Breaking: Chaucer Scholar Analyzes Trump Attack Haiku


We’ve had some good emails to date on the Trump Attack Haiku. And if you follow my Twitter feed you’ll know I’ve been experimenting with the form myself. But now we’re really getting somewhere. TPM Reader KC is a Chaucer scholar and medievalist who wrote her dissertation on Middle English Alliterative meter (yes, that’s a thing!) and she’s done a close analysis of the Trump Attack Haiku, which is fascinating, hilarious and incisive in equal parts. (Yes, I’m basically in love. She had me at ‘scansion’.) KC’s analysis after the jump …

You asked for it, and so now you’ll get it! I am a linguist and a metrist, and my dissertation is on Middle English Alliterative meter, of which Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the best example, and Chaucer’s meter. I am thus well equipped to address the stylistically robust Trump tweets in which you have discerned a repetitive and therefore effective style–as my professor colleague LP noted, well done! I know you read mountains of tweets, and it speaks well to both Trump’s effective rhetoric and your critical reading skills that you recognized his pattern. As you have established in your initial post, this style looks deliberate, such that they are single-authored or whoever tweets follows the pattern.

These tweets resonate with us because of their tripartite flow; I would argue that the three-line haiku appeals to us for the same reason. From the ancient Greeks, we are deeply steeped in the power of THREE, the number of the spirit (e.g., the Holy Trinity), and so we say good things happen in threes, three’s a charm, third time lucky, and so on. We even teach our students to have a three-prong support for their thesis statements. Rhetorically, then, dividing a message in threes like this will satisfy our unconscious desire for this pattern.

But this is NOT metered speech. NH has offered a very smart scansion of these lines, reaching deep into the metrical well to label the lines chosen as such, but a repeated pattern is simply absent. (As an aside, could someone please hire this person? Anyone who would do that simply because they can and has that level of attention to detail is being wasted right now, and a metrical English major has math chops that many lit majors lack along with solid communication skills.)

I concur with NH that they (pace grammar Nazis) were at least as good at meter than their professor, since few people are very interested in counting syllables and looking for the pattern if beats in them. Here I have the advantage of having worked with poems such as Gawain, in that they do not use the regular foot patterns that NH fell back on–the iambs, in particular–that find their source in the Norman’s conquering of England in 1066. While the alliterative tradition apparently never died, what we have with few exceptions from c. 1100-1350 is English poetry written in the French style, and Chaucer’s first poems use this meter, the octosyllable, before he shifted to what we now call iambic pentameter. The point is that alliterative meter is NOT regular, since it’s organized not around syllable counts as iambic pentameter is, so-called syllable-timing, but around stress counts as Germanic languages such as English are, so-called stress-timing.

Here are the things metrists look for when sussing out meter: a recognizable pattern of beats that repeats itself, and whether stress-timed or syllable-timed, ALL metered poetry is more regular at the end of the line than the beginning. What you have seen is a regular pattern, but as the three tweets I have scanned in the attachment show, there is no regular pattern of beats and offbeats (I should note, especially for NH’s benefit, that I use Derek Attridge’s notation from The Rhythms of English Poetry (1982), since it picks up nuances of heavy (B) and light (b) beats and heavy (O) and light (o) offbeats, which are incredibly important to how to write and perform any English poetry–the stressed (// and unstressed (x) syllable model is a binary and does not capture natural and especially metered language as well as it should, though it is used by pretty much everyone. Alas.)

I’ve attached a PDF and Word version of my scansions; the beats occur at the vowel (phonologists have observed that stress occurs on vowels), but Word messes up my scansions. Here are my comments on the three:

1) “Temperment” tweet: Lines one and two have nothing in common. This is the shortest of the tweets, and thus a noticeable anapestic ( ooB ooB, see Poe’s “Annabel Lee” for a great anapestic poem) pattern emerges in the second line–only one dip has a triple and not double offbeat–but this anapestic pattern is repeated in no other line. In line 3, I scanned an offbeat to create the sense I have of the musical rest created by its monosyllablic nature (one-beat lines are quite rare; right now, only Gawain’s bob lines come to mind, but I’m sure there are others). As scanned, it has 8 beats in the first line, 7 in the second, 1 in the third, and no clear pattern of offbeats or beats and offbeat together (think anapest) between the first and second lines.

2) “Texas” tweet: Not only is the beat-offbeat pattern between the two lines different, but the two lines likewise differ from the beat patterns in the previous tweet. Line one has 6 beats, line 2 an amazing 11 (and note that rat-a-tat of 4 beats in a row! ka-POW!). Only line 3 has the same pattern (as I scanned both line 3s, so opinions may vary!) as the first tweet, the trochaic Bo.

3) “WSJ” tweet: And once again, we have completely new patterns of beats and offbeats in the first two lines, but even the third line has a different beat pattern (notably, it’s a metrical Middle English b-verse with 2 beats). Twitter’s compressed style, I would argue, promotes beginning sentences on a beat, but the first line in this tweet violates that pattern established in all other long lines. Line 1 has 9 beats, Line 2 a mere 4, and line 3 has 2.

The patterns I see are the long-long-short lines, a tendency to begin lines on a beat, and a tendency for a Bo pattern in the short line. Tendencies, however, are not rules. The rule for that short line, in fact, is rhetorical and stylistic, not metrical: one or two words of varying beats and offbeats. Thus I conclude that while there is a clearly high level of artful rhetoric in these tweets, deserving of great compliment both in its craft and your decoding of it, there is no discernible meter.

I have tried to keep this as short and lay-oriented as possible. My dissertation advisor joked that there are only about 6 of us in the world who understand Middle English Alliterative meter, and without a doubt not many more who understand or even care about meter. But meter matters, as you have demonstrated, and of course I’m delighted to show how useful medieval literature is whenever I have the opportunity. I’m grateful that I finally have downtime to respond, and it is especially useful and encouraging to see three of your readers writing in so that I may respond to them, too.

Thank you for creating such a diverse community; I never thought my dusty little corner of English studies might have a chance to be useful to TPM. 🙂