Friday, March 04, 2005

Who's smokin the whacky tobacky?

In my last post,
I asked: What meter is not based on a count of recurring features of language?
I should have asked: What line is not based on a count of recurring features of language?

Morphemes, phonemes, from sounds to words, from agglomerations of words to meaningful phrases and clauses organized in lines and stanzas.

I wrote the three questions in my previous post to tease Greg Perry a bit about his Metrical-thang over at Grapez. I've been known to do this--right Greg? I was kind of tickled to see Mike Snider appear in my comments with a link to his Sonnetorium. And, once there, I find Greg's comments on Mike's comments on my comments.

Meter Love.

--Says nothing about verse to say that it turns language towards its own conventions. Poetry does not exist to prove that meter in line either is present or isn't.
--Says something about the poet, though.
--Says something about the poet who relies on habits in imposed and practiced counting methods to create a line.

Here's what Mike wrote that interests me (my questions are in italics):
  1. What poetry isn't metrical?
    • Until about 150 years ago, almost none.
    • Recently, perhaps most poetry in what used to be called the Industrialized World. For an important example, William Carlos Williams's mature poetry is in no meaningful way metrical. Looking ahead to the next question, there is no countable feature of the language which is used a basis for the line in Williams's poetry.
  2. What meter is not based on a count of recurring features of language?
    • None that I know of — with three important caveats:
      1. Metrical poetry uses countable language features as a basis for the line, not for the poem as a whole.
      2. Different languages have different features which may be usefully counted. For example, neither pitch nor quantity (syllable-length) vary in any systematic way in English, so English meters cannot be based on those features — Robert Bridges notwithstanding.
      3. The breath is not a countable feature in any language.
Boy. Mike treats me like a novice. Should I be insulted? I think an insult is intended, especially because of Mike's hollow claim about breath: "the breath is not a countable feature in language." As if the discussion of projective verse, which I engage at Dagzine, does not count. And I do get the play on count. He is well aware, however, I know what "metrical" poetry is; especially according to the Poetry Encyclopedias. Greg claims he will use Mike's answer to teach his students. Greg: just send them to the New Princeton Encylopedia of Poetics. They'll find similar uncritical answers.

It's not that Mike is wrong. He's historically accurate. But his answers serve no purpose. And as I have pointed out in an earlier rant, Mike seems much happier with a critical protectionism of a very narrow definition on behalf of the poetic line than he is with a critical dialogue that moves our explorations beyond difference to a more common understanding of that line.

Who decides what a meter is? Not history; we do. And we might want to seriously consider that we use language to make claims about language. Language is not a spontaneous order, say on the level of spontaneity that FA Hayek discusses with the market economy, which he refers to as a catallaxy. Language is not a spontaneous order that we only have abstract access to...I mean, we do have control over the concrete order of language. And breath has everything to with the physics and chemistry of such control.

Make it as abstract as you wish, Mike, but counting will get you nowhere.

I am out for the evening. But other questions need exploration. Oh, btw, Mike. I am posing what I call possible solutions. I don't have the answer. I am trying to wallow in complexity--it serves my work. I am not limited to a formal process I am not an author of. Or something like that. Anyway,

Who decides how to count that meter?
What purpose does it serve to consistently--habitually, uncritically--interpret metrical verse in the way according to Mike Snider? [Added 3/5/05: I am "picking on" Snider because he makes these claims each time a po-blogger he reads says something about meter; I am not making claims on Mike because I don't respect him. I simply and vehemently disagree.]

And what does it mean to say: William Carlos Williams's mature poetry is in no meaningful way metrical? You're whack or what?

If I had a student who made this claim, I would want a reason. And his or her reason would need to address a definition for metrical. Because the claim sounds like an attempt to ghetto-ize metrical verse and to allow the claimant to dwell within that limited ghetto.


Laura Carter said...


As a former? singer who has somehow ended up "here,"

yes: breaths matter. Breaths can be counted.

At a crucial stage it becomes difficult to do much else.

It's all there, in the


The study of conventional metrics, which I actually find somewhat interesting & a place to "spin-off," (as breaths do),

does not often take this variable into account. It crams. The caesuras are a bit crude. The breath runs underneath, in a pulse.

