Accentual/syllabic metre

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David Campbell
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Re: Accentual/syllabic metre

Post by David Campbell » Sun Jan 16, 2011 11:01 am

Thanks to those who’ve responded to this…I hope you found it worthwhile. If you’re only interested in my idea of the correct order then here’s the short answer:
First: 4; Second: 2; Third: 3; HC: 1; C: 5
But if you want to know what prompted the exercise then please read on.

Neville has asked why it was specifically directed at him. That’s simple. Because he was criticising judges, one in particular, but all in general…presumably the “authorities” in the bush poetry scene, those who “say what bush poetry must be”. I thought it might be useful to see how judging works from the other side, albeit in a somewhat artificial situation.

It’s easy to attack judging decisions, and most poets do it at one time or another. I regularly accuse judges of being dopey dimwitted dolts…but in private. I then remember that a lot of people are undoubtedly saying much worse about me. So this is my attempt to defend the job that bush poetry judges do. Perhaps call it “A Judge Strikes Back”. Although, be warned that it’s a long post, so maybe pack a cut lunch and a bottle of water before diving into it. The starting point is something that clearly has Neville mystified. He wrote: “…we go through this strange contortion that what passes in performance does not necessarily apply in written work. For the life of me, I CANNOT SEE WHY.”

This seems to suggest that the “authorities” are trying to squash bush verse into a straitjacket…in effect, to squeeze the life out of it by not accepting in written work what is okay in performance. So a central purpose of the exercise was to illustrate the reality of judging written competitions…that judges have to make decisions based purely on the written word. They don’t have the luxury of hearing each individual poet perform his or her work. Poets sometimes say on the website things like: “I’m not too fussed about (or don’t really understand) metre, but when I perform my poems people love them, so why worry?” That’s fine, but a judge can’t look at a poem in a written competition and say: “Oh well, I guess if the poet read it this way or that way, it would work…so I’ll give it a prize.”

Metre is a tool to be used by the writer to enhance whatever he or she is trying to say and, as a judge, I have to see clear evidence that the poet understands metre and is using it effectively. In other words, I have to be able to justify my decisions. That doesn’t mean there can be no variation, and Will’s bowerbird poem is a case in point. Yes, the last two lines do break the metric pattern, but it’s obvious that the poet is in control and not merely letting the words tumble out. And I assume the other stanzas match the first. It’s a clever piece of writing, and deserved recognition.

Judges have to differentiate between intent and carelessness (or lack of understanding). Neville also states: “I think the best way to scan any verse is just say it in ordinary speech patterns.” But what is an ordinary speech pattern? Neville gives two of the five verses the wooden spoon for “…sleeping through Noel Stallard's lesson on iambic metre.” In fact, he says one of them, number 5, looks like prose. But, using Neville’s own argument, I might object to that and insist that number 5 can be performed word-for-word in such a way that nobody could tell there was anything wrong with the metre. I could do it easily, using an ordinary speech pattern. So has he changed his mind? What happened to flexibility? Is he now saying that what passes in performance shouldn’t necessarily apply in written work?

A lot of things are possible in performance…it’s why performers can so successfully present their own work in their own idiosyncratic style. But those entering a written competition need to remember that judges are not mind-readers. They don’t have the poet sitting beside them saying: “Now this is the way to read it.” As Marty points out, you can’t “fudge” the metre in a written competition…judges have to make decisions based on what’s in front of them and, although a generalisation, it has to be said that regular metre (or, if you prefer, a clearly identifiable pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables) makes it easier to read a poem at first glance and see what the poet is trying to achieve.

Now Neville might respond to all this by saying that he doesn’t care if I can perform number 5…the metre is simply too erratic and he’s only talking about small variations like family/fam’ly and gathering/gath’ring. Presumably this also applies when, in kicking off this thread, he had a go at the “judge” who said the metre was “out” in his line of trochaic tetrameter: “Bright red coats and royal blue trousers”. Trochaic tetrameter is a line with four sections (or trochaic feet) to it, each consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one (i.e. DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM-de…as in the nursery rhyme ‘Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater’). Neville's line only works as trochaic tetrameter if “royal” (2 syllables, stress on the first) is pronounced “royle” (one syllable). I’m guessing the judge didn’t like that (and couldn’t hear Neville reading it), so made a decision accordingly.

