Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody ❧ A Review

Free Verse: an essay on Prosody by Carles O. Hartman
March 9, 2012

First Things First: What is Prosody?

I remember, way back when, I knew a poet who favored free verse. As his writing developed, he struggled with a question that confronts many writers of free verse. Where does the poet break his or her lines? You can find this same question frequently posed on the internet. In traditional poetry, the line ends where the iambic pentameter ends, basta; but, as far as my friend knew, there was no such rule pertaining to line lengths in free verse. My friend declared that he was going to systematize lineation in free verse. I never heard back from him. His name was Jerry Lafemina and if any of you know him, have him send me a note. Anyway, what he was really saying was that he wanted to develop a Prosody, one that he and his readers could mutually understand.

So, when I discovered Hartman’s book, I was excited. Here was a book that tried to answer the question: Is there a prosody of free verse and, if so, what is it?

The definition of prosody (or at least the one with which this book is concerned) is as follows: A system of versification. This is problematic when applied to free verse. What this means (and what Hartman must argue) is that free verse isn’t free, but is a systematic form as rigorous as traditional verse. He must argue that once a reader understands that prosody, he can apply that knowledge to any free verse poem in the same way that a reader of traditional poetry applies the prosody of meter and rhyme to her reading of traditional poetry. Take Shakespeare’s famous line, To be or not to be, that is the question, as an example. If we read the line according to the prosody of traditional poetry, the verb is receives the stress, rather than that. That is, knowing the rules of meter, the line reads: To be or not to be, that is the question. We can assert the likelihood of this reading because the prosody of meter (and blank verse in particular) suggests it.

The first thing Hartman had to do, given that he’s writing a book on the prosody of free verse, is to re-define the word free. Clearly, if something is free, implying in this case that it lacks form (is not formal) then there can’t be, by definition, a prosody. One can’t go writing a book on the form of free verse when the free in free verse is understood as implying a lack of form!  Prosody implies a regular and recognizable system that is applicable to all poems (and that is more than a niggling problem for Hartman). He wastes no time explaining what we really mean by free in free verse (or prosody for that matter). First he defines prosody:

The prosody of a poem is the poet’s method of controlling the reader’s temporal experience of the poem, especially his attention to that experience. But how can the poet control the reader’s experience? How does the reader know what to pay attention to, among the many linguistic events the poem comprises? The prosody, to function as a prosody, must be shared. [p. 13]

The italics are the author’s. The underlining is mine. While Hartman emphasizes the intentions of the author with italics (which will be extremely important to his later arguments) the thing that makes prosody, well, a Prosody, is that it “must be shared” – a contrivance understood by both reader and writer. The poet can tell himself that he is controlling the “reader’s temporal experience” until the moon grows grass, but unless the poet’s methods are understood by the reader (unless it is shared) he might as well be writing letters to his dog.

The difference between Poetry & Prose

Anybody who follows my blog knows my opinion on free verse. I do think it’s much easier to write than traditional verse (which has led to its near total dominance), but that doesn’t mean free verse can’t be written with a greatness equal to traditional verse. The qualities of greatness are the same whether the poem is free verse or traditional. That said, traditional verse offers the poet effects that free verse doesn’t and never will. And so begins my many disagreements with Hartman.

At the outset, Hartman states what I have stated many times:

“…it has often been shown that any mode of organization found in any poem (except lineation) will also occur in some passages of prose – usually many, though rhyme, for instance, had a short and relatively disastrous career in English prose.”

The problem is that Hartman means this to include traditional verse, which I don’t. As Hartman himself states (curiously) rhyme’s appearance in prose was “short and relatively disastrous” (meaning that it didn’t work). That’s because internal rhyme isn’t the same as end rhyme. In other words, one can’t separate end rhyme (as it is practiced in the traditional poem) from lineation. And the combination of end rhyme, combined with meter, is also not the same as end-rhyme alone (and is not something that appears in prose). My point is that there is a continuum. As regards free verse, Hartman’s statement holds water. The only feature that separates free verse from prose is lineation. As regards traditional verse, Hartman’s statement doesn’t (as he himself unintentionally admits). Traditional verse adds extra layers to lineation. The metrical line and end-rhyme don’t and have never appeared in prose. For example, regular metrical feet may appear in prose, but a regular metrical line never has and never will.

It’s a curious facet of Hartman’s dialectic that he eagerly (and rightly I think) emphasizes the importance of lineation in free verse, but consistently downplays or fails to recognize the compounding effect of lineation when combined with meter and rhyme. He can’t have it both ways (though he tries) and that’s part of the problem.  Hartman wants to establish a prosody of free verse that is equal to traditional verse. That’s a mistake. He can’t do so without altogether disregarding the compounding effect of meter and end-rhyme.

He knows that. It’s the only direction his thesis can take him. That’s why, at the end of chapter three, he triumphantly announces that “what rhyme and meter can do, lineation alone can also do”. We’ll return to that. Yes, we will. By the time Hartman makes this pronouncement, a fairly simple word like rhythm has been turned inside out and upside down and many a reader (to judge by other reviews) becomes lost in the maze of his baroque re-definitions.

Of Rabbit Holes and Rhythm

Unfortunately for Hartman, the one word he fails to accurately define is rhythm. I’ve had this discussion elsewhere (on this blog) with readers who style themselves defenders or proponents of free verse. Most of us use rhythm in a literal and a figurative sense – but mixing these two uses in a book which professes to establish a prosody (and which takes great care to carefully define words like free and prosody) is a considerable oversight that undercuts the entire argument.

We regularly refer to random events or objects as having a rhythm. We can watch the wind on a wheat field and describe the rhythms of the wind – but these are random events. They’re not rhythmic. The human brain, as science has amply demonstrated, is designed, by default, to find rhythm and pattern where none exist. This is important because we also commonly refer to the rhythms of language when, in reality, we’re describing not the rhythms, but the arrhythmia of language. Likewise, listeners and poets will frequently refer to the rhythm of this or that free verse poem when what they’re really describing is the arryhthmia of the poem’s language (which isn’t to say that a free verse poet isn’t making conscious choices — only that the choices result in an irregularity that is unique to the poem).

Strictly speaking, arrhythmia is a medical term, but in this context it’s useful. Here’s how it’s defined by the Farlex Free Dictionary:

  • Adj.
    1.    arrhythmic – lacking a steady rhythm; “an arrhythmic heartbeat”
    jerking, jerky
    unsteady – subject to change or variation; “her unsteady walk”; “his hand was unsteady as he poured the wine”; “an unsteady voice”
    2.    arrhythmic – without regard for rhythm
    arrhythmical
    unrhythmic, unrhythmical – not rhythmic; irregular in beat or accent

The most useful meaning for our purpose is the idea that language is “irregular in beat” (though different languages are obviously irregular in unique ways). Language has no rhythm (in the literal sense of the word) because the rhythm of any given language isn’t regular. However, each language has a unique rhythm in the figurative sense if we understand that to mean arrhythmical —  uniquely irregular. Rhythm, on the other hand, means something regular, recurring, having a beat or pattern: “of, relating to, or characterized by rhythm, as in movement or sound; metrical, periodic, or regularly recurring“. Wikipedia makes the link between rhythm and pattern explicit:

Rhythm (from Greek ῥυθμόςrhythmos, “any regular recurring motion, symmetry[1]) may be generally defined as a “movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions.”[2] This general meaning of regular recurrence or pattern in time may be applied to a wide variety of cyclical natural phenomena having a periodicity or frequency of anything from microseconds to millions of years. [March 3rd, 2012]

So, when readers, and Hartman himself, refers to a free verse poem as having a rhythm, he’s using the term incorrectly. If a free verse poem has a “regularly, periodic and recurring pattern,” then it’s not free verse. As I’ve written many times before, if the verse isn’t free, then it’s not free verse (unless we change the definition of free).

Hartman’s failure to adequately define rhythm (or his misunderstanding of the word) sets him on the wrong course from the get-go.

What I have already said about the temporality of poems suggests that prosodic organization is rhythmic. Rhythm, in poetry, is the temporal distribution of the elements of language. According to this definition, all language unavoidably has rhythm. [p. 14]

The italics are Hartman’s. Temporal means “of or relating to or limited by time”, but not necessarily recurring or periodic. This is a nice dodge. Hartman himself realizes that this definition won’t do, but he fails, utterly, to acknowledge the importance of “pattern” to rhythm because he doesn’t want to. To do so would be to undercut his dependence on the word rhythm as it describes free verse later in the book. Instead he offers up an object lesson in tortured, baroque avoidance that leaves him right where he started. (Remember, he refuses to use or acknowledge the word pattern or recurrence.) He settles on the neutral word: organization. (You might object that he includes the word rhythmic in his definition, but remember that he’s just defined “rhythm in poetry” not as recurring or regular but as temporal.

This suggests a form of my definition of prosody that approximates and includes the traditional one: It is the system of rhythmic organization that governs the construction and reading of a poem. [ibid]

Now that he’s settled on the generic organization, he needs to define it:

“Organization” implies elements to be organized, and prosodic organization will employ the elements of speech: (1) timbre (in recurrences such as alliteration, assonance, and rhyme); (2) duration (which, when applied as it commonly is to syllables, is called quantity); (3) pitch or intonation; (4) intensity or volume (these two being distinguishable  acoustically but not psychologically, and so not prosodically); and (5) boundary. [ibid]

Nowhere does Hartman acknowledge the one thing that is part and parcel of rhythm — regularity, recurrence and pattern! In fact, nothing in Hartman’s further definition of prosody distinguishes it, in any way, from his first definition. That is, Rhythm, in poetry, is the temporal distribution of the elements of language. And, like he said, his definition of “rhythm in poetry” does not distinguish it in any way from “all language”. So why make it? All of the 5 elements he lists (as elements implied by “organization”) are occurring, right now, in this paragraph. Without the stipulation that rhythm implies a regular and recurring pattern, the word becomes figurative at best and meaningless and worst (to be applied to anything). That’s going to cause problems for Hartman, problems from which his argument can’t recover.

The first problem is that his definition of “rhythm in poetry” cannot account for meter. This is intentional but it’s still a problem. Since Hartman still has to account for meter, and since he rejects the word rhythm, he has to come up with an alternate that avoids being conflated with rhythm. He does so in spades:

The linguistic elements a poet organizes prosodically are largely chosen from him by the conventions of his language, but each poetic tradition also dictates, by establishing more-specific conventions of verse, what he does with those elements. In almost every case, this traditional mode of organization is or depends on a numerical rule. When this is the case, we call the prosody metrical. A meter is prosody whose mode of organization is numerical. [p. 17 - Hartman's italics]

Numerical? This is so generic and bland as to be cynical. Hartman’s definition completely ignores the aural effect of meter and treats it (and poetry in general) like something that only happens on the silence of the page. (This, in fact, will be a tendency that appears elsewhere.) Hartman’s definition of meter fails on such a grand scale that refuting it is as simple as the humble limerick. I’ll explain what I mean shortly but first, we continue on our tour of Hartman’s  logic.

Now that Hartman thinks he has firmly excised rhythm from meter, he goes for the kill in one of the most confused and nonsensical paragraphs I have ever read. I’ll print it in full:

Crude as it is, scansion — the simple diagrammatic indication of stresses and slacks — tells us all we have to know about a poem’s meter. The meter itself, like the scansion, is an abstraction. It is the rule to which a line more or less conforms, and not the line itself. It is not rhythm, but a pattern imposed on rhythm. Not only the unmetered elements of language (such as timbre and quantity), but also the actual instances of the metered elements, the particular stresses and syllables of the line, continue in some sense to occupy the more general area of rhythm. “Rhythm is not metre,” Own Barfield remarks. “It is not another name for metre, but something far subtler. Rhythm is variable about its underlying regularity, whereas metre is invariable” (12,793). Meter is the “underlying regularity” played against by rhytyhm. These two maintain a continual and fructifying tension, like any actuality and the abstraction that shape it. [p. 22]

Where do I start? Let’s begin with the underlined sentence. This sentence is precisely where the previous 21 pages collapse: It is not rhythm, but a pattern imposed on rhythm. Hartman has so separated rhythm from its central meaning of recurrence, regularity and pattern, that he fails to see the absurdity of his statement. I’ll be blunt: A rhythm implies, by definition, a pattern! You cannot, quote-unquote, “impose” a pattern on a rhythm because a rhythm already implies a pattern! This is his attempt, I think, to fully separate rhythm from pattern (essential if he wants to divorce rhythm from meter and leave it nothing but the dry numerical) but the effort defies simple logic.

He follows this with a quote from Own Barfield meant to drive home his point: “Rhythm is not metre.” Barfield then explains this by implying that metre is something separate from language. He too makes the bizarre assertion, counter to every definition of rhythm, that rhythm is distinct from meter’s “underlying regularity”.   I just popped up Artha (my linux system’s dictionary) to drive home the point I’m making.

