How might one "scan" the meter of Richard Wilbur's poem titled "Junk"?
Richard Wilbur’s poem titled “Junk” is written in deliberate imitation of an Old English or Anglo-Saxon poem. The poetry of the Anglo-Saxons was far less concerned with regular, predictable patterns of rhythm than was the poetry of later eras. Thus, instead of sticking to a fairly regular “iambic” beat, in which the odd syllables are unaccented and the even syllables are accented, Anglo-Saxon verse was much freer and less rigid in the placing of accented syllables. In addition, Old English poetry also emphasized a break between two halves (or “distichs”) of a poetic line (a break clearly signaled in the shape of Wilbur’s own poem). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Old English poetry relied heavily on the repetition of the same sounds on either side of the break. Usually the sounds repeated were consonants, although, as the opening lines of Wilbur’s poem indicate through imitation, vowels could also be stressed in this way:
An axe angles
from my neighbor’s ashcan;
It is hell’s handiwork,
the wood not hickory . . .
In an actual translation of an Old English poem, these words would be printed as two lines, not four, like this:
An axe angles from my neighbor’s ashcan . . .
Wilbur drops each second half of a statement down to a second line in order to stress even more strongly the caesura (or pause) between the two halves of each statement.
Wilbur, like the Anglo-Saxons, is less concerned with following any completely predictable rhythmical pattern than with making sure that each line has four main beats and that the syllables accented often display alliteration. Here, for instance, is how the beats are distributed in Wilbur’s second statement (with boldface type indicating accent or stress):
It is hell’s handiwork, the wood not hickory . . .
Likewise, the same four-beat pattern and the same emphasis on alliteration appear in Wilbur’s next statement:
The flow of the grain not faithfully followed.
Anyone expecting Wilbur’s poem to use, in any predictable way, such standard prosodic “feet” as iambs, trochees, spondees, dactyls, and anapests will thus be disappointed. Most of Wilbur’s “distichs” (that is, half-lines) simply contain two accented syllables each.
SOMETHING EXTRA: Wilbur's poem invites attention from "dialogical" critics, who are often interested in the "dislogues" between one text and other texts. This kind of dialogue is called "intertextuality." In this work, Wilbur deliberately invites us to pay attention to the ways in which his poem echoes poetry from the Old English period. He even cites lines from a particular Old English poem at the beginning of his own work. The epigraph that precedes Wilbur's poem has been translated by Wilbur himself as follows:
“Truly, Wayland’s handiwork—the sword Mimming which he made—will never fail any man who knows how to use it bravely.”
The epigraph thus exists in an ironic relationship with Wilbur's poem, which describes the deterioration of human creations.