EYE V. EAR: THE OLDEST POETRY DEBATE

Ron Silliman recently linked this article as an “anti-modern attack on Poetry Out Loud.”

Readers expecting to see another harrowing Scarriet expose of the Modernist clique must have been disappointed; it was only a bland indictment by the conservative City Journal of an NEA program  of “recitation and memorization” of poetry in the schools which, according to the City Journal, fell victim to “egalitarian politics.”

Who would not agree the idea is a good one?   Put poems in the memories and mouths of children and let their hearts and minds be worked on by the general good of great poetry.  However, as the Silliman-linked article, pointed out, poetry’s music died in the prosaic innovation of Modernism.  The music of poetry is necessary to make poetry’s recitation and memorization imprint glory upon the soul.  But the Poetry Out Loud program missed this chance by using modern poems and poets based on race and gender—not the criterion of musical excellence.  Another right-wing, dead white male apology, right?   Only a reactionary pill would complain with the City Journal that:

Louise Bogan, not a major poet, has three poems included in the anthology; William Wordsworth has two. Lorine Niedecker is allotted two poems, Matthew Arnold one. The single poem of Coleridge that makes the grade (“Kubla Khan”) places him in the same rank as Phillis Wheatley, also represented by a single poem. Ann and Jane Taylor have obtained the NEA’s laureate wreath for “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”—yet Walter Scott, Henry Vaughan, and Algernon Charles Swinburne have been left out altogether.

Choose at a black woman poet (a slave!) and weep that she is “ranked” equally with an Opium addict of erratic gifts who happens to be a white guy.  Gnash your teeth that a woman chosen at random has “three poems” included, and make a point to say she’s “not a major poet.”  Then tell us the whole project was a failure because it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne.

The neo-cons worship T.S. Eliot, yet Eliot pronounced Swinburne empty. Still, Eliot, and his right-wing pal, Pound, took delight in Swinburne’s music, as did a whole decadent tribe of twits anxious to forget Poe, who was always too universal and large to really appeal to the really decadent.  Because Eliot had a few nice things to say about Swinburne, it’s not in the least surprising to hear the neo-con City Journal cry out “it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne!”  (And Louise Bogan wrote for the liberal New Yorker, which is probably why the City Journal takes a swipe at her. Three poems! How could they?)

The neo-cons are as predictable in their hero-worship (T.S. Eliot) as is the Silliman Left (Williams, Olson, Zukovsky, Ginsberg).

The Modernist clique was tiny, but appears gigantic because its members are still loved by both sides of today’s great Right/Left Culture War divide, aptly represented by the City Journal and Ron Silliman—who was quick to name the City Journal’s attack on the Poetry Out Loud program an “anti-modern” one.

Hovering behind Silliman’s heroes is the right-wing Pound; Eliot and Pound will be forever united as Modernist Masters and Partners, Williams and Pound were friends, and Pound, Eliot and Williams cannot easily be separated by the sharp knife of politics today; in fact the sharpness of City Journal v. Silliman blunts and dulls when it attempts to divide Modernist spoils.

Eliot’s Anglicanism has absolutely nothing to do, finally, with his revolutionary Modernism, and yet his Anglicanism has everything to do with his appeal to the neo-cons.  The essays and poems which Eliot is famous for are as revolutionary and modernist as anything we can find, and they are all the more effective as radical contributions because of the author’s apologies for “tradition.”  The neo-cons are impotent when it comes to all matters of poetry; they utterly misread their master.

The Left in poetry is just as bad, however;  the poetic Left grovels before the most reactionary piffle simply because it’s “modernist,” blindly equating “modernist” with “progressive.”

Both sides are wrong.  The conservatives don’t realize that Eliot was radical, and neither does the Left, who instead follow Williams, who managed to turn himself into some kind of anti-Eliot, which was easy for Williams, since all he had to do was invoke what was American and plain: he was American and he was very, very plain.   Politics sits very oddly in poetry because first, poetry isn’t supposed to be political (at least not overtly) and second, in terms of Letters, Europe is far more extremist than America, who never quite shook the idea that Huck Finn is where they’re at, and so the U.S.A may be glorious compared to Europe when it comes to science and practical matters, but when it comes to imaginative stuff like readin’ and writin’ and playin’ music, we is sincere and plain, if nothin’ else.

None of these preferences and attachments make any sense, really, or have any real significance; these matters of allegiance to Eliot or Williams are mere matters of pride and vanity, and, by their very nature, are whimsy.

Literary opinion in this country is mere buffoonery.

To make a proper judgment on the pedagogy of Poetry Out Loud, it is not necessary to count how many poems by Phillis Wheatley or Algernon Charles Swinburne were included.

Here is the heart of the matter as put by the City Journal author:

Poetry Out Loud fails in practice, however, to emphasize sufficiently those qualities of poetry essential to its educative power. It is not simply that the program has been avowedly influenced by hip-hop, with its typically monotonous rhythms, and by “slam poetry,” a form of expression more akin to political propaganda than to art. A deeper problem is that the Poetry Out Loud anthology, on which participants must draw in choosing the poems they recite, favors modern poets, many of whom lack the rhythmical sophistication of the acknowledged masters of versification—the major poets in the literary canon. Of some 360 poets featured in the online anthology, more than 200 were born after 1910. With poetry so recent, it is difficult to distinguish poems with a permanent value from those that reflect transient fashions. Much of the poetry chosen for the anthology is, moreover, metrically irregular; whatever the other merits of this verse, it cannot match the intricacy and musical complexity of poetry composed in fidelity to the traditional rubrics of metrical order.

It is better to understand something than to be in thrall to it, especially when we speak of education.   How can there be “musical complexity” in “fidelity to traditional rubrics of metrical order?”   Wouldn’t “metrically irregular” poetry be more “complex?”  Obviously the author is vaguely feeling along in the dark with Eliot’s “difficulty” as guide; the “monotonous” rhythms of hip-hop are rejected, as is the propagandist simplicity of slam poetry, and even though modern poetry is more “irregular,” somehow “traditional metrics” are more “complex.”   The criterion of “complexity” is too vague to have any meaning.  Whole traditions of philosophy, art, and poetry count simplicity as one of the great virtues.  The utilitarian worship of simplicity cannot be overlooked, nor the value of accessibility in simplicity.  Shakespeare extolls “simple truth” in his famous Sonnet 66 and damns those who would “miscall it simplicity.”   The haiku writer seeks simplicity as a virtue.  When we untie a complex knot, we travel through complexity in the untying, but complexity is not the end; complexity is the obstacle we overcome, even as we revel in complexity in the act of untying.

The subject is ripe with paradox, so that neither complexity nor simplicity should be blindly championed; it is easy to see that both contribute to anything that is worthwhile.

I cannot judge of the final effectiveness of Poetry Out Loud, nor does the City Journal article give any proof of the program’s failure or success.   Surely many factors make a poem succeed for popular audiences, but which factors are pedagogically significant and worthwhile?  All of them?  Some of them?  Are some aesthetic effects even harmful and not worthy of teaching?  Do harmful effects need to be ‘taught’ as warnings?

One thing can be said with certainty: poetry that relies on how it is laid out on a two-dimensional surface is weaker than poetry which pours into our ear as musical or dramatic speech.  Poetry should be heard and not seen.  Sound can carry an image, but once we begin to produce an image on the page, we move from poetry to a different art: painting.

Speech, purely as sound, can carry emotion, image, and idea, and do it musically.  That’s a remarkable thing in itself, and whether it is simple or complex is not the issue; and what is the refinement of this phenomenon (emotion, image and idea carried by musical sound) but poetry?

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32 Comments

  1. Marcus Bales said,

    January 5, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    “How can there be ‘musical complexity’ in ‘fidelity to traditional rubrics of metrical order?’ Wouldn’t ‘metrically irregular’ poetry be more ‘complex?’”

    No, ‘metrically irregular’ is not musically more complex. It might be more complicated, and even that is not sure, but it is certainly not more complex. Complexity, particularly as used here in ‘musical complexity’ with regard to the play between language rhythm and meter, is a different notion than mere complicatedness. Complicatedness is not complexity, as any Rube Goldberg contraption plainly shows. And that’s what most modern and almost all of postmodern ‘poetry’ is: a Rube Goldberg contraption.

    “The criterion of ‘complexity’ is too vague to have any meaning. Whole traditions of philosophy, art, and poetry count simplicity as one of the great virtues.”

    Richard Wilbur famously distinguished, in talking about Witter Bynner’s poetry, between kinds of simple. He said there is “the perfectly simple, the beautifully simple, and the too damned simple.” Simplicity, as you’re using it here, is just as vague as complexity is as used by those you’re criticizing – or just as accurate.

    Prose can be musical, conversation can be musical, dramas can be musical — but there’s no claim that they’re “poetry” on the basis of that. Musical is not the distinction between poetry and prose: meter is, in my view. I’ve spoke before about meter being regular, recognizable, and repeating – it’s about the pattern of the whole, not the pattern of a line or phrase. There is no meter in free verse – meter is just what free verse is trying to be free of, and the lack of meter is exactly what makes free verse not poetry at all, but prose.

    Rhythm is not meter. I agree that prose has rhythm and good prose has artfully crafted rhythm. Prose is art. Poetry is art. I am not trying to say that only this or only that is art. I’m trying to distinguish poetry from prose as I’d distinguish masonry from carpentry — not to disparage one or to elevate the other; not to call one art and the other non-art; but to point out that they work with some of the same and some different tools in different materials. The notion that we must call all masons “carpenters” if one mason insist she’s a carpenter, or that any carpenter who wanted to be a mason is a mason because she claims to be a mason is simply ridiculous. Language is a set of tools. Poetry is a selection from those tools to do one kind of job; prose is a different selection from those tools to do a different kind of job. The notion that anyone is anything they claim to be just because they claim to be it is a denial of art, a denial of aestheicization, a denial of everything it is to be an accomplished human being of any dimension.

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 5, 2011 at 6:36 pm

      Marcus,

      True, my ‘simplicity’ has as little meaning as ‘complexity,’ which is why I specifically cast doubt on both sides of this coin, when I wrote:

      “The subject is ripe with paradox, so that neither complexity nor simplicity should be blindly championed; it is easy to see that both contribute to anything that is worthwhile.”

      Richard Wilbur falls into the same error: to add ‘perfectly’ to ‘simple’ doesn’t get us any closer to exactly what we mean by simple. If it were an issue of pure science, the “principle of least action,” for instance, we’d have a better understanding of what we’re looking at, but when it comes to poetry, Wilbur’s “too damned simple” is often best. It’s true that Wilbur’s verse can be charming when he reaches for more than simple, but isn’t this what I meant, finally, by positing an in-between? It’s not finally measurable. Sometimes the best we can do is reject false terms; I’ll not boast at doing anything more than this.

      In that essay by Robert Penn Warren, “Pure and Impure Poetry” (I wonder if Professor Burt has read it yet?) the Pulitzer prize winning Warren considers this virtue: tension between speech and meter. He would argue it’s more than just a matter of meter. You are right, I think, to draw the line at meter, because otherwise we’ll never understand what we’re talking about, but there are so many ways to chip away at your statue, and Warren’s point is one of them, as he argues for a middle ground between monotonous meter and meter that partially disappears into speech (or prose) which I suppose is the same thing as Eliot’s famous notion of the meter “lurking behind the arras” of “even the freest verse” or prose. But here the “art” of prose and the “art” of poetry become so close as to touch, and I don’t know if that makes you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. Robert Penn Warren and T.S. Eliot would nibble on your cookie until there’s hardly a sense of Meter left at all.

