Poetry Sunday: “Prepositional,” by Lorna Knowles Blake

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
A most unique poem for Valentine’s Day, “Prepositional” offers an opportunity to discuss Anglo-Saxon poetry and accentual verse, the form that gave birth to the accentual-syllabic meter that prevails in English poetry today. Also called strong-stress or alliterative-stress meter, the rhythmic structure of the Anglo-Saxon line is marshaled by means of stress and alliteration. Each line is divided by a strong medial pause into two parts called distiches, with two heavy stresses in each half-line. One or more, and usually both, of the stressed syllables in the first distich alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second distich. The number of stresses in each line is fixed at four, but the number of slack (unstressed) syllables is not, and line lengths can vary considerably.
In contrast, accentual-syllabic meter counts syllables as well as stresses and is what gave rise to the modern system of scansion that organizes lines into feet containing an iamb [~ /], anapest [~ ~ /], trochee [/ ~] , or dactyl [/~ ~], and then counts those feet to give the meter a name. By way of example, iambic pentameter describes a line organized into five (“penta-”) feet containing mostly iambs, an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable [~ /].
Until I understood “Prepositional” to be inspired or at least influenced by accentual meter, I wrestled mightily with trying to scan it. Able to identify a minimum of three stresses per line, I first scanned it as iambic trimeter with a good many trochaic and dactylic inversions, just enough to make me doubt the advisability of calling it iambic. A problem with calling today’s poem trimeter, though, is that many lines undeniably have four syllables instead of three.
In fact, I could see an argument for four stresses in every line except 1, 6, 7, and 9. Scanning the poem in tetrameter, though, raised a host of new problems. Like trimeter, tetrameter is an accentual-syllabic system that requires a scanner to count syllables as well as beats (stresses) and then to measure them off into “feet” containing an iamb, trochee, anapest, or dactyl. The lines in “Prepositional” resist such classification because nearly every one includes an “orphan foot,” that is, a foot containing just half of an iamb or trochee. Conventional scansion accounts for such lines by calling them “catalectic”—headless if the incomplete foot happens at the beginning of the line and footless if it happens at the end. Confusingly, the same line can scan as either headless catalectic or footless catalectic, depending on whether the scanner begins her work at the front end or back end of the line.
I can scan Prepositional” either as headless catalectic trochaic tetrameter or footless iambic tetrameter, in both cases with many inverted feet within the lines and with either the first or last foot missing a syllable. That is, when I called the poem trochaic, I wound up with several iambic or anapestic feet, and when I called it iambic, I found a number of trochaic or dactylic feet, and both versions contained orphan feet. Any time the exceptions begin to swallow a rule like this, you have to start to doubt application of the rule, right? And, whether I identified the meter as trimeter or tetrameter, I still had a very hard time taking the next step to decide whether the prevailing meter was rising (iambic or anapestic) or falling (trochaic or dactylic). I finally realized that this is because there is no prevailing pattern—meter both rises and falls in this poem—and that is when I decided that the meter resembles accentual more than accentual-syllabic meter.
The larger point here is that the meter continuously fluctuates, creating a shimmer effect that reinforces “Prepositional’s” meaning and mood. A pattern is present, but it is elusive and incorporates metrical wobble, resulting in something more formal than free verse but less formal than any of the meters named above. Metrical wobble is an important and effective feature of today’s poem, and another factor contributing to it is a preponderance of feminine line endings. In prosody (the study of poetic form), a “masculine ending” describes a line ending in a stressed syllable and a “feminine ending” describes a line ending in a stress-less syllable. Here, lines 1, 4, 7, 8, 9, and 13 have feminine endings; also lines 3,6,10, and 11 if we elect to read certain end words (identified as “kenning-inspired” below) as trochees [/ ~] instead of spondees [/ /], in which case, only four of the poem’s 14 lines—2, 5, 12, and 14—have masculine or “hard” endings. Again, the larger point here is that the many feminine endings contribute to the feeling of unbalance and instability.

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