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Trochees: An African American Tradition

By Annie Finch

Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen

In a recent blog for Lemon Hound on Claude McKay, one topic that came up was the importance of the trochaic undercurrent in McKay’s famous sonnet “If We Must Die.” I wrote that the power of this rhythm for McKay is no surprise in the context of African American poetics, since the trochaic meter has been established as a powerful alternative to iambic meter in some centrally influential African American poems of the twentieth century.


Like any meter, trochees can of course be used for any mood or subject. Still, awareness of the history and connotations of trochees as an alternative to the ubiquitous iambic meter can help us appreciate their impact in particular poems. Trochaic meter has long been a meter of choice to convey voices, attitudes, and stories that unsettle the most dominant, conscious culture,  whether Poe’s raven, Longfellow’s Native American culture, or the witches in MacBeth.  In the twentieth century, this meter seems to have developed into something of a conscious tradition in African American poetics, at least based on the evidence of two important and culturally ambitious poems, Gwendolyn Brooks’ epic “The Anniad” and Countee Cullen’s long lyric celebration, “Heritage.” Here is a passage from the opening of “The Anniad” :

Think of sweet and chocolate,
Left to folly or to fate,
Whom the higher gods forgot,
Whom the lower gods berate;
Physical and underfed
Fancying on the featherbed
What was never and is not. . .

Trochees have a stereotypical reputation for incantatory simplicity (think of “double, double toil and trouble,” “by the shores of Gitchee Gumee,” and “Tyger, tyger burning bright”).  But Brooks infuses great complexity into the meter through variety of diction, from the formal (“berate”) to the idiomatic (“fancying”), and also through a large number of metrical variations.  These include the “footless” line (missing a final unstressed syllable, which is true of every line in this brief excerpt) and the substitution of a dactyl FANCYing). She even substitutes an iamb, “and is” in the last line (WHAT was NEVer and IS NOT), respecting the subtle aural convention that, just like substituting a trochee in an iambic line, this usually happens after a ceasura or pause in the grammar, in this case the grammatical pause after “never.”

While Brooks’ trochees are characterized by an arch, near-ironic quality, conveying her skeptical embrace of the epic tradition, Cullen’s “Heritage” uses the same meter in a more incantatory way, with lush, innocent sensuality:

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,

Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,

What is Africa to me?

Cullen’s poem, with its extremely regular trochees compared to Brooks’,  has a dignity and, paradoxically for all its lushness, a classicism.

At a time when even the workings of iambic meter are mysterious to most of us, noniambic meters have been flying well under the radar for decades.  Looking back at those poets of the twentieth century who did use the noniambic meters (especially trochees, anapests, and dactyls) consciously and skillfully provides a refreshing reminder of the potential of poetic forms to continually refresh and reinvent themselves in new ways.

Comments (17)

  • On March 31, 2009 at 12:19 am Colin Ward wrote:

    Annie,

    Why do you consider this catalectic trochee rather than acephalous iamb?

    -o-

  • On March 31, 2009 at 8:50 am thomas brady wrote:

    Colin,

    You are making the matter over-complex. Meter (length of line) and rhythm (nature of the foot) are two different things.

    Thomas

  • On March 31, 2009 at 1:48 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Note: for those of us who are not prosody geeks, please note that “acephalous” is the Greek word for “headless,” meaning a line (usually iambic) that is missing the first, unstressed syllable, and “catalectic” means a (usually trochaic or dactylic) line with the last, unstressed syllable cut off (for which I have made up the English term “footless,” on the analogy of “headless”).

    Colin, some reasons I hear these poems as footless/catalectic trochaic instead of headless/acephalous iambic are:

    –Because of the traceable literary tradition of other poems in the same mater/rhythm–the metrical precedent. Trochaic poems have a very strong catalectic-norm tradition to which these poems evidently belong. In a poem like Keats’ “Fancy,” which has many textbook trochaic lines so it is indubitably trochaic, there is a much higher proportion of catalectic lines than any iambic poem I can think of has had of acephalous lines. Same for Sara Josepha Hale’s “Iron.” Such poems provide a context in which every line in Blake’s “Tyger,” like every line in “Heritage,” can be catalectic yet the poem is clearly recognizable as trochaic.

