RHYTHM AND POETRY

Criticism of Life?  Bah.  Rhythm! Ode to Joy! One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four, One-and-Two!

The essence of rhythm is completely misunderstood by the modern poets.

They falsely posit two things of which there is only one.

It is similar to the error in which a simple quantity, height, for instance, is described as a duality: short and tall.  Short is not a quantity in itself, and neither is tall. Short and tall are two ways of saying the same thing: height.  Short and tall only have meaning in relation to some other height. Height itself is neither short nor tall—it is simply one measurable quantity between two points.

In the same way: the quantity, rhythm, is notrecurring pattern’ on one hand, and ‘variation of that pattern,’ on the other.

Rhythm, for that word to have any meaning, is not two things.  It is one thing.

Since variation cannot exist unless there is an established pattern from which to vary, it is ridiculous to speak of variety or variation as a separate quantity—like tall, it begs the question, taller than what? or in this case, varying from what?  This second quantity—variation—does not exist, but is contained in the first quantity, which we define as: the established pattern or rhythm which must first exist before any variation can occur, and without which no variation can occur.

T.S. Eliot, the Modernist most respected for first principles, errs, precisely in this manner, when he claims all prose scans and all prose has rhythm.

The Modernist error is defended by the tall and short trick—two quantities conjured out of the one principle: rhythm.

We see the Modernist compare iambic pentameter—which is described as a recurring pattern—to prose, which is described as a variation on a pattern, the Modernist adding that good iambic pentameter breaks the iambic expectation with variation—and prose is a variation on this sort of (good) variation—and thus, naturally, a good.

Good iambic moves away from expectation; good prose moves towards it.

The trick that is being played here is a simple one: the Modernist inserts a quality in a manner that distorts a quantity. The rhythm is the rhythm, not the variation from it—but this “not” magically becomes “the good;” the “variation” (the variation, any variation, variation that cannot exist without the original rhythm) now becomes wholly associated with “the good,” because if iambic does not vary itself, it is bad—and therefore prose, seen as wholly and organically various, and thus always varying itself, becomes in the blindness of the Modernist argument, the good.

The false Modernist argument, in a nutshell, goes like this: If iambic can vary itself as prose does, iambic will be good, and prose, which is already various, is by the same token, also good.

But obviously there can be no variation without the original rhythm—which is the actual good—and to describe variety as good is nothing but a lie, because not only is variety not a separate good, variety does not and cannot exist at all as anything materially separate.

The iambic—even as it varies itself, remains always and forever iambic in the upper part of the reader’s mind—and the more it skillfully varies itself as an iambic rhythm, the more strongly does it assert itself, in its variety, as an iambic rhythm, and this process alone—by which the iambic varies itself and by doing so, remains more strongly iambic—is the good.

Iambic is iambic because it is not prose. The iambic rhythm (ta DA) possesses an identifiable rhythm, and thus an identity in terms of rhythm which prose does not—since prose is not-prosebecause-it-isnot-iambic. Prose is also not prose because it is not trochaic—thus not being iambic alone does not define prose. But iambic is defined by not being prose—were iambic, after all, really trochaic, for instance, it would still be very much itself, since the rhythm of trochaic and iambic are almost the same (a short beside a long).

With logical precision, Criticism can prove that prose has no identifiable rhythm.

This, in fact, is what defines prose as prose.  It does not differ from iambic, it differs from all rhythm—for it has none.

The Modernist Theory of free verse is not scientific.  It is a hopeful dream—though the Modernist would insist the glory of free verse is based on “experience.”

To reject Criticism for experience, thinking the former leads us away frorm the latter, is wrong, for Criticism makes us aware of experience and is therefore vital to it. Criticism is nothing more and nothing less than an experience of experience, and therefore to reject Criticism as effete or unnecessary is foolish: a rejection of experience itself.

To insist that prose scans is to succumb to the worst sin, according to Pope’s Essay on Criticism: pride. It is also to reject what, according to Plato, is the essence of art, humility, and intelligence: measurement.

