Melody in McCrae's Verses

Exploring the nuances of poetic expression through punctuation.

by Nouman Rasool
Melody in McCrae's Verses
© T. S. Eliot Prize/YouTube

In the intricate dance of poetry, every step, every pause, every turn holds meaning. In a world where the smallest gestures can carry the weight of worlds, the humble comma takes center stage in a discussion led by Shane McCrae.

Initially, McCrae contemplated the title “On Small Turns” for his reflective essay, but this consideration evolved as he recognized the depth and breadth of his true subject: meter. He arrives at the understanding that even the smallest element of poetry, like a comma, isn’t just a mark on a page; it’s a vast concept with the potential to stretch the boundaries of English punctuation.

McCrae's essay isn't fixated on any random comma; it's sparked by one from a student's poem, an instance that represents a broader poetic tool. He underscores that it’s not the comma’s occurrence but its application that’s pivotal, as illustrated in a line by student SA Wilson, which McCrae deems a fertile ground for contemplating the music woven through poetry.

This isn’t merely a matter of technicality but rather the resonance of a poetic mind. The lines in question move to the rhythm of iambic tetrameter, a beat that usually unfolds as unstressed followed by stressed syllables in a harmonious succession.

However, the appearance of a comma in Wilson's line disrupts this melody, prompting a different beat and introducing a trochee amidst the iambs. This switch isn’t just a metric variation; it signifies the poet's intent, a deliberate pause where the speaker in the poem recalibrates their description of a scene, ensuring fidelity to the witnessed transformation of colors at dusk.

Meter's Meaningful Pause

Good poets, McCrae asserts, don't merely use meter to fill time but seize it to infuse meaning. Wilson's comma offers a breath, a space for reflection, and in this pause, the poet aligns the meter with the narrative, turning a description of color fading into an exploration of perception itself.

The shift from iamb to trochee isn’t arbitrary; it's a conscious choreography that illustrates the mental tango between observation and expression. This conscious use of meter and punctuation is more than poetic flair; it's an assertion of commitment to truth, not just in portraying the seen but in capturing the very act of seeing — the intricate waltz of mind and sensation. Such is the power of a comma, a simple curve on a page that grounds the poet's vision and anchors their song.