    –Because when we listen to a poem we tend to define it by what happens at the beginning of the line, more importantly than by what happens at the end. We can believe an entirely catalectic poem is trochaic because it is only at the ends of lines that our faith is, briefly, shaken, before it is established again at the beginning of the next line.

    –Because of the enjambment. In “Heritage,” the enjambment “regal black/women,” leaves no room for an implied omitted unstressed syllable before “women,” to my ear. Similarly, in “The Anniad,” the tumbling catalog of clauses in the same sentence don’t leave room for pauses at the beginnings of the lines, and acephalous lines imply a pause in which to hear the implied, missing syllable. Apparent exceptions, such as the first two lines of the fourth stanza of Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young,” are really more trochaic to my ear than they are acephalous iambic, and are used for dramatic rhythmical contrast, not as the poem’s norm.

    –Because the trochaic beat within the words themselves in these poems has so much momentum that, even though this isn’t a definitive way to define meter, in combination with the other two factors, to hear it as iambic feels counterintuitive.

    That said, I am well aware that some people would scan these poems, and all other metrical poems in English, as iambic–there’s Frost with his “all poetry is either srict iambic or loose iambic”; there’s Robert Wallace’s book Meter in English which argues that iambic is the only true meter in English, etc.. I have studied and read and talked with people who hear this way, and if you are one of them, I will not try to quarrel with you about it, but will respect your ear.

    However, my ear is different. While I acknowledge the validity of those scansions in theory, in practice I find the use of several different meters more prosodically sound, more aesthetically exciting, more rhythmically inspiring, and more in keeping with my experience of common sense as far as talking about the rhythms of actual poems is concerned, during decades of teaching meter, than the solely-iambic prototype. The idea of two separate kinds of meter, iambic and trochaic, makes it a lot easier to appreciate and to share, for example, the obvious aural kinship between a fully trochaic poem like “Hiawatha” and a catalectic trochaic poem like “The Tyger,” and the difference between both of these and iambic poetry. “The Anniad,” “Heritage,” and “The Tyger” have more more in common rhythmically with “Hiawatha” than they do with an iambic tetrameter poem. In my experience the differences between the four basic meters–iambic, anapestic, trochaic, and dactylic– are easily perceptible for people hearing poems, and those four ways of hearing bring out the special strengths of different poems. Whether something makes sense at first grasp and whether it increases one’s appreciation of a particular poem are important factors in my choices of prosodic theories.

    I don’t go as far as the Australian prosodist James MacAuley, who believes so strongly in respecting the differences between meters that he scans a single headless line among hundreds of iambic lines in Chaucer as trochaic. I acknowledge the influence of the overall metrical context of a poem. So, if one of the lines of “Heritage” appeared in an iambic tetrameter poem, I might well scan it as an acephalous iambic line. But in these poems, the trochees ARE the context, and if there were an iambic line in the middle of “Heritage,” I would scan it as a trochaic line with an extra-syllable beginning (something I’ve actually seen a lot of, in my writing and reading of trochaic and dactylic meter).

    Finally, for another kind of cause (what Aristotle might call a final cause as opposed to a material cause), when in doubt, I go for the difference and the multiplicity. It seems to me to leave more room for surprise and growth.

  • On March 31, 2009 at 2:53 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    Annie,

    All of the lines are “missing” a syllable. The issue is whether this syllable is missing from the beginning or the end of each line. At first glance it might seem like a coin toss. While there is no compelling argument in favour of trochee, per se, there are at least two oft-cited reasons why orthodoxy goes with iamb in such instances:

    1. Lines often take a while to “find their rhythm” so scansion generally begins at the end of a prototype line and works backwards.

    This explains why substitutions are more common near the beginning of metrical lines. It is also why the 4th foot trochaic inversion “That is the question” (if this is how the line is rendered) is so startling/pivotal in Hamlet.

    2. Rhymes and pauses draw the attention of most listeners to the ends of lines.

    FWIW, I agree that the acephaly gives both poems an imperative, urgent tone, just as trochee would.