The Modernist is uncomfortable with measurement, and feels superior to it.  The Modernist is a priest without religion, a scientist without science, an artist without art, a lover without love, and indulges in experience without criticism—which is experience without experience.

Life is all the Modernist has.

Life belongs to all of us—and yes, life needs no criticism, no science, no love, no measurement.  Life is that place we, as individuals, can safely be ignorant or hyper-aware, as we sit on a train, drowse on our beds, drift sweetly in our minds, dismiss all in a bad mood, or embrace all in moments of intoxication; then, criticism of experience—which is truly what experience is—can go hang.  There is no “criticism of life,” the Arnoldian phrase loved by T.S. Eliot; it is truly an empty phrase, if we understand how vast, casual and random life really is.

Life is beyond Criticism.  Experience depends on Criticism.   Yet the Modernist confuses the two.

Life is subjective, sprawling.

Experience is limited, objective.

The Modernist comprehends neither experience (rejecting criticism of it) nor life (welcoming criticism of it).  Of course it is no wonder that Matthew Arnold’s “criticsm of life” was used by Eliot in praising Pound’s poetry [intro to Pound’s Selected Poems, Faber]. When you wish to reject experience and criticism of it, you insist, like the Modernists and their heirs, the Post-Modernists do, that your poetry reflects “life,” which of course is impossible.

Life is what finally makes poetry empty and effete.  In one of life’s bad moods, all poetry is terrible, and life laughs at our criticism and makes everything true—or not—on a whim.

A poet would be a fool, then, to think his poetry is a ‘criticism of life.’

No, life is always a criticism of poetry, and didactic pride prevents us from admitting this is always the case, and it never goes the other way; poetry is never a ‘criticism of life.’ Only a fool who believes prose scans would make such an assertion.

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24 Comments

  1. marcusbales said,

    February 27, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    I’m glad to see this; it’s the same as saying: “Poetry is language in meter; prose is language not in meter”.

    But it’s going a bit too far to conclude that someone who says ‘You can scan prose” means that prose is poetry. What I understand “You can scan prose” to mean is that you can assign the diacritical marks to each word, based on its ordinary pronunciation in context, in a piece of prose, and then examine it to see whether a regular, repeating, and recognizable pattern emerges. When no such pattern emerges, it seems to me, we call the piece ‘prose’. When such a pattern does emerge, we call the piece ‘poetry’.

    An interesting test would be to retype pieces of not-too-famous but still well-written prose and poetry, uncapitalized, unlineated, unpunctuated, but still in the order the author specified, and invite people to think about whether the pieces are poetry or prose, without access to Google or other search engines — just use the one in your brain and your ear.

    1. “… that sly devil that broker that still breaks the pate of faith that daily break-vow he that wins of all of kings of beggars old men young men maids who having no external thing to lose but the word ‘maid’ cheats the poor maid of that that smooth-faced gentleman tickling commodity commodity the bias of the world the world who of itself is peised well made to run even upon even ground till this advantage this vile-drawing bias this sway of motion this commodity makes it take head from all indifferency from all direction purpose course intent and this same bias this commodity this bawd this broker this all-changing word clapped on the outward eye of fickle France has drawn him from his own determined aid from a resolved and honourable war to a most base and vile-concluded peace and why rail I on this commodity but for because he hath not wooed me yet not that I have the power to clutch my hand when his fair angels would salute my palm but for my hand as unattempted yet like a poor beggar raileth on the rich well while I am a beggar I will rail and say there is no sin but to be rich and being rich my virtue then shall be to say there is no vice but beggary … ”

    2. “… there are some large baths fed by hot springs situated on a ledge about thirty feet above the ocean one of my most pleasurable experiences has been to sit in one of those baths and watch the waves crashing onto the rocky slope below to gaze into the clear blue sky above and to study a beautiful nude as she quietly appears and settles into the bath with me one time I sat down in a bath where there was a beautiful girl sitting with a guy who didn’t seem to know her right away I began thinking gee how am I gonna get started talking to this beautiful nude woman i’m trying to figure out what to say, when the guy says to her i’m, uh, studying massage could I practice on you sure she says they get out of the bath and she lies down on a massage table nearby i think to myself what a nifty line i can never think of anything like that he starts to rub her big toe i think I feel it he says i feel a kind of dent is that the pituitary I blurt out you’re a helluva long way from the pituitary man they looked at me, horrified and said it’s reflexology i quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating …”