      Meter, then for you, if it’s not rhythm, what is it? I would venture to say to you that when you use the terms “regular” and “repeating” and “recognizable” and “whole pattern” you are saying regular and repeating and recognizable RHYTHM. As Eliot made clear, Prose DOES have RHYTHM and therefore, it follows as the night the day, that FREE VERSE does NOT EXIST. So we finally get stuck on REGULAR RHYTHM versus IRREGULAR RHYTHM. The insidiousness of Eliot’s reasoning has unfortunately taken hold even though a child can see HE IS WRONG. All you need to do is agree with me that meter IS rhythm and we are one, Marcus. You and I, ONE, T.S Eliot & Robert Penn Warren, NIL.

      Tom

  2. Marcus Bales said,

    January 6, 2011 at 4:55 am

    “Richard Wilbur falls into the same error: to add ‘perfectly’ to ‘simple’ doesn’t get us any closer to exactly what we mean by simple. If it were an issue of pure science, the ‘principle of least action,’ for instance, we’d have a better understanding of what we’re looking at, but when it comes to poetry, Wilbur’s ‘too damned simple’ is often best.”

    This is a side-issue, because I was using Wilbur’s distinction to help point out that even with such a distinction the terms ‘simplicity’ and ‘complexity’ are too vague, and that you get nowhere by using one to attack the other. But you seem to misunderstand Wilbur’s distinction, perhaps because I, perhaps unwisely in this instance, ripped it from a more colloquial context of appreciation for Bynner’s poetry, instead of invented as a tool in the rhetoric wars between camps of poets. Wilbur’s ‘perfectly … beautifully’ are revealed as colloquial by the ‘too damned’. He undermines the meaning of the first two with the third, while still contrasting them with it. We can see easily with this distinction that the pitfall in the pursuit of the perfectly or the beautifully simple is the mis-step into the too damned simple in the same way that you’ve got to watch yourself in the use of ‘less is more’ because if you carry it too far then you fall into the error of ‘nothing is everything’. Wilbur’s point isn’t that we must rigorously divide and label, but that we have to watch our steps when pursuing our goals.

    “… Robert Penn Warren … considers this virtue: tension between speech and meter. He would argue it’s more than just a matter of meter.”

    There is the rhythm of speech – the rhythm of the native-speaker, whose ear is attuned to the way sounds and grammars work in her language – and there is the repeating, recognizable, regularity of meter. They are two different things. Penn Warren is right that there is a tension between them, and though he was only a couple thousand years late in noticing it, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t just steal it, shall we? My point is that you can’t have the tension of which he speaks without the meter. Without the meter you have merely the rhythm of speech: prose. What creates poetry is the existence of the meter; without it there is no tension, and no poetry. Poetry is what we call the nexus, the tension, between natural speech rhythm in a language, and meter.

    Now I don’t say that meter must be this or that pattern of accents or stresses, or this or that number of syllables or rests, or even this or that combination of patterns and syllables or rests. All I say is that the pattern must be repeating, recognizable, and regular. It must be repeating because otherwise it might be merely accidental; it must be recognizable because otherwise who would care; and it must be regular because there is already an irregular rhythm to natural speech, and the regularity must exist as contrast to allow the repeating and the recognition.

    “[Warren] argues for a middle ground between monotonous meter and meter that partially disappears into speech (or prose) which I suppose is the same thing as Eliot’s famous notion of the meter ‘lurking behind the arras’ of ‘even the freest verse’ or prose.”

    Here, though, I’m afraid, you, and perhaps Penn Warren too, fall into the misapprehension of what meter is. Meter is intentionally monotonous – that’s what makes it meter instead of rhythm, after all. There is no middle ground – there is either meter or there is no meter. The trick in using meter, of course, is to create that tension between speech rhythm and meter. If you get it right, you have well-made poetry; if you get it wrong, you have ill-wrought poetry. Either way, if you’re using meter you have poetry.

    “But here the ‘art’ of prose and the ‘art’ of poetry become so close as to touch, and I don’t know if that makes you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. Robert Penn Warren and T.S. Eliot would nibble on your cookie until there’s hardly a sense of Meter left at all.”

    But poetry is not ‘the good stuff’ that precipitates out of the alembic of language use. Poetry is not in an of itself good, any more than a screwdriver or a car or a computer is in and of itself good. Poetry is what it is: language in meter. That’s all. It’s not a good use of language just because it’s poetry; it’s not a well-wrought urn just because it’s poetry; it’s not profound, or funny, or significant, or important just because it’s poetry. All of that comes from the poet’s ability to transcend mere meter, to combine language rhythm, meter, and meaning to try to create a piece of art that may be profound, or significant, or important. The art, and our judgment of the success of the art, lies in the middle, but our judgment of the success is not, and cannot be, “It’s poetry!” That way lies the alarums and excursions of the po-biz wars, There in the middle our judgment of success or failure must be “It’s good!” or “It’s bad!” because the question of whether it’s poetry doesn’t arise – if it’s in meter we know it’s poetry, and if it’s not we know it’s prose. And either way we can judge whether it’s good or it’s bad based on how the artist has managed his or her tools and tensions.

    “Meter, then for you, if it’s not rhythm, what is it? I would venture to say to you that when you use the terms ‘regular’ and ‘repeating’ and ‘recognizable’ and ‘whole pattern’ you are saying regular and repeating and recognizable RHYTHM.”

    But the ‘regular, repeating, and recognizable’ transforms rhythm into meter – that’s the point. Rhythm is what you make meter out of, but rhythm and meter are two different things.

    “As Eliot made clear, Prose DOES have RHYTHM and therefore, it follows as the night the day, that FREE VERSE does NOT EXIST. So we finally get stuck on REGULAR RHYTHM versus IRREGULAR RHYTHM.”

    Sure, prose has rhythm, and poetry has meter AND rhythm, but it has to have meter to be poetry at all. Meter is what free verse lacks; meter is what prose lacks. I freely and enthusiastically agree that you don’t need meter to make art, but I just as freely and enthusiastically say that you must have meter to make poetry. Poetry is one kind of language art; prose is another, and the difference between them is the presence or absence of meter.

    “… All you need to do is agree with me that meter IS rhythm and we are one, …”

    Someone told me once that if you made a Boeing 747 out of solid gold, it would be cheaper and easier to do than to make an operational Boeing 747. But the essence of a Boeing 747 is not its cost but its operation. A solid gold one is merely metal. So I do not agree: rhythm is irregular, meter regular. While I’ll agree that you can’t have regularity without irregularity, and thus that you can’t have meter without rhythm, saying they’re one and the same thing is like saying that the metal and the engine are one. But they’re not: the metal is what you make the plane out of. No metal no plane, sure, but with only metal, and no pattern, no regular, repeating, and recognizable pattern, all you’ve got is metal.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    January 6, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Marcus,

    I agree it’s probably best to drop ‘simplicity v. complexity’ altogether.

    Sauce.
    Thunder.
    Henry James.

    Is the above ‘poem’ complex or simple? Silliman’s crowd is currently in love with Larry Eigner’s work and they revel in the ‘complexity’ of ‘poems’ like this. Isn’t it amazing how simple it is to be complex? We could talk for hours about the ‘meaning’ of the ‘poem’ above, which I just wrote in 3 seconds. I could go on and on about how it is both simple AND complex.

    So I’m with you on that, and I’m also with you that we ought not be coy about rhythm and say ‘look, it’s either metrical, or not.’ Stop the B.S. now.

    Likewise I’m sure we can agree on this little matter of rhythm v. meter. I love the way you make it a matter of a Boeing 747 that flies v. a Boeing 747 made out of gold that doesn’t fly. I hear you. The thing has to fly.

    So let’s define meter. Meter is a RECOGNIZABLE rhythm? Can we scientifically pin this down? Or is it a matter of: I know it’s meter WHEN I HEAR IT. But this still leaves us with the following problem. We hear buh-THUNK, buh-THUNK, buh-THUNK, buh-THUNK and we go, “I hear it! That’s meter!” But our definition clashes with Pound’s distinction between the metronome and the musical phrase. As you pointed out, just because it’s meter doesn’t mean its going to be GOOD, but we can’t let questions of GOOD get in the way of DEFINING WHAT THE DAMN THING IS. OK.

    But there’s always going to be someone like Pound, however, who is going to say to you when you claim, ‘That’s not METER!’: “OH YES IT IS, I have a more nuanced ear and can detect the meter, even if you CANNOT. I can HEAR the meter and that’s too bad for you.’ Now, you might retort that ‘No, you are hearing a very skillful PROSE rhythm, but that’s not METER.’ And Pound, and the rest, will throw up their hands and say, “OK, Fine, CALL IT meter v. rhythm if you want, you hopeless pedantic fool, but can’t you see that you’re merely trying to put too fine a point on something for the mere sake of pedantry?’

    Obviously this will not do.

    However, when that old Boeing 747 lifts off the ground and begins to fly, the moment that happens: METER, and at that pleasurable moment we know who the REAL pedantic fools are.

    Tom

  4. January 6, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Tom darling, Marcus is trying to disprove something so abstruse to begin with, what it was you wrote, because he is lonley and wants cuddles, and if you would’ve cut the penultimate 12 lines paragraph of SHOUTING, going straoght from the first shout that held our interest, to

    Obviously this will not do… and what happens is your music, re-arranged by a colleague in the Editorial bs from an sob who’s too bent into shape by the metronome of Williams and Kipling, Auden and Larkin, Creeley and New England’s rap back across the watery depth, on a board all at sea swimming in sound around the British isles, the accent from O’Groats to Cornwalls furthest point, Englands first Celts, a home, a realm, Arthur’s kingdom, Tintagel, Tristan and Isolde, ‘Merlins words are blows of fate’, Emerson and Eliot, everyone’s an expert foetry practitioner, perhaps, or perhaps not, who cares about the ‘real’ when reality aint near, eat shit prayer, hope aint coming this holiday season, our lives are over, the end of a conversational art form, silence earned when one’s first hearing, instinct, is correct, and when it’s not; who cares apart from the us not US but me and you, Dear Readers, please just read the appropriate (untitled) prose poem composed by the anonymous author known as Amergin, and start discussing it, or else..

  5. Noochness said,

    January 7, 2011 at 9:48 am

    “The notion that we must call all masons ‘carpenters’ if one mason insist she’s a carpenter, or that any carpenter who wanted to be a mason is a mason because she claims to be a mason is simply ridiculous.”

    For the truth unvarnished,
    Marcus is the man to see:
    There’s a time and place for reality,
    And a time and place for fantasy.

  6. Marcus Bales said,

    January 7, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Tom wrote: “So let’s define meter. Meter is a RECOGNIZABLE rhythm? Can we scientifically pin this down?”

    Recognizable patterns pretty much require regular and repeatable, because how can we recognize a pattern if it’s not a pattern? Even ‘seeing a face’ in the bathroom linoleum design requires that we recognize the regular and repeatable arrangement of faces. As long as you don’t think your wife is a hat, you don’t mistake a foot for a face.

    The primary objection to ‘recognizable’ meter is arguments about how to scan individual lines. Get half a dozen people who know something about scansion together and have them mark up a line of poetry to show its scansion and you’ll get eight different scans. But how to scan an individual line has little or nothing to do with whether a poem is written in a particular meter. Meter is a pattern over larger units than lines precisely because you can read so many lines so many ways. It’s not the meter of the line poets or readers are interested in – it’s the meter of larger units that counts as meter, not the scansion of a phrase or line, so ‘recognizable’ requires ‘regular and repeatable’.