Rhythm:

  1. the basic rhythmic unit in a piece of music
  2. recurring at regular intervals
  3. an interval during which a recurring sequence of events occurs
  4. the arrangement of spoken words alternating stressed and unstressed elements

So, if rhythm is defined as something that recurs “at regular intervals”, how on earth is this distinct from meter’s “underlying regularity”? Between Hartman and Barfield, if there was ever a textbook example of a distinction without a difference, this is it. The whole mess could easily have been avoided if Hartman had simply conceded that meter is, in fact, rhythm; that the link between music and meter is not isochrony but a recurring and regular pattern; and that if there is a distinction to be made, it is not between meter and rhythm but between the rhythm of metrical verse and the arrhythmia of non-metrical verse.

But the proof is in the pudding, and that brings me back to the humble limerick.

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were caught, so what could they do?
Said the fly, “Let us flee.”
“Let us fly,” said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

The meter of all limericks essentially alternates between anapestic trimeter and anapestic dimeter. It’s that simple. The whole reason limericks are so catchy is because of their rhythm, yes rhythm; and their end-rhymes. To call a limerick numeric is to be obtuse. Yes, it’s numeric, but limericks work not because you can count the stresses in their lines but because you can hear the rhythm created by the anapests.

What is Hartman’s answer to the limerick (or any of the hundreds of nursery rhymes)? He wants us to know that a limerick’s effects are “not a meter in the poetic sense”!

This prosody originates in music. It depends on a beat or pulse–not counting the accents, but equalizing the time between them: isochrony, it is called… But though it is a prosody–it controls the audience’s temporal experience more directly than most–it is not a meter in the poetic sense. It organizes rhythm not numerically but temporally. [p. 32]

Poems like limerick’s “organize rhythm not numerically but temporally“. This is the rabbit hole Hartman must navigate because of his refusal to recognize the standard definition of rhythm. Remember page 14? Here’s what Hartman wrote: “Rhythm, in poetry, is the temporal distribution of the elements of language.” He then adds that “according to this definition, all language unavoidably has rhythm.”  When you consider that Hartman is defining the effect of poems like limericks as temporally organized rhythm (and remember, he has already defined rhythm as “a temporal distribution”), then you must conclude (based on Hartman’s earlier definition of rhythm as, from what I can tell, the same thing) that there is no difference between a limerick and “all language” (since all language unavoidably has rhythm).  Did you get that? I’ll make it clear. According to Hartman:

  • Rhythm is  “the temporal distribution of the elements of language“.
  • Limericks and Nursery rhymes organize rhythm not numerically but temporally“.

Now, since he’s already told us what rhythm is (according to him) let’s replace the word rhythm with the definition he provided:

  • Poems like limericks organize the “temporal distribution of the elements of language not numerically but temporally“.

Right, I’m not making this up. These are his own words. This is where Hartman’s baroque definition of rhythm (absent it’s dictionary definition of recurrence and pattern) lands him – in sheer tautological absurdity. He just can’t bring himself to admit to the rhythmic effect of meter. He can’t because he wants to reserve the word for his prosody of free verse. However, his gymnastics just don’t work. For all intents and purposes, he seems to deny that poems like limericks are written in meter or even exist! This is what allows him to say that line breaks can do anything that meter and rhyme can do. He has written off the very things that meter and rhyme do!

But enough argumentation. Let Hartman write a limerick that doesn’t use meter or rhyme — only line breaks.

Right. I didn’t think so.

Anyway, Hartman is now forced to distinguish between meter “in the poetic sense” and meter in the “temporal” sense. Does that mean, then, that any time one begins to hear the rhythm in meter that it’s not really “a meter in the poetic sense”? Then what does he make of the entirety of Spenser’s Fairy Queen? Here are just two of the hundreds of stanzas:

XLVI

Now when that idle dream was to him brought,
Unto that Elfin knight he bad him fly,
Where he slept soundly void of evil thought,
And with false shows abuse his fantasy,
In sort as he him schoolèd privily:
And that new creature, borne without her dew,°
Full of the makers guile, with usage sly
He taught to imitate that Lady true,
Whose semblance she did carry under feignèd hew.

XLVII

Thus well instructed to their work they haste,
And coming where the knight in slumber lay,
The one upon his hardy head him plac’d
And made him dream of loves and lustful play,
That nigh his manly hart did melt away,
Bathed in wanton bliss and wicked joy:
Then seemèd him his Lady by him lay,
And to him ‘plain’d, how that false wingèd boy,
Her chaste hart had subdued, to learn Dame Pleasure’s toy.

Anyone, and I do mean anyone, who actually sits down to read Spenser’s Fairy Queen, cannot fail to hear the steady, near incessant tum-te-tum-te-tum of Spenser’s iambic pentameter. According to Hartman (since it’s obviously rhythmic in every sense but his), this doesn’t count as meter “in the poetic sense”. How about Shakespeare’s blank verse? The meter’s rhythm is subtler, but it’s there. Ask anyone who can hear the difference between Shakespeare’s blank verse and his prose passages. They won’t answer that “the blank verse sounds organized numerically.” That’s just nonsense. They will answer that there’s a rhythm to the blank verse that isn’t heard in the prose passages.

Hartman’s description of meter, at the close of chapter one, comes as no surprise. He describes it as:

…an abstract pattern [the reader] can transfer in detail from poem to poem and codify in a formally closed, quasi-mathematical system that bears only incidentally on the experience of poetry. [p. 28]

Any reader who states that meter is a system “that bears only incidentally on the experience of poetry” doesn’t know how to read it. To Hartman’s credit, some 26 pages later however, he essentially contradicts himself when he writes that “in traditional verse the metrical determination of accent helps to control the interpretation of meaning…” How can meter help to determine the poem’s meaning and yet bear “only incidentally on the experience of poetry”? Hartman’s book is full of  contradictions like these, but then again, maybe he has re-defined the meaning of “experience” vis-a-vis poetry.

  • It’s worth mentioning, I think, that Hartman dismisses the one word that could have gotten him out of this whole quagmire – cadence.

All these theorists and theories tended to converge on the word cadence. The convergence was more lexical than semantic, since the word came to mean whatever a writer liked. [p. 46-47]

Ironic that he would write that, since this is precisely what he does to the word rhythm. Also ironic in that, by the time he’s done re-defining what he thinks rhythm should mean he’s all but re-defined it as cadence!

Rhythm, Symmetry, Counterpoint and the Free in Free Verse

Like I wrote earlier, one can’t go writing a book on the form of free verse when the free in free verse is understood as implying a lack of form. Hartman has to change the meaning of free. His first stab at this is to argue that we only think it’s free because we’re ignorant of its conventions.

In some sense any verse form is “free” with respect to any other, as the rhapalic line I invented is free if measured by the rules of iambic pentameter. It is “free” until its prosody is discovered. The reader easily discovers the prosody of a poem that belongs to his own tradition. But when the prosodic conventions on which a poem depends are alien to his experience, the poem will puzzle or completely mystify him. [p. 18]

At first glance this seems like a reasonable argument, but the argument is weirdly self-defeating. Hartman’s reasoning would seem to go like this: Poem X only looks like a free verse poem, but it’s not. In fact, once you closely examine it, you realize that it has a form. By way of example, Hartman gives us Marrianne Moore’s “Bird-Witted”. He points out that each stanza is “flawlessly divided” into syllables that count: 9,8,6,4,7,3,6,4,7,4. But what is he saying? Is he saying that Moore’s poem is still free verse, or is he saying that it’s not? If he’s saying it’s not, then what is the point of his argument? Is he saying that some free verse poems are free and some are not? Then what does free mean? What do we call these other “free verse poems”? He does, at least, have an answer to this last question. He divides free verse into vers libre and vers libéré.

On comparing French and English theories of verse, “we discover at once that French distinguish between vers libre and  vers libéré — verse which is born free and verse, so to say, which has been liberated from some pre-existing chains. We have not this distinction in English — party I suppose because the neat verbal antithesis between libre and libéré is not available in English language. J.V. Cunningham helpfully provides a full idea of the resources of what Hough calls verse libere: “in general, the lines of a poem [of this kind] will be partly in standard meter, at times parts of what would be a standard line, or they are felt to be equivalent in some aspect of sound or feeling to a standard line, or they exhibit some marked variation of a standard line, or some other principle of meter is used intermittently and supported and given authority by the presence and recurrence of standard lines.” [p. 113]

Even so, these distinctions seem tangential and unhelpful. What exactly is Hartman discussing? For that, we go back  a hundred pages:

“Free” is properly a synonym for “nonmetrical,” and it follows that the prosody of free verse is rhythmic organization  by other than numerical modes. [p. 24]

Ultimately, “free verse” is “free” only in a special sense. Poems are written in verse so that the rhythms of language can contribute to the whole meaning of the poem; and it is prosody of one kind or another that turns rhythm into meaning. [p. 27]

And in these definitions are the whole reason he tries to excise rhythm from meter. He wants, in effect, to co-opt rhythm as a free verse effect and not a metrical effect. He makes rhythm essential to his notion of a free verse that isn’t “free”. Curiously though, and typically, his definition implies that meter’s “numerical modes” are a species of rhythmic organization! Why else would he write “rhythmic organization by other than  numerical modes? (It seems that Hartman is, himself, either forgetful of, or confused by his own rhetoric of rhythm.) At this point, Hartman describes two “rhythmic” modes of organization that are nonmetrical — counterpoint and symmetry. The rest of the book, however, will primarily be concerned with counterpoint.
Counterpoint:
“I have implied that multiple rhythmic patterns–not all of them metrical and perhaps none–can coexist within a given passage of verse. These multiple patterns may reinforce each other, or they may stand in conflict. In the latter case, we can generally expect to perceive conflict on one level as meaning on another, as any paradox ultimately disproves (but does not deny) itself. This kind of significant conflict I will call counterpoint.” [p. 25]
Symmetry

“A second mode is symmetry. Free verse rarely uses a symmetrical prosody in a primary way. It would give the poem too tedious a stability. But when such elements as accent function at all prosodically in free verse (as they usually do, because of the nature of the langauge), they often adopt a symmetry that seems to arise out of the actual line, unlike an imposed numerical quota.” [ibid]

  • Once again you’ll notice that Hartman slips up by stating that meter is one of many “rhythmic patterns” – this after insisting that meter isn’t rhythm!

Chapter Four is called Counterpoint. Chapter 5 is called the Discovery of Form ( touches on Symmetry) and Chapter 6 is called the Discovery of Meter (this is where he makes the distinction between vers libre and vers libéré .

These three chapters are the heart of Hartman’s book, the chapters where he actually tries to establish and demonstrate a workable prosody. Of the three, the fourth chapter is the most interesting and the most useful to anyone who is writing free verse.  In my opinion, the book would have been much better if he had started with Chapter 4, resisting the Aristotelian reinvention of the wheel in the first three. I think I can briefly summarize the gist of the three chapters.

  • Chapter 4

Lineation allows the free verse poet to emphasize not just words (by choosing their placement at the ends of lines) but allows the poet to counterpoint linebreak with syntax. Where Hartman fails is in establishing counterpoint as a prosody. Remember that a prosody is something that “must be shared”. The principle error in these three chapters is a categorical one. Meter is numerical in the sense that one can objectively scan it and objectively observe where words are demoted or promoted. The meaning of a promoted word doesn’t necessary change from one poem to the next because syllabic emphasis is a part of our language. For example:

How did you do that?

How did you do that?

Depending on how these words appear in a metrical poem (one way or the other) their meaning subtly changes. Because meter is a prosody and because we all speak the same language, we will know which way to read the line based on its appearance within the metrical line. We can safely assume that the poet means us to read it one way or the other – and our interpretations of these lines will be more alike, than not. Hartman would have us believe that line breaks are no different. So, by contrast, here are the first lines of a poem he analyzes:

Shadows cast by the street light
·······under the stars
··············the head is tilted back,
the long shadow of the legs
·······presumes a world
··············taken for granted
on which the cricket trills.

Now what is the reader to make of these line breaks and indents? Hartman has an explanation and analysis for all of it, but all of it flirts too dangerously (when it doesn’t cross the line) with Intention Fallacy (in a limited sense) and Enactment Fallacy. Hartman must presume to know what the author intended when he used X number of syllables in a line, broke the line at this or that word or phrase, and indented. There’s no way around this.   There just isn’t. If Hartman can’t speak to the author’s intentions, then there’s no prosody, there’s no certainty that the poet and reader are sharing a common interpretation of the techniques used. (That is, there’s no common interpretation of the techniques being used.) If Hartman denies this, then his interpretations may or may not represent the intentions of the poet. That, in fact, is precisely what happens. Although Hartman’s interpretation of lineation in this or that poem is interesting, he offers no reason to think the poet actually intended any of it (other than Hartman’s say so).

Likewise, any poet who writes free verse may have her reasons for breaking a line where she does, but how is the reader to know whether to give all line breaks equal weight, some less, or some more. How is the reader to guess at the poet’s meaning? It’s extremely doubtful that any two readers would ever give the same weight or the same meaning to a given line break, let alone a poem. By contrast, the majority of readers will similarly interpret: How did you do that?