    3. “ … if you pull into my driveway and honk you’d better be delivering a package, because you’re sure not picking anything up you do not touch my daughter in front of me you may glance at
    her, so long as you do not peer at anything below her neck if you cannot keep your eyes or hands off of my daughter’s bodyi will remove them i’m sure you’ve been told that in today’s world, sex without utilizing a “barrier method” of some kind can kill you let me elaborate when it comes to sex with my daughter i am the barrier and I will kill you i have no doubt you are a popular fellow, with many opportunities to date other girls this is fine with me as long as it is okay with my daughter otherwise once you have gone out with my little girl you will continue to date no one but her until she is finished with you if you make her cry, I will make you cry the following places are not appropriate for a date with my
    daughter places where there are beds, sofas, or anything softer than a wooden stool places where there are no parents policemen or nuns within sight places where there is darkness places where there is dancing holding hands or happiness do not lie to me i may appear to be a pot-bellied balding middle-aged dim-witted has-been but on issues relating to my daughter I am the all-knowing merciless god of your universe if i ask you where you are going and with whom you have one chance to tell me the truth i have a shotgun a shovel and five acres behind the house …

    4. “… damn the rain anyway she says three years old a hand planted on her hip and another held up and out in the mimic of a gesture she knows too well adult exasperation peevish wild-eyed and dangerous but the mangy stuffed bunny belies it all dangling by an ear a lumpy flourish and so again I am warned about language my wife having just entered the room aims a will-you-never-learn look my way
    and I’m counting myself lucky she missed me hands to the window, imploring the world jesus christ will you look at the fucking rain …

    5. … i would part the ivy leaves, and look for the naked jelly of those gold bodies translucent strangers glistening along the stones slowly their gelatinous bodies at my mercy made mostly of water, they would shrivel to nothing if they were sprinkled with salt but I was not interested in that what I liked was to draw aside the ivy breathe the
    odor of the wall and stand there in silence until the slug forgot I was there and sent its antennae up out of its head the glimmering umber horns rising like telescopes, until finally the sensitive knobs would pop out the ends …”

  2. Anonymous said,

    February 27, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    i got all but # 4 correct in my labeling of how their authors presented them as poetry or prose, based solely upon the look and feel of the language, not scanning them for any discernible rhythms. now what?

    • marcusbales said,

      February 27, 2013 at 6:31 pm

      Now what? Well, you’re 1 for 2 in discerning free verse from prose. That alone seems significant on such a hastily-constructed test from such a small sample as that which I happen to have saved in my little laptop library. If there really were differences other than meter between poetry and prose one imagines that a knowledgeable and sensitive reader such as you obviously are from your results here, would have gotten them all.

      On the other hand, as I was scrolling through my little library of saved favorites of poetry and prose I realized that in order to try to make it interesting I had to eliminate an enormous amount of material that all too obviously declared itself to be intended to be read as poetry or prose in the use of language that had nothing to do with meter — don’t get too hopeful! — mostly to do with rhyme and subject-matter. Still, there is that troubling remainder that seemed obviously intended to be poetry even without meter — largely a matter of tone of voice, a tone that asks the reader to take as important and significant the writer’s personal authority about the subject at hand. Perhaps if I had a greater knowledge of the personal essay I’d have been able to choose better prose examples that might have been taken as having that tone.

      Maybe this idea, of looking through your own personal favorites for examples that, shorn of lineation, punctuation, etc., might be mistaken by others is in and of itself a worthwhile project. I think there are passages in Steinbeck (forgive me, I’m not that much a prose-reading guy, so I have to hark back to school days) — what about that scene on a hot day in the Appalachians when there was nothing to do so the two older characters simply take off their clothes and have sex, right in front of at least the younger narrator, but I think other children as well, and the description of the post-coital langor? — and maybe Roth — what about that scene in which the protagonist and the girlfriend raid the basement refrigerator filled with fruit and eat too much? — that I don’t have quick access to beyond my memory of, that struck me at the time as that combination of personal, and yet deliberately presented as important and significant tendentiousness, that so many free verse poems seem to strive for.

