U.Va. Professor Helps Students Examine Poetry 'For Better for Verse'

February 02, 2010

February 2, 2010 — University of Virginia English professor Herbert "Chip" Tucker wants to help students learn how to "X-ray" poetry. And he has created the equipment to make it possible.

Tucker, John C. Coleman Professor of English, has put together a Web site, "For Better for Verse," which he describes as an interactive learning tool that can help students understand what makes metered poetry in English tick. In addition to helping college students, he said it could also be useful to high school and graduate students, and other teachers. Access to the Web site is free.

Since the 14th century, poets writing in English have used accentual-syllabic meter – the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – to form a poem's structure. Although that changed in the 20th century, when poets widely began using "free verse" – free of the constraints of rhyme and meter – these elements are still important in understanding poems and many poets still employ them.

"Most of the great poetry in English is written in meter," Tucker said.

Studying the elements that go into making a poem is called "prosody." Part of that study is analyzing a poem's meter and rhyme, called "scansion." Scansion is what Tucker is referring to when he talks about "taking an X-ray of the architecture of verse."

"This inner structure arises from the interplay of meter (the bones of a poem) with rhythm (its flesh); of abstracted, regular pattern with the pulse of felt, voiced meaning," he said.

Why scan poems? "There is simply no better way for readers to get an inside line on what versecraft is about," said Tucker, who added he thinks it is essential to learn the metrics of poetry. He wanted to update the practice of scansion to keep it from becoming antiquated, he said.

"Everybody feels it. It has its effect," he said. "What scansion does is make that effect available to formal analysis." Poets use the interplay between a fixed meter and the variable rhythm of speech to emphasize or elicit different meanings or attitudes, he said.

The Help section on the For Better for Verse Web site provides a guide to using the site. The user chooses poems from the list and practices scanning poems through trial and error, and the program gives instant feedback.

A short example from a two-line poem, written in 1738 by Alexander Pope, illustrates how the meaning of lines can change, depending only on which words are stressed. "His Royal Highness" in the title is a particular prince whose palace is in the London suburb of Kew.

Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness

I am his Highness' dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

It appears the lines should be read in an alternation of unstressed with stressed syllables, called iambic meter, but saying the second line aloud as if in conversation, stressing "whose" instead of "dog" brings up a whole new meaning.

"Stressing 'whose' rather than the metrically anticipated 'dog' expands the impertinence of Pope's jest immensely," Tucker writes about the poem. "Since we are both here in service at court, Sir, says the cute doggie, and since each of us, Sir, wags his well-fed tail in the king's livery one way or another, then it goes without saying, Sir, that we're both dogs; and the question then becomes, Sir, just who is it you do your tricks for, anyhow?"

"Robert Frost grasped memorably a paradox underlying our entire project here: 'The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless.' Limited meter, endless possibilities; the two are entwined."

Tucker has included 50 or 60 poems so far, he said. His cut-off date is 1924, since writings published later than that are still under copyright. He will continue to add more.

Putting the site together was a group effort, he said. He used a Teaching and Technology grant to hire programmers to set it up, and he has received help from graduate research assistants and Alderman Library's Scholars' Lab.

Eager to share this tool for studying poetry, he sent e-mails to colleagues around the world and has gotten interested responses from as far away as Australia, he said.

— By Anne Bromley