Dactyls And Groove

Feb 26, 2021

My weekly online songwriters' meeting has its roots in a one time New York institution, the Monday night meeting at Jack Hardy's Greenwich Village walkup, better known to the cognoscenti as "the Houston Street Hilton." Jack and his meeting are now gone, but several members of my current group were regulars at one time or another, and this current meeting is modeled directly on what Jack created over a period of more than twenty years.  Two of my friends in the group, Bob and Tim, have been writing songs, making records and talking about songwriting for going on a few decades now. So I thoroughly enjoyed it when some good-natured but emphatic heckling broke out online a couple weeks ago, with Tim posting, in effect: What Do You Mean, You Don't Read Poetry, Bob? How, Tim wanted to know, does a guy as dedicated to his craft as Bob, and literary about it to boot, completely eschew one half of the entire Prose 'n Poetry bookshelf?

While I was attending Jack's meetings, I was still giving private lessons. And while one rarely gets the feeling, in New York, that one has finally arrived, there came a moment when both Matt Umanov Guitars and Mandolin Brothers were giving out my name to people looking for a teacher. The fact that I was probably one of the only people in New York at that time to play the Dobro, much less teach how to do so, probably had a lot to do with it (Specialization! Kid, there's nothing like it...) But it did lead to the occasional conversation that went something like this:

Me: So what are you interested in learning?

Student: Well, I'm really into blues.

Me: Cool! So, like, Chicago blues, Delta blues, the ragtime guys, jump blues...?

Student: I like Eric Clapton.

I say this not to bag on Eric Clapton – Layla, Disraeli Gears and Slowhand were three of the first records I ever owned –  but to make the following point. I have been baffled by poetry most of my life, so when I was on the phone with Tim a week or two after the poetry kerfuffle I said, "Listen, can you recommend some poets?" "Sure," said Tim.  "What kind of poetry are you into?" Well," I said, "I like Eric Clapton."

Actually, what I said was, "Well, I've been reading Billy Collins, which I realize to you is probably like trying to get into the blues by listening to the Rolling Stones." Pretty astute, I thought, for a guy who knows nothing about poetry. So Tim recommended a bunch of mid-century poets, all of whom I'd heard of and none of whom I'd read. Most of them are already in an anthology of postmodern American poetry a close friend and former student gave to me shortly before I left Brooklyn. So, off and running.

The next night, at work on an experiment for February Album Writing Month, I found myself wondering what the word is for that rhythm that turned out to be what poets call a "dactyl." But I didn't know the word I wanted was "dactyl" until I pulled John Lennard's The Poetry Handbook off the bedroom bookshelf. This, because I couldn't find the book I was really looking for, Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Traveled, which I'd poked around in over ten years ago. (Per usual, I made one of my typical mistakes: reading about poetry without bothering to actually read any, which is a total rookie move.)

Fry's point, or one of them, was that if you're learning to do something, it pays to learn the lingo, too. Lennard spends time on this as well, in a different way, in his opening chapter on Meter (or rather, Metre, since he's from the U.K.). Ultimately, his point is: poetry is rhythm. And within ten pages I finally understood why, inside a line of iambic pentameter, the words don't all scan perfectly. Until now, I thought, "well, what the heck – they make these rules, then break them all over the place?" Lennard, in a few short pages, managed to enlighten me on the subject: there's the meter (er, metre) and then there are the reversals, extensions and truncations of the meter that make things more interesting. Messing with the meter isn't cheating; the contrast provides some essential push-and-pull, creates tension, and keeps things from getting sing-song and montonous.

All of which sounds suspiciously like groove and syncopation to me. Only, with words. How cool is that? And if you're not sure what I mean, just imagine the moment at the end of each chorus of Z.Z. Top's "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide:" you're chugging along in a straight-eighths rhythm when suddenly, everyone breaks into 12/8 for just one measure – NYOW now now NYOW now now NYOW now now NYOW now now..." Lennard is talking about what happens within a single line of poetry, but here's a big, obvious example of the same thing happening within a chorus of the blues. And that bar where the rhythm is completely upended makes the main groove of the song that much more satisfying, besides being one of the coolest things ever done with an electric guitar.

So – off to read some Ferlinghetti, which probably has more to do with Ornette Coleman than with Billy Gibbons, but it's a start.