Neville would have preferred a more flexible approach, but how far along that track do we go? Consider, for argument’s sake, the line: “Every family gathering brought memories of royal blue clothes”. Given that five words have possible alternatives… ev’ry, fam’ly, gath’ring, mem’ries and royle…there are 32 different ways of scanning the line. What should a judge do? Decisions! Decisions!

Now multiply those decisions by the number of lines in the average poem and the 100 or more (445 in the 2010 Bryan Kelleher Award) poems in a written competition and it’s easy to see why judges appreciate consistency and are wary of variations. Something different is terrific when done well, but it requires considerable skill to tread that path safely amongst other poems where metre is simply badly handled. By all means write with passion, write with feeling, write in your natural voice…but always keep in mind the decisions that a judge has to make if you send a poem off to a competition. If judges start guessing how a poet might read a poem, where is the eventual line in the sand drawn?

Which brings us to the five verses. And please read these comments in conjunction with John’s, because we seem to be on the same wavelength. This task was obviously different to the one normally faced by judges because it only involved variations of one verse. And I kept all the rhymes, so there was no need to worry about them. The challenge was also a little unfair, because I couldn’t avoid one issue that some people commented on. First prize goes to number 4 because it is the only one to use perfectly consistent metre…and yes, those who said it seemed rather cold are quite correct. But that is deliberate, which needs some explanation. This verse is actually taken from a poem of mine that won a first prize last year. It’s called “Walking Away” and it tells the story of a family forced to leave their land. Here’s the first verse:

The drought was bad enough, but then the markets fell,
and things got very tough, a brutal road to hell.
The bank just wouldn’t wait another single day,
and left us to our fate because we couldn’t pay.

The rhythm is deliberately abrupt to indicate the ruthless nature of what happens to the family. Then, in the second half of the poem, the mother develops dementia and has to be placed in a nursing home…where she accuses the son (who is the ‘voice’ of the poem) of walking away from her. Hence the staccato, impersonal rhythm and language are used to mirror what happened earlier, and also to emphasise the harsh truth of the situation she faces. This is what I mean by using metre to create an effect. But, given only one verse out of sixteen, you weren’t to know that, so I can only apologise.

The problem with the other four verses relates partly to the issue I alluded to earlier…the difficulty of distinguishing between intent and carelessness when it comes to metre. All I did was take the original and mess around with it…changing the metre in particular, but also a few words. So second prize goes to number 2 because it’s nearly accurate when it comes to acceptable metre. It’s one of those verses that is frustrating because it could so easily have been fixed. It just doesn’t quite flow. There’s also the repeated “the” in line three, which is unnecessary.

Third prize goes to number 3. This will upset those who liked this one, but the metre is far too irregular to place it any higher, with stresses falling erratically. John’s criticism of the “quite” is legitimate as it creates uncertainty about the stresses in that line. It seems as though the writer is not paying much attention at all to metre. On the other hand, a “fog of dreams” (which Zondrae likes) is better than “foggy dreams” from number 2, so that balances things a little.

Highly Commended goes to number 1. The metre here is clumsy, but it’s better than number 3. However the repetition of all the “ing” endings, particularly with the internal rhymes, detracts significantly from the impact of the lines…“are merging” and “are converging”, for example, is very awkward.

Finally, Commended goes to number 5. It should be noted that every line has 17 syllables, but this is a case where a straight syllable count doesn’t help much. A check of the stresses shows a lot of inconsistency and the lines just don’t flow. Then there’s the use of words. The lines are unnecessarily long, it’s too verbose (as Zondrae says), all the “ing” words are still present, and there are a few others that seem a waste of space. Judges look for words to be used effectively, and have doubts when they appear to be dumped in a line for no apparent reason. For example, the repeat of “almost” is poor, and “which has her almost sometimes seeming” is clumsy.

