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.