass, jazz– nearly all involve four beats to the measure. Some of us older musicians turn to classical music and acoustic music and foreign music just so we don’t have to listen to that darn snare drum on two and four all day long. But, for most people, four beats is comfortable. Anything else feels weird.
For some people, poetry also doesn’t sound right if it’s not four or fewer beats per line.
Limericks only have three spoken beats per measure for the first two lines, then two beats per line for the next two lines, then three again for the last line, like this:
A flea and a fly in a flue
Were caught, so what could they do?
Said the fly, “Let us flee.”
“Let us fly,” said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
Teachers tend to consider limericks as a combination of three beats per line and two beats per line, but that’s not really what’s going on. To a musician, it’s still four/four time. That is, four beats per line. The only difference is that the last beat in some lines is a rest– we don’t say anything while our brain counts “four.” If you try to read the limerick above, you can’t resist pausing after each of the first two lines. Your brain is counting to four and it doesn’t want to start reading the next line until “one.”
The next two lines don’t have “rests” so you just keep reading them with no pause. Then, after you’ve read the last line, you want to tap your foot one last time. Am I wrong?
Jazz musicians get so tired of playing everything in 4/4 time, that sometimes they escape. In the 1950s, Dave Brubeck released “Take Five” which is in 5/4 time. That fifth beat per measure felt like a breath of fresh air to musicians everywhere. In the late 1960s, TV producers wanted a theme song for “Mission Impossible” that sounded advanced, because all the technology on the show was advanced. The theme was written in 5/4 time– five beats per measure, and it still sounds advanced. In fact, while walking out of the theater after watching the first Mission Impossible movie, I could have sworn they rewrote the theme to be in 4/4 time for the final credits, just to make it easier for most listeners. But by then the crowd was pushing me out the door and I couldn’t stop to listen and make sure.
Poets had been fooling with words for centuries by Shakespeare’s time. Just like modern musicians can get bored with 4/4 time, the constant use of four beats sounded old fashioned and uninspired to these poets. So they started writing poetry with five beats per line or “pentameter.” Sonnets, by definition, are written in pentameter. To modern ears that haven’t listened to nearly as much poetry as those old guys, five beats feels wrong. We’re just not quite ready for it.
Most of my poetry doesn’t fit into any traditional category. This poem is not strict iambic, for example. I let the words create their own rhythm in places, which feels like jazz improvising. “Sure” does not exactly rhyme with “obscures.” Hey, it wasn’t an assignment, no one is going to take points off my final score. If iambic pentameter is your special love, I am deeply sorry if I’ve offended you.
I don’t know if iambic pentameter will burst back onto the literary or musical scene. I do know that patterns of harmony keep coming back, over and over, as young new ears grow into them. The harmonies of the Andrew Sisters or the Mills Brothers from my father’s time are very similar to those of the Beach Boys songs of my youth. Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber use musical tricks my grandfather loved. Girls screamed when the Beatles sang “I want to hold your hand” not realizing that the parallel fourths and fifths that drove them crazy were musical twins to the patterns the Gregorian monks used centuries earlier.
So there may be hope for iambic pentameter. You heard it here first.