In this respect, Hartman’s “prosody” does not withstand comparison to the prosody of traditional poetry. In fact, Hartman’s arguments and assertions can become so diffuse as to be a kind of proto-academese:

“If one distinguishes the constant interval of time measuring each line from the variable pace within it, the relation between them itself appears as a kind of counterpoint. That relation, incidentally, resembles the one between meter and rhythm in accentual-syllabic verse, suggesting that the traditional meter, too, inherently involves counterpoint. But Williams’s poem derives much of its rhythmic interest from a more complex counterpoint, changing the relation between its isochronous lineation–comprising both interval and pace–and its syntax.” [p. 68]

But, as with the limerick, rather than speculate, there’s a concrete test for Hartman’s claims. Prosody has more than one definition. Here’s Wikipedia:

“Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study of metres and forms of versification is known as prosody. (Within linguistics, “prosody” is used in a more general sense that includes not only poetical metre but also the rhythmic aspects of prose, whether formal or informal, which vary from language to language, and sometimes between poetic traditions.)” [March 9, 2012]

We’re going to use the first definition of prosody – the study of poetic meter. This is fair. Hartman himself invites the comparison. Throughout the book he compares his prosody the that of rhyme and meter (rather than to prose). At the end of Chapter 4, Hartman tells us the following:

“For an introductory course in modern poetry, I had typed out and mimeographed a set of free-verse poems as if they were prose. My purpose, of course, was not to pretend that the two forms are equivalent, but to broach the fundamental question of how free-verse lines are divided or determined. I asked the students to mark the line breaks. The only additional information I gave them about Auden’s poem [Museé Des Beaux Arts] was that it contains two stanzas of unequal length.”[p. 75]

The results, predictably enough, were nothing like Auden’s. What this proved, other than that the students aren’t as good at Auden’s poetry as Auden, is unclear, but Hartman has a method. He means to demonstrate that if the poem is written in any other way, the poem won’t carry the same meaning as that implied by Auden’s original lineation.

In several cases, Auden’s lineation generates quite specific effects which one might call semantic. Some of these depend on what I described in the last chapter as a principle of antithesis, that changing elements take stress and constant ones do not. The reverse applies as well: Where a word is unexpectedly stressed, it suggests the alternatives from among which it has been chosen. [p. 77]

So says Hartman. He may or may not be right in his interpretation of these typographical features. But then what does right mean in this context? There’s no way for him to know whether his thinking reflects Auden’s and what does it matter? It only matters if you’re claiming that your interpretation is based on a “shared” prosody of free verse. With that in mind, the larger purpose of his classroom experiment was, I think, to suggest that Auden’s poem obeyed certain recognizable principles. While I enjoyed Hartman’s detailed examination, it hardly added up to a prosody comparable to that of traditional poetry. I’m willing to offer the following test. If Hartman is so sure that his prosody is the equivalent of meter and rhyme, then I will remove the line breaks in any of Auden’s other poems (presumably one he’s not as familiar with) and let’s see if he can reconstruct it? Or how about William Carlos Williams or any of the other major free verse poets? I’ll bet he can’t reconstruct a single one of them. This tells me that his claims to a “shared” prosody of free verse don’t hold water.

On the other hand, he’s welcome to pick any passage from Milton, any Sonnet, any poem by Donne or even a passage from Shakespeare, and based on the prosody of traditional poetry I, the carpenter from up in Vermont, will reconstruct them exactly as the poet wrote them. Not only that, but give me a sonnet (one that I’m unfamiliar with) remove the line breaks and mix up the order of the lines. I’ll still reassemble the sonnet exactly as the poet wrote it.

I defy any one, using Hartman’s prosody, to reconstruct the randomly scrambled and de-lineated free verse poem. Again, what this tells us is that Hartman’s prosody fails the standard he, himself, set for it, that a prosody “must be shared”.

Hartman’s repeated claims to a free verse prosody (equivalent to that of traditional poetry) are baseless. He does his argument no favors by making such comparisons. Besides that, there’s no reason to. I just don’t see why he feels the need to constantly compare free verse to traditional poetry? Is the book nothing more than sibling rivalry? Why can’t a prosody of free verse be like a prosody of prose?

  • Chapter 5

Hartman describes how the subject of a poem, in this instance at the hands of William Carlos Williams, helps shape the poem itself (its counterpoint) — phrasing and lineation. The poet “discovers” the form of the poem as he writes it. This chapter is probably the weakest and least convincing of the three. Hartman, at the chapter’s outset, seems to anticipate this weakness:

Using free verse did not simply mean discarding metrical principles but substituting new ones. Often the conventions on which these new principles rest, such as lineation itself and its relation to syntactical rhythms, are at once less obvious (less explicitly systematic) and more fundamental that the special conventions of meters.  [p. 81]

And then later:

Meaning arises not from what the poems says, but from what it does and the doing that it represents. It cannot be reduced to either a content (a set of propositions) or a form, in the sense in which that word complements “content” — an achieved product, a static stature. Nor, indeed, can meaning be reduced to an accomplished combination or unity of form and content. We comprehend the poem only as a process, not as an object. [p. 85]

This gets to be so rarefied, and the air so thin, that some readers may need oxygen. One begins to notice with Hartman that there’s an inverse relationship between the thinness of the sand under his castle and the academese of his argument. By the time we get to the middle of the chapter, his attempt to describe anything like a prosody of “discovered form” has become so generic, general and diffuse as to be meaningless:

When rhythm renounces the support of abstract or independent systems — meter or isochrony — the basic principle of the line emerges and takes absolute control: Not time alone, nor accent alone, but a combination from among all the elements of sound and of sense must give the line some special twist to justify its individual existence. The details of its rhythm are discovered (by poet and reader) with what it says; they are “organically” united. [p. 92]

So, a combination of all the elements give the line some special twist? Hartman follows this up with the two short poems by William Carlos Williams. In both instances, Hartman’s observations are so specific to his own interpretation that it’s hard to see how any general prosodic conclusion can be drawn. Yes, we can go so far as to impute meaning in the symmetry or lack of symmetry between two scanned lines (which the poet may or may not have been aware of), but that’s nothing two readers are likely to agree on or even recognize.

  • Chapter 6

This chapter is stronger. As with the previous chapter, he argues that the poem’s subject can shape the use or absence of meter.  (This is the chapter where Hartman makes the useful distinction between vers libre and vers libéré.) Hartman focuses on vers libéré  — the way a free verse poet can fuse elements of traditional poetry with free verse. To me, the most interesting passages in the chapter are not those by Hartman (who like a nervous Putzfrau spends his time fussily  admonishing, correcting and revising the words and intent of deceased poets) but those of the deceased poets themselves, like T.S. Eliot:

The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. Is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse… We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation. [p. 112]

This passage by Eliot is like a breath of fresh air compared to Hartman’s abstruse and byzantine argumentation. But Hartman just can’t leave it alone. He has to tweak it. He writes that “Eliot’s ‘simple form’ is a traditional metrical one. Thus it must precede the poem, and in this sense it is more accurate to say that the poet withdraws from it rather than that he approaches it.” Why Hartman felt compelled to make this completely gratuitous observation is beyond me. What does it matter if the poet is “approaching” or “withdrawing” from meter? My only guess is that Eliot’s description rattles Hartman’s preferred sobriquet of meter as a “received form”, a term he pointedly uses in the very next sentence. The terminology has always seemed like a political one, and one can’t help sensing a chip on Hartman’s shoulder whenever he writes about traditional poetry –but I could be wrong. One wonders what Eliot would say if he could be roused from his slumber.

More importantly, as with the preceding two chapters, Hartman is the least convincing when he tries to portray the use of meter (or its approximation) as something like a convention that can guide our reading and understanding of a poem. He can write for instance, that

“The end of the passage [Burnt Norton] shows how the metricality of the fragments can control meaning most directly. It is Eliot’s evocation of meter that makes us shift stresses in the repeated phrases of the final two lines.

will |not stay |in place,

Will not | stay still.

[And here is the larger portion from which these two lines are extracted:

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.]

In other words, Hartman is claiming that Eliot’s “evocation” of meter is somehow enough to cause readers to shift the emphasis from will in the first line, to not in the second line. At this point, I’m almost feeling like I should concede the argument out of apologetic generosity (because I’ve been so unconvinced elsewhere) but, in truth, I can see no reason why, at this particular moment, any reader should be compelled to suddenly invoke the prosody of traditional poetry. As for myself, I read the second Will as emphasized, just like in the first occurrence. What would T.S. Eliot say? Well, guess what(!), we have a recording of T.S. Eliot reading Burnt Norton.  I smell a smack down. I went looking for it as soon as I wrote this paragraph and after I had read it myself. Here it is:

T.S. Eliot begs to differ. He reads it the way I do, not the way Hartman does. (Or rather, I read Burnt Norton the way T.S. Eliot does.) Nothing so illustrates the limitations (if not failure) of Hartman’s prosody. Eliot’s evocation of meter makes us shift stresses? He states his prosodic opinion as though he spoke for all readers and as if his conclusion were self-evident (a habit of academics). He turns out to be wrong. (It’s one thing to speak for and correct poets who can’t talk back, but when they do talk back, it’s almost always trouble) If he can be wrong about this, then why are we to believe his assertions concerning Auden or WC Williams? We have no compelling reason because he has no established or compelling prosody (his authoritative tone notwithstanding).

An Unnecessary Distinction

Why does Hartman spend so much time trying to prove that free verse is the prosodic equal of traditional verse? The effort turns out to be wasted. Wouldn’t it have been better to discuss free verse on its own terms, without reference to traditional poetry and without attempting baroque redefinitions of rhythm and meter? The old prosodists were probably much better at it than Hartman.

The more obvious issue readers are likely to have with Hartman is the often near impenetrable opacity of his prose. He veers in and out of academese.

“A striving toward concreteness in language — the subordination of other linguistic processes to that of naming — is one corollary of the doctrine of the objective correlative. On the other hand, the poem’s method partly conflicts with the purpose of that doctrine, which is finally to facilitate communication between poet and reader by giving them a common ground. If sense in language inheres in the connections among units of sound, meaning inheres in the connections among units of perception, not simply in the units themselves. The poem’s linguistic fragmentation, besides emphasizing sound, tends also to atomize experience into isolated glimpses, and thus to fragment the meaning that the reader is asked to share.” [p. 154]

Right. One can only marvel at the irony of beginning this passage with the phrase “concreteness of language”. The first time you read this you need a Babel fish. As far as I’m concerned, it’s terrible writing. If an argument is clear and concise, then it will be made concisely and clearly. While Hartman makes some interesting and valid points concerning the uses of lineation in free verse, he fails to create the prosody he defined in the first pages of the book.

But is it Poetry?

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

My 2¢

I couldn’t resist..

The Observer, as mentioned in the previous post, published an article entitled Poetry guardians reject modern verse. The Observer writes:

Members of the [Queen's English Society - QOS], set up to defend the ‘beauty and precision’ of the English language, have turned their attention to contemporary poetry and poets, arguing that too often strings of words are being labelled as poems despite the fact they have no rhyme or metre.

What defending the “beauty and precision” of the English Language has to do with defining poetry is unclear. After all, there are any number of free verse “poems” Observer Linkcontaining English that is both beautiful and precise. If the Queen’s English only wants a beautiful and precise definition of poetry, then I assume that the Encyclopedia Britannica’s editors probably live in the same neighborhood.

It seems, however, that they had already decided what that definition should be:

‘A lot of people high up in poetry circles look down on rhyme and metre and think it is old-fashioned,’ said Bernard Lamb, president of the QES and an academic at Imperial College London. ‘But what is the definition of poetry? I would say, if it doesn’t have rhyme or metre, then it is not poetry, it is just prose. You can have prose that is full of imagery, but it is still prose.’

The campaign is being spearheaded by Michael George Gibson, who said it was ‘disgraceful’ that the Poetry Society had failed to respond properly to his demands for a definition. ‘For centuries word-things, called poems, have been made according to primary and defining craft principles of, first, measure and, second, alliteration and rhyme,’ said Gibson. ‘Word-things not made according to those principles are not poems.’ True poems, he said, gave the reader or listener a ‘special pleasure’.

While I may be mildly sympathetic to their angst (if not their goals) stating that “true poems” give readers “special pleasure” is hardly a beautiful or precise definition. Everyday my WordPress Spam filter weeds out hundreds of comments promising “special pleasures”. Were they all poems? – beautifully nubile, inviting and precisely suggestive? I’ll have to turn that filter off…

The Poetry Society's Definition of Poetry?

The Poetry Society's Definition of Poetry?

On the other hand, the Poetry Society’s response was equally ridiculous, if not more so:

The Poetry Society has responded to the criticisms. One trustee told Gibson: “There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.”

