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Prosody for 21st-Century Poets

Written by

Timothy Steele
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Year

2006
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When in 1930 a reporter asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of modern civilization, the great religious leader and political philosopher replied, "That would be a good idea." Addressing the topic of prosody for 21st-century poets, one should probably say, first and foremost, that it would be a good idea. In recent generations, verse has witnessed interesting developments in imagery, rhetoric, and subject matter. But prosody—"the science of versification; that part of the study of language which deals with the forms of metrical composition," to cite the OED's definition—has largely disappeared from English-language poetry.

Today, I should like to speak about this disappearance and to suggest that all 21st-century poets, regardless of the modes they favor and write in, would benefit from a recovery of the science of versification and the forms of metrical composition.

Historically, versification involves the fusion of meter and rhythm. Meter refers to the fixed, abstract norm of the verse line; rhythm involves the fluid modulations of living speech. Meter is impersonal and unchanging; rhythm is personal and variable. Up until the 20th century, the education of poets entailed their learning how to harmonize their unique rhythms with regular metrical forms. To be sure, some poets—John Milton and Robert Frost are examples—delight in setting meter and rhythm in what Frost calls "strained relation." But even in such cases, the trick remains to square and combine the two elements, so that meter gives rhythm memorable shape and stability while, at the same time, rhythm animates meter with spirit and variety.

In 20th-century poetry, meter and rhythm not only experience "strained relation," but undergo a destructive divorce; and in the court settlement, rhythm gets the house, the car, and the condo in Aspen, while meter is left with the toaster oven and the kids. Free verse, a poetry of rhythm without meter, emerges and is so widely and rapidly adopted that by 1977 Stanley Kunitz observes in an interview with Antaeus: "Non-metrical verse has swept the field, so that there is no longer any real adversary from the metricians. The defining element of poetry is no longer whether it is metrical or non-metrical . . . [P]oetry is defined by a certain inflection of the voice rather than in terms of a particular prosodic practice."

If 20th-century poetic practice favors rhythm over meter, so does the poetic theory of the period. Critical discussion often characterizes free verse as adventurous and risk-taking, whereas metrical verse is described as restrictive and repressed. Indeed, The Oxford Companion to English Literature (5th ed., 1985), in its entry on "Metre," compares the medium to the garment used to pinion and confine people who are gravely disoriented or disturbed. "Verse in the 20th century," the Companion states in the one-sentence paragraph that concludes its entry, "has largely escaped the straitjacket of traditional metrics."

Many factors contribute to the elevation of rhythm and the depreciation of meter. I explore a number of these in Missing Measures. On this occasion, I will offer only two points on the subject.

First, to the extent that 20th-century poets cease to use meter, they cease to understand it. More specifically, many of them come to confuse metrical practice with metrical analysis. We see an influential manifestation of this confusion in Ezra Pound's dicta, "As regarding rhythm . . . compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome" and "Don't chop your stuff into separate iambs," and in his description of the iambic pentameter as "ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum from which every departure is treated as an exception."

If we consider the iambic pentameter as a paradigm—as an abstract model of ten syllables alternating uniformly between light and heavy—Pound's description is accurate; and we poets should be grateful for his reminders to avoid rhythmical clunkiness. His comments are, however, misleading insofar as actual iambic practice is concerned. English does not consist of syllables that are all either Identically Weak or Identically Strong. Gradations of stress in spoken English are virtually infinite, and the stress we give a particular syllable may change from one occasion to another, depending upon the surrounding phonetic and verbal environment and upon the grammatical or rhetorical context. Moreover, metrical poets do not compose their lines one foot at a time. Rather, they write in larger phrases or clauses that fit their meter or different segments of it; and since any complete articulation has, as linguists inform us, one and only one primary stress, most of these larger phrases and clauses will feature syllables with different degrees of secondary, tertiary, or weak stress.

Consequently, in actual iambic verse, the fluctuation between weaker and stronger syllables is not absolute, but relative. Sometimes, it may be fairly pronounced. At other times, it will be quieter and subtler. We can grasp this point by examining the following lines by Richard Wilbur, Edgar Bowers, Jean Toomer, and Wendy Cope, all of which are metrically identical (in the sense of being conventional iambic pentameters), but each of which differs rhythmically from the other three (in the sense of having distinctive variations of speech contour):

Veranda, turret, balustraded stair

The rhetorician classifies my pain

And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds

Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?