      Enter into the spirit of the thing: try to find some passages of your own that seem to you to exist in the putative borderlands between poetry and prose.

      • Anonymous said,

        February 27, 2013 at 8:13 pm

        marcusbales

        would you ever try looking at any other creation in the same way you just described? would you take apart a painting that way, or a photograph? why does poetry, in your mind, deserve that kind of scrutiny?

        • Anonymous said,

          February 28, 2013 at 3:18 pm

          Yes of course I look at art of all kinds this way though poetry rather more so since it is the art which I have the greatest interest.

          • Anonymous said,

            February 28, 2013 at 3:29 pm

            seriously? mr bales, you would somehow remove parts of what the artist has taken the time to carefully arrange and place in front of you? you would physically cut up a photograph or painting, the way you have the poetry and prose selections, just to prove…? what is it you are out to prove again?

            • thomasbrady said,

              February 28, 2013 at 4:39 pm

              Anonymous,

              It’s called analysis.

              Tom

              • Anonymous said,

                February 28, 2013 at 4:47 pm

                again, what’s the point of such analysis? i mean, really, who are you to analyze in this kind of manner. it’s nothing more than barroom speculation and analysis. in other words, a complete waste of time and space. only we are not even sharing a drink together….

                • thomasbrady said,

                  February 28, 2013 at 9:12 pm

                  Why is it “barroom” analysis? Are you writing from a bar?

                  Let me quote Poe: As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talents into play.

            • marcusbales said,

              February 28, 2013 at 9:50 pm

              Seriously. Art is a craft, not a load of mystic crap. You can take it apart and put it back together and appreciate it more for having done so. Well, that is, some of us can. To judge from your attitude, you can’t.

              • Anonymous said,

                March 1, 2013 at 3:24 pm

                mr bales, i am well aware of what art is. have been for a very long time, probably since i was a very small child. i’ve never had to take anything apart to fully appreciate it.

                • thomasbrady said,

                  March 1, 2013 at 3:30 pm

                  From Poe, again:

                  I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would- that is to say, who could- detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say- but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers- poets in especial- prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy- an ecstatic intuition- and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes…

                  • Anonymous said,

                    March 1, 2013 at 3:45 pm

                    mr brady, you’re missing the point. poe was a terribly sick person who ends up dead in a gutter. is that really somebody you want to go around quoting? there is always something to be said for professionalism and decorum. my feeling is poe lacked them both.

                    • thomasbrady said,

                      March 1, 2013 at 4:31 pm

                      nemo me impune lacessit

                • marcusbales said,

                  March 4, 2013 at 3:46 am

                  Anonymous: if you don’t take it apart you can’t fully understand it — and you certainly don’t know enough to make art, either, if you don’t know how the parts fits together because you’ve taken them apart and put them together again. Art is not mystic crap that you can intuitively and completely ‘understand’ without actually understanding anything. Art s a craft — and a craft is about making parts and fitting them together and taking them apart and re-making them and putting them together again. Join a church if you want mystic bullshit. Keep it out of art discussions.

                  • Anonymous said,

                    March 4, 2013 at 3:06 pm

                    mr bales, i’m not referring to anything mystical or religious. just because a mechanic can take apart an engine does not mean that he has any greater understanding or appreciation for the engine than myself. furthermore, in regards to football, just because i’ve never studied an offensive playbook does not mean that i don’t have as much appreciation and understanding of why and how a guard pulls and blocks. i could go on all day like this. after all, i’m an artist. as an artist, i don’t need to fully understand anything about life in order to fully understand and appreciate its importance in the greater scheme of life. you are talking about taking apart pieces of art in a manner that goes much too far. by removing an author’s lineation and punctuation, to prove a very thin and hollow point, you are defilng the author’s work. nothing more, nothing less.