This is the kind of airy fairy poetry definition that makes the Queen’s English Society look good. If the Poetry Society truly responded that everything is a poem just because somebody told them so, then they are brain dead. If nothing else, their poetry “trusteeship” isn’t to be trusted and should be revoked. Try telling your local journal editor that your Aspirin bottle’s ingredients list is a poem. (Evidently, that would be good enough for the Poetry Society.) There’s a reason colleges rake in millions of dollars from MFA programs. And it’s not because anything and everything is a poem.

Another trustee, Ruth Padel, dropped back and punted a T.S. Eliot:

Ruth Padel, a prize-winning poet who used to be chair of trustees at The Poetry Society, added: ‘As for “what poetry is”: in The Use of Poetry TS Eliot said, “We learn what poetry is – if we ever learn – by reading it.”‘

Apparently, her prize-winningness doesn’t do well with definitions of poetry. Padel, in effect, is putting words into Eliot’s mouth. What Eliot meant and what Padel meant could have been two entirely different things. But we’ll never know because Eliot isn’t around to clarify (which is why you should always quote the dead). My own opinion is that Eliot’s quote doesn’t help her cause. The poetry that Eliot would have read and learned from didn’t  include the free verse of the 20th century (which he thought had gone too far). Rather, it included the very poetry that Gibson and QOS would consider… well… Poetry.

Michael Schmidt, whose “word things” Gibson and the Queen’s Snark refused to consider poetry, responded thusly:

Schmidt, professor of poetry at the University of Glasgow, argued that for centuries poets had added variations to patterns and rules. ‘It seems a primitive and even infantile notion that there are rules poetry must obey,’ said Schmidt, who accused the QES of placing poetry in a ‘straitjacket’. ‘Poetry that follows the rules too closely is bad poetry. I think every form of verse, free or metrical, establishes a pattern and plays on variations of it.’

To which one can only respond: “It seems an equally primitive and even infantile notion that there aren’t any rules poetry must obey.”

The Queen's English Society's Definition of Poetry?

The Queen's English Society's Definition of Poetry?

Of course, Schmidt immediately contradicts himself. (It’s hard to be consistent when you don’t have a definition.) He says: “Poetry that follows the rules too closely is bad poetry.”

Quoi?

That is, Schmidt admits that there are rules that should be obeyed, but not too closely. OK, so he thinks there are rules but they’re not really “rules”. But wait a minute, Schmidt then muddies the mud. He says that “every form of verse… establishes a pattern… and plays on it.” And just what pattern would that be? And is a “pattern” the same as a rule? And who decides on the pattern? It seems, once again, that a poem is whatever the author wants it to be. Hieronymus Bosch anyone?

So, where does that leave us?

My own feeling is that arguments about the definition of poetry are futile (but a great spectator sport). The term Poetry, during the last 100 years, has been applied to everything. In certain ways, the Poetry Society is correct (though not in their intended sense). The word Poetry is meaningless. It means whatever you want it to mean. I can understand how that would depress or enrage some connoisseurs of poetry and the English language. The word Poetry has caché. It’s got class. Everybody wants a piece of it and everybody got a piece of it. In the latest issue of Poetry, cartoon strips are now considered poems – albeit with the appellation conceptual.

A Subtle Truth…

You know how women poets resent being called women poets? – as if they were a subset of real poets (read men). If you really want to get under their skin, keep saying things like: “Yeah, she’s great for a woman-poet.” Well, the same thing works for writers of free-verse. If you really want to get under their skin, consistently refer to them as free verse poets, as though they were a subset of real poets (that is, poets who write rhyme and meter).

The subtle truth is that there is already a name for the “word things” that word thingers have been writing for the last century. It is called free verse. The next time you meet a word thinger who tells you that he or she writes poetry – ask whether they mean free verse or poetry. Keep a lawn chair close by. You’ll want to be comfortable.

Gibson should take comfort from the fact that the average reader makes a distinction, rightly or wrongly, between poetry and free verse. Ron Silliman has gone on at length railing at this subtle injustice (conspiracy). It’s one of the reasons why he futily attempts to break down poetry into schools. If he could just pull it off, then all schools of poetry would be on  equal footing. There wouldn’t be Poetry and/or free verse. There wouldn’t be Poetry and/or the avant-garde. One could point to any given poet and say (succinctly, beautifully and precisely) that he is a member of this or that school. Finally, all poets would be equal.

Poetry and/or Free Verse

But there’s a reason to distinguish between poetry and free verse poetry. As I wrote in a previous post, The Art of  Rhyme and Meter, poetry began as an oral tradition – and many free versifiers have studiously eschewed that tradition.

Consider Homer’s Odyssey. The original tale is probably far older than Homer and may have been handed down for centuries from one storyteller to the next. Each storyteller probably added details and expanded the story until, by the time Homer learned it, the epic was a real feat of memorization. And as every reader of Mother Goose knows, a ditty or poem that has a rhythm or rhyme is easier to remember than one that doesn’t. And the rhythm of the Odyssey is the  Dactylic Hexameter. The meter made the epic easier to remember.

But even before Homer, the tightly wound relationship between dance, music, rhythm and sound was demonstrated by recently discovered poems from ancient Egypt. National Geographic's Egyptian Poetry DiscoveryIn a book called The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same exact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple meter and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhythms or lengths of phrases of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been changed or performed with some musical accompaniment, were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. ¶ Ancient Egyptian texts show that Egyptians spoke and sang in musical patterns on all occasions and for all purposes–from the most sacred to the most mundane. [p. 155]

This oral tradition continued with the very first works of the Anglo Saxons, the alliteration of Beowulf, right up until the start of the 20th Century, when poets like Frost, Cummings, and Yeats, continued to imbue their poetry with the sounds and rhythms of its oral, storytelling ancestry.

Maybe its controversial to suggest that free verse is a new genre (only tangentially related to the poetry of the previous 2000 years), but the assertion isn’t to the detriment of free verse. Free verse practitioners have themselves, to varying degrees, deliberately avoided the traditional rhythms of a regular meter; have eschewed rhyme; have avoided alliteration; and whole schools have rejected techniques like metaphor. All these techniques grew out of an oral tradition – frequently, or so scholars think, as mnemonic aids or for musical accompaniment.

Free verse is the child of the 20th Century printing press (which isn’t to say that free verse can’t be read aloud and enjoyed as such). And it’s not to say that free verse doesn’t borrow techniques from the oral tradition, but free verse doesn’t do so systemically. (Poets, like William Carlos Williams, studiously avoided anything short of what he considered plain speech or plain English and the avant-garde is premised on the avoidance of anything that smacks of traditional poetry.) It was the explosive availability of the printed word that made the visual cues of free verse possible. Aurally, there is frequently nothing that distinguishes free verse from prose.  Cleave Poetry, for example, is defined by its visual appearance  (rather than any aural cues).

Free verse declares itself poetry on the page. (No listener could reconstruct the poem by ear.)

The poetry of rhyme and meter declares itself poetry in the listener’s ear. The roots of traditional poetry are in music, song and lyric. (The attentive listener could, with a good memory, reconstruct a poem’s shape.)

In short, free verse didn’t evolve from the poetry of the oral tradition, it replaced it.

But is Free Verse Poetry?

Yes, but it’s the poetry of the printed page. It’s a different genre.

If all the printed records of free verse were lost and if all we had were audio recordings, only a handful could ever hope to be reconstructed on the page (depending on how pointedly the poet paused after each line break). What traditionally distinguished poetry from prose was regular linguistic patterning, not length or subject matter. Without any kind of regular linguistic pattern, there is nothing to distinguish  free verse from a paragraph of prose. If free verse isn’t printed, the genre provides no clues as to how it should be lineated.

Put Paradise Lost into one long prosy paragraph, and I will relineate it exactly the way Milton intended. Do the same with any of Shakespeare’s sonnets and I, or any one familiar with the sonnet form, could put them back together.

So, if the Queen’s English Society really wants to pursue a beautiful and precise definition of poetry, let them start there.

Just give me time to get my lawn chair.

❧ September 15, 2009 from up in Vermont.

The Art of Rhyme and Meter

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

The oral tradition of Poetry

Poetry began as an oral tradition. Homer’s Odyssey is probably far older than Homer and Odysseus’ sojourn, in one form or another, may have been handed down for centuries from one storyteller to the next.

Each storyteller probably added details and expanded the story until, by the time Homer learned it, the epic was a real feat of memorization. As every reader of Mother Goose knows, Homer's Odyssey Fragmenta ditty or poem that has a rhythm or rhyme is easier to remember than one that doesn’t.

The Dactylic Hexameters of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s meter, was the  rhythm that made the epic easier to remember. And a device used for the filling out of this meter was the  Homeric Epithet. These colorful descriptions (or epithets) might have also served as cues – much like stage directions.

Before Homer, the tightly wound relationship between dance, music, rhythm and sound was demonstrated by recently discovered poems from ancient Egypt. In a book called The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same exact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple meter and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhythms or lengths of phrases of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been changed or performed with some musical accompaniment, were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. ¶ Ancient Egyptian texts show that Egyptians spoke and sang in musical patterns on all occasions and for all purposes–from the most sacred to the most mundane. [p. 155]

This oral tradition continued with the very first works of the Anglo Saxons, the alliteration of Beowulf, up until the start of the 20th Century, when poets like Frost, Cummings, and Yeats, continued to imbue their poetry with the sounds and rhythms of its oral, musical, lyrical and storytelling ancestry.In short, traditional poetry finds its roots in music.

Free Verse is a different Genre

This all ended with the 20th Century. The poetry of meter & rhyme, the techniques formed out of an oral past,  had become dogmatic and stylized. A new genre replaced the poetry that had been written for thousands of years – free verse.

Though it may seem controversial to suggest that free verse is a new genre (only tangentially related to the poetry of the previous 200o years), the assertion isn’t to the detriment of free verse. Free verse practitioners have themselves, to varying degrees, deliberately avoided the traditional rhythms of a regular meter; have eschewed rhyme; have avoided alliteration; and whole schools have rejected techniques like metaphor. All of these techniques grepower Plain Englishw out of an oral tradition – frequently, or so scholars think, as mnemonic aids or for the purposes of musical accompaniment.

Free verse is the child of the 20th Century printing press (which isn’t to say that free verse can’t be read aloud and enjoyed as such). And it’s not to say that free verse doesn’t borrow techniques from the oral tradition, but free verse doesn’t do so systemically. (Poets, like William Carlos Williams, studiously avoided anything short of what he considered plain speech or plain English and the avant-garde is premised on the avoidance of anything that smacks of traditional poetry.) It was the explosive availability of the printed word that made the visual cues of free verse possible. Aurally, there is frequently nothing that distinguishes free verse from prose.  Cleave Poetry, for example, is defined by its visual appearance  (rather than any aural cues).

In short, free verse didn’t evolve from the poetry of the oral tradition, it replaced it.

So what does this all have to with meter and rhyme? Just this. The near total dominance of free verse in print media and on store shelves (stores that bother with a significant collection) has left its mark on what readers consider a modern style. It makes writing meter and rhyme much more challenging but also more rewarding if done well.

Unlike metrical poetry prior to the 20th Century, the best modern metrical poetry does not draw attention to itself. The best metrical and rhyming poems make the reader feel as though they are reading modern English (without also feeling like free verse). The demands weed the men from the boys, the girls from the women. Robert Frost was a master of this illusion and so was Yeats and Stevens.

Grammatical Inversions & Rhyming: Subject • Verb • Object

When novice poets try to write meter, they frequently use what are called grammatical inversions. They can be effective or they can sound contrived but I suspect that few poets really understand the origin of these techniques, how they’ve  Shakespearean Sentencesbeen used, and why.

The best book on the subject is by John Porter Houston. If you’re a poet and you’re interested in this tradition as practiced by our greatest poet, then this is the book to read. I had a hard time finding it at Amazon but when I finally did I scanned in my own book for their image and added a short review. Here’s how Houston introduces the book.

The history of SOV word order (as, using a common abbreviation, I shall henceforth call the subjectdirect objectverb pattern) vanishes into the Indo-European mists, which has encouraged linguists to formulate various theories of its original importance or even of its former dominance. Be that as it may, the word order shows up historically in Greek, Latain, and Germanic, being associated in the latter especially with subordinate clauses. However, it seems unlikely that, in its English poetic form, SOV is so much an atavistic harkening back to primeval roots as it is a consequence of the adaptation to English of the Romance system of Riming verse. Verbs in Old French and Italian make handy rimes, and they make even better ones in English because so many English verbs are monosyllabic. The verse line or couplet containing a subject near the beginning and a verb at the end is a natural development. [p. 2]

The English language, descended from the Germanic languages, prefers the following pattern:

Subject | Verb | Object (SVO)

Subject | Verb | Object
The girls | play   | on the seesaw.

But poets, as Houston observed, found it convenient, for the sake of rhyme, to invert the grammar. They might write:

The girls on the seesaw play:
“Life goes up, life goes down
“You’ll have good luck another day!”