So there it is. It’s only my view and is offered as a defence of the judging process and an insight into how one judge’s mind works. The syllable counts that Neville so dislikes are certainly not the be-all and end-all, but they can be a useful part of a judge’s set of resources because they lead to stress patterns, which lead to the effect the poet is trying to achieve, and that leads to…and so on.

Writing bush poetry for competition purposes has similarities to judging it. Both processes are like building a wall, and, no matter what the shape, if too many of the lower bricks are missing then it just keeps falling down.


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Re: Accentual/syllabic metre

Post by Irene » Sun Jan 16, 2011 12:35 pm

Hi David
Thanks heaps for taking the time to run this exercise - what a great insight into a judges mind, and a wonderful learning experience for us all!! You have explained it extremely well - and it is much appreciated.
I would love to see feedback similar to this on the poems posted in the writing workshop section, as my understanding is that that section is for constructive feedback on our writing, and explanations such as yours really provide a good picture for us.

I was interested in your comment regarding the 'ing' endings in number 1. Do you generally find 'ing' endings clumsy when judging a competition, or do they have a place in some poems? I am just posting a poem - Children on a Carousel - in which I have used a number of 'ing' endings and soft syllables at the end of lines. For myself, I feel they flow ok, but perhaps it would be penalised in a competition.

Look forward to your next 'exercise'!!! ;)

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Re: Accentual/syllabic metre

Post by Bellobazza » Sun Jan 16, 2011 2:39 pm

Obviously I have missed the cut-off point for David's exercise, so please disregard everything that follows. I will now go back and read David's critique...
"G'day all...
Our daughter and her family are relocating back home (Sydney) after nine years in New Zealand. They flew into Brisbane and its problems on Friday at the climax of the flood, so I've been a little pre-occupied. (They have arrived here safe and sound yesterday.)
But, Neville having dropped me neatly in it, I feel compelled to have a go...

In each version, I have highlighted the stressed syllables (as I read them) by showing them in 'bold'. To make it easier to establish the fall of emphasis, I have inserted a ' / ' to break each line down into logical phrases. For the purpose of this exercise, at the end of each line I have added the syllable count and number of stresses. Punctuation, language, repetition etc are accounted for in scoring. I did scan each line into iambs, trochees, anapaests, amphibrachs etc, but let's leave that aside.

She spends her days just dreaming, / while conjuring up a life 14/6
that has her almost seeming to think / she’s still a farmer’s wife. 15/7
The past and future are merging / and they form a strange new place 15/6
where truth and lies are converging / in fragmenting time and space. 15/6

She spends her days in foggy dreams / while conjuring up a life 15/7
where nothing’s quite as it seems, / (and she’s) still a farmer’s wife. 14/6
For the past and the future merge / to form a strange new place 14/6
where truth and lies converge / in fragmented time and space. 13/6

She spends her days in a fog of dreams, / and she conjures up a life 16/7
where nothing is ever quite as it seems, / she’s still a farmer’s wife. 16/7
For the past and the future slowly merge / to form a strange new place 16/7
where truth and lies converge / in a fragment of time and space. 14/6

She spends her days in dreams / and conjures up a life 12/6
where nothing’s as it seems, / she’s still a farmer’s wife. 12/6
The past and future merge / and form a strange new place 12/6
where truth and lies converge / in fractured time and space. 12/6

She spends her days just sitting and dreaming / as she conjures up a life 17/7
which has her sometimes almost seeming to think / she’s still a farmer’s wife. 17/8
The past and the future are slowly merging / to form a strange new place 17/7
where truth and lies are almost converging / in fracturing time and space. 17/7

Referring to the ABPA scoring sheet and relying on my reading of each stanza, my rankings in order 1st to 5th would be...
Version 4 (70%), V 3 (60%), V 2 (55%), V 5 (50%), V1 (45%).

Without using the ABPA scoring sheet, and relying on my own scoring system, the order of merit would be...
Version 4 (70%), V 3 (65%), V 2 (60%), V 1 (50%), V5 (40%).

However, the ABPA scoring sheet qualifies the stated criteria with...
"although this competition is for written poetry, the quality of the entry should make it's reading aloud enjoyable".
and..."it is encumbent on the judge to discern if any variations in metre or rhyme are appropriate".