But metrics is all about the "beat," not the pulse, which determines that beat & provides the place to let the energy come in. This is how I talked to my creative writing students.

Greg said...

I didn't catch the tease in my direction. My bad. Truth be told I've imbibed a bit of Montepulciano tonight so I'm not at my critical best. How's that for a hedge. But as to your revised question: "What line is not based on a count of recurring features of language?" Man, that's a bit wide open. Like, what life is not based on heartbeats. Anything can be counted. Breaths. Pulse. Letters. Syllables. Words. Meter though is a particular mathematics that abstracts word stress. Its result is a particular rhythm. Like music. I'm not particularly knowledgable about that but I do know there's measures and notes etc. It's just the framework though. For soul. Same thing with meter. It's one way. Not THE way. It happens to work for me. I happen to have a systematic mind, though I fought it like hell. What me math? But I've discovered a meeting of the minds in meter. My minds. Bob Dylan: "I never asked for your crutch / Now dont ask for mine." I'm learning to accept the infinite possibilities of the line in poetry. But I'm also excited about the infinite possibilities about meter, specifically iambic meter. Especially considering that it's been untouched in any kind of experimental manner for eighty years give or take. Imagine the possibilities! Maybe more later.

Jake Adam York said...


I assume you've read Derek Attridge's two wonderful books --- Well-Weigh'd Syllables which proves that the foot-based scansion of English verse really didn't take hold till the turn of the 18th-Century, proving that Mike's comment about most poetry older than 150 years being metrical is wrong and that the very conservative syllable-foot "accentual syllabic" measure really only had, at best, 200 years of use --- and The Rhythms of English Poetry which skillfully turns the tools of generative linguistics to a descriptive metrics, which is what I hear you calling for.

Both wonderful books that say what you say, that the line must be based on some consideration of features of language, whether those be syllable (weak beat), accent, syntax, or even musical patterning. Attridge has the benefit of a very wide historical view of English poetry, which shows us that the idea of the stress rather than the foot is the key idea in English poetry.

You know these right?

I'd like to engage this discussion further, but I hope we can leave behind some of Williams's own statements that are dismissive of meters --- "the world is not iambic" &c --- and the more polemical critiques of meter and metricality that we'd read, say, in Charles Hartman's work. Though there are some intersting associative arguments in both cases, I think we can do better.

How about a Phenomenology of Rhythm. Name your metron. Forge your own iridium bar. &c.

Maybe I will tangle this further.

Jake Adam York said...

Here: what is the measure of this line: get out your rulers

Michael Snider said...

No insult intended, Gary. In fact, I intended to forestall insults in either direction by setting aside any evaluative notions in the dicussion of meter: " metrical poetry is not, by virtue of its being metrical, either better or worse than non-metrical poetry." Meter is a particular set of ways to organize the rhythmic structure of a line. Williams didn't do it, but that doesn't imply anything about the quality of his poetry. I happen to love his poetry.

Laura, (and Gary), of course breath matters. It just doesn't organize (though it can limit) the rhythmic structure of metrical poetry. It can't because it is too dependent on physiology and training. As a long-time amatueur singer (I've made a few bucks!) I can do more things for a longer time with my breath than most people can, and I'm sure you can far outdo me.

Jake, who's claiming that the foot is the beginning and ending of meter? Or that meter is the beginning and ending of rhythm? Not me. I don't know who Attridge was arguing against (Samuel Johnson? Hardly fair, eh? He was dead.), but I don't know a formalist poet who would argue back. Meters are patterns of audible, systematically varying language features. No news there.

Anonymous said...

From JSR . . .

Ah, the tiny crevices that academics manage to pick apart into canyons . . .

I am amazed, also, at the word count to date of the discussion on the meaning of one's choice of preposition.

Jake Adam York said...

Why does Mike's blog eat your comment if you don't enter an e-mail address?