The first line would be an SOV construction:

Subject | Object | Verb
The girls |on the seesaw |play

This is a construction one sees very often among amateur poets writing rhyme. The only purpose for the grammatical inversion is to make the rhyme. It’s what free verse poets (more so than others I think) derisively call rhyme driven poetry. And it’s precisely this sort of writing that was acceptable right up until the start of the 20th century.

With this in mind, a somewhat peculiar commentary on  rhyme driven poetry can be found at the Poetry Foundation’s blog Harriet. The post is by Alicia Stallings. Alicia StallingsThe reason I say it’s peculiar is because, though she expresses exasperation at the criticism, she never offers an alternative. She begins her post by writing:

As a poet who works in form, I weary of seeing in critiques–either in on-line workshops or in published reviews–the complaint that a poem or phrase or line is “rhyme driven”. Of course rhyming poetry is rhyme driven. Rhyme is an engine of syntax.

But then Stallings immediately acknowledges what the criticism really means: that is, when itis obvious [that] the whole purpose of the line is to arrive at some obvious predestined chime, like the set-up of a punch line.” Stallings then offers some examples of why a poem might feel rhyme-driven, but she never offers a reason why the criticism shouldn’t be made. However, she does write:

But it seems to have become an immediate and unthinking response to lines that rhyme that are in any way out of the ordinary–particularly anything that has the slightest whiff of “inversion”–that is, out of “natural” English word order–which is often interpreted as the blandest, strictest of simple declarative sentences.

And this is to say that such criticism can be carried too far; but then inasmuch as any criticism can be carried too far, this doesn’t invalidate the original impulse. The bottom line is this: Stallings makes sure her rhymes don’t arrive like some “obvious predestined chime”. Rhyme might be the engine, but she makes sure (in her own poetry) that the engine isn’t heard. She’s an exceedingly skillful rhymer. So, the best advice, as regards Stallings, is to do as she does. Read her poetry. Make your rhymes feel accidental, as if they’re an inevitable accident of subject matter.

Robert Frost, on these very grounds, was deservedly proud of his poem “Stopping by Woods”.

Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” [Pritchard, Robert Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]

If you want a model for how to rhyme, read Frost’s Stopping by Woods or The Road not Taken again and again. No one would accuse these poems of feeling rhyme driven although, as Stallings would point out, that’s precisely what they are – rhyme driven.

Again (and I don’t think beginning poets appreciate this enough) it’s not whether a poem is rhyme-driven, it’s whether it feels and reads rhyme driven. Are the rhymes determining the line and the subject matter, or is the subject matter determining the rhymes? In Frost’s poems, it’s hard to imagine how they could have been written any other way. The rhymes feel entirely accidental. The rhymes feel  driven by the subject matter; and this is the effect you are looking for.

For the record, I love the SOV construction – especially when done well. I don’t think I’ve ever used the syntax in my own poetry but I might, just for the enjoyment.

Shakespeare’s use of SOV wasn’t for the sake of a rhyme. Shakespeare used the reversal of normal English  (unusual even in Shakespeare’s day) to add metrical emphasis and elegance; to make a line more memorable; to add meaning; or to reveal character.

Here, for instance, is how Shakespeare reverses the normal syntax of English to convey and build suspense. Horatio is describing having seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father (I have included Houston’s explanatory comment):

william-shakespearethrice he walk’d
By their oppresss’d and fear-surprised eyes
Within his truncheon’s length, whilst they, distill’d
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me
In dreadful secrecy impart they did,
And I wish them the third night kept the watch,
Where, as they had deliver’d, both in time,
Form of the thing, each word made true and good,
The apparition comes. (
Hamlet I, ii, 202-11)

Having devised a sentence in more or less normal word order in which the verbs have radically different positions, Shakespeare then resorts to inversion, and the OVSV clause contains, moreover, a peculiar reversal of impart and did. The next sentence places two circumstantial expressions between subject and verb, so that the latter, with its short object, seems curiously postponed, even though the number of intervening syllables is not great. Finally, in the concluding subordinate clause, both subject and verb are held off until the end. [p. 83]

Notice how Shakespeare holds off the apparition comes until the end of the line. Throughout the passage the inverted grammar underpins the feeling of terror and suspense, the feeling of a character whose own thoughts are disrupted and disturbed. (I think it’s worth commenting at this point, especially for readers new to Shakespeare, that this is poetry. Elizabethans did not talk like this. They spoke an English grammar more or less like ours. Shakespeare can be hard to read because he is a poet, not because he is Elizabethan.)

  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the purposes of making language more memorable is a lovely one.
  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the sake of rhyme is dubious.

Toward the end of the Houston’s introduction, he makes an interesting point. Although the use of the SOV construction continued into the 19th century (even with a poet like Keats who was consciously trying to shed the feeling of antiquated and archaic conventions), the general trend was toward a more natural speech. Houston writes:

The importance of SOV word order in subsequent English blank verse is worth noting. Although it is scarcely unexpected that Milton, with his latinizing tendencies, liked the device,its persistence in the romantics can be a trifle surprising. Keats slight use of SOV in The Fall of Hyperion is odd, given that there he supposedly tried to eliminate the Miltonisms of Hyperion to some extent; Hyperion, in fact, contains no SOVs. An example of two in Prometheus Unbound does not seem incongruous with the rest of the language, but finding SOV word order in The Prelude runs somewhat counter to our expectations of Wordsworth’s language.

but scarcely Spenser’s self
Could have more tranquil visions in his youth,
Or could more bright appearances create
Of human forms (VI, 89-92)

Examples are to be found in The Idylls of the King and seem almost inevitable by the stylistic conventions of the work, but the use of SOV in the nineteenth century is essentially sporadic, if interesting to observe because of the strong hold of tradition in English poetry. [p. 3-4]

The usage was ebbing. The result is that its use in rhyming poetry stood out (and stands out) all the more. And now, when the conventional stylistic aesthetic is that of free verse, SVO inversions stands out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, this short passage can’t possibly do justice to the rich tradition of grammatical inversion in English Poetry. Reading Houston’s book, if you’re interested, is a better start. The point of this post is to raise poets’ awareness of why they might be tempted to write like this; and to make them aware of what they’re hearing when they read poetry prior to the 20th century.

Other grammatical Inversions

There are other types of inversions besides Subject•Verb•Object . In a recent poem I examined by Sophie Jewett, you will find the following line:

I speak your name in alien ways, while yet
November smiles from under lashes wet.

The formulation lashes wet reverses the order of adjective and noun for the sake of rhyme. This sort of inversion is also common among inexperienced poets.

  • Avoid it at all costs.

Conveniently moving around parts of speech might have been acceptable in the Victorian era and before, but not now.

And here’s another form of grammatical inversion by Thomas Hardy from The Moth-Signal:

ThomasHardy“What are you still, still thinking,”
He asked in vague surmise,
That you stare at the wick unblinking
With those deep lost luminous eyes?”

Normally the present participal, unblinking, would follow the verb stare. This is the way grammar works in normal English sentences. However, for the sake of the rhyme, Hardy reversed the direct object, at the wick, with the past participal unblinking. The effect is curious. To what is unblinking referring? – one might ask. Is it the stare that is unblinking? – or the wick? Apologists meaning to rationalize this inversion might point out that the syntactic ambiguity is brilliantly deliberate. I don’t buy it; but they could be right.

  • Again, my advice would be to tread lightly with this sort of inversion. It smacks of expediency.

As I find other examples I will post them.

Ultimately, one of the most telling attributes of an experienced rhymer is the parts of speech he or she chooses to rhyme. A novice may primarily rhyme verbs or nouns. The novice’s rhymes will be end-stopped. In other words, the line and sentence will end with the rhyme. The rhymes of the more experienced poet will move like a snake through his verse. The rhymes will shift from verb, to noun, to adjective, to preposition, etc. They will fall unpredictably within the line’s syntax and meaning – as if they were an accident of thought.

In the spirit of put up or shut up, check out my poem All my Telling. Decide for yourself whether I practice what  I preach. And here is Alicia Stallings what what is, perhaps, the most succinct advice on rhyme that I have ever read – her Presto Manifesto. The most important statement from her manifesto, to me, is the following:

There are no tired rhymes. There are no forbidden rhymes. Rhymes are not predictable unless lines are. Death and breath, womb and tomb, love and of, moon, June, spoon, all still have great poems ahead of them.

You will frequently hear poets and critics remark that a given rhyme is tired or worn. As a counterexample they will themselves offer poems with rhymes that, to my ear, sound concocted and contrived. I call this sort of thing safari-rhyming – as if the poets had gone safari hunting, shot the rare rhyme, and proudly mounted it. The truth of the matter is this: the English vocabulary is finite. There are only so many rhymes. It’s not the rhymes themselves that are worn or trite, but the lines that are tired. Give an old rhyme a new context and magic happens. Robert Frost’s rhymes in Stopping by Woods are nothing if not tired; but the poem’s effortless progression of thought and idea means we don’t notice them. They become a kind of music rather than a distraction.

And this is what rhymes are meant to do. Ideally, they’re not meant to be noticed. This is why the novel rhyme can be as distracting as the line that is syntactically contorted for the sake of a rhyme. The best rhymes are like a subtle music. If, when reading a rhyming poem aloud, the listener doesn’t immediately discern the rhymes, take that as a good sign.

One last thought on rhymes from Stallings:

Translators who translate poems that rhyme into poems that don’t rhyme solely because they claim keeping the rhyme is impossible without doing violence to the poem have done violence to the poem. They are also lazy.

I agree.

On Keeping the Meter

This is the most difficult portion of the post to write because so much of what I write will be construed as a matter of taste; and the distinctions between mediocre meter and meter written well can be subtle. Readers will have to decide for themselves. Way back when, I wrote a post called Megan Grumbling and the Modern Formalists. The point of the post was to demonstrate how the stylistic conventions of free verse had influenced, adversely, the meter and blank verse of modern formalists. (This would seem to go against my earlier statement that poets writing meter can’t write the same way (as in the 19th century) since the advent of free verse. Not entirely. As with anything, there’s a balance to be struck. The best meter doesn’t draw attention to itself.) Feel free to read the whole post, but I’ll extract the most relevant part because I think it has some bearing on this post.

In the January 2006 issue of POETRY magazine, we find some beautiful poems by Megan Grumbling. But remember, this is mirror mirror world. Just as Dryden’s heroic couplets showed up, ghostlike, in his blank verse, free verse asserts itself, ghostlike, in modern formal verse.

“Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls
our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road
crosses the river that they call Great Woks.
The nearby fields so rich it’s hard to breathe–
the hay treacly with auburn, grasses bronzed–
we stop before a red farmhouse, just shy
of where the river runs, where maple trees
have laid the front lawns ravished with their loss.”

The enjambment of the first three lines has all the flavor of free-verse. There are no auditory clues (in the way of syntactical units) that might hint to a listener that these are lines of blank verse. One might as easily write the first sentence as follows:

Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road crosses the river that they call Great Woks.

The average reader would never suspect that this was blank verse. The reader might, in a moment of preternatural attentiveness, notice that the line is entirely iambic. That said, there is no indication that this sentence is Iambic Pentameter. Given Grumbling’s approach, one might as easily print her poem as follows:

Their stri|dent hold |upon |the back
roads pulls |our mor|ning drive, |out to
where Oak |Woods Road |crosses |the river
they call |Great Woks. |The near|by fields
so rich |it’s hard |to breathe– |the hay
treacly |with au|burn, grass|es bronzed–
we stop |before |a red |farmhouse,
just shy |of where |the ri|ver runs,
where ma|ple trees |have laid |the front
lawns ra|vished with |their loss.

This is perfectly acceptable iambic tetrameter, but for the short last line. I only had to remove the purely metric “that”. It might be argued that one could submit any iambic pentameter poem to the same exercise, but such an argument would only be partially true. One would find it exceedingly difficult to apply the same exercise to Shakespeare’s passage from Antony and Cleopatra. Or, more fairly, consider Frost’s An Encounter (more fairly because Grumbling’s poetry is clearly inspired by Frost.)

Once on the kind of day called “weather breeder,”
When the heat slowly hazes and the sun
By its own power seems to be undone,
I was half boring through, half climbing through
A swamp of cedar. Choked with oil of cedar
And scurf of plants, and weary and over-heated,
And sorry I ever left the road I knew,
I paused and rested on a sort of hook
That had me by the coat as good as seated…

And now for the tetrameter version:

Once on |the kind |of day |called “weather
breeder,” |When the |heat slow|ly hazes
and the |sun by |its own |power seems
to be |undone, |I was |half boring
through, half |climbing |through a swamp
of ce|dar. Choked |with oil |of cedar
And scurf |of plants, |and wear|y and
over-|heated, |And sor|ry I
ever |left the |road I |knew, I
paused and |rested |on a sort |of hook
That had |me by |the coat |as good
as seat|ed…

The latter isn’t a very passable version of iambic tatrameter. The third line is entirely trochaic and can only be “rescued” if we elide power to read pow’r or read the line as follows:

and the |sun by |its own pow|er seems

Though this too is unsatisfactory. The fifth line fails altogether. I picked Frost’s poem at random (lest the reader think I picked one poem especially antithetical to such treatment). What the poem illustrates is Frost’s skillful wedding of sense (grammatical & otherwise) to blank verse – Iambic Pentameter.

