Bees and Morning Glories

Bees and Morning Glories
by John Ciardi

Morning glories, pale as a mist drying,
fade from the heat of the day, but already
hunchback bees in pirate pants and with peg-leg
hooks have found and are boarding them.

This could do for the sack of the imaginary
fleet. The raiders loot the galleons even as they
one by one vanish and leave still real
only what has been snatched out of the spell.

I’ve never seen bees more purposeful except
when the hive is threatened. They know
the good of it must be grabbed and hauled
before the whole feast wisps off.

They swarm in light and, fast, dive in,
then drone out, slow, their pantaloons heavy
with gold and sunlight. The line of them,
like thin smoke, wafts over the hedge.

And back again to find the fleet gone.
Well, they got this day’s good of it. Off
they cruise to what stays open longer.
Nothing green gives honey. And by now

you’d have to look twice to see more than green
where all those white sails trembled
when the world was misty and open
and the prize was there to be taken.


Tackling Metrics #5 – Variation and The Meaningful Beat

Ciardi – big surprise, huh?

Vital to understanding the metrics of a poem is the balance between the regular meter, the mechanical beat, and the natural stresses of spoken English, the meaningful beat.

The stress of the mechanical beat often works against both the natural stresses of spoken English and stresses created by the poem’s syntax, structure, or meaning (all parts of the meaningful beat). Three points vital to understanding these natural, and necessary, variations:

-A line may have more or fewer meaningful than mechanical stresses.

-The stresses of the mechanical and of the meaningful scansions do not always coincide. The grammatical context, determining as it does the voice emphases of the spoken language (meaningful stress) is never entirely separable from metrics.

-The mechanical and the meaningful stresses may coincide precisely. When this happens in a poem, it is considered a smooth line or a rest line. These lines set the overall beat of the poem, and are often used to create a moment of rest or calm in a poem driven by variations in pace.

Tackling Metrics #4 – Controlling Line Speed

again, from Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?

Common Metrical Ways to Control the Speed of the Line

1. the more unstressed syllables are brought together between accents, the faster the line will tend to move

2. the more caesuras and the more stressed syllables that occur in a given passage, the slower the pace will tend to be

3. using anapestic instead of iambic unstressed syllables will speed up the line, because, in some ways, the iamb is like an eighth note, while the anapest is like a sixteenth note (Hopkins stretched this even further, setting no limits on the number of unstressed syllables in a foot, thus speeding up his lines to create his often dizzying effect)

Common Non-metric Ways to Control the Speed of the Line

1. sound patterns:
alliteration, vowel and consonant sequences, consonantal clusters, rhyme, internal rhyme, repetition of the same word or phrase
a. using all open vowels slows down a line
b. lines of equal monosyllables slow down a line
c. consonantal clusters slow down a line
d. in general the heavier and more complicated the rhymes, whether internal or at the end of the line, the more they will accelerate the pace
e. monosyllabic feet slow down a line

2. visual patterns:
the isolation of words as single lines, the separation of words from one another by unusual spacings in the line, the breaking off of lines for special effect

3. punctuation:
in one sense punctuation is a special case of visual pattern. Punctuation must be taken to include the capitalization of whole words or of their first letters, and the use of italics

4. grammatical structure:
particularly parallel constructions and balanced antitheses as devices for controlling the voice emphases of the speech rhythms.

Tackling Metrics #3 – Pattern and Variation

culled, quoted, inspired by, and paraphrased from John Ciardi’s classic How Does a Poem Mean?

The mechanical pattern of a poem is the exact, standard, normal beat, as if a metronome were counting out the beats. But poems written in strict mechanical pattern are boring and flat, as is music played strictly by the metronome. The ways the mechanical patterns is stretched, broken, surprised, are all ways that the performance of music and of poetry take on personality, emotion, and meaning.

It is useful to think of the pattern of mechanical iambic pentameter as roughly corresponding to the squares on graph paper: the variations of the drawn graph are meaningful only as they work against the fixed norm of the squares. In poetry the mechanical pattern may be thought of as an expectation. The metric performance of any line happens in the way it works its variations against the established expectation. Ciardi page 923

Common Ways to Work Against the Pattern

1. slipping in extra unaccented syllables

2. displacing an expected accent, as in the reversed foot

3. by increasing the number of stresses, primarily by the use of spondees and monosyllabic feet

4. by grouping stressed or unstressed syllables

5. by the manipulation of internal pauses (caesura), end-stops, and run-ons

Tackling Metrics #1 – getting the basics – beats

Basic Beats

iambic / iamb ta-TUM – /

natural for two syllable English words
unstressed syllable is an 8th note

trochaic / trochee TUM-ta /-
English words with suffixes often trochaic

anapestic / anapest ta-ta-TUM – – /
often preposition-article-noun combinations
unstressed syllables are 16th notes

dactylic / dactyl TUM-ta-ta / – –
reversed anapest

amphibrach ta-TUM-ta – / –
3 syllable foot, considered feminine iamb

pyrrhic ta-ta – –
a foot consisting of two unstressed syllables

spondaic / spondee TUM-TUM / /
a foot consisting of two stressed syllables

Monosyllabic foot one beat, usually TUM

whenever a monosyllabic foot occurs, an unaccented syllable that would accompany the accent in mechanical scansion may be displaced to the preceding or the following foot.

Caesura a strong pause, could take place of unaccented beat //

Distributed Stress ^
both syllables accented nearly equal, but not as strong as a spondee

How does a poem mean?

from Chapter One, John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean?

For “what does a poem mean?” is too often a self-destroying approach to poetry. A more useful way of asking the question is “how does the poem mean?” Why does it build itself into a form out of images, ideas, rhythms? How do these elements become the meaning? How are they inseparable from the meaning? As Yeats wrote:

O body swayed to music, o quickening glance,
How shall I I tell the dancer from the dance?

What the poem is, is inseparable from its own performance of itself. The dance is the dancer and the dancer is the dance. Or put in another way: where is the “dance” when no one is dancing it? and what man [sic] is a “dancer” except when he is dancing?


So for poetry. The concern is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience. There will never be a complete system for “understanding” or for “judging” poetry. Understanding and critical judgment are admirable goals, but neither can take place until the poem has been experienced, and even then there is always some part of every good work of art that can never be fully explained or categorized.


Any teaching of the poem by any other method owes the poem an apology. What greater violence can be done to the poet’s experience than to drag it into an early morning classroom and to go after it as an item on its way to a Final Examination? The apology must at least be made. It is the experience, not the Final Examination, that counts.