As these examples also indicate, rhythmical variety within metrical order is augmented by the number and placement of syntactical junctures within the lines. And other elements, such as enjambment—the carrying over of meaning from one line to the next, with little or no grammatical pause at the line end—supply metrical poems with additional rhythmical diversity.

Though Pound deserves the utmost respect for his critical abilities and concern with prosody, he blurs the distinction and relationship between rhythm and meter. It is fine to urge that rhythms of poems should move "in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome," but verse rhythm has always been a matter and a result of musical (or verbal) phrases. It is meter in the abstract that is metronomic. Likwise, Pound's succession of ti tums describes the theoretic norm of iambic pentameter rather than what occurs in real, living verse construction. Far from being "exceptions," continually and flexibly modulated lines have characterized English iambic verse from the time of Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. In fact, rhythmically speaking, the exception is the ti tumming line—the line that reproduces the metrical paradigm. Such lines occur very rarely, and to achieve them, the poet must resort not only to severe rhythmical repetition, but also to strict grammatical recurrence, as in "The room, the rug, the desk, the lamp, the pen" or "He laughs and skips and whoops and runs and hops."

Nevertheless, numerous critics and textbook writers have repeated the Poundian suggestion that the rhythm of iambic verse is inherently monotonous. And many poets have come to believe that to write metrically is to commit themselves to rigid verbal schematization. They imagine that to write in meter is to be confined to a single analytic abstraction rather than to be supported by a general pattern that permits and encourages innumerable individual realizations of it.

My second point is that the modern emphasis on personal rhythm at the expense of impersonal meter reflects an extension of Romantic aesthetics into versification.

This point needs qualification since the Romantic poets and the pioneers of free verse stand opposed, in a literal sense, on the meter question. William Wordsworth's preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads contains an eloquent explanation of the function of meter and a memorable defense of metrical composition; and as prosodists, the Romantic poets use traditional meter in ways that range from the unaffectedly adept (e.g., Wordsworth and Keats) to the virtuosic (e.g., Coleridge and Byron). In contrast, such early masters of free verse as Ford Madox Ford, T. E. Hulme, William Carlos Williams, Pound, D. H. Lawrence, H. D., and T. S. Eliot all to some degree break with traditional meter and, in some cases, go so far as to argue that it is obsolete or inappropriate to modern subject matter. As Hulme puts it in his "Lecture on Modern Poetry," modern verse "has become definitely and finally introspective. . . . Regular metre to this impressionist poetry is cramping, jangling, meaningless, and out of place."

In addition, many modernists condemn Romantic and Victorian poetic practice in general, regarding it as chronically prone to inflation and sentimentality. Especially illustrative in this respect is Ford, who juxtaposes, in his memoir Thus to Revisit, the vapidity of much nineteenth-century poetry with the freshness of imagistic vers libre. "The work is free," Ford says of the Imagists, "of the polysyllabic, honey-dripping and derivative adjectives that, distinguishing the works of most of their contemporaries, make nineteenth-century poetry as a whole seem greasy and ‘close,' like the air of a room."

Yet if we closely examine the romantic and modern viewpoints, continuities as well as disjunctions emerge. The pains Wordsworth takes, in his preface, to explain that his attack on neo-classical diction implies no censure of traditional metric indicates that he realizes that his advocacy for natural poetic expression could be turned against meter. By the same token, when modern poets inveigh against their predecessors, they are not, for the most part, focusing on the intellectual foundations of earlier practice. They are chiefly objecting, as Ford's comment indicates, to insipid diction or to the facile treatment of predictable subject matter. In this regard, we might recall William Butler Yeats's perceptive observation that Eliot was "the most revolutionary man in poetry during my lifetime, though his revolution was stylistic alone."

Even as modern poets overthrow nineteenth-century style, they adopt fundamental elements of romantic thought, and these provide crucial assistance in the development of free verse. For instance, we encounter, in many modern poets, the romantic doctrine that "organic" form is superior to "mechanical" form; and this doctrine comes to serve the modern experimental impulse insofar as rhythm is increasingly associated with organicism and meter with mechanicality. So, too, the romantic belief that music is the purest of the arts appears in such modern poet-critics as Pound and Eliot, who repeatedly (if somewhat vaguely) contend that musical structure can or should substitute, in poetry, for metrical structure. Poetic modernism is also informed by the Kantian idea that art is independent of pure and practical reason, and that external criteria are therefore less relevant to the creation of a poem than the poet's inner promptings and intuitions. As expounded in Kant's Critique of Judgment, this idea is not necessarily inimical to metrics or other artistic conventions, but it does reflect and support the general turn towards subjectivism in the arts that occurs in the late 18th and 19th century and that, in 20th–century poetry, finds expression in the free verse movement.