The same commitment is not sensed in Grumbling’s poem, skillful though it is. One might assert that Grumbling’s poem is primarily iambic and only secondarily pentameter. The ghostly influence of free-verse pervades her poem, just as the ghost of heroic couplets pervaded Dryden’s blank verse. One might say that she only grasps the surface of blank verse. But her choices might also be deliberate.

This is actually a good exercise.

If you can successfully convert your Iambic Pentameter to Iambic Tetrameter or even Iambic Trimeter, then you’re probably doing something wrong. If nothing else, your meter may be too regular or the joining of line and thought may be too slack. There’s an art to fitting thought, meaning and syntax to a metrical line. It’s subtle and difficult to describe but, if done well, line and meter are like hand in glove.

Not to pick on Timothy Steele but… Steele illustrates the opposite dilemma. There’s a stiffness to his meter that one can learn from. His poem, Sweet Peas, starts us off:

The season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the white wall was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her…

In particular, compare the following:

Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say

Then one foggy Christmas Eve/ Santa came to say:

(The latter line is from the Christmas Carol Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) The point of the comparison, cruel though it may be, is to demonstrate what they both have in common – a slavish devotion to an Iambic beat. In the case of the Christmas Carol, it’s necessary. The lyrics, after all, have to coincide with the rhythm of the carol. (You can’t have variant beats in Christmas Carols.) Steele doesn’t have that excuse. His line is full of metrical expediencies.

Normally, the average English speaker would say:

“Yet our neighbor phoned that night saying she had watched them…”

But that’s not Iambic Pentameter. Steele had to move things around. The first thing he does is to shift “that night”. That’s not ideal, but there’s some justification for it. Maybe he wants to emphasize that night? Curiously though, he doesn’t punctuate the clause – Yet when, that night, our neighbor phoned… One would think, if emphasis were the motive, he would want to add some punctuation. As it is, the odd placement has the feel of a metrical expediency. But the phrase phoned to say only makes it worse. The phrase is modern English but in this context it sounds entirely expedient, not just metrically but because it’s clearly thrust to the line’s end for the sake of a rhyme. (This is a rhyme driven line.)

The line is just too obviously metrical.

Three of the four lines are end-stopped, negatively emphasizing the rhyme and meter. The third line is marginally end-stopped. All this combined with the fact there’s only two variant feet out of the first 20 makes for some very wooden meter.

Here’s the rest of that opening verse from Steele’s poem:

Steele_TimThe season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the |white wall| was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it was plain
She struggled with the tumor in her brain
And, though confused and dying, wished to own
How much she’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me good night,
She thought their colors now were at their height–
Indeed, they ne|ver had |looked lovelier–
The only kind response was to concur.

These lines are an object lesson in how not to write meter and rhyme. There are only three variant feet out of 60. All but one of the lines are strongly end-stopped. Steele’s use of contractions is a matter of expediency. For instance, in line 8, he contract’s she’d but doesn’t contract I had. It feels arbitrary. The effect is to highlight the obviousness of the metrical beat. The rhymes are mostly nominal or verbal and, because the lines are end-stopped, they land with hard thumps. A poet might be able to get away with any one of these features in isolation, but when thrown together, the poetry feels contrived. Just as an experiment, let’s see if we can turn this poem into an Iambic Tetrameter.

The season for sweet peas had long
Since passed, and the white wall was bare
Where they’d been massed; yet when that night
Our neighbor phoned to say that she
Had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it
Was plain she struggled with the tumor
In her brain and, though confused
And dying, wished to own how much
She’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me
Good night, she thought their colors now
Were at their height– indeed, they never
Looked lovelier– the only kind
Response was to concur.

What do you think? I actually think it improves the poem. I only had to remove one word. The lines take on a certain sinuousness and flexibility that moderately makes up for their thumping iambics and subdues the cymbal crash of their end-stopped rhymes. They become internal rhymes – they are registered but no longer hit the reader over the head.

If you’re having trouble writing meter that isn’t end stopped (and if you’re not rhyming), remove two words from your first line and shift the rest accordingly. (And you can try removing other metrically expedient words along the way to really shake things up.)  I’ll demonstrate. Rather than pick on any more modern poets, here’s something from the first act of Gorboduc, the first English drama written in blank verse (and just as end-stopped and metrically conservative as some modern formalist poetry):

There resteth all, but if they fail thereof,
And if the end bring forth an evil success
On them and theirs the mischief shall befall,
And so I pray the Gods requite it them,
And so they will, for so is wont to be
When Lords and trusted Rulers under kings
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or a just revenge,
When right succeeding Line returns again
By Jove’s just Judgment and deserved wrath
Brings them to civil and reproachful death,
And roots their names and kindred’s from the earth.

So, let’s remove the word thereof, which is only there for the sake of meter (a metrical filler):

There resteth all, but if they fail, and if
The end bring forth an evil success on them
And theirs the mischief shall befall, and so
I pray the Gods requite it them, they will,
for so is wont to be when Lords and Rulers
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or revenge, when right
Succeeding Line returns again by Jove’s
Just Judgment and deservèd wrath brings them
To civil and reproachful death, and roots
Their names and kindred’s from the earth.(…)

Voila! What do you think? The lines take on greater flexibility and there are fewer end-stopped lines. Even though the overall pattern is just as relentlessly iambic, the effect is somewhat mitigated by the shift between line and thought. You can practice the same with your own poetry, even if its rhymed. You could even try writing Iambic Hexameter, then shifting all the lines so that they’re Iambic Pentameter.

Metrical Fillers

This, as it turns out, is the most contentious part.

I’m fairly hard-nosed about what are (in my view) egregious metrical fillers, but many formalist poets are equally pugnacious in protecting their turf.

The word at the top of my list is upon. While, no doubt, the words has its place, my irritation stems from its reflexive use as an all too convenient iambic substitute for on. Most formalist poets use it. They’re not apologetic. And I’m not apologetic when I call it lazy. The problem, in many cases, is that poets (even free-verse poets) misuse the word. Upon is not universally interchangeable with on. Also, my sense is that, in terms of everyday speech, on has more or less replaced upon. Upon has become a primarily literary usage and feels fusty to me.

But that’s only my opinion.

And it’s easy to get hung up on the word. The point is to avoid metrical fillers – words that are unnecessary to the sense of a line’s meaning (whose only purpose is to fill the meter). Here’s a sample I discussed in my earlier post on Megan Grumbling:

we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this field.

The word upon expediently substitutes for on.  The word “within” is metrical padding. How else does a bag hold anything but “within”?

Later in Grumbling’s poem, more metrical padding appears with “out to where the Oak Woods Road…” Using modern English, we say: “out where the Oak Woods Road…” A.E. Stallings indulges in the same sort of metrical expediency.

Sing before the king and queen,
Make the grave to grieve,
Till Persophone weeps kerosene
And wipes it on her sleeve. [Song for the Women Poets]

The added and unnecessary preposition (to) before (grieve) is nothing more than metrical filling. Here is another example from Stallings‘ The Dollhouse:

And later where my sister and I made
The towering grown-up hours to smile and pass:

Again, the effect is antiquated. The preposition (to) before (smile) is unnecessary – another metrical filler.

However, some of the most abused metrical fillers are adjectives, especially among poets first tackling meter. My advice to poets just starting out is to write meter without adjectives or write with a strict limit (maybe one for every ten lines). Whether writing meter or free verse, nothing can weaken a line like an adjective. Use them sparingly.

After so many examples of what not to do, I thought I’d close with a fine example of beautifully modulated meter and rhyme by Annie Finch (whose book I will be reviewing soon):

annie finchDo you | hear me, |Lycius? |Do you hear |these dreams
moving |like words |out of |the air, it seems?
You think you saw me thin into a ghost,
impaled |by his |old eyes, with |their shuddering boast
of pride |that kills |truth with | philosophy.
But you hear |this voice. It is a serpent’s, or
is it |a wom|an’s, this rich |emblazoned core
reaching |out loud for you, as I once reached
for you with clinging hands, and held you, and beseeched.  (…)

These are the opening lines to Lamia to Lycius, from Annie Finch’s new book Calendars. The poem is written in open heroic couplets, like Steele’s, but the difference is night and day. The thing to notice is that there are only two end-stopped lines in these first nine. The syntax and thought of the lines moves sinuously through the line ends, subduing the rhymes. The effect is to make the rhymes feel more organic, more like an outgrowth of the poem’s subject matter.   Notice also the rich use of variant feet balanced against more regular iambic feet and lines. (I’ve marked phyrric feet in grey.) Notice also the absence of metrical fillers. Finch isn’t determined to keep a strict count like other poets – Timothy Steele or Dana Gioia (the link is to my review of his poetry). The result is a far more varied and rich voice.

If this post has been helpful, let me know.

Whether it be rhyme, meter or both,

Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

  • May 14, 2009 Tweaked & corrected some typos.

mount-everest-colored-edgeBecause it wasn’t there.

During the sixteenth century, which culminated in poets like Drayton, Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, and Shakespeare, English was seen as common and vulgar – fit for record keeping. Latin was still considered, by many, to be the language of true literature. Latin was essentially the second language of every educated Elizabethan and many poets, even the much later Milton, wrote poetry in Latin rather than English.

Iambic Pentameter originated as an attempt to develop a meter for the English language legitimizing English as an alternative and equal to Latin (as a language also capable of great poetry and literature). Encyclopedia of Spenser - ExtractSince meter was a feature of all great Latin poetry, it was deemed essential that an equivalent be developed for the English Language. But poets couldn’t simply adopt Latin’s dactylic hexameter or dactylic pentameter lines. Latin uses quantitative meter, a meter based on  alternating long and short syllables. English, on the other hand, is an accentual language – meaning that words are “accented” or stressed while others are, in a relative sense, unstressed.  (There are no long or short syllables in English, comparable to Latin.)

False Starts

But this didn’t stop Elizabethan poets from trying. A circle of Elizabethan poets, including Sidney and Spenser, all tried to adapt quantitative meter to the English language. Here’s the problem. Even in their own day Latin and Classical Greek were dead languages – dead for a thousand years. Nobody knew what these languages really sounded like and we still don’t. Imagine if all memory of the French language vanished tomorrow (along with any recordings). French uses the same alphabet, but how would we know how to pronounce it? Americans would pronounce it like Americans, Germans would pronounce like Germans, etc… The French accent would be gone – forever. The same is true for Latin. So, while we may intellectually know that syllables were spoken as long or short, we have no idea how the language was actually pronounced. It’s tone and accent are gone. When the Elizabethans spoke Latin, they pronounced and accented Latin like Elizabethans. They assumed that this was how Latin had always been pronounced. For this reason, perhaps, Adopting the Dactylic hexameters of Latin didn’t seem so far-fetched.

The  Spenser Encyclopedia, from which I obtained the passage at right, includes the following “dazzling” example of quantitative meter in English:

Quantitative Verse (Sample from Spenser Encyclopedia)

The symbols used to scan the poem reflect Spenser’s attempt to imitate the long and short syllables of Latin. The experiments were lackluster. Spenser and Sidney moved on, giving up on the idea of reproducing long and short syllables. The development of Iambic Pentameter began in earnest. (Though Sidney continued to experiment with accentual hexameters – for more on this, check out my post on Sidney: His Meter & His Sonnets.)

Those were heady times. Iambic Pentameter was new and dynamic. Spenser adopted Iambic Pentameter with an unremitting determination. Anyone who has read the Faerie Queen knows just how determined. (That said, each Spenserian Stanza – as they came to be called – ended with an Alexandrine , an Iambic Hexameter line – as if Spenser couldn’t resist a reference to the Hexameters of Latin and Greek.)

Why the Drama?

Just as with Virgil and Homer for Epic Poetry, the Classical Latin and Greek cultures were admired for their Drama – Aeschylus, Terence, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles. Classical drama was as admired as classical saga.

As Iambic Pentameter quickly began to be adopted by poets as an equivalent to the classical meters of Greek and Latin, dramatists recognized Iambic Pentameter as a way to legitimize their own efforts. In other words, they wanted to elevate their drama into the realm of serious, literary works – works of poetry meant to be held in the same esteem as the classical Greek and Latin dramas. Dramatists, especially during Shakespeare’s day, were held in ill-repute, to say the least. Their playhouses were invariably centers of theft, gambling, intoxication, and rampant prostitution. Dgorboduc-title-pageramatists themselves were considered nothing better than unprincipled purveyors of vulgarity – all too ready to serve up whatever dish the rabble wanted to gorge on.

