Prosody (Meter): Notes on a talk by Richard Kenney and William Trowbridge

Here are my notes on another in the series of University of Iowa lessons on poetry craft.

Part 1: Nuts and Bolts

Richard Kenney = MacArthur genius + poet who deals with evolution, physics, time.

So the first thing to note here is that Richard Kenney is totally hilarious to watch. He has a very excitable speaking manner and talks himself into random corners. My favorite part of the video starts around 1:45, when he’s talking about counting syllables in a line of poetry, and somehow he says:

“You could count unicorns. Five unicorns in a single poetic line would, would, uh, …well you see the problem… it would, its sentimentality would be the least of it.”

That was enough to get me started on my writing assignment for the week!

He also has a great schtick where he uses actual nuts and bolts to demonstrate syllables and stresses. Pop in at 3:00 to see a haiku about turnips counted out with nuts, and at 4:10 to see a rendition of an Olde English poem about Sir Galahad recited with bolts, and then a whole bunch of nursery rhymes, and then a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and on and on.

In English there are really just two rhythms that we’re trying to approximate: one is the heartbeat (double rhythm), and one is the hoofbeat (triple rhythm).

Out of these, you can build a line of a poem in two ways:
• the iambic pentameter, which approximates speech, or
• the shorter line, which is like a song rhythm.

The meter is mechanical, “made out of nuts and bolts like this,” and sounds robotic. But human speech varies the stresses according to emotion and feeling. So “don’t worry about it,” he says; “the meter goes along under the surface without any problem,” as long as you revert to the pattern strongly.

“Read the great poems and you’ll find these effects happening all the time.”

“Is it possible to write this way and sound anything like a normal human being? Will it necessarily sound like some sort of faux Shakespearean? No, it isn’t very difficult at all to do this day and night. The fact is I could speak that way for a long time without you noticing.”

“These meters don’t exist in the world. They exist in your nervous system. … It’s not about numbers and counting at all. That’s just the mind trying to understand it at a level of detail which is, in practice, all but irrelevant. The truth is, these things are biological effects.”

Meter didn’t originate just because it enhanced memory, but because it’s inherent to us.

William Trowbridge

William Trowbridge = Missouri poet + Academy of American Poets Prize winner

This part of the talk is all about using meter in free verse. He cites Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, by Paul Fussell.

Free verse still involves meter (syllabic stress), rhyme (often internal to the line), and other elements of “formal” verse. If you’re not paying attention, your poem could “fall into” a metrical pattern that
• you fail to take advantage of, missing an opportunity, or
• undermine/works against what you’re trying to say.

Alexander Pope: “The sound should seem an echo to the sense.” (An Essay on Criticism, Part II)

So it’s important for free verse writers to learn how to “scan” a line.

He reads a whole bunch of poems to demonstrate how to scan them, and why the poet chooses certain syllabic effects.  There’s a lot of technical information about the six types of metrical units, etc., which are in the full video transcript.

My favorite example poems were Kinky by Denise Duhamel, from her book which is all about Barbie and Ken (!!), and Apartment by Rae Armantrout.

His advice: Run home and “scan” all your lines and see where you can make them more effective — don’t use an overly heavy beat for a light romantic subject, for example.

References for the technical stuff:
Rhyme and Meter Glossary
Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns — chapter on free verse


Try writing a poem with the heartbeat (double) or hoofbeat (triple) meter, or with both.

Unicorn news

In my continued quest to assuage my guilt about not blogging more (while not actually writing real blog posts), I am posting a link to a lovely article that captures what I’m doing in India and working on these days. Thanks to reporter Sravasti Datta for getting it right … and putting my queer unicorny interests in a mainstream newspaper!

Gratuitous unicorn picture (not sure of original source):

Unicorn Is My Gender

Since November 2009, I’ve been writing a cache (herd? posse? coven?) of top-secret poems about unicorns. This post contains a sneak preview!

But first here’s a picture for you, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection:


Unicorn seal and impression from Indus Valley, ca. 2600–1900 BCE

The Indus Valley civilization, four thousand years old, was home to the world’s earliest images of one-horned equines. Yes, it’s true; these magical creatures were not invented by medieval Europeans. Or even Lisa Frank. Unicorns are South Asian!

My unicorn research led me on an amazing expedition last month to Dholavira, a sprawling archaeological site on the India-Pakistan border where hundreds of ancient unicorn images were unearthed in the 1990s. I’m also delving into sources as diverse as Audre Lorde, Aristotle, Lady Gaga, Jean Genet, and, er, Private Wealth magazine.

Unicorn thinking, as I’ve come to conceptualize it, has instigated many stunning journeys for me, both internal and external—as well as startling coincidences too beautiful and numerous to outline here.

The first coincidence is that when I began writing poems about unicorns, I didn’t even know about the South Asia connection. In fact, I thought I was getting away from all that deep “roots” type writing that I’d just spent eight years focusing on; I thought it’d be fun to do something else for a change.

Very cute, universe!

Some of the qualities of unicorns—and unicorn thinking—that I’ve come to appreciate include surprise, journey, magic, purity (a difficult term), risk, depth, courage, borderlands, transcendence, queerness, transformation, liminality, femininity (another tough one), vulnerability, intimacy (maybe the toughest!), and ecstasy.

Unicorns on YouTube: I feel fortunate that many friends and acquaintances have indulged me by sending me unicorn links, sources, and especially videos. The videos have inspired me to create—dare I say “curate”?—my first YouTube channel. From narwhals to punk bands, from Disney cartoons to German feminism, the Unicorn Is My Gender channel offers you (ok, me) hours of unicorn viewing pleasure.

Need a guest unicorn?
Of course you do! I’m very pleased to be booking unicorn talks. Please contact me if your university or organization wants me to speak on creativity, risk, and unexpected magic. I’ll send you a one-pager about the talks and writing/performance workshops I give, as well as some testimonials to share with the powers-that-be at your organization (like this one from a university women’s studies department head: “Listening to her, the entire auditorium was spellbound”). In my talks and workshops, I love to share what I’ve learn about the qualities of unicorns, and of what I call “unicorn thinking”: surprise, risk, resilience, liminality, vulnerability, intimacy, transformation, and ecstasy. I’m passionate about connecting with diverse audiences, and my talks are based on:
• two decades of cross-genre writing, diversity trainings, and performance,
• my experience of writing an award-winning book of intimate history, and
• my work as a writing coach and creativity teacher.
Let me know how we can bring the unicorn magic to you.

Thanks to Kristy Lin Billuni, Miriam Kronberg, Julius Paras, Jeff Stroker, Ann Ueda, Ravi Chandra, Irene Nexica, Nancy Kates, Nancy Netherland, Bhanu Kapil, Kuzhali Manickavel, Sueann Mark, Kabi Sherman, Kirthi Nath, Gwen Robbins Schug, Stacy Blake-Beard, Tejal Shah, Amber Bemak, Anuj Vaidya, Payal Kapadia, the women of Hedgebrook, and many others for pointing me toward (or being) unicorns. Keep em coming.