It's interesting that the only perfectly consistent stanza in terms of metre
in my analasys is version 4. To my ear, this is the version that I would find least enjoyable read aloud. It is formulaic, predictable and has less emotional impact in my opinion.

So, qualifying my own scoring according to these provisos, my final results are..
Version 3 (70%), V 2 (60%), V 1 (55%), V 4 (50%), V5 (40%).

If it were a performance comp of course, the results would be hugely affected by the ability of the performer, but I suspect that version 5 would play much better than written comp scoring would achieve.

Cheers, Will.
"Each poet that I know (he said)
has something funny in his head..." CJD

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Re: Accentual/syllabic metre

Post by Neville Briggs » Sun Jan 16, 2011 3:10 pm

Hello David, you certainly took a lot of trouble to deal with this issue.

I am sorry if my questioning of poetry assessments was inflammatory. I'll do penance for that.
I bear no malice, I get passionate about 'issues'
I can assure you that I have never referred to any of the judges with a personal slight like dolt, dopey or dimwit. I have dissented over what is accepted traditional form

You seem to think I am inconsistent.
I am sure that I am. You're right.
Poetry is not a matter of rules and definitions and can be a tricky thing to analyse.Sometimes I think one thing, and then later think something else. Quite right.
Our poetry is about the English language and English is a notoriously illogical and confusing maze.

In the matter of your example no 5.

This example does look like prose and that is just the point. Surely poetry must look like poetry or the form is lost and then it is not poetry because poetry is a formally organised speech.

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago.

Should Paterson have written

I had written him a letter which I had for want of better knowledge,
sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago.

and then relied on the performer to fix the rhyme and meter.
No, the organising principle of poetry is the metre and the written form should reflect that; surely.

The proposition ; one can write something that looks like prose or does not scan and is fine because it can be presented poetically in speech; is still beyond my comprehension.

It can work the other way.
If the poem is written in lines of carefully designed metre and rhyme, a performer can use some flexibility in how the phrasing is delivered.

I don't think that I said that I dislike syllables. My comments are not about my likes or dislikes but about what I think I can learn and apply in poetic form.

My comment was that accentual/syllabic ( stresses and syllables are counted ) and accentual ( stresses are counted syllables are not ) are both suitable for traditional metred and rhymed poetry, and acceptance of both in written work will not subvert the bush poetry practitioners.
The bush poetry judges seem to insist that only accentual/syllabic metre is valid in written. That seems an unnecessary limitation because both forms above, are accepted in spoken presentations.

I was surpised by your question about what is ordinary speech pattern. I forget the context but I think I would be referring to the common usage of everyday conversation as distinct from some contrived mannered poesy.

After all this robust debate I hope you can still consider me a poetic mate.
That's my preferred relationship with all the people of the bush poets.

And I wish you all the best in your endeavours.

The end. Thank goodness, they sigh. :)

Neville Briggs.
I think therefore I am

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Re: Accentual/syllabic metre

Post by Neville Briggs » Sun Jan 16, 2011 3:13 pm

I dropped you in it Will ????? :shock:

G'day Matt, I don't think Emo or I are destined for the bench. :) Maybe the sin bin bench.

I think therefore I am

william williams

Re: Accentual/syllabic metre

Post by william williams » Sun Jan 16, 2011 5:04 pm

To David I hope no offence is given and I hope none is taken

A bushman’s life is hard but true
The words he says, he means to you
Of common speech, he knows will do
That’s all he has, so why a blue

An English teacher in his wisdom
Claims that this is right in this kingdom
A word here and there in strange idioms
Make you wonder is it right or just for some

A simple set of lines but to me require some thought

Now David I take you as a man of great integrity and in your own words a word may change the whole concept of the phrase or feeling and as a judge you do understand these anomalies
that do occur.