There was some truth to that. The playhouses had to earn a living. The actors and dramatists, like Hollywood today, were more than willing to churn out the easy money-maker. Thomas Heywood, a dramatist and pamphleteer who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, claimed to have had “an entire hand or at least a main finger in two hundred and twenty plays”.

That said, aspirations of greatness were in the air. This was the Elizabethan Age – the small nation of England was coming into its own. The colonization of America was about to begin. The ships of England were establishing new trade routes. The Spanish dominance of the seas was giving way. England was ready to take its place in the world – first as a great nation, than as an empire. The poets and dramatists of the age were no less ambitious. Many wanted to equal the accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans – Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, Middleton…

Ben Jonson, in his own lifetime, published a collection of his own works – plays and poetry. This was a man who took himself seriously. The Greeks and Romans wrote their Drama in verse, and so did he. The Romans and Greeks had quantitative meter, and now the Elizabethans had Iambic Pentameter – Blank Verse. Serious plays were written in verse, quick entertainments, plays meant to fill a week-end and turn a profit, were written in prose – The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Shakespeare, was written to entertain, was written quickly, and was written in prose.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Sackville and Norton were the first dramatists to write Drama, the play Gorboduc, using Iambic Pentameter or, as it came to be known, blank verse. For a brief sample of their verse you can check out my post on The Writing & Art of Iambic Pentameter.

Poets and Poet/Dramatists were quick to recognize the potential in blank verse. Early Dramatists like Greene, Peele and Kyd were quick to adopt it. Their efforts bequeathed poetry to the new verse form, but it was First Part Tamburlaine the Great & Christopher MarloweChristopher Marlowe who upped the ante by elevating not just the poetry but the verse form itself. Suddenly Iambic Pentameter was given a powerful new voice all of its own.

Hair standing on end, other poets soon referred to Marlowe’s blank verse as Marlowe’s Mighty Line. Reading Marlowe’s verse now, with 500 years of history between, the verse appears inflexible and monochromatic. It was Shakespeare who soon demonstrated to other poets the subtlety and flexibility that Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) was capable of. Shakespeare’s skill even influenced Marlowe (who had earlier influenced Shakespeare). Shakespeare’s influence is felt in Marlowe’s Faustus and Edward II, by which time Marlowe’s verse becomes more supple.

The passage above is spoken by Tamburlaine, who has been smitten by Zenocrate, “daughter to the Soldan of Egypt“. Up to meeting Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s sole ambition had been to conquer and ruthlessly expand his empire. He’s a soldier’s soldier. But his passion for Zenocrate embarrasses him. He feels, in his equally blinding passion for her, that he “harbors thoughts effeminate and faint”.

Tamburlaine, with Marlowe’s inimitable poetry, readily rationalizes his “crush”. Utterly true to his character, he essentially reasons that beauty is a spoil rightly belonging to the valorous. He will subdue both (war and love), he pointedly remarks (rather than be subdued).  After all, says Tamburlaine in a fit of self-adulation, if beauty can seduce the gods, then why not Tamburlaine?  But make no mistake, it’s not that Tamburlaine has been subdued by love, no, he will “give the world note”, by the beauty of Zenocrate, that the “sum of glory” is “virtue”. In short, and in one of the most poetically transcendent passages in Elizabethan literature, Tamburlaine is the first to express the concept of a “trophy wife”.

Not to be missed is the Elizabethan sense of the word “virtue” – in reference to women, it meant modesty and chastity. Naturally enough, in men, it meant just the opposite – virility, potency, manhood, prowess. So, what Tamburlaine is saying is not that modesty and chastity are the “sum of glory”, but virility. The ‘taking’ of a beautiful women, in the martial, sexual and marital sense, fashions “men with true nobility”. It’s no mistake that Marlowe chose “virtue”, rather than love, when writing for Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine’s only mention of love is in reference to fame, valor and victory, not affection.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist interpreting the passage just a little. So many readers tend to read these passages at face value – which, with Elizabethan poets, frequently misses the boat.

As to the meter… Notice how the meaning sweeps from one line to the next. Most of the lines are syntactically unbroken, complete units. This is partly what poets were referring to when they described Marlowe’s lines as “mighty”.  what-you-doNotice also that that the whole of the speech can be read as unvarying Iambic Pentameter and probably should be.

By way of comparison, at right is how Shakespeare was writing toward the end of his career. The effect he produced is far different. The iambic pentameter (Blank Verse) doesn’t sweep from one line to the next. The most memorable and beautiful image in this passage is when Florizel wishes Perdita, when she dances, to be like “a wave o’the sea”. And any number of critics have seen, in this passage, a graceful equivalent in the ebb and flow of Shakespeare’s blank verse. The syntactic units halt, then resume, then halt again, variably across the surface of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. The overall effect creates one of the most beautiful passages in all of Shakespeare, and not just for its content and imagery, but also for its supple verse. The Elizabethans, in Shakespeare, bettered the Greek and Romans. In 1598, Francis Meres, fully understanding the tenor of the times, wrote:

“As the Greeke tongue is made famous and eloquent by Homer, Hesiod, Euripedes, Aeschilus, Sophocles, Pindarus, Phocylides and Aristophanes; and the Latine tongue by Virfill, Ovid, Horace, Silius Italicus, Lucanus, Lucretius, Ausonius, and Claudianus: so the English tongue is mightily enriched, and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and respledent abiliments by Sir Philip Sidney, Spencer, Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Shakespeare, Marlow and Chapman

As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras : so the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds, &c…

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines : so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.
As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin : so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.”

Finally, the English were creating their own literary heritage. Up to now, if the English wanted to read great literature, they read Latin and Greek.

But Not Latin Enough

The Elizabethans and Jocabeans firmly established Iambic Pentameter as the great Meter of the English language. But the youth of each generation wants to reject and improve on their elders. George ChapmanThe Elizabethans and Jacobeans were old news to the eighteen and twenty year old poets who would found the restoration. They wanted to prove not just that they could find an alternative to quantitative meter, they wanted to prove that they could write just as well as the great Latin poets – English verse could be as great as Latin verse and in the same way. And so English poetry entered the age of the Heroic Couplet.

Poets had written heroic couplets before, but they were primarily open heroic couplets. The restoration poets wanted to reproduce the Latin distich – a verse from in which every rhyming couplet is also a distinct syntactic unit. This meant writing closed heroic couplets. If you want a clearer understanding of what this means, try my post About Heroic Couplets.

Anyway, the meter is still Iambic Pentameter, though the verse form has changed (Heroic, when attached to couplets, means couplets written in Iambic Pentameter). In other words, it’s not Iambic Pentameter with which the restoration poets were dissatisfied, it was unrhymed Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) which  restoration poets found inadequate. Alexander PopeLike the Elizabethans, they wanted English literature to be the equal of Latin and Greek literature. Blank verse wasn’t enough.

One of the best ways, perhaps, to get a feel for what restoration poets were trying to accomplish is to compare similar passages from translations. Below are three translations. The first is by George Chapman (Chapman’s Homer), an Elizabethan Poet and Dramatist, contemporary of Shakespeare and, some say, a friend of Shakespeare. Chapman writes Open Heroic Couplets – a sort of cross between blank verse and closed heroic couplets. The second translation is by Alexander Pope, a contemporary of Dryden and, with Dryden, the greatest poet of the restoration. He writes closed heroic couplets.

odyssey-book-12-chapman-pope

And now compare Pope’s translation to Robert Fitzgerald’s modern translation (1963). Fitzgerald writes blank verse and his translation is considered, along with Lattimore’s, the finest 20th Century translation available. I personally prefer Fitzgerald, if only because I prefer blank verse. Lattimore’s translation is essentially lineated prose (or free verse).

odyssey-book-12-pope-fitzgerald

Which of these translations do you like best? Fitzgerald’s is probably the most accurate. Which comes closest to capturing the spirit of Homer’s original – the poetry? I don’t think that anyone knows (since no one speaks the language that Homer spoke).

All three of these translations are written in Iambic Pentameter but, as you can see, they are all vastly different: Open Heroic Couplets, Closed Heroic Couplets, and Blank Verse. The reasons for writing them in Iambic Pentameter, in each case, was the same – an effort to reproduce in English what it must have been like for the ancient Greeks to read Homer’s Dactylic Hexameters.  Additionally, in the case of Chapman and Pope, it was an effort to legitimize the English language, once and for all, as a language capable of great literature.

Enough with the Romans and Greeks

Toward the end of the restoration, Iambic Pentameter was no longer a novelty. The meter had become the standard meter of the English language. At this point one may wonder why. Why not Iambic Tetrameter, or Iambic Hexameter? Or why not Trochaic Tetrameter?

These are questions for linguists, neuro-linguists and psycho-linguists.  No one really knows why Iambic Pentameter appeals to English speakers. Iambic Tetrameter feels too short for longer poems while hexameters feel wordy and overlong. There’s something about the length of the Iambic Pentameter line that suits the English language. Theories have been put forward, none of them without controversy. Some say that the Iambic Pentameter line is roughly equivalent to a human breath. M.L. Harvey, in his book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning (if memory serves) offers up such a theory.

Interestingly, every language finds has found its own normative meter. For the French language, its hexameters (or Alexandrines), for Latin and Greek it was dactylic Hexameter and Pentameter). Just as in English, no one can say why certain metrical lengths seem to have become the norm in their respective languages. There’s probably something universal (since the line lengths of the various languages all seem similar and we are all human)  but also unique to the qualities of each language.

Anyway, once Iambic Pentameter had been established, poets began to think that translating Homer and Virgil, yet again, was getting somewhat tiresome. English language Dramatists had already equaled and excelled the drama of the Romans and Greeks. The sonnet sequences of Drayton, Daniel, Shakespeare, Sidney and Spenser proved equal to the Italian Sonnets of Petrarch – in the minds of English poets at least. The restoration poets brought discursiveness to poetry. They used poetry to argue and debate. The one thing that was missing was an epic unique to the English language. Where was England’s Homer? – Virgil? Where was England’s Odyssey?

Enter Milton

Milton, at the outset, didn’t know he was going to write about Adam & Eve.

He was deeply familiar with Homer and Virgil.  He called Spenser his “original”, the first among English poets and a “better teacher than Aquinus“.  John MiltonBut Spenser’s Faerie Queen was written in the tradition of the English Romance. It lacked the elevated grandeur of a true epic and so Milton rejected it. He was also familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy. But the reasons for Milton choosing the story of Adam & Eve are less important, in this post, than the verse form that he chose. At first, writing in the age of the heroic couplet, Milton’s intention was to use the verse of his peers.

But Milton was losing his eyesight. That and the constraints Heroic Couplets placed on narrative were too much for him. He chose Blank Verse. In the end, the genius of Milton’s prosody and narrative conferred on blank verse the status it needed.  Blank verse became the language of epic poetry – not heroic couplets; Milton’s blank verse was the standard against which the poetry of all other epic poems would be measured. From this point forward, later poets would primarily draw their inspiration from the English poets that had come before (not the poets of classical Greece or Rome).Paradise Lost Book 8 [Extract] Paradise Lost successfully rivaled the Odyssey and the Iliad.

The extract at right is from Book 8 of Paradise Lost. Adam, naturally enough, wants to know about the cosmos. Since reading up on Cosmology is one of my favorite pastimes, I’ve always liked this passage. The extract is just the beginning. Milton has an educated man’s knowledge of 17th Century Cosmology,  but must write as if he knows more than he does. In writing for Raphael however (the Angel who describes the Cosmos to Adam), Milton must  write as though Raphael admits less than he knows. The effect is curious. At the outset, Raphael says that the great Architect (God) wisely “concealed” the workings of the  Cosmos; that humanity, rather than trying to “scan” God’s secrets, “ought rather admire” the universe! This is a convenient dodge. Raphael then launches into a series of beautifully expressed rhetorical questions that neatly sum up Cosmological knowledge and ignorance in Milton’s day. It is a testament to the power of poetry & blank verse that such a thread-bare understanding of the universe can be made to sound so persuasively knowledgeable.  Great stuff.

With Milton, the English Language had all but established its own literature; and Iambic Pentameter, until the  20th Century, was the normative meter in which all English speaking poets would measure themselves.

The Novelty Wears Off

After the restoration poets, the focus of poets was less on meter than on subject matter. Poets didn’t write Iambic Pentameter because they were thirsting for a new expressive meter in their own language, but because it’s use was expected. Predictably, over the next century and a half, Iambic Pentameter became rigid and rule bound.  The meter was now a tradition which poets were expected to work within.

John Keats: The Fall of HyperionThis isn’t to say that great poetry wasn’t written during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Keats’ Hyperion, short as it was, equaled and exceeded the masterful Blank Verse of Milton (perhaps some of the most beautiful blank verse ever written) – but the beauty was in his phrasing, imagery and language, not in any novel use of Iambic Pentameter. Wordsworth wrote The Prelude and Browning wrote an entire novel, The Ring & the Book, using blank verse. There was Shelley and Tennyson, but none of them developed Iambic Pentameter beyond the first examples of the Elizabethans.