    Tom wrote: “… But our definition clashes with Pound’s distinction between the metronome and the musical phrase.”

    This is a false dichotomy – musical phrasing relies on the metronome just as poetry relies on recognizable meter. Without the underlying regularity of the metronome, there is no structure against which to phrase the music. Without the underlying structure it’s merely a mass of sound, a mess of rhythms. The old joke is that time is just nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. The time signature is music’s way of keeping all the notes from happening at once. Similarly, in poetry, the meter is the poet’s way of keeping what she’s saying from being prose.

    Tom wrote: “But there’s always going to be someone like Pound, however, who is going to say to you when you claim, ‘That’s not METER!’: ‘OH YES IT IS, I have a more nuanced ear and can detect the meter, even if you CANNOT. I can HEAR the meter and that’s too bad for you.’ Now, you might retort that ‘No, you are hearing a very skillful PROSE rhythm, but that’s not METER.’ And Pound, and the rest, will throw up their hands and say, ‘OK, Fine, CALL IT meter v. rhythm if you want, you hopeless pedantic fool, but can’t you see that you’re merely trying to put too fine a point on something for the mere sake of pedantry?’”

    The cry of ‘Pedantry!’ though, is merely the non-expert’s whine about the expert, the complaint that experts, by demanding, and providing, excellence, ruin the pleasure of the endeavor for the amateur who doesn’t have time to learn all the rules and exceptions, and practice enough to become expert, or even practice enough to appreciate expertise.

    Reading language in meter requires a constant multiplicity of awarenesses: of the tension between rhythm and meter; the tension between sound and sense, and so on. But the hard one is the tension between rhythm and meter. Most people read poetry as children read prose: often stopping at the end of the line and picking up at the beginning of the next without respect for whether stopping there changes the meaning or simply reveals that one is reading out loud instead of telling the story. Those who say that all language in meter is ta tump ta tump ta tump are people who are such beginners at reading language in meter that their approach remains that of children just learning to read at all. They are so aware of the meter that they cannot hear the rhythms.

    Since the poetry inheres in the tension between the meter and the rhythms, they don’t hear the poetry – and they deny that it is poetry. Their ears are so uneducated that they can only hear any rhythm at all when there is no meter – they can only hear prose rhythms, they can’t hear the tension between meter and rhythm at all.

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 7, 2011 at 7:39 pm

      Marcus,

      Here’s the way Robert Penn Warren, as New Critic, put it in his 1942 essay (where “elliptical poetry” is referenced all over the place, the elliptical poetry “invented” by Stephen Burt in 1998):

      Warren speaks of various “resistances” in a poem, including things like “irony,” which helps the poem interact with the real world. As for meter, he says there is tension between the:

      “rhythm of the poem and the rhythm of speech (a tension which is very low at the extreme of free verse and at the extreme of verse such as that of ‘Ulalume,’ which verges toward a walloping doggerel); between the formality of the rhythm and the informality of language; between the particular and the general…concrete and abstract…beautiful and ugly…”

      I hear what Warren is saying, but I believe his science is suspect. According to him, this “tension” between the “rhythm of the poem and the rhythm of speech” is low in free verse AND in this kind of verse:

      The skies they were ashen and sober;
      The leaves they were crisped and sere –
      The leaves they were withering and sere;
      It was night in the lonesome October
      Of my most immemorial year:
      It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
      In the misty mid region of Weir –
      It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
      In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

      People don’t believe me when I tell them Modernism was basically a clique of two dozen people who together reviled Poe and tied their rise to his fall. Examples abound (Eliot’s hit job in his 1949 “From Poe to Valery,” the ill-treatment from Winters, Ransom, Brooks, the copied Huxley smear in “Understanding Poetry,” Pound’s failing to acknowledge him) but look here at Warren’s sleight-of-hand: we all know free verse has its uses, even as it registers “low” on the poetry v. speech “tension” scale, but free verse need not enter a discussion of meter; and yet, ‘Ulalume’ which very much does matter in discussions of meter—but, whoops! now it doesn’t! because its “tension” is “low” as well! Warren is effectively writing off poetry that sounds too much like poetry with his “tension” ploy. We accept Warren’s premise, and we allow the fox of prose to enter the chicken coop of poetry. The “tension” business has the reader looking for poetry that sounds essentially like speech, not poetry. The example of “Ulalume” is very telling. There is, in fact, a very high tension between poetry and speech in “Ulalume,” for those lines of Poe are examples of perfectly acceptable speech and that’s the beauty of it.

      Tom

      • Noochness said,

        January 8, 2011 at 12:39 am

        Weren’t the Modernists the ones
        (Though they thought they were the best)
        Who couldn’t pass the Futurists’
        Physical fitness test?

    • Noochness said,

      January 8, 2011 at 12:35 am

      When they remade the classic film “True Grit”
      They did err to elicit men’s wails,
      For they cast in the lead Jeff “Dude” Bridges,
      When they should have cast Marcus “Duke” Bales!

      The NEA is calling,
      As its chief he’d bring purity —
      And if that job’s not open,
      Give him Homeland Security!!!!!

  7. thomasbrady said,

    January 7, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Elo Gent,

    Ancestral Celtic wisdom is great and probably all one needs if that is your tribal bent.

    I consider myself more scientific and universal. But this is not my doing. I was schooled by an old hag under a hazel tree for three years. I cannot unpack all the wisdom I learned from her at once (you’ll have to read Scarriet) but wisdom it was and now I humbly count myself wise even if I get no wiser.

    Tom

  8. January 7, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    It’s all just waffle tho isn’t it.

    I remember when arch expert of everything metrical, the pagan priestess poet Annie Finch, because she was some bigtime metrical expert, came in with something about meter and when we got down to specifics, Marcus my dearest, deepest, darling Anonymous (to me) geezer; Finch was just like the rest of us and it TURned INTo a SHOUTing match ABOUt the DEE dum – can you hear it yet? – unstressed STRESSED critical debate that had as much logic and proveable science in it, as the claims made for radioactive radium products popular in the 1920’s and 30’s. Radioactive radium toothpaste advertized not as the truth, that using it will knock twenty years of your life; but that it made your teeth healthier, you would develop an all white glistening smile that would make you popular with the opposite gender, improve your sex life and make you cleverer. The truth was, alas, the exact opposite; pretty much like you guys now, earnest Republicans sleeping in their office to save tax dollars, doing it for ‘you’ guys, USA citizens; ’20 hours a day’ at work, one newb gave as part reason why he was cotting it on the Hill, ignoring completely what the rest of us non US folk know: your constitution, like the meter here, is waved around as the ultimate decider, written by God, decanted thru the mouths of men like Franklin and the 18C Englightened mob swerving away from mumbo-jumbo religious propoganda taken as gospel and used for all kinds of spurious and fraudulent purposes.

    Non of you know anything about meter, i would humbly suggest, because all you’re doing is saying yes I do, no you don’t; neither, nor any of the rest of the American competitiors on this page, it is one’s contention, if one may be so bold as to speak what I think the truth, and even is it’s not the truth, apart from Tom’s latest rant, come about after pushing himself close to the point of no return mentally, looked over the edge of poetic braveness and found the truth; no one gives a fig about all this, ‘well, actually, we think you’ll find that it’s a double reverse iambic spondee responsible for the feelings of depression the fourth line of this poem invokes, because of the discarded Chanel sunglasses Coco the narrator of this marvelously blah blah new American poem at the cutting edge, a once in a generation (yawn) (non) event, proving once and for all why the line from Williams and Eliot, thru Oppen, Zukofski and Olsen, fractured out into new, daring ambitious renegotiations in Frost, caused Allen Ginsburg to have an prgasm reading Ah Sunflower, why no one outside of America knows any of our poets except Billy Collins and Thom Donovan, and proves, conculsively, once and for all, that Ron was right to collapse the cardboard storefront on his House of Silly, once he thought he’d ascended to the heights of the gang he always wanted to be in anyway but could never admit for 30 years because it was his fate do about face as a sixty year old, and finally, makes what Travis Nicols did to me in 2009, even more boring now than it was a year ago sic months after it first happened, MARCUS!!

    Grow Up!!

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 8, 2011 at 3:13 am

      You can’t discuss one wee thing
      But you discuss everything.
      You have passion, wisdom, balls
      But you lack clocks, windows, walls.
      You don’t want to discuss meter.
      Word-count’s how you display yr peter.

  9. January 8, 2011 at 3:47 am

    This animation by ‘zekethefreakguin’, is the first of the three i watched and listened to, of the many that were returned on youtube under the rubric ‘meter poetry’. I very possibly may go into details about this later, but will refrain from doing so at present, Marcus & Tom, and i hope you don’t mind about that, it’s just that, the beginning, as you will witness should you decide to, deals with iambic pentameter in spoken song, fuzzily perhaps, and left one thinking ‘here we go, another Tom Brady’; but from Amazing Grace on, demonstrating iambic pentameter, how it works & communicates, one was uplifted by the visual method Zeke Guin uses to enlighten a non expert, lay audience, fifty percent of whom, de vulgari eloquentia themselves – unaware of it perhaps – are all essentially latently talented to the same level, degree, and percentage of potential, born (for want of a less un pc term) gift, for not only understanding poetry, but writing it and performing it, should they recognize, find a way of harnessing their talent for poetry, and exercising it; at length and regularly enough, until they become a bard in flight, speaking song & poetry pwhoar, big smiley, lots of emoticoms, a facebook wall with seven levels of entry, screeding out the untalented Anonymous rival others, half of us on the planet, born with a gift for speaking song, Marcus and Tom, boys.

    That’s 4 billion potential competitors on the same track, running round the field of play in Letters, should they break through the ten thousand hour barrier, fast for forty days, climb to the top of a mountain, look out over the sea, and think of all the strange things a young man could be. This is all according to the first translated in 1979 Amergin text evincing above, here, there and every where, for all of one’s colleagues on the planet speaking, reading & writing this English language we all share as one Tongue under the sun tommy largh, Anglophone weirdo, Marcus, Everyone, ‘we’re really really tame ampoets pple, perhaps erm, ooh, ‘can’t let it happen luv, I cannot let it happen’ those red white and blues against a battleship gray; cannot let it happen, marcus’, Love, s/he said, speaking up at the next level of understanding; another American loser, in my book, of the cardboard puppet fooling not even the stupidest frat kid thinking Roswell & 9/11 are part of a conspiracy by the ptb, to brainwash us on certain frequencies back-engineered from ancient celtic wisdom texts, the tibetan book of the dead, the book of isis, king james bible, KORan, a trochee, iambic epithalamion, heroic old english runes, ogham and what’s in the Cauldron of Poetry by Anonymous amergin, furnishing you who share the one tongue, with 7C evidence of and a definition by, Mr Poetry himself – or possibly Miss, Mrs or Ms, we simply do not know – what it is you and tommy claim to know, represent, yet have great fucking difficulty even agreeing on what is an iambic shallacking:

    vast, mighty draughts of death-spells
    in active voice, in passive silence, in the neutral balance between,
    in the proper construction of rhyme,
    in this way it narrates the path and function of my cauldron.

    ~

    This is very simple Amergin English, you know, Amergin, ‘birth of song’ in duh, not American you English langpo natives, so if you fucking read it, think about it, let it settle in for five years, get back to us and tell us what it means; then i can treat you seriously, as other human beings on this planet, who give a fuck: one piddling poem, yeah?

