Robert Pinsky "The Sounds of Poetry"

A Poetic Exercise in Accentual Verse

I was reading Robert Pinsky’s terrific book The Sounds of Poetry, and I came cross James Wright’s wonderful poem “The First Days.” While Pinksy was concerned in this passage with other matters (predominantly how free verse flirts with iambic pentameter), I became interested in using the poem as an example of accentual verse.

First, I will present an excerpt of this poem to you without comment.

The first thing I saw in the morning

Was a huge golden bee ploughing

His burly right shoulder into the belly

Of a sleek yellow pear

Low on a bough.

Before he could find that sudden black honey

That squirms around in there

Inside the seed, the tree could not bear any more.

The pear fell to the ground,

With the bee still half alive

inside its body.

If we are listening closely, I think one of the things we notice right away are the few dense clusters of closely knit accents, such as “huge golden bee ploughing,” “burly right shoulder” or “sleek yellow pear.” These clusters really serve to slow down the pace of the poem, while providing some aural punch.

In the following version, I’ve bolded each syllable I feel is accented in regular speech. Note, I haven’t accented every syllable you would in the sing-song patter of iambic verse. I believe this is the way in which the natural voice would really scan these lines. I’ve also written the number of accents I’ve noted at the beginning of each line.

3 The first thing I saw in the morning

4 Was a huge golden bee ploughing

5 His burly right shoulder into the belly

3 Of a sleek yellow pear

2 Low on a bough.

5 Before he could find that sudden black honey

3 That squirms around in there

5 Inside the seed, the tree could not bear any more.

3 The pear fell to the ground,

4 With the bee still half alive

2 inside its body.

You can see that the lines pulse between the long and short number of accents. And hopefully, you can also detect how the poem speeds up and slows down as the accents are more or less densely packed. “Was a huge golden bee ploughing” has a very different pace and feel than “Before he could find that sudden black honey.” The accent I’ve put on “to” in the third line is arguable, but that’s how I hear it. You’ll also notice how I have not accented certain words that might be normally accented in an accentual-syllabic reading, such as “first” in the first line or “could” in the sixth line. But to me, that’s the power of free verse; natural language and the context of the words most inform their stress.

Accentual Verse in Poetry

The Natural Rhythm of Accentual Meter

I have become a real fan of accentual meter and use it in many of my poems. Some have it called it an “easier” form than accentual-syllabic verse, but for me, there’s more to it than that. I find that the rhythm of an English poem depends almost entirely on the accented syllables. Accentual verse approximates natural language more than accentual-syllabic but still provides a musical pacing better than much free verse.

Accentual verse has its roots in the pre-Christian Teutonic tribes of Germany, Scandinavia, Iceland and Britain. This style of verse had a few basic rules. First, you only count the stressed syllables (never unstressed). You write four stresses per line and break that in half with a single caesura. This form also employed heavy use of alliteration of the stressed syllables, further reinforcing its musical quality.

I rarely use the alliteration in this way. And I will choose the number of stresses per line based on the needs of the poem (although using that choice consistently throughout). I frequently will use a pattern of accents per line, such as 3-2-3-2 (which of course is similar in its way to the ballad’s 4-3-4-3).

Constrict to Expand: Tips for Young Poetry Writers

When writing poetry, ultimately we are strive to provide something of value, something of interest, something that causes the mind to work in new ways and open up the world (whether the internal one or its external counterpart). I’ve increasingly found that setting parameters on your prosody can bring about that new angle, that happy accident, that magic. So writers of poems, I encourage you to discover new ways to shape and constrict your poems.

I think the best thing first is to just get down the first draft, knowing that this is not where you will end up. It’s quite easy to self-censor yourself in the beginning so that you often cut off the ideas that have been percolating in your subconscious before they have a chance to form. But after the first draft, it’s time to dive in and mine what’s valuable. At this stage, I like to be rather vicious with my culling. Young writers can often treat everything they write as a sort of sacred cow. It’s here that you should not only be carving away but often adding anew. It can and often should be a messy process.

After we start to see the real flesh of the poem emerge though, consider giving yourself some kind of restriction. See where it leads you. Of course, more traditional ways of doing this are meter and rhyme. The meter you impose should follow the needs of the poem, whether that be syllabic , syllabic-accentual or merely accentual. You could experiment with any of a myriad of traditional forms. Sonnets and haikus seem to be the old standbys. But there’s a whole world of forms to experiment with – from rondeau to sestina, from ghazal to the skinny.

But the restrictions you try need not be so orthodox. Perhaps, you want to place your poem in the voice of a narrator who is somehow distinctly different from you, the author. Perhaps you want to create a particular aural effect by finding words with certain qualities that emphasize your meaning. Or you might experiment with a more visual effect by playing with your line breaks and seeking out meaningful and surprising enjambment or pacing. These are just a few examples. I’m certain that you will discover many more – hopefully some that are particular to you and the poems that only you were meant to write.