Not feeling like giving out that info today, so I'll say here:

Mike, that though you may not be saying explicitly that the foot is the ending of meter or rhythm, your idea of how rhythm's made is based on or in the foot and inscribes a false dilemma, giving countability only to regularlized meter, which is to say, to a system that favors a whole and repeating number of countable features. It's not that your "non-metrical poetry" has no countable features --- you can count anything you like, especially the syllable --- but the result of a count in each line of a poem (like, let's say, WCW's Asphodel) won't come back the same. But that doesn't mean that there's no measure or measurement. In WCW's tri-part line, the triumph is that, with variability, the visible fact of the line (typographically manifested, sure) provides a measure against which to measure the other members of the same triplet or any other triplet. Measurement is measurement regardless of the regularity of the standard.

I apprecaite your equanimity, and I'm not arguing against the reasonableness of a certain approach to meter, but to suggest instead that there are many measures and that your distinction between meter and rhythm is unnecessary and underwritten by a largely narrow segment of English poetic history. I love an auditory meter as much as the next reader, but it ain't the only way.

I think you agree with my pluralism on the face of things. Nevertheless, when you write that "Metrical poetry typically builds its rhythms out of the interaction and tension between the nominal meter on the one hand and ordinary speech rhythms and syntax on the other," Timothy Steele's creeping up behind. Pope and Dryden and Johnson. Isn't "nominal meter" code for "feet"? Isn't this particular argument founded on the classical foot pattern?

Attridge ain't some ghoul, but I think he's as annoyed by the persistence of the argument to tension you repeat which is, historically, founded on classical foot prosody. He simply means to suggest not only that there are other ways but that there were other ways, ways we lose sight of. I don't think he's arguing with the dead, but what if he is?

Michael Snider said...

Jake, I'm not exactly sure what goes on with Radio blog comments — they're stored on a different server, over which I have no control except to enable or disable comments and to delete particular comments. I suspect it has to do with an efort to control comment spam by requiring a legitimate email address.

The tension between meter and ordinary speech is not limited to the effect of a foot. It occurs in syllabic and pure accentual verse, and one of my Chinese co-workers assures me it happens in the arrangement of tones in Chinese poetry. Any fairly regular patterning of audible language features will do the same, but it does need to be fairly regular. As you point out, there are other ways to acheive rhythmic effects, but they're different effects.

BTW, have you ever listened to WCW read? There's a fair-sized collection here: he completely ignores his wonderful linebreaks.

Jake Adam York said...


I'll accept that such tension can happen in purely accentual verse, but I think the particular effect is going to be different than what most people mean when they refer to the tension between meter and rhythm. I think once you get into syllabic measures, even in measures so strict as Sapphics (though it's not purely syllabic as Moore's English syllabics are) the tension between speech-rhythms and metrical pattern is rarely anything different than the pull of syntax against or across the line, so I'm not ready to concede that.

And I agree that the rhythmic effects of your "non-metrical poetry" are different from those of your "metrical" poetry, but I don't agree that these effects are of your "non-metrical poetry" are, per se, non-metrical. That is to say, again, that there's enough regularity in language itself so that even if there's no "fairly regular" "metrical" pattern per your definition, there's still enough information to go measuring and to define rhythmic events against the variable-yet-regular features of the language. I say no poetry non-metrical.

And yes, I've heard WCW read. Are you going to tell me Milton's non-metrical because he almost never end-stopped in Paradise Lost? Are you Samuel Johnson?

Gary Norris said...

Oh you guys rock. This discussion is energetic and wonderful--thanks for the comments. I am going to pull some of this into Dagzine proper over the next 48 hours.

You keep me going. And don't ever ask me to repeat that in mixed company. I am feeling mighty generous today.

the polis is eyes.


Greg said...


In fact, Attridge's Poetic Rhythm was my introduction to meter, when I began writing in accentual verse. But I never read his Well Weigh'd Syllables. Although I find the argument for foot based beginning in the 18th century curiouis. Gascoigne's Certayne Notes was discussing the foot in the 16th century I believe. But no matter, I'm all for your pluralism. Meter works for me today. Maybe something else will work tomorrow. I've already begun with the simple division of the pentameter line in two and not sure where it will unltimately lead me. Rhythm is indeed the thing.

Michael Snider said...

jake, I'm glad you brought up syllabics. I intend to post something at the Sonnetarium about them either today or tomorrow.