Paterson and Lawson great poets and story tellers
Spent years in the bush amongst the outback people
They were literate people and could write but above all they were story tellers
And their poems, stories were past on by word of mouth
And forwarded on to the bulletin amongst others where ? Corrections (queens English)
etc were done to improve or enhance their works yet more of their works
were told at that period of time than in any other time of Australia’s history.
At the Boer war Crimean war 50% of the troops were illiterate (in writing and reading)
in the first world war 45% were illiterate (reading and writing) as most came from the rural scene yet very many of them knew the poems and tales of Paterson and Lawson off by heart
these people learnt those, by story tellers around the gatherings that were common then

In pure simple thoughts David is it not possible that the previous story tellers for the like of above were performers who as time passed had their work revised by the papers to become a written form rather than an audio form

Bill Williams

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Re: Accentual/syllabic metre

Post by Zondrae » Mon Jan 17, 2011 6:48 am

Thanks David,

It has been a good exercise on two levels (at least). Firstly to see the difficulty in where to begin, and how difficult is, the judges task and secondly some more tips on how to better construct our poems. I am all for any exercise that imparts knowledge. Again, most sincerely, thank you David. (printed and attached to the original challenge for future reference.)

To Peely, woohoo, you think like this judge.... I forsee John writing more and, even though he has spent a lot of time in polishing his performance skills, now entering written comps. Yes John? I'd like to see this.

I had the first and last place correct but mixed up the lesser placings.
Zondrae King
a woman of words


Re: Accentual/syllabic metre

Post by manfredvijars » Mon Jan 17, 2011 7:59 am

Nah Nevie, we all hate you now ... :twisted:

Are you coming to Tamworth or what??

Single malt awaits ... :D

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Re: Accentual/syllabic metre

Post by Neville Briggs » Mon Jan 17, 2011 1:22 pm

Very unfortunately Manfred I cannot go to Tamworth, I will be taking my wife for more of the endless tests and procedures of the cancer routine. That's the way it goes. It must be.
Oh well, next year the scotch will be a year older and smoother. :) unless we can cross paths somewhere else in the meantime.

I think therefore I am

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Re: Accentual/syllabic metre

Post by David Campbell » Mon Jan 17, 2011 4:24 pm

Hi All

Just a few follow-up comments/responses.


Thank you for those thoughts. I’m reluctant to comment on individual poems because, theoretically, there could be a conflict of interest. It’s just possible that one of them might later land on my desk as a competition entry to be judged. That’d be awkward!

My comments about the “ing” endings related only to that verse because they softened the impact of the strong, staccato rhythm that was more appropriate to the content. They can be very effective in poems, although you need to be careful not to overdo them…that might be off-putting for a judge.


Hope your daughter and family have settled back OK. I like your analysis of the verses…that level of detail wasn’t in my response, so it’ll be very helpful to those interested in seeing how to break down the structure of the lines. It also makes obvious the erratic nature of the stresses in most of the verses, sometimes with one unstressed syllable between two stressed, sometimes with two unstressed syllables, and even, in the first line of number 5, with three!

But the most fascinating aspect of what you’ve done is the different conclusions reached, depending on the judging criteria used. If you’ve read what I wrote, you’ll have seen that there was, in the context of the full poem, a reason for the metre used in number 4…but you’ve emphasised how important personal perception is when approaching a poem. In performance, I reckon all of them could be presented without much trouble.


No penance needed. This is a debate, and if others following it find that the differing views provide something worth thinking about, then that’s what debate is all about. I’m interested in your comment about number 5 and the way poetry looks. It could have been set out as follows:

She spends her days just sitting and dreaming
as she conjures up a life
which has her sometimes almost seeming
to think she’s still a farmer’s wife.
The past and the future are slowly merging
to form a strange new place
where truth and lies are almost converging
in fracturing time and space.

Same words, but different structure. What do you think? I fully agree that if something is written with good metre and rhyme then a performer can use flexibility with the phrasing, but I didn’t think that was what you were saying. I thought your argument was that if something was suitable for performance, then it should automatically be acceptable in a written competition. That’s what I can’t agree with, and it’s the point I was making with number 5.

I see what you mean about an ordinary speech pattern, and I wasn’t referring to any form of contrived poesy. I simply meant that all of us, depending on a whole range of variables…age, where we live, family background, level of education etc. etc…deal with the spoken word in different ways. I see it even within a small group like my own family. So that prompted my question: what is an ordinary speech pattern?


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