Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Meter in "Christopher Robin" by Mas Rapido

I couldn't resist another bit on poetry in song lyrics.  I was listening to Mas Rapido's "Christopher Robin" this morning on my commute (good driving song--I'm linking the title to a YouTube video in case you don't know it) and started thinking about how clever this song is in its use of meter.  Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find the lyrics on line, so I'll have to be a little dangerous and transcribe them myself, but here's a snippet:

Christopher Robin, Christopher Robin's dead
He had a circus living inside his head
He was a poet, he was a setting sun
He was a beacon shining for everyone.

The rhyme on the page is overly heavy, but the music downplays the rhyme and plays up the rhythm, and the rhythm is what I want to talk about here because it's pretty darned cool.

Because I don't have a way to mark this above the syllables themselves, I'm going to use ' to mark stressed syllables and - to mark unstressed syllables.

"Christopher Robin" scans as follows: ' - - ' -
"Christopher Robin's dead" scans: ' - - ' - '

In other words, the lyrics, start with a strong dactyl and immediately shifts on us by substituting a stressed syllable for an unstressed in the last syllable of the second foot.  (If you have no clue what I'm talking about, this link may help.  Wikipedia also has a decent entry on meter, though it might be a little overwhelming and contains far more than you need to know for the purpose of this little essay.)

I hear the meter for the first verse as (depending on how you emphasize and where you mark the feet)--

Christopher Robin, Christopher Robin's dead   ' - - ' - ' - - ' - '
                       (dactyl, trochee, dactyl, trochee + ' foot)
He had a circus living inside his head                 ' - - ' - ' - ' - - '
                       (dactyl, trochee, trochee, trochee, iam)
He was a poet, he was a setting sun                  ' - - ' - ' - - ' - '
                        (dactyl, trochee, trochee, iam, iam)
He was a beacon shining for everyone.              ' - - ' - ' - - ' - -
                        (dactyl, trochee, trochee, iam, pyrrhic)

(You could also see line one as dactyl, trochee, dactyl, dactyl if you don't here "dead" as stressed--and the way the singer lowers his voice, we're sort of asked *not* to stress it, but since the word naturally tends to fall as a stressed syllable, I've marked it that way.  Ah, the fun of meter!)

The last line, like the first, has a hard caesura in it--how very Anglosaxon and how pure awesome.  But also, look at the way each line consistently opens with the same metrical foot pattern (dactyl + trochee) and then shifts.  The rhythm of the words themselves has us guessing, which leads us subconsciously to listen especially well to the second half of each line.  We're waiting to see what will happen next, what rhythmic surprise the band has in store for us.

Now, I'm not going to suggest that Mas Rapido sat down and said, "let's mess around with some dactyls and trochees in this song."  (I'm not going to suggest that they didn't either.  This is clearly an intelligent group of song writers, and I would not be so fool hardy as to assume them ignorant.)  That aside, good musicians are aware of the rhythms they create in the words themselves and how those rhythms must respond to or react against the music of the guitars, bass, drums, etc.

These are the things I think about when I'm driving in to teach you all.  Are you guys as blown away by this song as I am?  I can't stop listening to it. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

My Summer Vacation: suggested readings for a fictional escape

The setting: a small, wind-beaten cottage off the Oregon coast.  "Cottage" implies, perhaps, too much coziness.  It's small and drafty and was once painted white but the wind and salt have stripped much of the paint off the side facing the coast.  Eggs and bacon fry in a beaten skillet alongside a whistling kettle on the old gas stove.  The drizzle appears to have settled in to stay.  After breakfast, you'll read for a while in the once-gold easy chair that sits next to the small wood stove that taking the chill off of the cloudy and cold summer morning.  Amongst the pile of novels you've brought are a few story collections, and you decide to start with a few quick stories from those.  The cliffs here at the edge of the world calls for a little grittiness and realistic depictions of human weakness, but the weather calls for a little humor--where else can one find sunshine in such a place?

George Saunders "Sea Oak"
If you're offended by bad language and coarse behavior, this is not the story for you; however, the story is one of the funniest satires of contemporary America I've read.  The main character works at a restaurant called "Cockpit" that appears to be a male version of Hooters to support his deadbeat welfare mom sisters and his minimum wage earning and unfailingly optimistic aunt.  When his aunt dies early in the story, things appear to turn for the worse...until she comes back and the characters are forced to re-evaluate what exactly could be worse than their unflinchingly American lives.

Louise Erdrich "Sister Godzilla"
There is simply no finer writer in America today than Louise Erdrich.  As always, she creates a vivid world in a small space.  Here, one girl confronts her own insecurities after being caught making fun of the nun who teaches her.  As she struggles to please the teacher she feels she may have hurt, she reveals a deep sympathy towards the nun that suggests her fears of having hurt are, at their core, fears of being hurt.  The characters are fiercely strong and so clearly drawn that Erdrich doesn't seem to be creating a world but reporting one.

Robert Olen Butler "Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of a Parrot"
This story, like the other stories collected in Tabloid Dreams, takes its title from tabloids, but tabloid writing ends there.  Butler imagines a full back story into the protagonist, a parrot, who has been purchased by the wife he had in his last life and now must watch her move on.  Butler manages a nice balance between humor and sympathy as we watch the man/parrot struggle with issues of power and control when both his physical power and his spoken language are all but taken from him.