Something similar can be said about the Romantic preoccupations with such matters as self-expression, novelty, and spontaneity. Though they may originally co-exist with traditional approaches to poetic craft, they tend over time to drive a wedge between rhythm and meter and to draw poets to the former and alienate them from the latter. Likewise, there is initially nothing anti-metrical in the anxiety (evident as early as the 17th century, but increasingly acute during the Romantic period and the 19th century) that poetry and the arts are being progressively overshadowed by the sciences. Eventually, however, the desire to keep poetry culturally up-to-date expresses itself in a search for instrumental innovation on the model of science and in the development of non-metrical modes of verse characterized as "experimental" and promoted as having the potential to enable poets to achieve quasi-scientific breakthroughs and discoveries.

Without denying our modernity or post-modernity, we still live, in key respects, in the Romantic era. We are still trying to assimilate and defend its crucial virtues, such as its respect for individual men and women and its desire for a human community unconstrained by divisions of class and political tyranny. We are also still trying to struggle free of its darker currents, such as its brutal nationalisms and its sometimes unguarded cultivation of the irrational and sensational aspects of our nature and culture. And the future health of our poetry will probably depend, to a significant extent, on our ability to come to a clearer-sighted and more balanced understanding of the legacy and persistence of Romanticism than we have been able to achieve so far.

Now at the beginning of the 21st century, poets have good reasons to recover prosody. Though excellent poems have been written and continue to be written in free verse, a law of diminishing returns may have set in. If everybody in contemporary verse cultivates rhythm alone, poetry risks declining from an art to a mere activity—an anything-goes pursuit, with poets isolated in small inward-looking schools and composing more and more narrowly on the basis of self-expressive fiat. In such a climate, free verse itself will wither and die. Free verse can be truly free only if it has something to be free from.

If we poets can recover an appreciation of prosody, we may recover as well the sense that rhythm and meter are not necessarily opposed, but can be complementary partners in the poetic enterprise. We may discover that meter, far from restricting us, can encourage us to examine ideas and images, and ways of expressing them, from different angles and perspectives, and can thus help us explore our subjects more deeply or fully than we otherwise could. We may find, too, that meter can at times valuably caution us, in the manner of a resistantly honest friend or spouse, against hasty, ill-considered, or arbitrary speech. And we may realize that meter often has a magical, magnetic power to attract to our poems words and thoughts truer and better than those that normally come to mind.

Versification benefits from both rhythm and meter. Without rhythm, verse is lifeless. Without meter, verse risks sacrificing memorability, subtlety, force, and focus. If the experiment of the 20th century was to separate rhythm and meter, the challenge of the 21st century may be to re-connect them in a vital and fruitful way, so that poets again may, as Thom Gunn writes in "To Yvor Winters, 1955,"

. . . keep both Rule and Energy in view,

Much power in each, most in the balanced two.


Note: This essay, in a slightly different version, was presented at a panel on "Prosody for 21st-Century Poets" at the 2006 AWP Convention in Austin, Texas. Gandhi's comment about modern civilization is reported in E. F. Schumacher, Good Work (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 62. Frost's remark about setting meter and rhythm in "strained related" occurs in a letter that he wrote to John Cournos on July 8, 1914 and that appears in Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays, edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson (New York: Library of America, 1995), 680. Stanley Kunitz's discussion of the diffusion and triumph of free verse may be found in The Structure of Verse, rev. ed., edited by Harvey Gross (New York: Ecco, 1979), 262. Pound's remark about the metronome, and his warning against chopping verse into separate iambs, appears in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited with an introduction by T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1968), 3, 6; Pound's analysis of iambic pentameter is in the "Treatise on Metre" section of his ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960), 203-04. Hulme's comments about modern poetry and meter appear in T. E. Hulme, Further Speculations, edited by Sam Hynes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), 72, 74. For Ford's criticism of nineteenth-century verse, please see Ford Madox Hueffer, Thus to Revisit (New York: Dutton, 1921), 157. Yeats's observation about Eliot appears in W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 499. The lines of verse cited in this essay may be found in Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems 1943-2004 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 2004), 7; Edgar Bowers, Collected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1997), 14; Jean Toomer, Cane, edited by Darwin T. Turner (New York: Norton, 1988), 5; Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 13; and Thom Gunn, Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), 70.

I address, in greater detail, matters discussed in this essay in Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990) and All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1999).