Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


(image: two geese [I bet you guessed that], which allegedly
mate for life, although there are probably goose pre-nuptials)

My goodness, a "marriage-tetrameter" sounds like some kind of medical device. Eek.

In class the other day, a student asked whether I were a doctor. I said,"Technically, yes, as I earned a Ph.D. in English." I should pause here and explain that, in the academic world, there are those who like and want to called "Doctor," as opposed to professor or Mr. or Ms. or by their first name. Then there are those who do not want to be called Doctor. I don't know what the percentages are, nor do I know what the sociological correlatives are, but I do think it's based on something more than whim.

At any rate, I went on to say that I am not licensed to practice medicine but that, if someone on an airplane flight were to have trouble scanning a poem written in a traditional meter, the flight attendant could get on the intercom and ask, "Ladies and gentlemen, remain calm, but we have an emergency; a passenger in 24-D is having some difficulty with a 17th-century sonnet. Is there a doctor of literature on board?"

At another any rate, we have plunged into formal verse in the poetry class--meter, rhyme, traditional forms, scansion, enjambment, full rhymes, half rhymes, sprung rhythm, blank verse --the whole prosodic enchilada (a word that has two trochees, I think.)

I have great fun teaching this "unit" because I get the students writing in meter first by encourageing them not to make sense. In a way they're just writing "sound poems." Ironically, because they're concentrating just on meter, they come up with some wild, unpredictable lines--which can serve as the seed for a "real" poem. There's also a bit of groaning, of course, because some of them had a bad time with "iambic pentameter," etc., in high school.

Physician of prosody, heal thyself.

Because I'm having my students work through some prosodic exercises, I thought I should do one myself. The assignment is simply to write some modified blank verse on any subject. By "modified," I mean iambic tetrameter (8 syllables, 4 beats, with the or stresses occuring on the even-numbered syllables), unrhymed. Rather arbitrarily, I chose marriage as the topic, but really "tetrameter" is the implicit purpose of the, ahem, "poem."

No doubt I committed some "inversions" (a trochee in place of an iamb). In two places, I got too cute and split words at the end of lines, and in one place, I rhymed without intending to. In other words, it's pretty rough tetrametric road.

Tetrameter for Marriage

It seems that marriage is a kind
Of complicated puzzle that's
Constructed slowly but not solved.
One part is lust. It's there and not.
Lust is mercurial. We all
Know that. Another part is love--
I said it; there it is, plain sight--
A deep appreciation of
The other, and of what the other is
In fact, not what one wants him/her
To be. The person will be dear.
Bourgeois, the "institution?" I guess.
If you say so, though that sounds like
Pretentious babble to two ones
Who have been married, gay or straight,
Transgendered. Well, another part
Is laughter, running jokes, and irony.
It is a comedy-routine,
Is marriage. It's improved, a schtick.
I'll tell you, money helps as well--
Enough so that you have enough
To eat, to keep a place, to live.
A certain discipline's required--
No, not that kind, but if you are
Interested in that kind, you go.
Let's see. What was the topic? Oh:
A certain discipline's required,
Some self-control, especially when
Temptation cruises by, or times
Are tough. A lot of independence,
Personal space: Yes, these two help
A lot. But in the end, if mar-
Riage works, luck has to be involved.
You just keep going, laughing; work.
Link love and lust and like and laugh.
You share. You are adults, and you
Are friends. Your marriage is a puz-
Zle--that's for sure. Be sure to live
It well. It's not something to solve.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom
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