METRICAL SOPHISTICATION? IS IT DEAD?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but my friends and I talk rhyme and meter the way others discuss fine wine.

The bouquet of a fine sequence of dactyls once caused me to faint from pure delight.   A friend once opined he could die content in a bed of trochaic tetrameter.

We scoff at those who can’t hear the difference between Swinburne’s 21 dollar Paul et Jean-Marc Pastou 2003 Sancerre, white Loire  and Poe’s 850 dollar Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, St. Julien Medoc Bordeaux red.

The best prosodists alive today, such as Marcus Bales and Annie Finch, make this common, tone-deaf mistake, re: Swinburne and Poe, but if the experts are wrong, what about the rest? Metrical taste today is at the lowest state since poetry was first written, so it is probably best we keep Bales and Finch as friends in the barren metrical landscape of our Letters.

Metrical expertise has been hijacked by two things:

First, poor training in the nuts and bolts of the science itself, so often tainted by needless pedantry.

Second, the New Critics’ injunction (Robert Penn Warren’s essay “Pure and Impure Poetry” 1943) that “tension” between “metrical rhythm” and “speech rhythm” is the true measure of taste in judging metrical poetry.

This second obstacle is perhaps the most insidious, seducing even a poet as brilliant as Marcus Bales into error.   The most beautiful species of rhythm, combined with the most thrilling aspects of expression, are sold short by a theory that clips the wings of rhythmical flight in the name of “speech.”

Certainly, qualities such as cogency and consistency support metrical expression.  These qualities partake of all the good we mean when we refer to “speech.”  But “speech rhythm” is something else quite again.  And here is where the error resides: rhythm’s emphasis and rhythm’s surprise and rhythm’s art are all the poem needs in order to be wonderful, strange, new, and expressive, and “speech rhythm” is but an illusionary, accidental result.

For how can we really know what speech rhythm is?

This is one of those assumptions which exist only as that, an assumption, but not in reality— and all because the “real” aspect (everyday speech is real, isn’t it?) is accepted without reflection.  The metrical poem will not admit an idea merely because it is an abstract nod to something “real.”  The practice of a poem admits no hypotheticals.

We put the cart before the horse to make “speech rhythm” a notable aim or  complement to the “metrical rhythm,” because speech always implies something we’ve seen before in daily conversation, and by its very nature will drag us away from metrical excitement and novelty; the aping of “speech” will always exert inhibitory pressure on the metrical muse.  Obviously we don’t want to veer off into pure nonsense, but the speech should emerge almost accidentally from the metrical rhythm, which must be the primary focus.  Warren’s “tension” between the two implies a balancing act, but this balancing finally dilutes and weakens rhythmical  invention, which requires freedom to express, newly, terror and delight.

Let us look at some examples and see if we can detect this “tension” between speech rhythm and metrical rhythm:

So, we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

In these lovely, poignant lines it is pointless to credit “speech” for those powerful anapests; they belong to metrical perfection.   Any “tension” added (I doubt any would be so bold to even try) would, even if organized to Warren’s exact specifications, weaken the poem in every respect.

What of this:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.

What is interesting to notice here is that the ‘modern’ example is less like speech than the Romantic song.  We might observe to an intimate acquaintace, “So we’ll go no more a-roving,” but we would never say to anyone: “The winter evening settles down with smell of steaks in passageways.”  We already observed that the first example, the Byron, is a metrical tour de force, and yet, by comparison, the Byron is also more like real speech.   The “speech” of Eliot’s first stanza from his Preludes pervades like one’s own consciousness whispering despairingly into one’s own ear about the sad state of actual things.  The Byron, poem, too, addresses the sad state of reality, too.  Both poems are melancholy, but Byron’s melancholy is heroic and elegant: “Yet we’ll go no more a-roving/by the light of the moon.”  The beauty remains in the sadness.  In the Eliot example, there never was any beauty; the melancholy is depressing and inevitable: “And then the lighting of the lamps.”

Iambic pentameter is heroic for physical reasons; the tetrameter has one less beat and thus it has less weight, less gravity.   In a different context, “then the lighting of the lamps” could be a happy line, but the mechanics of the line in the context of Eliot’s unhappy realism highlights the mechanics itself as a dull, mechanical action.

It is easy to see that the Eliot, like the Byron, combines metrical rhythm with certain descriptive actions, for its effect.  There is no “tension” between speech rhythm and metrical rhythm, per se.  “Then the lighting of the lamps” certainly has speech rhythm, but the point is that “Then the lighting of the lamps” exists in the poem as metrical rhythm—there is no speech rhythm and metrical rhythm existing simultaneously; the metrical rhythm is the speech rhythm in the poem.  There is no separation, and thus no comparison, and thus no “tension.”  We should not confuse the banal subject matter in the Eliot with speech itself; the speaking voice is not the same as the things described by that voice.  The “tension” is supposed to arise from the opposing rhythms, speech v. metrical.  But the metrical and speech rhythms are one.

If you think it is impossible for qualities to blend into one in poems, listen to what Eliot observes of Swinburne: “Now, in Swinburne, the meaning and the sound are one thing.”  This is quite an assertion: the meaning and the sound are one thing.   And does Eliot not describe precisely the claustrophobia of the romantics dwindling into the victorians which the moderns were hell-bent on escaping?  Eliot also: “When you take to pieces any verse of Swinburne, you find always that the object was not there—only the word.”

Poetry is always intensifying itself in what it is doing; the best poems never strike a balance, but pitch excessively forward, “annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.”

As Warren says, free verse has none of this “tension.”

But the instant we journey away from free verse towards this “tension,” we come into possession of metrical rhythm which buys up all the prose in sight; there is never a chance for reconciliation and balance, for these two, speech rhythm and metrical rhythm, are like matter and anti-matter; they demolish each other.

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