The Fall of Iambic Pentameter

By the end of the Victorian Era (1837-1901), and in the hands of the worst poets, Iambic Pentameter had become little more than an exercise in filling-in-the-blanks. The rules governing the meter were inflexible and predictable. It was time for a change. The poet most credited with making that change is Ezra Pound. Whether or not Pound was, himself, a great poet, remains debatable. Most would say that he was not. What is indisputable is his influence on and associations with poets who were great or nearly great: Yeats, T.S. Eliot (whose poetry he closely edited), Ezra PoundFrost, William Carlos Williams, Marriane Moore. It was Pound who forcefully rejected the all too predictable sing-song patterns of the worst Victorian verse, who helped initiate the writing of free verse among English speaking poets. And the free verse that Pound initiated has become the indisputably dominant verse form of the 20th century and 21st century, more pervasive and ubiquitous than any other verse form in the history of English Poetry – more so than all metrical poems combined. While succeeding generations during the last 100 years, in one way or another, have rejected almost every element of the prior generation’s poetics, none of them have meaningfully questioned their parents’ verse form. The ubiquity and predictability of free verse has become as stifling as Iambic Pentameter during the Victorian era.

But not all poets followed Pound’s lead.

A wonderful thing happened. With the collapse of the Victorian aesthetic, poets who still wrote traditional poetry were also freed to experiment. Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens: Idea of Order at Key WestWallace Stevens all infused Iambic Pentameter with fresh ideas and innovations. Stevens, Frost and Yeats stretched the meter in ways that it hadn’t been stretched since the days of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatists. Robert Frost’s genius for inflection in speech was greatly enhanced by his anapestic variant feet. His poems, The Road Not Taken, and Birches both exhibit his innovative use of anapests to lend his verse a more colloquial feel. The links are to two of my own posts.

T.S. Eliot interspersed passages of free verse with blank verse.

Wallace Stevens, like Thomas Middleton, pushed Iambic Pentameter to the point of dissolution. But Stevens’ most famous poem, The Idea of Order at Key West, is elegant blank verse – as skillfully written as any poem before it.

Yeats also enriched his meter with variant feet that no Victorian poet would have attempted. His great poem, Sailing to Byzantium, is written in blank verse, as is The Second Coming.

Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Pound all came of age during the closing years of the Victorian Era. They carry on the tradition of the last 500 years, informed by the innovations of their contemporaries. They were the last. Poets growing up after the moderns have grown up in a century of free verse. As with all great artistic movements, many practitioners of the new free-verse aesthetic were quick to rationalize their aesthetic by vilifying the practitioners of traditional poetry. Writers of metrical poetry were accused (and still are) of anti-Americanism (poetry written in meter and rhyme were seen as beholden to British poetry),  patriarchal oppression (on the baseless assertion that meter was a male paradigm),  of moral and ethical corruption. Hard to believe? The preface to Rebel Angels writes:

One of the most notorious attacks upon poets who have the affrontery to use rhyme and meter was Diane Wakoski’s essay, “The New Conservatism in American Poetry” (American Book Review, May-June 1986), which denounced poets as diverse as John Holander, Robert Pinsky, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost for using techniques Wakoski considered Eurocentric. She is particularly incensed with younger poets writing in measure.

The preface goes on to note that Wakoski called Holander, “Satan”. No doubt, calling the use of Meter and Rhyme a “Conservative” movement (this at the height of Reaganism), was arguably the most insulting epithet Wakoski could hurl. So, religion, nationalism and politics were all martialed against meter and rhyme. The hegemony of free verse was and is hardly under threat. The vehemence of Wakoski’s attacks, anticipated and echoed by others, has the ring of an aging and resentful generation fearing (ironically) the demise of its own aesthetics at the hand of its children (which is why she was “particularly incensed with younger poets). How dare they reject us? Don’t they understand how important we are?

But such behavior is hardly limited to writers of free verse. The 18th century Restoration poets behaved just the same, questioning the character of any poet who didn’t write heroic couplets. Artistic movements throughout the ages have usually rationalized their own tastes at the expense of their forebears while, ironically, expecting and demanding that ensuing generations behave.

Poets who choose to write Iambic Pentameter after the moderns are swimming against a tidal wave of conformity – made additionally difficult because so many poets in and out of academia no longer comprehend the art of metrical poetry. In some halls, it’s a lost art.

blank-versePart of the cause is that poets of the generation immediately following the moderns “treated Iambic Pentameter more as a point of departure than as a form consistently sustained.” Robert B. Shaw, in his book, Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use, goes on to write, “the great volume and variety of their modernist-influenced experiments make this period a perplexing one for the young poet in search of models.” (p. 161)

Poets like Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell were uneven poets – moving in and out of Iambic Pentameter. Their efforts aren’t compelling. Karl Shapiro brought far more knowledge to bear. Robert Shaw offers up a nice quote from Shapiro:

The absence of rhyme and stanza form invites prolixity and diffuseness–so easy is it to wander on and on. And blank verse [Iambic Pentameter] has to be handled in a skillful. ever-attentive way to compensate for such qualities as the musical, architectural, and emphatic properties of rhyme; for the sense of direction one feels within a well-turned stanza; and for the rests that come in stanzas. There are no helps. It is like going into a thick woods in unfamiliar acres. (p. 137)

And some poets like to go into thick woods and unfamiliar acres. (This is, after all, still a post on why poets write Iambic Pentameter. And here is one poet’s answer.) The writing of a metrical poem, Shapiro seems to be saying, forces one to navigate in ways that free verse poets don’t have to. The free verse poet must consider content as the first and foremost quality of his or her poem. For the poet writing meter and rhyme, Shapiro implies, there is a thicket of considerations that go beyond content.

There is also John Ciardi, Howard Nemerov and, perhaps the greatest of his generation, Richard Wilbur. Wilbur writes:

There are not so many basic rhythms for American and English poets, but the possibilities of varying these rhythms are infinite. One thing modern poets do not write, thank heaven, is virtuoso poems of near perfect conformity to basic rhythms as Byron, Swinburne, and Browning did in their worst moments. By good poets of any age, rhythm is generally varied cleverly and forcefully to abet the expressive purposes of the whole poem. (p. 189)

By rhythms, Wilbur is referring to meters. Wilbur is essentially stating that when the good poet chooses to write meter, (Iambic Pentameter let’s say), he sees the rhythm (the metrical pattern) as something which, when cleverly varied, “[abets] the expressive purposes of the whole poem”. It’s a poetic and linguistic tool unavailable to the free verse poet. Period.

Robert Frost, who lived into the latter half of the 20th Century, famously quipped in response to free-verse poet Carl Sandburg:

“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Rebel AngelsAs free verse asserted an absolute domination over the poetic aesthetic, writing meter and rhyme increasingly became an act of non-conformity, even defiance. It’s in this spirit that a small group of poets, who ended up being called “New Formalists”, published a book called Rebel Angels in the mid 1990’s – the emphasis being on Rebel. The most recognizable names in the book were Dana Goioia, R.S. Gwynn,  and Timothy Steele. The preface, already quoted above, attempts to frame its poets as revolutionaries from word one:

Revolution, as the critic Monroe Spears has observed, is bred in the bone of the American character. That character has been manifest in modern American poetry in particular. So it is no surprise that the most significant development in recent American poetry has been a resurgence of meter and rhyme, as well as narrative, among large numbers of younger poets, after a period when these essential elements of verse had been surpressed.

The word “American” turns up in each of the three (first three) introductory sentences. Lest there be any mistake, the intent was to frame themselves not as Eurocentric poets beholden to an older European tradition, but as American Revolutionaries. So what does that make the poets and critics who criticize them? – un-American? -establishmentarian? – conformist? – royalist conservatives?

So it goes.

If the intent was to initiate a new movement, the movement landed with a thud. The book is out of print and, as far as  I know, few to none of the books by those “large numbers of younger poets” have actually made it onto bookshelves. The poems in the anthology are accomplished and competent, but not transcendent. None of the poets wrote anything for the ages.

The rebellion was short lived.

Modern Iambic Pentameter

Nowadays, I personally don’t notice the fierce partisanship of the previous decades. Most of the fiercest dialectic seems to be between the various schools of free verse poetics. Traditional poetry, the poetry of meter and rhyme, is all but irrelevant even as all the best selling poetry remains in meter and rhyme! – Robert Frost, Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Stevens, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Millay, Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose and the thousands of nursery rhymes that are sold to new parents.

The Green Gate: ExtractBut why do poets write Iambic Pentameter nowadays?

As far as I know, I am one of the few poets of my own generation (Generation X) writing in form, along with A.E. Stallings and Catherine Tufariello. And why do I write Iambic Pentameter? Because I like it and because I can produce effects that no poet can produce writing free verse. I’ve talked about some of those effects when analyzing poems by Shakespeare, his Sonnet 116, John Donne’s “Death be not Proud”, and Frost’s Birches. I use all of the techniques, found in these poems, in my own poetry.

I write about traditional poetry with the hope that an ostensibly lost art form can be fully enjoyed and  appreciated.

One of my favorite moments in the Star Wars series is when Ben Kenobi kills General Grievous with a blaster instead of a Light Saber. Kenobi tosses down the blaster saying: “So uncivilized.”  Blasters do the job. But it’s the Light Saber that makes the Jedi. There are just a few poets who really understand meter and rhyme.

But enough with delusions of grandeur. At right is an extract from one of my own poems. You can click on the image  to see the full poem. One of my latest poems, written in blank verse, is Erlkönigen.

To write poetry using meter or rhyme, these days, is to be a fringe poet – out of step and, in some cases, treated with disdain and contempt by poets writing in the dominant free verse  aesthetic.

There has never been a better time to be a fringe poet! It’s usually where the most innovative work is done.

  • Note: There are critics & poets who deny that meter “exists”. I tend to group them with flat-earthers and moon landing denialists. Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica, is one of them. If you’re curious to read my response to some of his writing, read Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real.

One Last Comparison

Going back to Homer’s Odyssey. One of the genres in which iambic pentameter still flourishes is in translating, suitably enough, Latin and Greek epic poetry. Here is one more modern Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) translation by Allen Mandelbaum, compared to Robert Fitzgerald’s (which we’ve already seen above). Mandalbaum’s translation was completed in 1990 – Fitzgerald’s in 1963. Seeing the same passage and content treated by two different poets gives an idea of how differently Iambic Pentameter can be treated even in modern times. The tone and color of the verse, in the hands of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum, is completely different. I still can’t decide which I like better, though readers familiar with the original claim that Fitzgerald’s is more faithful to the tone of the original.

odyssey-book-12-fitzgerald-mandelbaum

  • Here’s a good article on blank verse, mostly because of it’s generous links: Absolute Astronomy.

Afterthoughts • August 7 2010

With some distance from this post, I realize that I never discussed meter’s origins. And it is this: Song. In every culture that I’ve explored (in terms of their oldest recorded poetry) all poems originated as lyrics to popular songs. Recently discovered Egyptian poems strongly suggest  that they originated as lyrics to songs. If you read Chinese poetry, you will discover (dependent on the translator’s willingness to note the fact)  that a great many of the poems were written to the tune of this or that well-known song. Likewise, the meter of ancient Greek poetry is also said to be based on popular song tunes. Many scholars believe that the Odyssey was originally chanted by story tellers though no one knows whether the recitation might have been accompanied.

The first poems from the English continent are Anglo-Saxon. The alliterative meter of these poems, as argued by some, are a reflection that they too were written to the tune of this or that song. The early 20th century critic William Ellery Leonard, for example, held “that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf” [Creative Poetry: A Study of its Organic Principles p. 252]. Though none of his poetry survives, Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), is said to have performed his secular songs while accompanied on the harp. None of Aldhelm’s Anglo-Saxon poetry remains. What is known to us is related by the ancient English historian Willliam of Malmesbury.

In short, meter is the remnant of music’s time signature.

The roots of Iambic Pentameter are in song (just as meter in every language and culture appears to be rooted in song and music). And it’s for this reason that the twaddle of a Dan Schneider is so misleading. Likewise,  poets like Marriane Moore who postured over the artificiality of meter, were ignorant of meter’s origins. Arguments over the naturalness of meter are irrelevant. Iambic Pentameter is no more natural to the English language than the elaborate meter and rhyme of a rapper. It’s an art.

And it’s this that separates Free Verse from Traditional Poetry.

  • Image above right: Fragment of an ancient Greek song.

Conversely, free verse is not rooted in music but only imitates the typographical presentation (the lineation) of metrical poetry. Why make this distinction? Because it’s another reason why poets write Iambic Pentameter. Writing metrical poetry is an acknowledgement of poetry’s musical roots. Meter acknowledges our human capacity to find rhythm and pattern within language (as within all things). I won’t argue that it’s a better way to write poetry. However, I will argue that writing meter is to partake in a tradition of poetry that is ancient and innate.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 504 other followers