    No one in po-land, not you, not Tom not Don, not Trav, not the Trustees, not Neil A, Michael S, Billy C & Thom D; less than a handful of online experts, have actually acknowledged the Reality of this Cauldron of Poetry text, from a seventh century actor in the fabric of a culture whose weft and weave, the entire seven fates, the Tuatha De Danann, people of dann, art, poetry, life, and fate its very fucking self, chaps: ‘one cannot drown whose dann, whose life, whose poetry is is, to be hung’, famous for the one line manuscript proving my blather, guys.

    This untilted 7c prose-poem, is atrributed to a poet whose race was the final one of five, or six, in the island mythology: Milesians, who arrived, depending on what texts one finds most convincing; anywhere between 3-2000 years ago; the fifth, or sixth, and final group of characters in Irish Mythology (themselves the lost offspring of an earlier race in the mythology, the Fir Bolgs) who displaced the Tuatha De Dannan when Amergin stepped off the boat and invoked ownership, claiing the island with another, 14 line, Song of Amergin poem, that another Famous Graves, thinks the apical hidden wisdom text – tho he of course was dead by the time the Cauldron of Poetry came to life in English in 1979.

    The Milesians came, ostensibly because three Tutaha De Danann princes had killed their uncle Ith, there to negotiate about coming to live on the island because it was their ‘promised’ home, and up till then they’d been a wandering race who’d been enslaved at home, anywhere between 40 – 120 generations back, by an invading race, the Formorains, and since being the settled culture on the island, over a thousand years before, the Milesians had had all sorts of adventures around Europe; first as wandering slaves in Greece and later, mercenaries, after they’d escaped slavery in the immediate pre-Roman period, ending up in North Spain, built Brega’s Tower still there), spotted Ireland on a clear day, and doncha know it, just fucking knew that this was the ‘home’ their forebears fled and was remembered by them in the sacred stories and holy song that served as the very fucking rationale of their exostence, in the tall tales about ’em, combatting magic with stronger verbal spells, Amergin, Amhairghin, “Birth of Song, BS, get it, ogham’ll tell ye. Here get stuck into

    Auraicept na n-éces : the scholars’ primer; being the texts of the Ogham tract from the Book of Ballymote and the Yellow book of Lecan, and the text of the Trefhocul from the Book of Leinster (1917)

    If you want to talk bardic, of what it was a bard studied on their 12 year course to a doctorate in poetry, you gotta read this, otherwise, yo talking shit, Tarquas and Mon, Silly Mon..

    Page One, Day One, Bard High, open your Scholar’s Primer

    Incipit Primer of the Poets, that is, eraicept, beginning of lessons, for every beginning is er. To what is this a beginning? Not hard. To the selection that was selected in Gaelic since this is the beginning which was invented by Fenius after the coming of the school with the languages from abroad, every obscure sound that existed in every speech and in every language was put into Gaelic so that for this reason it is more comprehensive than any language. Er then is every beginning, for this was the beginning with the poets, that every obscure sound should come in the beginning, to wit, the Beithe Luis of the Ogham on account of obscurity.

    Ouery, what is the reason why select language should be said of Gaelic?

    Not hard. Because it was selected from every language; and for every obscure sound of every language a place was found in Gaelic owing to
    its comprehensiveness beyond every speech.

    Query, then, did not Gaelic exist before it was selected ?

    It did indeed, for the seventy-two languages are not found otherwise.

    Query, in what land was Gaedel born ?

    Not hard. In Egypt.

    And what particular place?

    Not hard. In the plain of Ucca in the South-Western division of Egypt.

    Who of the school went to it thither?

    Not hard. Gaedel son of Ether, son of Toe, son of Baracham, a Scythian Greek.

    Query, how much did he bring of it?

    Not hard. The whole of it except what poets added by way of obscuration after it had reached Fenius.

    Query, what language of the seventy-two was publíshed by Fenius first?

    Not hard. The Irísh Language . . . for it is he whom he preferred of his school, and whom he had reared from his youth, and it is he that was the
    youngest of the school, and on account of its comprehensiveness beyond every speech, and it was the first language that was brought from the Tower. Fenius had Hebrew, Greek, and Latin before he came from Scythia, and he had no need to establish them at the Tower, wherefore on that account it was published first.

    Query, was there not among the many languages something nobler to take
    precedence of Gaelic ?

    Not hard. No indeed, on account of its aptness, lightness, smoothness, and comprehensiveness.

    Wherefore is it -more comprehensive than any speech? Not hard. Because it was the first speech that was brought from the Tower, it was of such extent
    that it was more comprehensive than any speech so that it was the one to be published at first. What are the place, time, person, and cause of Gaelic? Not
    hard. Its place, the Tower of Nimrod, for there it was invented at first. Its time the time of building the Tower by Adam’s children. Its person Sachab son of Rochemhurcos and Gaedel son of Ether, son of Toe, son of Baracham, a Scythian Greek.

    What is its cause?

    Not hard. The building of Nimrod’s Tower. Others say the cause was that Gaedel went into the land in which he was born so that he was the first that wrote it on tablets and stones in the particular place which is named Calcanensis. There Gaedel wrote Gaelic.

    Wherefore is ‘worldly speech ‘ said of Gaelic, since it is not referred to by the learned sages?

    Not hard. On account of what it relates of worldIy questions and cases
    both of laity and clergy.

    Wherefore is it said that he who reads Gaelic is rude before God ?

    Not to it is reference made here at all, but to the whole of philosophy, both
    grammar, dialectics, and metrics; as the poet said :

    Learning and philosophy are vain,
    Reading, grammar and gloss,
    Diligent literature and metrics,
    Small their avail in heaven above.

    Query, is Gaelic not philosophy ?

    Not hard. (No) indeed save that which minor authors towards the end
    of the world make as a means for distínguishing themselves beyond the former authors: or this is what are worldly speech and vain philosophy, viz., the heresy and the unbelief which any one has shown against the truth,
    divine and human, and that is the meaning of ‘rude
    before God.’

    What are the place, time, person, and cause of writing the Primer?

    Not one place have the four books, as the poet says : What is first is last what is last is first, to wit, what is first according to book order was invented last; to wit, the book of Cennfaeladh, son of Oilill. As regards
    place, time, person, and cause of writing that book of Cennfaeladh: its place Derry Luran, its time the time of Domnall, son of Aed, son of Ainmire. Its person Cennfaeladh son of Oilill; cause of writing it, that his brain of oblivion was dashed out of Cennfaeladh’s head in the battle of Moira. Four glorious events of that battle: Rout of Conghal in his lie before Domnall in his truth;
    and Suibne in madness, (Madnes of Sweeney) but it is owing to the quantíty
    of poems he had made; the Scotsman bearing the Irishman along with him over sea without being noticed, Dubh Diadh was his name; and his brain of oblivion being dashed out of Cennfaeladh’s head, owing to the extent of
    poetry, words, and reading that he amassed.

    Great Book, from the horses mouth, non of your never-get-off-the-ground BS.

    ~

    ….then after a few more tales telling us of the run up to, and consequences of, a deciding battle at Tailtinn, that became Tara, where Eber and Eremon, along with their poet bro Amergin (the only ones of the sixteen brother princes on those ships to survive the sinking of their fleet), bansihed the Tuatha De Danann underground. They then evolved into the sidhe, the fairies.

    The one above reminds me of you M&T, IN THE SENSE THAT the material delivery of your – eh hum – iambic underthrumb, pon twitch conversational song affixes and sings, is somewhat similar; in the sense that what starts out as funky, initially displaced by a sort of glorious unknown Ogham Language, pose, mode and method of communicating, that in it’s authentic form, the conceit of inherent reversal, in the way ogham, first principles, Founding gimmick, novelty, quirk, ‘every beginning is also the last’, departure and arrival, busy making other plans, life, poetry, fate, dann, dán, art, literature, love in Letters, from the soul founding itself a home from manuscript, hand writ heartfelt grá agus siochain Sean’s father, John Winston, George, Paul and Ringo say all the time, Starr opting for a reverse of what John monopolized, siochain agus grá, ‘peace & love’ Dickie, ‘nothing will be signed’ after May 2008, i remember That’ll Be The Day

  10. thomasbrady said,

    January 8, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    The problem with the ‘long/short’ or ‘strong/weak’ duality of scanning is that it doesn’t reflect reality. Some ‘short’ syllables are shorter than others.

    Those lessons say nothing of the caesura.

    By far the best on this subject is

    http://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/ratlvrsd.htm

    There is no better work on the subject. I would trust no other authority.

  11. Anonymous said,

    January 10, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    “Warren speaks of various “resistances” in a poem, including things like “irony,” which helps the poem interact with the real world. As for meter, he says there is tension between the:

    ‘rhythm of the poem and the rhythm of speech (a tension which is very low at the extreme of free verse and at the extreme of verse such as that of ‘Ulalume,’ which verges toward a walloping doggerel); between the formality of the rhythm and the informality of language; between the particular and the general…concrete and abstract…beautiful and ugly…’

    I hear what Warren is saying, but I believe his science is suspect. According to him, this “tension” between the “rhythm of the poem and the rhythm of speech” is low in free verse AND in this kind of verse:

    The skies they were ashen and sober;
    The leaves they were crisped and sere –
    The leaves they were withering and sere;
    It was night in the lonesome October
    Of my most immemorial year:
    It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
    In the misty mid region of Weir –
    It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
    In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

    I’m in for it now because I’m not going to be uniformly admiring of Poe’s poetry which is, for my money, a good deal the same sort of thing as Swinburne.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying either one is bad – much of their work, though, is just sort of, well, precious. There are some extraordinary high points in each, but I agree with Penn Warren that ‘Ulalume’ verges toward a walloping doggerel. I’m with him, especially, on the ‘verges toward’, because it’s not doggerel – but it’s certainly right on the edge. Perhaps if Penn Warren had used an example from Swinburne instead of Poe, or that rotten ‘John Gilpin’ doggerel by Cowper, or something along those lines, Tom, you wouldn’t be so ready to disagree.

    “… look here at Warren’s sleight-of-hand: we all know free verse has its uses, even as it registers “low” on the poetry v. speech “tension” scale, but free verse need not enter a discussion of meter; and yet, ‘Ulalume’ which very much does matter in discussions of meter—but, whoops! now it doesn’t! because its “tension” is “low” as well! Warren is effectively writing off poetry that sounds too much like poetry with his “tension” ploy.”

    It seems to me Penn Warren is right: that poetic tension exists between the poles of no meter and only meter, each pole with no tension. You seem to be envisioning the spectrum differently, though, as one that goes from no tension to max tension, instead of one that goes from no tension to no tension through a middle area of max tension, increasing in tension toward the middle from either end. That’s the spectrum Penn Warren seems to be using, and I think it’s a useful one because, let’s face it, just because a piece of writing is in meter doesn’t give it any advantages in the ‘Is it any good?” arena.

    The really interesting sleight of mind that the modernists used to dismiss meter, though, was a subtle one. For thousands of years, from Greek through Latin through the various subsequent national vernaculars, there was writing in meter and writing not in meter, and the question of what made it poetry was whether it was in meter AND was it any good. Everyone was willing to agree that what was poetry was something MORE than meter, not meter alone. But the modernists changed that. They started to talk about poetry as being something OTHER than meter, and that was the turning point. It was only by being able to say that poetry is a value judgment ALONE that they were able to argue that free verse and its variants were poetry even though they weren’t written in meter.