    -o-

  • On March 31, 2009 at 4:55 pm Ann Michael wrote:

    Annie says that “because of the traceable literary tradition of other poems in the same mater/rhythm–the metrical precedent. Trochaic poems have a very strong catalectic-norm tradition to which these poems evidently belong.”

    Don’t African-American rhythms stem as much or more from African bases as from American? I admit I haven’t searched the literature on this topic–so I am all ears as to responses on it–but when I hear rap/hip-hop and when I listen to African music from certain regions (Ghana, Kenya…) it seems there’s trochaic rhythm going on in the vocal aspect of the poem or lyric.

    I understand music doesn’t transfer exactly to speech, but my friends who speak African languages (Central and Western, mostly) do seem to speak in trochaic stresses to my totally uninformed ear. If American-English verse is inherently iambic–which is clearly still arguable, though I agree that it is–why must it follow that a poet of Cullen’s background, an African-American, would necessarily be “hearing” iambic meters in English?

    I think there’s more going on there than headless lines.

  • On March 31, 2009 at 5:48 pm thomas brady wrote:

    All verse has a musical intent. All music is based on time, or duration.

    Any syllable which is “missing” is simply heard in the music, or duration, of the line itself.

    Let’s compare:

    Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal…

    With:

    The Tyger, burning, burning bright,
    In forests turning, turning night,
    O what immortal…

    And with:

    Tyger! Tyger! burning brightly
    In the forests of the nightly…

    Blake’s version is stronger. So why would we ever be justified in calling Blake’s poem iambic “without a head?”

    Why posit a “missing” syllable when the very notion would weaken the poem?

    Second, “Tyger” is a trochaic word; so to insist on a “missing” syllable is superfluous for that reason.

    Finally, Blake’s choice to use “bright” instead of “brightly” adds to the strength of the verse, and so by the same logic, why should we say a syllable is “missing” at the end? “Brightly” would change the whole feel of the verse.

    As Blake has it, then:

    Tyger/Tyger/burning/bright/

    “Bright” above is equal in duration to the other three feet. Technically, “bright” is a cesura. “Bright” is worth one ‘long’ plus a ‘short,’ or a ‘long and a half.’

    The “missing” syllable, then, is simply heard in the added length of the cesura.

    We never need to worry about “missing” syllables, either at the beginning or at the end, of verses. The whole matter of “missing syllables” is a superfluity.

  • On March 31, 2009 at 7:55 pm michael robbins wrote:

    The canonical acephalous pentameter line is, of course,

    Whan that Aprill with his shoures sootë

    which in order to argue against its obvious clipped nature must be read in accordance with Latin pronunciation rather than with English:

    Whan that Aprillë with his shoures sootë.

    This sort of thing is the superfluity, & since Chaucer acknowledges that “som vers fayle in a sillable,” it is superfluous to contort our reading to supply syllables that aren’t there.

    Furthermore, why would we want to read lines other than as they are designed to be read? Clipped or acephalous lines begin with a strong beat for a reason: they are meant to be read as pentameter minus a beginning syllable; if we don’t read them that way, the only alternative is to read them as clunky tetrameter lines with an extra syllable! Again, a little knowledge of versification before & after the irrelevant Poe goes a long way to clearing up unnecessary confusion.

  • On April 1, 2009 at 9:32 am thomas brady wrote:

    “Clipped or acephalous lines begin with a strong beat for a reason: they are meant to be read as pentameter minus a beginning syllable; if we don’t read them that way, the only alternative is to read them as clunky tetrameter lines with an extra syllable!”

    Michael,

    If you will allow me to simplify the above:

    Lines begin with a strong beat for a reason.

    Stop there. You don’t need to go any further. This is superfluous: “they are meant to be read as pentameter minus a beginning syllable; if we don’t read them that way…”

    No, no, no.

    Read “The Rationale of Verse” by Edgar Allan Poe.

    I wouldn’t be so vehemently pedantic on this point, except that I do think your kind of rhetoric scares off those who might otherwise find pleasure in verse.

    Thomas

  • On April 1, 2009 at 1:57 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Ann, that’s a really interesting perspective. I’ve heard jazz rhythms in free verse attributed to the influence of African American culture, but I’ve never seen such a direct connection suggested between African poetics and African American prosody.
    Maybe someone with expertise in the field will weigh in on this.