                    • Anonymous said,

                      March 4, 2013 at 3:11 pm

                      correction:

                      furthermore, in regards to american football, just because i’ve never studied an offensive playbook does not mean that i cannot appreciate as much as john madden himself does about why and how a guard pulls and blocks.

                    • thomasbrady said,

                      March 4, 2013 at 3:55 pm

                      Anon: So you advise a mechanic not take apart an engine & marcus not take apart a poem. OK. What’s your point, though?

                    • marcusbales said,

                      March 7, 2013 at 2:20 am

                      Anonymous said: “… i’m not referring to anything mystical or religious … after all, i’m an artist. as an artist, i don’t need to fully understand anything about life in order to fully understand and appreciate its importance in the greater scheme of life.”

                      QED, Anonymous. You’re hoist by your own petard.

                      Of course you are suffused in the mystical bs of ‘being an artist’, as if that had any meaning at all absent a combination of craftsmanship and work ethic that you are explicitly denying you have, and that any artist needs. You’re claiming what the dilettantes, the amateurs, the great flock of needy people claim, that by declaring themselves artists they are magically, mystically made into artists.

                      Well, it isn’t true, Anonymous.

                      And, of course, your very determination to remain Anonymous instead of trying to stake out your art and your craft and your whole position with a name and a set of attempts at art that at least are the first step toward art that we can see and judge your qualities as an artist makes it all that much more clear that you’re just talking through your hat.
                      So now you’ve admitted that you can’t and won’t analyze the craft and art of any piece – that you don’t have to, because you automatically understand everything. Probably you think you don’t have to learn to play or practice the guitar in order to play the guitar, too. You just understand everything there is to know about the guitar because you’re an artist. If you’d never heard an opera – as I’ll bet you have not – you’d feel qualified to critique it in detail because you’re an artist.

                      One fears for your children, actual or potential, since you are probably convinced you don’t need to go to medical school or know any pharmacology in order to doctor them, because you’re an artist, and you Know It All. Your ineffable knowledge of how Everything Works without studying or learning or practicing or achievement as a result of your status as An Artist qualifies you as the Walter Mitty of your generation. I’ll bet you’re proud.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    February 27, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    Marcus,

    Interesting test. 1 is the only one that scans and 5 is free verse with some rhythmic elements. 2 and 3 are clearly prose and 4 could be either.

    Your point about prose scanning: sure one can find a bunch of iambs and anapests, etc in any passage of prose—but that doesn’t mean it scans.

    Miltonic blank verse is poetry, but one can hear the prose in it.

    Stanza should not be underestimated, for here we have a doubling of the pattern which is found in the line only.

    None of the passages in your test are very beautiful. Poetry has charms more than anything else.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    March 7, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Marcus,

    Anonymous might want to read Hamlet, III, 2

    Hamlet: Will you play upon this pipe?
    Guildenstern: My lord, I cannot.
    Hamlet: I pray you.
    Guildenstern: Believe me, I cannot.
    Hamlet: I do beseech you.
    Guildenstern: I know no touch of it, my lord.
    Hamlet: It is as easy as lying. Govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.
    Guildenstern:But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony.
    I have not the skill.
    Hamlet: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me. You would seem to know my stops. You would pluck out the heart of my mystery. You would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak?

    Tom

  5. Anonymous said,

    March 7, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    mr bales, not wearing a hat at the moment, but thanks very much for your very lengthy attempt an insult. consider it read.

  6. thomasbrady said,

    March 7, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    Anon,

    I’m sure Marcus didn’t mean any personal insult; he was just following out the implications of your stated philosophy. He sees your philosophy leading over a cliff and wishes to save you from harm. Not insulting. Protecting, by attempting to illuminate. I have similar predilections, so I understand where Marcus is coming from.

    Tom

    • marcusbales said,

      March 7, 2013 at 8:36 pm

      Just so. Not that I have any real hope, judging by your prickly obliviousness to the actual nature of art. But just so.


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