  12. Marcus Bales said,

    January 10, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    “Warren speaks of various “resistances” in a poem, including things like “irony,” which helps the poem interact with the real world. As for meter, he says there is tension between the:

    ‘rhythm of the poem and the rhythm of speech (a tension which is very low at the extreme of free verse and at the extreme of verse such as that of ‘Ulalume,’ which verges toward a walloping doggerel); between the formality of the rhythm and the informality of language; between the particular and the general…concrete and abstract…beautiful and ugly…’

    I hear what Warren is saying, but I believe his science is suspect. According to him, this “tension” between the “rhythm of the poem and the rhythm of speech” is low in free verse AND in this kind of verse:

    The skies they were ashen and sober;
    The leaves they were crisped and sere –
    The leaves they were withering and sere;
    It was night in the lonesome October
    Of my most immemorial year:
    It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
    In the misty mid region of Weir –
    It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
    In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

    I’m in for it now because I’m not going to be uniformly admiring of Poe’s poetry which is, for my money, a good deal the same sort of thing as Swinburne.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying either one is bad – much of their work, though, is just sort of, well, precious. There are some extraordinary high points in each, but I agree with Penn Warren that ‘Ulalume’ verges toward a walloping doggerel. I’m with him, especially, on the ‘verges toward’, because it’s not doggerel – but it’s certainly right on the edge. Perhaps if Penn Warren had used an example from Swinburne instead of Poe, or that rotten ‘John Gilpin’ doggerel by Cowper, or something along those lines, Tom, you wouldn’t be so ready to disagree.

    “… look here at Warren’s sleight-of-hand: we all know free verse has its uses, even as it registers “low” on the poetry v. speech “tension” scale, but free verse need not enter a discussion of meter; and yet, ‘Ulalume’ which very much does matter in discussions of meter—but, whoops! now it doesn’t! because its “tension” is “low” as well! Warren is effectively writing off poetry that sounds too much like poetry with his “tension” ploy.”

    It seems to me Penn Warren is right: that poetic tension exists between the poles of no meter and only meter, each pole with no tension. You seem to be envisioning the spectrum differently, though, as one that goes from no tension to max tension, instead of one that goes from no tension to no tension through a middle area of max tension, increasing in tension toward the middle from either end. That’s the spectrum Penn Warren seems to be using, and I think it’s a useful one because, let’s face it, just because a piece of writing is in meter doesn’t give it any advantages in the ‘Is it any good?” arena.

    The really interesting sleight of mind that the modernists used to dismiss meter, though, was a subtle one. For thousands of years, from Greek through Latin through the various subsequent national vernaculars, there was writing in meter and writing not in meter, and the question of what made it poetry was whether it was in meter AND was it any good. Everyone was willing to agree that what was poetry was something MORE than meter, not meter alone. But the modernists changed that. They started to talk about poetry as being something OTHER than meter, and that was the turning point. It was only by being able to say that poetry is a value judgment ALONE that they were able to argue that free verse and its variants were poetry even though they weren’t written in meter.

  13. thomasbrady said,

    January 11, 2011 at 4:01 am

    Marcus,

    It would be interesting to look at examples and defend our tension ratings.

    I’m not saying Warren’s idea is wrong, but it’s important how we use it.

    If there’s no metrical rhythm, there can’t be any tension; you would agree with me on that. If there is metrical rhythm, to exist, it must exist—where? In the words of the poem, in the speech-content of the poem. It cannot exist anywhere else. So, the metrical rhythm MUST eclipse any ‘speech-rhythm’ that may reside in the sequence of words that make up the content of the poem. The speech-rhythm, what is it? Does it exist by itself, or does it overlap with the metrical rhythm? It cannot exist by itself; it must (just as the reverse is true) exist in the very rhythm which we recognize as the metrical rhythm. But how can this be? How can they exist together within the same sequence of words, phrases, etc and yet be identified separately, so that they can exist independently to cause the ‘tension’ Warren wants? And how do we recognize speech rhythm as such? A rhythm without metrical regularity? But how does metrical rhythm which requires regularity to exist, sit within a rhythm which by its very definition is NOT regular? A metrical rhythm must be precise; the slightest interruption of a metrical sequence throws it off, changes a iamb to something else; where, then, can this so-called ‘speech-rhythm’ find a place IN the ‘metrical rhythm’ sequence, in order to bring about this so-called ‘tension?’ Is this speech v. metrical ‘tension’ a mere chimera, a theory of a pedant? Do some metrical rhythms sound more like speech-rhythms than others? But if so, how? How does one mode retain its identity, speaking precisely and scientifically now, while merging into the other? If a metrical rhythm corresponds to a certain human emotion: fear, caution, curiosity, anger, it might be said that this puts the metrical rhythm closer to actual human expression (or speech) and yet ‘the skies they were ashen and sober’ does do this, it connects with human emotion, and yet, Warren argues that ‘Ulalume’ doesn’t sound like speech-rhythm to the reader. Really? What is speech-rhythm, then? Speech without emotion? Speech so quotidian than we’d never hear it in a metrical poem? But again, this raises that nagging question…how dos this so-called banal speech-rhythm insert itself into the metrical rhythm without altering the willed precision of the latter?

    Can you come up with one example which you think illustrates Warren’s idea of the ‘middle’ which produces the most tension?

    Tom

    • Marcus Bales said,

      January 13, 2011 at 11:11 pm

      Tom wrote: “If there’s no metrical rhythm, there can’t be any tension; you would agree with me on that. If there is metrical rhythm, to exist, it must exist—where? In the words of the poem, in the speech-content of the poem. It cannot exist anywhere else. So, the metrical rhythm MUST eclipse any ‘speech-rhythm’ that may reside in the sequence of words that make up the content of the poem.”

      I don’t agree that meter must eclipse any speech rhythm. Certainly the meter can be read so that it eclipses any speech rhythm, but that’s almost always a mistake – even in Ulalume. I think a good working definition of doggerel, though, might be writing in which the meter does in fact eclipse the speech rhythm.

      Tom wrote: “The speech-rhythm, what is it? Does it exist by itself, or does it overlap with the metrical rhythm? It cannot exist by itself; it must (just as the reverse is true) exist in the very rhythm which we recognize as the metrical rhythm. But how can this be? How can they exist together within the same sequence of words, phrases, etc and yet be identified separately, so that they can exist independently to cause the ‘tension’ Warren wants? And how do we recognize speech rhythm as such? A rhythm without metrical regularity? But how does metrical rhythm which requires regularity to exist, sit within a rhythm which by its very definition is NOT regular?”

      First, it’s once again of the essence to emphasize that meter is not how any individual line scans. Meter is the regular, repeating, and recognizable rhythmic structure characteristic of longer groups of words and phrases than lines. Often there are many many exceptions within a phrase or line to the operating meter of a poem, stanza, section, or other longer division. Language not in meter, speech or prose, will lack the regular, repeating, and recognizable structure, though there may well be phrases or lines that scan as this or that ‘meter’.

      But the speech rhythm or the prose rhythm is the common factor – it’s where any given language begins when its speakers start to think about making art out of language. The difficulty in identifying what ‘speech rhythm’ is, though, is complicated by both differences in languages themselves, regional accents, and time. There is ‘Midwest American Standard’ – the accent that tv newscasters use, and ‘BBC English’, and ‘Canadian’ and ‘New Zealand’ and ‘Australian’ standards, and speech rhythms from Tanager Island, Maryland, are not only different from the ones in Knoxville or Jackson or Boston or Minneapolis – or even Annapolis or Baltimore – but are said to be similar to the one Shakespeare heard and used, so isolated and determined have the Tanager Islanders been. So it’s complicated.

      I argue for ‘native speaker rhythm’ – by which I hope to include them all, to enable different kinds of English speakers to cross their own natural fluent speech rhythms with meter to create art in their own voices. My father told me a story about a fogged-in winter day in Korea in the mid-50s when a squadron of F-84s being ferried in from Japan to a front-line airbase were nearly shot out of the sky because the flight leader, calling in to get permission to land, was from Texas, and his assigned tower controller was from New England. “Arn Wun, requesting permission to land. Low on fuel. Over.” The tower controller, even though he was expecting a squadron from Japan slated as “Iron 1”, was in the terrified process of scrambling defensive fighters to repel what he imagined were North Korean MiGs masquerading as Americans when my father, who was from Tennessee, happened to enter the room and was able to get the controller to ask the squadron leader to spell his flight name. “ARN WUN!” shouted the exasperated pilot, “ARN: INDIA ROMEO OSCAR NOVEMBER, WUN: OSCAR NOVEMBER ECHO — nayow latta gawdam runwee!” which the controller managed to understand, and a catastrophe was averted.

      The interesting thing about that for speech rhythm’s sake, though, is that in spite of the pronunciation issues, the speech rhythm is the same: “Now light the God-damned runway!” and “Nayow latta gawdam runwee” have the same rhythm – the rhythm of native speaker American English. It’s also a pretty good example of a line that scans as iambic trimeter. But we don’t hear it as trimeter, or even particularly iambic, when we hear it spoken in its contextual use. In fact, my father pronounced it:

      now LATT a GAWD DAM RUN wee

      because the original speaker had emphasized both syllables of the adjective, which makes it a good deal less iambic and a good deal less trimeter. That’s what prose rhythm does – it allows for emPHAsis where the substantive context of the message requires it. If that were a fragment of a line of iambic pentameter blank verse, for example, few are the performers who’d have the insight or the nerve to say it the way the pilot said it – but if they had that insight and that nerve, they’ immeasurably improve the interpretation of the line by giving it an extra beat – by distorting the meter to get the rhythm.

      The worst kind of language in meter is the poem that distorts the rhythm to get the meter, or distorts word order to fit the meter. I can say in prose ‘few are the performers …’ because when I invert the word order in prose, it’s taken as a kind of natural emphasis, but if I, writing in modern English poetry, invert words, even if I do it exactly the same way I would write it in prose, even if it’s in dialog, even if I could argue that “that’s the way it was really said when I stole it listening to the story”, even then we cringe to hear the inversion in the meter, and we regard it as bad. Why? Because we want to see the poet find non-prose ways to create his emphasis; we expect the poet to do it in a better, finer way than mere prose does it. Keats spoke of the ‘fine excess’, and he didn’t mean a ‘huge excess’!

      Tom wrote: “A metrical rhythm must be precise; the slightest interruption of a metrical sequence throws it off, changes a iamb to something else; where, then, can this so-called ‘speech-rhythm’ find a place IN the ‘metrical rhythm’ sequence, in order to bring about this so-called ‘tension?’”

      The meter is, as you say, precise, but the practice of the meter in a poem is not. Nearly every line offers some slight variation, a variation that slides into and out of the strict beat of the definitional meter, and that by those variations, tries to create the tension that I am, and that I think Penn Warren is, talking about. Poetry only starts as meter. I argue that if it’s language in meter it’s poetry, sure, but I don’t say it’s any good just because of that. It can be the most gawd-awful stuff and still be poetry. The good stuff creates the tension between speech rhythm and meter through the variants in the strictly-scanned lines, and uses the varying agreements and disagreements between vowels, consonants, meanings, connotations, innuendos, allusions, rhetorical argument, the whole range of language uses, to seduce the ear of the native speaker and convince her that she’s listening to something really fine, and not just your garden variety prose. But it’s meter plus, not meter alone, that creates the good stuff. It’s meter alone that makes it poetry, though.

      Tom wrote: “Warren argues that ‘Ulalume’ doesn’t sound like speech-rhythm to the reader.”

      I’ve got to go with Penn Warren, here, Tom. ‘Ulalume’ is very close to doggerel, to only-meter. You have to have a pretty well-trained ear to hear beyond the meter to the emotion in that poem.

      Tom wrote: “Can you come up with one example which you think illustrates Warren’s idea of the ‘middle’ which produces the most tension?”