    Lines begin with a strong beat for a reason. Exactly.

  • On April 1, 2009 at 7:31 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Fascinating post, Annie! And well-timed, for me, anyway. (I was teaching “The Tyger” last week.)

  • On April 1, 2009 at 8:05 pm Camille Dungy wrote:

    Anne Michael, you ask “why must it follow that a poet of Cullen’s background, an African-American, would necessarily be “hearing” iambic meters in English?”

    Why wouldn’t he? Countee Cullen, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from NYU and went on to attend Harvard, wrote sonnets in the styles of Keats, Shakespeare, and Spenser (as in Sir Edmund of England). In these styles and others he created his own complex and compelling fusions of sound, language, subject, and form. Cullen was intimately familiar with and accomplished at reading, hearing, and executing metrical verse within the parameters of the Anglo/American poetic traditions. Ditto Gwendolyn Brooks. The list of African American poets writing within the Anglo/American poetic tradition and also making a space for their own particular ear and experience within those confines is long and esteemed. Perhaps Cullen also heard something else, but that doesn’t prevent him from mastering iambic meter as well.

    –Camille Dungy

  • On April 2, 2009 at 1:51 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    I did some research on African poems/songs back in 2003, but can’t find my notes. Googling around I found this in a book called The power of Black music:

    “Game and social songs were metrically regular, made use of simple additive rhythms, and employed repetitive pentatonic melodic constructions, with accents on the off beat. And there are similarities between African and African-American game songs and children’s songs.”

    “the pre-existing repertoire of drum patterns used by master drummers in many African cultures is based on musical patterns derived from selected genres of oral poetry.”

  • On April 2, 2009 at 8:32 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Well put, Camille, and thanks for clarifying what I’m sure Ann meant to imply: “Perhaps Cullen also heard something else, but that doesn’t prevent him from mastering iambic meter as well.”

    Of course, most (all?) of Cullen’s other poetry is written in iambic meter, and he was an accomplished artist of meter. The fact that this significant poem about his African heritage is written in trochees is no coincidence; just as Longfellow did when he chose trochees for Hiawatha (in which case the trochees evoked traditional Finnish oral poetry), Cullen seems to have meant to imply a whole non-English poetic tradition by his choice of trochaic meter for this poem. And of course, he couldn’t have pulled it off so skillfully if he were not already totally in control of the prosody of the Anglo-American poetic tradition.

  • On April 2, 2009 at 11:45 am Camille Dungy wrote:

    Annie, I’m glad you mention Hiawatha. Cullen, like most of his contemporaries, would have known Longfellow’s work very well.

  • On April 2, 2009 at 6:54 pm Dr. Max wrote:

    Oh, thank you, my friends for learnin’ me how I sing. Why I sing? No concern of yours, I fear. When? Oh, well, I’m sure you’re tired busy. Those that can’t do, beseech–isn’t that it? Don’t fret–I hear they have a new computer program that scans poetry–so so soon you all can take a break and go figure out why jazz sounds pretty. By the way, did any of the fine folks here at the podium bother to hear to listen to ear out Mr. Cullen? That is–listen to the man read? No? Sorry, I know, you’re busy–scanning… but don’t worry, there’s this computer program that’s coming that will replace your fingers and then you all will have time to read, to really read poetry, to read a poem by Countee Cullen and think–why? Thanks.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 10:57 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Welcome Dr Max,
    I spent about an hour trying to get an mp3 of Cullen reading Heritage in a form that I could post on this blog so people could listen to it right here. No luck there, but here’s the link –and thanks for reminding me, because I wanted to do this!

    http://cecily.vox.com/library/audio/tags/countee+cullen/

    –Annie

  • On April 4, 2009 at 3:18 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    Annie,

    Lines begin with a strong beat for a reason.

    Agreed. They also end with a strong beat for a reason. So stipulated. The issue is what that reason is.

    Let me try a different tack. Can a 24-line poem comprised of 6 lines of perfect iambic tetrameter, 18 unresolved 7-syllable lines (as we see in Cullin’s and Brook’s poems) and not a single line of trochee ever be considered anything but iambic tetrameter?

    -o-


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, March 30th, 2009 by Annie Finch.