1 Jul 2013

On Dinosaurs and Dactyls

I already posted this on my facebook page at the end of last winter term, but since fb's got its issues and not everybody likes to sign up I thought it could find a place here too, where nobody has to sign up for anything. So, sorry for posting 'old' stuff, but I feel that this one is going to age well at least.

The following is a copy of an email exchange between one of my firstyears and me. The student in question had missed more than the allowed two sessions per term and felt the need to apologise. He did so in 17 couplets. He was quite right to do so because in order to get your credits in this case you'll have to hand in some extra work, like a short analysis of a poem. And that's what I answered him and what he did at the end of term.

It's all a bit silly, really, but I hope you'll enjoy our little metred exchange.

P.S.: Please keep in mind that both participants of this conversation are neither poets nor native speakers of English.

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Dear Mrs. Peter,
I'm writing you this
Because I am hoping you won't be too pissed.
I know it looks bad and I'll tell you my tale
In hopes of explaining and that I won't fail.
Last week a sore throat meant I was missing class
But I didn't do what one normally does:
The doctor I didn't go to in my pain.
To class I would simply go next week again.
I didn't think much of it, still had a strike:
Had missed only once (which are odds that I liked). 
Fast forward to this week and my epic fail,
If I was a dog I'd be tucking my tail.
But on with the story: to uni I drove
Where, hurriedly, into the Brechtbau I dove.
Ran up, up the stairs, up to the third floor;
I looked at my watch as I reached for the door.
I opened said door, and what should I see?
Inquisitive faces just staring at me.
I promptly stared back, as I'm prone to do,
And raised up an eyebrow as if to ask "Who...?"
Surprised the instructor to me who would loom,
"Mate, I believe that you're in the wrong room."
With puzzled expression I did turn my face
And just shut the door with no second gaze.
I looked at the room, my schedule was next,
You couldn't imagine how I was perplexed:
I did go to uni without much ado,
Stupidly thinking that class starts at two.
I do not know how and I do not know why,
But I feel so stupid, so why should I lie?
There's no attestation, there's no good excuse,
However, I hope that my chance I don't lose.
Please do not fail me! I beg of you this!
In hope you like dactyls and are not too pissed,

Here is my response (took me damn long to get it together!):

Dear D,

thank you a lot for these longish lines
to try and explain your missing again;
I did like those dactyls and read them as signs
that your cold had no big effect on your brains.

In fact, I was quite impressed with your rhymes
and with your metre, which proves such a pain
in most cases - galloping onwards, reaching at times
a hazardous pace - and me in need of breath to regain.

Yet, having said this, there's one thing to do:
there will be some additional writing for you.
Two to three pages should do the trick
and show me your devotion is more than just schtik.
An interpretation of a poem, that should be done
till the beginning of February - how 'bout this one?

All best,
L. Peter
 And, finally, here is the assignment D handed in:

Poem Analysis
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one person to miss a session of a seminar at university, and if this person be forced to miss another, and if the Laws of Murphy compel them to miss yet another, a decent respect to the opinions of academics requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the absence, and declare them good elsewise they be expelled from said seminar, and rightly so. Thomas Jefferson did not write these lines in 1776. But that does not mean they are not true. As a student of the English Seminar, you are allowed to miss two sessions per class per semester. It just so happened that DM failed to show up three times during the winter term of 2012/13. In his desperation, he turned to his lecturer, Lisa Peter: he wrote a poem he called Terror Dactylus1, in which he begged for another chance. She replied in an untitled sonnet, commenting on her student's poem and, at the same time, giving him an extra assignment to redeem himself and make up for the lost time. The following paragraphs will examine her poem in detail and analyse and interprete its features.
The first thing that stands out when looking at the poem is the number of its lines: 14. This indicates that it is, indeed, a sonnet - an Italian sonnet, to be precise. The stanzas are arranged in an octett (consisting of 2 quatrains) and a sestett, with a rhyme scheme of alternating rhymes throughout the octett and couplets in the sestett: abba/cbbc/ddeeff. This is a rather unusual rhyme scheme for an Italian sonnet. However, this corresponds very nicely with the rather unusual circumstances in which the poem was written. Furthermore, the separation into octett and sestett goes hand in hand with the content of the poem: while in the first part, Peter comments on M's attempt to write a poem - even admitting that she was "quite impressed with [his] rhymes / and with [his] metre" (line 5-6) -, the sestett focusses on the additional writing assignment. This also confirms that the volta is after the octett, which is only amplified by a "yet" being the first word of the sestett.
Another thing that becomes clear quite quickly is that there is both an explicit speaker and an explicit addressee - Peter and M, respectively. As this poem stems from a conversation via E-mail, this should not come as a big surprise. A thing of note, however, is the number of addresses in the poem. While the first person address can be found four times throughout the poem, the second person features seven times. Peter is thus putting most of the responsibility for the next step - "An interpretation of a poem, that should be done" (13) - on M. However, by mentioning herself all of four times, she reminds M that it is not only him who has to do additional work as a consequence of his absence.

The metre of this poem is the dactylic tetrameter; another conscious decision of the author in reference to her student's chosen metre, who wrote Terror Dactylus in "those dactyls" (3) in a tetrametrical scheme as well. There are two times, however, when she breaks with the metre - both times for effect, not out of inability. The first time is in line 7, when all of a sudden there are five stressed syllables. This is no coincidence, as lines 6 and 7 discuss the difficulties and dangers of keeping with a certain metre: It "proves such a pain / in most cases" (6-7). This irregularity also has a second effect: It portrays the speed the reading can pick up when sticking to the metre (7-8). The second breaking with the metre occurs right after this fast "galloping onwards" (7): when Peter talks about needing to regain her breath in line 8, she does so in iambs, which are shorter than dactyls, giving the line a certain 'choppy' quality, as if you were panting for air. A performer, upon reading this line, might choose to insert a breathing pause after every stressed syllable to further the effect even more.
When superficially looking at the level of tropes, there is not much to be found. Line 1 features an alliteration with the "longish lines", but there does not seem to be more. However, upon looking deeper, there is a certain simplicity to the poem that very elegantly draws your attention to the volta: all but one of the sonnet's lines begin with one of three letters. Six lines begin with the letter T (lines 1,2,4,10,11, and 14); four lines start with the letter A (lines 6,8,12, and 13); and three lines have the letter I as their frontrunner (lines 3, 5, and 7). Only line 9 begins with the letter Y. Unsurprisingly, this letter draws the reader's attention towards a certain point within the poem: the volta. Line 9, with its "Yet" as the first word, moves the first two stanzas aside as if to say: 'Enough of the chit-chat, let's talk brass tax now!' The fact that Y is the only letter that stands alone at the beginning of a line throughout the whole poem serves to augment this change in content very well.
If I had to give this poem a title (which sadly it does not seem to have), I would call it Respontosaurus2, keeping with the dinosaur naming convention of the correspondense. While this name would suggest the apparently simple, yet elegant nature of the poem, it would also pay tribute to its magnitude of interpretative possibilities and hidden secrets.

1 A rather clever pun referring both to a winged dinosaur and to the metre used in his poem, while also emphasising his fear of failing the class.
2 Another pun combining the words 'response' and the dinosaur formerly named 'Brontosaurus' (nowadays called Apatosaurus).