      I think so – how about this:

      The Silken Tent
      Robert Frost

      She is as in a field a silken tent
      At midday when a sunny summer breeze
      Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
      So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
      And its supporting central cedar pole,
      That is its pinnacle to heavenward
      And signifies the sureness of the soul,
      Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
      But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
      By countless silken ties of love and thought
      To everything on earth the compass round,
      And only by one’s going slightly taut
      In the capriciousness of summer air
      Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

  14. thomasbrady said,

    January 14, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Marcus,

    You say “meter plus,” but don’t you mean “meter minus?” These subtle variations in which the strict metrical rhythm deviates into something less exact—does this not subtract from the metrical exactitude?

    But, let’s say in this case, ‘less is more;’ that the deviations create a flexible alternative to the strict meter, and thus, as you say, sounds more like natural speech—OK, this is easy to theorize, but what physical law is it, exactly, that guarantees this sliding away from precise metrical music will please us by somehow shifting an imperfect metrical rhythm into a speech rhythm or ‘speech mode?’ And not, instead, annoy us by its imperfection? Would that we knew, would that we could identify, would that we could posit this ‘speech rhythm’ as a genuine alternative, a genuine, subtle alternative, that slips into existence between the subtle lapses of the metrical rhythm! But I maintain with all my being that speech rhythm’s ghostly ‘tension’ is a theory only, an attractive assumption but with no basis in reality, yet so fixed in the modern mind, that most are unable to understand versifying genius and pleasure, and unable to understand the popular appeal and critical genius of Poe, in his “Rationale of Verse,” his rigorous reviews and essays on the subject, and his poetry.

    The Frost is a spectacular example on your part, but it really is rather dreary and pedantic and boring compared to “Ulalume.” The Frost in an extended metaphor only; it has no movemet, no corresponding vision aside from the elaboration of a metaphor that finally sags down from its straining after its powers of comparsion. The banal phrasing of “is as in a” cannot be reconciled to a heart that pants after the thrilling rhythms of “Ulalume.” The two penultimate lines, the “capriciousness” section, almost lifts the reader into a pleasure zone, but the final line is too satisfied with itself, as the poem pats itself (metaphorically) on the back, wheezing to its breezy conclusion. “Ulalume” is not doggerel. ‘Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold. Pease porridge in the pot—nine days old’ is doggerel.

    I’m perfectly aware that it is a primitive sense, a child-like sense, mostly, that responds to “Ulalume;” we cannot intellectually deny its power, however, simply for that reason.

    Tom

  15. Marcus Bales said,

    January 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Tom wrote: “You say ‘meter plus,’ but don’t you mean ‘meter minus?’ These subtle variations in which the strict metrical rhythm deviates into something less exact—does this not subtract from the metrical exactitude?”

    Yes, it does ‘subtract from the metrical exactitude’, and it intends to precisely to keep from writing doggerel. Too much meter is as bad as too little. The goal, it seems to me, in writing poetry, is not to try to jam every round syllable into a square pre-assigned hole but, instead, to play the prose rhythms off against the poetry meter. In English the prose rhythm is, as Frost pointed out, a ‘loose iambic’ rhythm to begin with. It doesn’t take much to fiddle almost any prose text into a stricter iambic format; similarly, it doesn’t take much to fiddle any doggerel into looser prose.

    It is weaving the two strands of rhythm, the loose and the strict, together by which a poet creates good poetry. It is the jamming of the loose into the strict by which a hack spews mere poetry. We have to let go of the notion that poetry is a value-laden term. To call something ‘poetry’ is not, except in a colloquial and careless way, to judge it; the judgment comes with the adjective: good poetry, bad poetry, execrable doggerel, great poetry.

    Tom wrote: “But, let’s say in this case, ‘less is more;’ that the deviations create a flexible alternative to the strict meter, and thus, as you say, sounds more like natural speech—OK, this is easy to theorize, but what physical law is it, exactly, that guarantees this sliding away from precise metrical music will please us by somehow shifting an imperfect metrical rhythm into a speech rhythm or ‘speech mode?’ And not, instead, annoy us by its imperfection?”

    No physical law at all, I’m afraid. This is where the arts get all fuzzy and imprecise. It’s the educated ear, it’s good taste, a trained awareness, that appreciates the sliding in and out of strict meter with a variety of techniques, so that the enormous authority of natural speech and the enormous authority of made speech reward that ear, that taste, that awareness. Of course, this is much the same thing that free versists say about the ‘organic rhythms’ of their work – that it takes an educated ear to hear. I agree – it takes an ear educated in prose to hear it, because free verse is not at all playing with meter, it’s playing with prose rhythm. I appreciate the skill with which prose writers create their effects, whether they present them on the page with a printer’s justified or unjustified lines. But it’s still the tools of prose they’re employing. The very definition of their art is to be free from meter. I don’t see how they can call what they do ‘poetry’ at all. It’s still art; but it’s not poetry.

    It’s tempting, I agree, to see precision as excellence, because that’s what we are looking for in the material world. But when we start to strive for art, we’re in the realm of metaphysics.

    Tom wrote: “… speech rhythm’s ghostly ‘tension’ is a theory only, an attractive assumption but with no basis in reality, … unable to understand the popular appeal and critical genius of Poe,…”

    But if speech rhythm’s, or prose rhythm’s, ‘ghostly tension’ is a theory only, how do you differentiate between well-written and ill-written prose; between articulate speech and, like, you know, well, um, like, uh, you know? Without something like an ear for speech or prose rhythm there’s little you can say about the quality of prose, written or spoken. Now, I’m sure you have a lot to say about the quality of prose, written or spoken, and I’m equally sure you’re not shy about saying it. But you’ll want to be careful about saying it to people who’ve heard you say that speech or prose rhythm is ‘theory only’.

    Tom wrote: “The Frost is … rather dreary and pedantic and boring compared to ‘Ulalume.’ The Frost in an extended metaphor only; it has no movement, no corresponding vision aside from the elaboration of a metaphor that finally sags down from its straining after its powers of comparsion. The banal phrasing of ‘is as in a’ cannot be reconciled to a heart that pants after the thrilling rhythms of ‘Ulalume.’ The two penultimate lines, the ‘capriciousness’ section, almost lifts the reader into a pleasure zone, but the final line is too satisfied with itself, as the poem pats itself (metaphorically) on the back, wheezing to its breezy conclusion.”

    That ‘wheezing to its breezy conclusion’, that’s viciously witty – I like it as invective. I disagree with it as an analysis of the poem, though. Just for fun, let’s look at your witty prose, however, to see if it has ‘prose rhythm’, to see if another rhythmic phrasing would strengthen or weaken your point without straying into meter.

    Tom wrote: “The two penultimate lines, the ‘capriciousness’ section, almost lifts the reader into a pleasure zone, but the final line is too satisfied with itself, as the poem pats itself (metaphorically) on the back, wheezing to its breezy conclusion.”

    Marcus edits: “The two lines just before the end, where wind’s caprice might send the reader up to pleasure, there’s a final measure of satisfaction that stops the action — except for patting its own back with a metaphorically fine lack of tact — and gives an old man’s wheeze. It isn’t art, it’s shooting the breeze.”

    ‘The Silken Tent’ and ‘Ulalume’ are very different poems, at very different lengths, trying to accomplish different poetic ends, so the comparison you make is essentially unfair when you say the Frost ‘has no movement, no corresponding vision’, since the Frost hasn’t got the same intent to possess such movement or vision that the Poe has. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, and not relevant. You had asked for a poem that demonstrated the tension between prose and meter within language written in meter, and there, I think, the Frost is an excellent example. Read it out loud, and I think you’ll hear a distinct tension between the temptation to read it as strict iambic pentameter and the wince away from reading it that way as the unnaturalness of such a reading strikes you:

    She IS as IN a FIELD a SILK en TENT
    At MID day WHEN a SUN ny SUM mer BREEZE
    Has DRIED the DEW and ALL its ROPES re LENT
    So THAT in GUYS it GENT ly SWAYS at EASE …

    And blah blah blah. It’s horrible, read that way – and no one would destroy the tension between how we talk and the underlying iambic meter that way. Instead, you’d naturally read it:

    SHE is, as in a FIELD a SILK en TENT
    At MID day when a SUN ny SUM mer BREEZE
    Has DRIED the DEW and ALL its ROPES re LENT
    So that in GUYS it GENT ly SWAYS at EASE.

    And even that doesn’t do justice to the variation in emphasis that the emphasized syllables get.

    But note that prose rhythm insinuating itself into the iambs: the first line has only four beats; so does the second. The third finally walks comfortably in its iambic shoes, and the fourth elides the first beat altogether.

    That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

  16. thomasbrady said,

    January 14, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Marcus,

    You’ve been corrupted by the anti-Poe conspiracy of the New Critics and I’m nearly serious when I say this, even though I would never impute anything so serious to one I so respect.

    To define doggerel as meter that sticks to its own design too well betrays that very meter you defend so wisely and so well. Pardon me, if I am stunned.

    I agree the Frost is an excellent example, as examples go. I’m glad you chose it.

    Your concession that ‘SHE is as in a FIELD’ is the correct ‘speech rhythm variation of the metrical ‘She IS as IN a FIELD’ demolishes the wall that keeps out the free verse barbarians. No wonder poetry has been vanquished. This is so far from the rigor of Poe that you might as well have joined the barbarians.

    It is not that I fault speaking the line the way you do, but are you aware of the implication of such a concession?

    ‘SHE is as in a FIELD’ is miles away; miles and miles away, from an Iambic rhythm and I don’t how the art of versification can survive such alterations.

    Nothing prevents a speaker from lingering on the ‘SHE.’ ‘SHE’ is the more important word. ‘She IS as IN a FIELD’ is pure hack work; agreed. This is why I picked this passage out for banality in my first reaction to the poem. But if a poet lays down a rhythm and then expects the reader to completely ignore that rhythm in his reading—what then? Then prose is always superior to poetry, for prose permits the reader the same choices: emphasize “SHE” because “SHE” is the key word in the sentence, and if there is some hidden iambic rhythm that’s been completely violated—why should the poet pride himself if his iambic rhythm was consciously put there, when the prose-writer did him one better? For the prose writer didn’t worry about it, or created the rhythm unconsciously, and the result is exactly the same.

    I think one of the problems we are having is that we are assuming there’s an actual relationship between speech rhythm and metrical rhythm, when there isn’t. The dress conforms to the body and we like to think the ‘speech rhythm’ is a dresser’s dummy and the ‘metrical rhythm’ is the dress, and we can be highly inventive in cutting the dress, but we must always be aware of the shape of the body beneath the dress, etc. But there is a radical difference between spatial and temporal realities—which our minds unfortunately blur in metaphorical and theoretical raptures. There is no dress or dress-maker’s dummy here. The rhythm attaches itself to abstract meanings and depictions; rhythm of one kind cannot attach itself to rhythm of another kind. There is an error, I think, in supposing this melding really exists. A rhythm’s identity cannot, by its very nature, permit another to co-exist. We first establish the rhythm, and then vary that rhythm with that rhythm; the rhythm as that rhythm keeps us interested in its variety as the rhythm which has been identified as such.

    It was night in the lonesome October
    Of my most immemorial year:

    The pleasure here is based on the ratio of similarity between ‘It was NIGHT’ and ‘Of my MOST’ and ‘in the LONE’ and ‘im-me-MOR’ and all the slight metrical variations of that established metrical rhythm. When that delicious similarity slips, you naturally verge more towards ‘speech’ but you also lose the metrical pleasure in the exact ratio of that ‘similarity’ slipping away.

