Note to British-poets members: A copy of Fred Beake's
article on prosody was sent also to a private email literary
list of which I am a member. The file appended below is
what I sent to that list by way of comment. I'm sending it
also to British-poets in the hope that it will encourage
some further useful discussion of the subject. I'm willing
to take the inevitable criticism of my own views, but I hope
people will keep in mind that unlike the original article,
my remarks are justop-of-my-head immediate comments,
basically a record of what I might say in casual
Begin included message
> Short, short, long,
>seems comon to my ear in modern speech, but there are others I am
The salient foot of American English is the spondee (two strong
beats). Whole conversations can be conducted in it:
-- Hey, man!
-- What's up?
-- I'm broke.
-- Hard luck.
-- No shit!
-- Hang tough.
-- O. K.
-- See you.
-- Take care.
It's hard in fact to think of a modern American poet whose rhythms
don't instinctively recur to the spondee, poets as different in every
other way as Pound:
And THEN WENT down to the ship...
and we SET UP mast and sail on that SWART SHIP
I think we are in RAT'S ALLey...
When LILACS last in the DOORYARD bloomed,
and the GREAT STAR early drooped in the western sky in the night,
Sorrow is my OWN YARD
where the NEW GRASS flames
as it has flamed before
but not with the COLD FIRE ...
and even breaking out in a passage of Crane which generally holds to
an almost Augustan regularity:
OH, LIKE the lizard in the furious noon
That drops his legs and colors in the sun,
-- AND LAUGHS, PURE SERpent, time itself,and moon
of his OWN FATE, I saw THY CHANGE begun...
and practically every other American poet I can think of. I really
think this type of spondaic grounding is a characteristically American
phenomenon. It seems kindred to jazz: think of Louis' Armstrong's
Baby I'm your butter-and-EGG MAN
from way DOWN SOUTH...
or Coltrane's Africa, where one of the two bass parts is basically a
repeated spondee all the way through.
> The force of the poem builds up by the wave patterns that are
> occasioned by the movement of the breath, and we call lines. Breath
> however is not the whole of it. When William Carlos Williams in a
> late poem talked of "the ear and the eye lieing down together in the
> same bed" he was putting his finger on a basic process that applies
> to all poetry written in a culture that has gone beyond the purely
I think the above goes too far. The primacy of the written page
seems to me a specifically modern phenomenon. It's hard to make a case
that it was shared, for instance, by the ancient Greeks who (in spite
of some idiosyncratic Hellenistic experiments in concrete poetry) seemed
to consider a text as merely an memory-aid for speech. And even in our
own culture the primacy of text doesn't apply to every art. You could
probably find somewhere a text of almost any popular song, but very few
people know or care how it looks on the page.
And anyway damn it the breath is too the whole of it and Williams was
wrong! A poem is its utterance, just as music is its performance. To
consider experiencing a poem's text as being fundamental to
understanding the poem is as wrongheaded as to consider experiencing a
symphony's written score as being fundamental to understanding the
symphony. Yes, the text can be a legitimately useful aid for some
people, but no more or less than a score is. The key word is
fundamental. The text doesn't give you the poem any more than a
photograph gives you the person.
> After the classical scanning by quantity, which arguably never had
> great relevence to English poetry before free verse, the story is
> dominated by two systems with quite seperate histories.
Maybe not great relevance, but there was a strong Elizabethan school,
of whom Campion was the most prominent member, that championed
quantitative verse both in theory and practice, and many ostensibly
stress-meter lyrics of the period might almost as well be considered
Who is Sylvia? What is she
that all our swains commend her...
Cupid and my Campaspe played
at cards for kisses. Cupid paid...
> Whitman though broke through into the possibilities of irregular
> feet, without regarding stresses, driven by the breath of the
> chanter. Possibly he was led in this direction by the natural
> flatness of American.His practice is interesting for two reasons
> today. 1.it is breath driven 2. His lines are highly irregular in
> the numbers of syllables in the feet, but often seem to have
> something like six feet e.g.
> When/ lilacs/ last/ in the/ dooryard/bloomed
> And the/ great star/ early drooped/ in the/ western sky/ in the night
> I mourned/ and yet/ shall mourn/ with ever/ returning/ spring.
I'd agree with the first part of the analysis above but I would read the
lines much differently and not necessarily in six feet (and what I give
here is different from the scansion I gave above because here I'm trying
to uncover all the long syllables instead of pointing out the stress
When LILACS LAST/ in the DOORYARD BLOOMED
ANd the GREAT STAR EAR/ ly DROOPED/ in the WESTERN SKY/ in the NIGHT
I MOURNED/ and YET SHALL MOURN/ with ever reTURN/ing SPRING
Here the quantitative foot seems to be defined as one or more short
syllables followed by one or more long syllables, with the effect
depending on the proportion of short to long in each foot. It seems to
me that under my interpretation Whitman's phrasing -- i.e. the interplay
of caesura and diaresis -- becomes more understandable, with the
predominance of diaresis over caesura giving the above lines a solemn,
formalistic atmosphere by creating a heavy pause after most of the foot-
closing longs, but this is kept from becoming tedious by the two
judiciously placed caesurae in EAR/ly and reTURN/ing.
> In the Twentieth century many flowers have bloomed prosodically
> speaking in England and America. Nevertheless the arguments we have
> just glimpsed emerging in the Nineteenth century have in many ways
> remained central to Free Verse. There have been two opposite
> tendencies, which are nevertheless closely connected.
> 1. To use lines of syllable groups e.g. the Wasteland's brilliant
> opening in four foot lines
> April/ is the / cruellest month/, breeding
> Lilacs/ out of/ the dead land,/ mixing
> Memory/ and/ desire,/stirring
> Dull/ roots/ with spring/rain.
Again, I'd read this much differently:
APril is the / CRUELLEST month/ BREEDing
LILACS OUT of the / DEAD LAND, MIXing
MEMory and de /SIRE, STIRing
DULL ROOTS with / SPRING RAIN...
Interestingly, the foot here seems to be defined the reverse of what it
is in the Whitman example: one or more long syllables followed by one
or more shorts, with the effect again depending on the proportion of
each within the foot. Here again this scanscion points up how the
predominance of diaresis creates a solemn, formalistic mood. (And dig
the spondees DEAD LAND, DULL ROOTS, SPRING RAIN...)
> Yet not everything in the Twentieth Century is free verse. There has
> been good deal of innovation in lyric forms, which is in danger of
> being forgotten. For example Dylan Thomas fused the motion of the
> new free verse with more fixed forms. These may have been based on
> the number of syllables in the line, which may have owed something
> to his early reading of Blake's Prophetic Books, which often seem to
> be irregular syllabics (though did Thomas have at least the idea of
> the classical scansion by length of syllable at the back of his
William Empson suggested that Thomas's rhetoric owed something to the
nonconformist preachers of his youth. I don't know anything about them,
but I wonder if they could have also influenced his rhythm. Was their a
nonconformist tradition of turning a sermon into a rhythmic chant, as in
some American black churches earlier in this century?
> held/me green/and dying". The fourteeners are a mixture of the two
> e.g "Nothing/ I cared/, in the lamb/white days/, that time/would
> take me".
More spondees. Maybe one of the reasons why Americans seem to be
much more at home with Thomas than with many British poets.
Altogether a useful and well argued paper, though it hasn't changed
my opinion that the attribution of any kind of legitimacy to
typographical line breaks has had an almost wholly pernicious influence
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