    Unlike the Frost, with the Poe, there’s no twisting of the established meter so as to NOT emphasize words like ‘is,’ which are less important than words like ‘She.’

    The metrics of the Poe is gold, the Frost, brass.

    Tom

    • Marcus Bales said,

      January 14, 2011 at 9:17 pm

      Tom wrote: “You’ve been corrupted by the anti-Poe conspiracy of the New Critics … Your concession that ‘SHE is as in a FIELD’ is the correct ‘speech rhythm variation of the metrical ‘She IS as IN a FIELD’ demolishes the wall that keeps out the free verse barbarians.”

      I have to disagree. The meter of the poem is iambic pentameter, not the meter of the line. We hear the iambic pentameter in the Frost poem clearly over against the speech rhythm of the pronunciation. There is a tension there, because we want to say, knowing the meter, ‘she IS as IN a FIELD’ but we also want to say, knowing the native speaker speech rhythm, ‘SHE is as in a FIELD’. As I said, even that doesn’t really give us exactly how the emphasis falls. There is no notation to exactly locate every slight variation of emphasis – and if there were, there would still be people who would use different emphases. That is the definition of the tension between the speech rhythm and the meter: that you can also read the line ‘she IS as in a field a SILK en TENT’ or ‘she IS, AS in a FIELD’ and other ways as well. It depends on the reader’s understanding of the poem, the rhythm, the meter, regional accents, and what century they’re living in, among other factors. There is simply no way for the poet to dictate how a line will be read except to make it doggerel – and that’s really not a shot on the board, is it, for any self-respecting poet. That’s what he or she is trying to AVOID.

      Tom wrote: “No wonder poetry has been vanquished. This is so far from the rigor of Poe that you might as well have joined the barbarians.”

      Once again, the meter is not the meter of a line but the meter of the whole. Rigor in a line is simply not what meter is about. Meter is a trellis, not a straightjacket.

      Tom wrote: “It is not that I fault speaking the line the way you do, but are you aware of the implication of such a concession?”

      The implication only exists for those who insist that meter is a matter of line or phrase, instead of a matter of a longer division. Even Poe can’t keep up a perfect congruence between speech rhythm and meter:

      Our talk had been serious and sober,

      Sere-yus? Does Poe expect us to slur the pronunciation or bump the meter?

      And now, as the night was senescent
      And star-dials pointed to morn –

      Dials has the same problem: a two syllable word in a one syllable space. Again, slur or bump?

      Astarte’s bediamonded crescent

      And here’s a five syllable word in a four syllable space. Slur or bump?

      Tom wrote: “‘SHE is as in a FIELD’ is miles away; miles and miles away, from an Iambic rhythm and I don’t how the art of versification can survive such alterations.”

      You can hear both at the same time: the speech rhythm and the meter. You say the speech and you feel the meter. It’s not a matter of survival, it’s a matter of art.

      Tom wrote: “… if a poet lays down a rhythm and then expects the reader to completely ignore that rhythm in his reading—what then?”

      The poet doesn’t expect the reader to completely ignore the meter, but rather expects the reader to have an ear capable of hearing both at once. That’s where the art comes in; that’s where we get that fine excess; that’s where we start to think this is GOOD poetry, not MERE poetry.

      Tom wrote: “I think one of the problems we are having is that we are assuming there’s an actual relationship between speech rhythm and metrical rhythm, when there isn’t. … The rhythm attaches itself to abstract meanings and depictions; rhythm of one kind cannot attach itself to rhythm of another kind.”

      Here I simply don’t follow you. I don’t see how a rhythm or the meter attaches itself to anything like a meaning or depiction.

      Tom wrote: “… A rhythm’s identity cannot, by its very nature, permit another to co-exist.”

      Frost wrote that the ‘sentence sounds’, which is what I think we are calling ‘speech rhythms’, he heard are possibly best heard by listening to people talking on the other side of a door, so that you can hear the rhythm of the conversation, but can’t hear any of the words. Here again, come to think of it, the prose rhythms we’re talking about are not the rhythm of a line, either – they’re the rhythms of larger divisions of words and phrases.

      The mistake is to try to over-define the meter by slavish adherence to it, either in writing or hearing. The quality of the poetry is judged, not by how rigorously and rigidly a poet can fit the syllables of words into a given meter, but how naturally the meter sounds if there is a tendency toward identity between the speech rhythm and the meter, and how the meter’s rhythm is kept up behind the variations that natural speech rhythms create, if any, in the meter.

      Tom wrote: “… The pleasure here is based on the ratio of similarity between ‘It was NIGHT’ and ‘Of my MOST’ and ‘in the LONE’ and ‘im-me-MOR’ and all the slight metrical variations of that established metrical rhythm. When that delicious similarity slips, you naturally verge more towards ‘speech’ but you also lose the metrical pleasure in the exact ratio of that ‘similarity’ slipping away. “

      It always depends a good deal on the poet’s ability to make the meter sound as if it’s not too intrusively there; when the meter intrudes too much (I’m going to get in trouble there – what’s ‘too much’?) the poem becomes doggerel. But larger variations are also permitted, rhythmic variations that include all the technical terms of headless iamb and armless trochee and entailed mistress and whatever they are. Who cares what they are. They have to sound good.

  17. thomasbrady said,

    January 16, 2011 at 2:54 am

    Marcus,

    You agree with Penn Warren, then: ‘speech’ is more important to you than ‘meter,’ even in a metrical poem; you’ve conceded the field to the enemy.

    ‘SHE is as in a FIELD.’ I’ll come back to this monstrosity in a moment.

    Time is the essence of meter, just as it is in music. The pleasure resides in the variety playing out over the regularity of the beat, so that we don’t have one syllable matching up with a quarter note all the time: thump, thump, thump; “serious” is not, as you seem to imply, hyper-meter, because one naturally pronounces this three syllable word, ‘serious,’ slightly faster than the two syllable word, ‘sober,’ for instance. You can hear it in the words: ‘serious’, ‘sober.’ One’s a three syllable word, one’s a two syllable word, but we naturally enunciate these two in equal duration. Call this speech, or meter, but clearly the speech serves the meter, and Poe is absolutely correct in the example we are looking at.

    And so let us concede the same principle to Frost, but unfortunately for the him, the pure physicality of using the mouth to say: ‘is as in a’ in quick time is a train wreck. It doesn’t matter what the specific rhythm is; the time is constant, just as in music, and, in this instance, the emphasis is on ‘She,’ which is another way of saying we linger on that word, ‘she,’ and give it more TIME than any of the four words which follow, for these four small words we pronounce extra quick, to obey the law of the meter (so that we hear it not as prose but as poetry); but look at what happens when one says ‘is as in a’ extra quick; it sounds like ‘izzzazzina,’ in other words: pure horror.

    It is a truism that a poetic rhythm must be established in the first line, even in the beginning of the first line. Your idea that the rhythm can manifest itself when it’s good and ready is fine in theory, but does not work in practice. You don’t write like this yourself and I would love to see one of your metrical masterpieces proving this idea. I’m betting it doesn’t exist.

    You are like these New Critics who hated the Romantics (frailty thy name is modernism!) with your idea that the meter should not ‘intrude.’ What? Should the ‘speech,’ the ‘prose,’ intrude? Of course not! There is no ‘intruder’ present. Doggerel is the metronome without any music, but of course we don’t throw out the metronome, we add the music; we don’t treat the metronome as an ‘intruder,’ nor do we treat the variety (the music) as an ‘intruder;’ the ‘intruder’ is: ‘is as in a.’ That’s the ‘intruder’ here.

    Tom

    • Marcus Bales said,

      January 16, 2011 at 9:53 pm

      Tom wrote: “You agree with Penn Warren, then: ‘speech’ is more important to you than ‘meter,’ even in a metrical poem…”

      No, Tom, not more important, as important. The tension between meter and speech rhythm is where the good poetry occurs. Only mere poetry can occur where it’s all meter, and only prose can occur where there’s no meter. But the thing that makes poetry good is not slavish adherence to meter — it’s the balance between the use of the native-speaker’s fluent language rhythms and the poem-maker’s fluent meter usage.

      Tom wrote: “Time is the essence of meter, just as it is in music. The pleasure resides in the variety playing out over the regularity of the beat, so that we don’t have one syllable matching up with a quarter note all the time: thump, thump, thump; “serious” is not, as you seem to imply, hyper-meter, because one naturally pronounces this three syllable word, ‘serious,’ slightly faster than the two syllable word, ‘sober,’ for instance.”

      Ah, but Tom, that’s exactly right — and it’s exactly what I’m saying. We seem to be in violent agreement. It is precisely that you say things a little different when there is tension between meter and rhythm than you say them if the meter and the pronunciation of the words is perfectly in synch — or than you say them if, as in the comic verse of Ogden Nash for example, the meter and the speech rhythm are deliberatly out of synch.

      Tom wrote: “And so let us concede the same principle to Frost, but unfortunately for the him, the pure physicality of using the mouth to say: ‘is as in a’ in quick time is a train wreck. It doesn’t matter what the specific rhythm is; the time is constant, just as in music, and, in this instance, the emphasis is on ‘She,’ which is another way of saying we linger on that word, ‘she,’ and give it more TIME than any of the four words which follow, for these four small words we pronounce extra quick, to obey the law of the meter (so that we hear it not as prose but as poetry); but look at what happens when one says ‘is as in a’ extra quick; it sounds like ‘izzzazzina,’…”

      I disagree, Tom — it’s not the case that we’re trying to fill all those syllables into a time-space smaller than they need to be said, as we were agreeing about ‘seriously’ and ‘sober’. On the contrary, there is plenty of time in the meter to say those words without slurring them together as you suggest. Instead, we simply don’t emphasize them as much as the meter would normally ask us to, because if we do then THAT is a train wreck.

      As I said, we have no adequate notation for the stresses of either speech rhythm or meter. We make do with emphasis and schwa because every system of graduated emphasis runs up to grief on the shoals of use. You think it’s a heartache getting people to agree about scanning a few lines using the two-emphasis system, try using a four or eight or sixteen system: a nightmare.

      Tom wrote: “It is a truism that a poetic rhythm must be established in the first line, even in the beginning of the first line.”

      Honored as much in the breech as in the observance — and the better the poems, the less likely the poet is to worry about strict observance.

      Tom wrote: “Your idea that the rhythm can manifest itself when it’s good and ready is fine in theory, but does not work in practice.”

      On the contrary, it works fine in practice, as evidenced by ‘The Silken Tent’ and simply hundreds and hundreds of other fine poems.

  18. thomasbrady said,

    January 17, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Marcus,

    I think our disagreement is only on this point:

    I would say that speech is the stuff, the material, the clay, of which meter consists. I only disagree with Penn Warren’s idea that there’s a ‘balance’ between speech and poetry in verse. Prose is where the stuff of speech is molded to make meaning. Poetry is where the stuff of speech is molded to make meaning with music. Sure, one could say the clay plus the statue is a ‘balancing act’ or the speech plus the poetry is a ‘balancing act,’ but I don’t think that’s quite right, precisely because one turns into the other, and so ‘balancing’ is not finally what is happening.

    I think that’s all I’m really saying apart from what you are saying.

    Tom

    • Marcus Bales said,

      January 18, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      Tom wrote: “I would say that speech is the stuff, the material, the clay, of which meter consists.”

      I’m sorry to say I still disagree with this – meter is an imposed, external requirement. It may be imported from another language, made up by the poet, or squarely in the tradition, but meter is what a poet chooses to use in order to start writing poetry. Without meter – and, again, I don’t urge any particular meter, only that it has to be recognizable, regular, and repeating – there can be no poetry, though there can be art. But without meter it’s the art of prose. Meter is not made from speech, it’s imposed upon speech. Meter makes what the poet is trying to do a particular kind of endeavor, one that seeks to perform within a set of rules – even if they’re rules the poet has just made up. But they can’t be rules that the poet changes with every whim within the poem. Meter is not Calvinball. The point of meter is to allow the reader into the poem, to allow the reader to recognize what’s going on, to require the reader to read the poem with a specific kind of attention and focus, to demonstrate to the reader that the poet intends the poem to be language that is at least intended to do things that prose doesn’t do, to offer the reader language in which how a thing is said is at least as important as what is said.

      Tom wrote: “I only disagree with Penn Warren’s idea that there’s a ‘balance’ between speech and poetry in verse. Prose is where the stuff of speech is molded to make meaning. Poetry is where the stuff of speech is molded to make meaning with music.”

      Here, again, Tom, it appears you’re right – we’re in agreement. We agree that poetry is language plus – you say ‘music’, I say ‘meter’. I think your locution still entails a value-laden-ness to the term ‘poetry’, that you are still trying to work into the definition of poetry that it is better than prose. I’m trying to say that poetry and prose are neither better nor worse than one another, in the way neither a mason nor a carpenter are better trades. They are similar, with similar tools, similar skills, and similar goals, but different materials and, hence, some differences in tools, skills, and goals. But once you say “… and Jesus was a carpenter” or “… and poetry has music” you have made a claim that carpentry, or poetry, is value-laden in a way that masonry, or prose, is not.

      My object in saying poetry is language in meter and prose is language without meter is to try to block out the inevitable angry retorts that asserting value-laden-ness inevitably produces. You’re trying to say poetry is better than prose. I’m trying to say poetry is other than prose.

      Tom wrote: “Sure, one could say the clay plus the statue is a ‘balancing act’ or the speech plus the poetry is a ‘balancing act,’ but I don’t think that’s quite right, precisely because one turns into the other, and so ‘balancing’ is not finally what is happening.”

      And here is the explicit claim you make that ‘poetry’ is value-laden: you’re saying that poetry is what the combination of speech and meter turns into – a better, finer language called ‘poetry’, a thing that rises on the footsteps of its dead selves to higher things.

      Well, I am an enthusiastic proponent of better, finer language, of art in language, but my assertion is that there are two ways to get there: one is poetry, the other is prose. There is nothing to choose between them except the artist’s bent and the reader’s preference. One is not better or finer than the other, and where we get better, finer language we don’t get ‘poetry’ or ‘prose’ we get GOOD ‘poetry’ or GOOD ‘prose’. And, of course, where the language is pedestrian we get bad poetry and bad prose. But putting it in meter doesn’t make it good, and taking the meter away doesn’t make it bad.

      • thomasbrady said,

        January 18, 2011 at 7:12 pm

        Marcus,

        Marcus wrote:

        “I’m sorry to say I still disagree with this – meter is an imposed, external requirement.”

        But is this how we write poetry? 1. First we write a line of prose. 2. Then we “impose” poetry (verse, meter) on it? No, we don’t write poetry this way. If we did, we’d be pretty bad poets. And I think the origin of a thing (how we actually write it) is the best way to define a thing.

        I never said poetry was “better.” Certainly poetry is generally more difficult to write. It would be silly to do a lot of work to produce poetry when prose will do. A whole world is contained within: “when prose will do” of course.

        Tom

      • Marcus Bales said,

        January 18, 2011 at 10:02 pm

        Marcus wrote: “I’m sorry to say I still disagree with this – meter is an imposed, external requirement.”

        Tom wrote: “But is this how we write poetry? 1. First we write a line of prose. 2. Then we “impose” poetry (verse, meter) on it?”

        I don’t know how you do it, but when an interesting line occurs to me I do mull it over, thinking of various meters it will fit in, in whole or in part, and what needs changing to fit into a meter that part of it fits into, until I either abandon it or find a meter to write in.

        When I say ‘imposed’ I don’t mean we write it out in prose and then figure out how to poetify it (though to be fair, some ‘formalist’ verse does sound as if that’s the way they do it — which is one end of the spectrum since much of free verse sounds as if they didn’t bother to even change it at all from their prose version), I mean that the meter is imposed on the material by the poet, or the material is rearranged by the poet to fit the meter he or she has chosen.

        Tom wrote: “… And I think the origin of a thing (how we actually write it) is the best way to define a thing.

        Not always – think of what must go into a water treatment plant besides pure H2O.

        Tom wrote: “I never said poetry was ‘better’. Certainly poetry is generally more difficult to write. It would be silly to do a lot of work to produce poetry when prose will do. A whole world is contained within: “when prose will do” of course.”

        Again I disagree, because it’s almost always easier to say something directly in prose than to write a poem about it. In my view, there is little, if anything, that poetry can say that prose can’t, because poetry is merely language in meter, not an word that evaluates how well the language is used. You’re right that poetry is harder to do, and right that that doesn’t make it better, but there is still something abuot the way you talk about it that leads me to suspect that you believe that poetry is the superior art to prose.

        As I said before, my goal in distinguishing poetry as language in meter from prose as language not in meter is to get away from the wounded ego battles that the casual and colloquial use of ‘poetry’ to mean ‘the good stuff’ entails. Let us admit that anyone who writes in meter is writing poetry, and anyone who is not is not, and then evaluate whether the writing is any good after that. It seems to me that is the way forward past the clearly dismissive and acrimonious separation into ‘poetry’ and ‘verse’ or ‘formal verse’ and ‘free verse’ or similarly less than useful distinctions, that so hamstrings nearly every discussion.

      • thomasbrady said,

        January 19, 2011 at 7:54 pm

        Marcus,

        You wrote:

        “You’re right that poetry is harder to do, and right that that doesn’t make it better, but there is still something abuot the way you talk about it that leads me to suspect that you believe that poetry is the superior art to prose.”

        I’m not sure why you have this suspicion. But since we both agree “poetry is harder to do,” that alone might get us hung by the free-versers.

        We’d both agree, I think, that the Gettysburg Address wouldn’t improve shaped into heroic couplets. And you and I both admire the art of prose.

        Sound agreement lends a magical/inevitable element to any linguistic expression. The more sophisticated of us don’t really believe the magic. What is magic for one is insincere for another.

        It’s a great topic, rich with nuance: how much are the art of prose and the art of poetry related? Some prose features a great deal of repetition, and some doesn’t. It’s all on a curve, really, and that curve is not a simple one. When is there too much repetition? When is prose too bare? When is poetry too rich? It should all fall under rhetoric, and every writer ought to be able to write in all modes for no other reason than well-roundedness.

        What do we do with a piece of writing that alternates between prose and verse? In your opinion, would this violate any sense of unity? And what would you call such a piece of writing? I actually think this sort of thing should be encouraged. Let the politicians show they can occasionally write and speak in poetry. Let all cultivate both as a marker of the true person of Letters. For no other reason than: Well Roundedness.

        Let all writers be plump. And cruel. Or nice. But plump.

        Tom

  19. Tom Brady said,

    January 18, 2011 at 9:05 am

    Leave do not return to this forum, until you’ve something interesting to communicate to us, Dear Readers, please tell ’em to stop talking tripe, both of us and you and me and them and all of us in a wee boring trio, care little enough for our non-existent poetic reputations, deign to lower the general Scarriet tone, show off at the height of ignorance, pretending a cauldron of poetry aint real, twerps without a program returning home to pleasantsville, our commonwealths of nowheresville, Dear English Anonymous Duh! debating …exactly what it is not, again, urgh, America is not this meaningless waffle, two spent middle aged rants long practiced, ramblers in the republic of our English language democracy in lock-down, an emergency pre-amble to a forwarding first, lob from a gob of one, be fair, saying silly stuff, swapping about the place, on this page, at this forum, in a faux imitative piece of seriously non-dramatic narrative tenor, memoir, real-life authorial splendor and ranting mournful in the raging wind of US at A home with s@an at work, old it is, our poem trapped at dawn in the humility of God, us yellow faced wonders, peeky round the gills, drab minutiae, momentary thundering reign of eloquence on a stage, speaking song and the music of what is, happening in the glide, a wave of wind along the grass, up on tanks with guns, everyone stood behind the ones behind the wire …on a little street of Tehran, in the dark of early dawn, killers trashing houses, wrecking little homes with scorn, hear the sobs of crying children,

    Dragging fathers from their beds;
    Know the scenes of helpless mothers
    Watching blood fall from their heads.

    Armored cars and tanks and guns
    Came to take away our sons!
    But every man must stand
    Behind the men behind the wire!

    USA drumming supidity in around the globe, our current incarnation in the swab-out analtizing done in navel exercise, pondering on our greatness, braveness and bold exciting democractic capitalism turned to corporate military industrial complex so large, a quarter of a trill the GDP history of countless pauperzied states, our satanic uncle slave-owners came running, thru the dark in early morn, wrecking in the name of America, for the world and all us innit, hey, uncle, speak satanic that verse, illuminate your gangsterism, turn on badness, hook up to what’s rightfully yours in the name of God Bless America, GBH, grevious bodily harm, wanton acts of vile depravity and destruction; don’t touch that dial, press that button, error, greed, sheer madness on the mic, a military industrial complex, mic i am too, america usa, soverien state, Democracy in a republic, wholly god-fearing our people trilling in homely spun English, proud with historic grace, loyalty to the crown violently shrugged off, Democracy for all America, unless one were a slave, of course.

    America built on terror, millions of slaves, generation after generation of men and women born into it, a cause that ran the same course coterminous, contiguous in time with, History itself, from the time we Irish slaves got shipped to tropical colonies by Cromwell, until O’Connell the ‘Liberator’s intelligence forced equality, by first changing suits, beating a slave-owning imperial mind with its own language, reversing the charge in one’s bardic bill of entry into the realm of trusty fair play in airy flights of truth-to-thought talked out, the English all speakers of it share; we are the very source and cultural force of ya’ll new ones, boldly going were only boring people read idiocy not the disease America is, vile, do not follw me up in comments post-quatro cod faux urghm, pls, i beg ye tha new och aint rock n’ roll soo what, fucking what ya’ll so lurverly ‘n proley, jolly well gonna be, the brave hop hip hip, oop yours jerk off, yank on US of A ye daft papery dell, wandering loosely in a new-to-us blood-vengent spendrift wannabe, jolly on board at the forum, in the debate, critical back & forth we all wanna soo like n’ being, yeah, America me, Tom Brady, being free and brave and unafaid to fail, be a pure unintelligible chimpanzee of the barstool hitting the keys, and instead of Lear getting King George III, channeling madness of the inbred democracy a republic sired, all fall down, a thick U, a thick U, we all fucked up, off and left ’em alone; the US – stop killing us poor millions living in ‘real’ fear of your automaton, military industrial complex machine, secret corporation mib’s shaded from scrutiny, US deluded our historical record, terrorist activity, America is, a casino on crack about to, you know, debate in congress on the Hill, our capitol city corporation in control, everything running according to a thrilling quarterback ball kicking follow-up plan, comment droning gee in minor go away, no home but profligate expunging of our ‘shit’, America in control, is of all things happy, brave and bold, we know, honest able citizens of the globe, we own no more now the money’s gone …where?

  20. drew said,

    November 6, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Upon reading this my heart lifts, I almost laugh and leap with delight and I know there is hope. This line alone is worth all the meaningless drivel I have slogged through trying to enjoy POETRY, ha ha ha .


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