Sunday, October 11, 2015

Miscellany 2: Coming Soon and Remarks on Prosody

Expect a riveting post on Levertov's enjambment!
Look, another one of these! But more tightly focused.

Upcoming Poetics Series
I'm still hammering away at ideas for a series of posts about poets, poetry, and poetics. I hope to come out with one soonish, but I'm starting with Robert Graves, and haven't been reading the White Goddess in long enough chunks to slog through the damn thing. 

I was originally going to restrict the series to a study of personal mythology and poetics, specifically Graves and his White Goddess, Yeats and A Vision, and D. H. Lawrence and Apocalypse. Now it threatens to be observations and commentary on all kinds of poets, poetry, and poetics. I even have thoughts on prosody! But I'll probably still start with the original idea. 

More than likely, given the queasy political associations of those poets, I'll probably delve into what Rexroth after Joseph Freeman called the "fascist unconscious" common to many modernists of the first half of the 20th c., which'll require me to reread Simon Casey's interesting (if not entirely persuasive) study of anarchist elements in Lawrence's work, Naked Liberty and the World of Desire, which certainly complicates the more common identification of Lawrence as a proto-fascist. My intuition is that the tension in Lawrence's work between anarchism and fascism, and his fidelity as an artist, is part of why his work remains important to me in a different way than that of other politically unsavory poets like Pound or Eliot.

It occurs to me that Robert Duncan's H.D. Book would fit as well. Oy. This threatens to turn into the basis for a thesis or dissertation, and I have no intention of following it that far.

Some Observations and Remarks on Prosody
a. Stress accent in the English speech stream is not binary but scalar. The most common way to capture this quality, following Jespersen, is with a scale of four, from lightest to heaviest. A good example word would be superimposition:
 su | per | im | po | si | tion
  4 |    1 |    3 |   1  | 2 | 1
(Really hard to get the spaces to line up. Sorry.)

Unfortunately, having inherited our prosody from quantitative verse (where the meter is based on vowel duration) and awkwardly applied it to cover stress accents, we often think in binary terms. To my ear superimposition sounds like three trochees, but each foot weaker than the last. But it's difficult to talk about these gradations within the language of traditional prosody.

b. Syntax, somewhat restricted in analytic languages such as English, affects the distribution and degree of stress accent within a speech stream. For us poets who respect line breaks when reading, we could count the line as a distinct speech stream.

In principle, one should be able to predict how syntax will distribute (and to what degree) the stresses within a line, though individual variation must be allowed for.

A good understanding of the relation between syntax and stress accent can allow a poet to turn plodding old iambic pentameter to uses outside the sing-song shit.

This is why I can admit that Robert Frost, a poet whose work I don't enjoy, was able to write metrically regular lines that more closely approximated natural speech than many modernists who aimed to capture it in free verse. This is his greatest technical achievement. Of course, a combination of plain speaking, metrical regularity, end-rhyme, and a pastoral theme can also be a potent sleep-aid. Blank verse serves Frost's fusion of natural speech and iambic pentameter particularly well as the elimination of end-rhyme is a prophylactic against sing-song reading.

b. Or at least it should be—contemporary readers unaccustomed to reading poetry aloud seem to find a way to read damn near anything in a sing-song intonation.

Trying to get away from sing-song intonation is a major motivation behind breaking out of the strict iambic. Thus free verse.

c. Speaking of, I think poets who write in free verse would be rewarded by the study of prosody, even the deficient prosody we've inherited. Being aware of all the musical techniques at one's disposal can help avoid enjambed prose atrocities like Bukowski's poem Bluebird. The best free verse always has a strong sense of music. See Tim Seibles for a very musical but stridently free line.

d. Seibles, a poet I studied under and count as an important friend and mentor, also has a good ear for the tension between natural speech and verse. If a natural intonation is carried too far, it can become as musically dull as a merely functional prose line. His line breaks do just that—break the speech stream, and therefore emphasize the internal music of the line. At a reading, the effect is obvious. That dogged respect for the break is a defining feature of his readings. I'm an ardent advocate too due to my tutelage under him.

e. Of course, one can emphasize one or the other as needed for the poem. Tim also retains a lot of natural intonation in reading his poetry. But the line breaks interrupt the stream enough to make the boundaries of the line clear.

f. All this talk of prosody said, I should not be taken as a New Formalist. I have no interest in some kind of programmatic return to traditional forms. If anything I'm a modernist. All the early modernists had a sense for prosody and an interest in expanding the musical repertoire of English verse.

g. Allen Ginsberg spent a lot of time thinking about Pound's prosody in the Cantos. He claimed that Pound was striving for a truly quantitative meter, measuring a line by the duration of its vowels. Pound did have a great ear, so it doesn't seem impossible to me. English does have some contrastive vowel duration, despite our intuitions. You'd probably think of diphthongs first, or vowels before sonorants (nasals: m, n, ng; liquids: l, r), but there's more to it than that. Compare bat with bad, bit with bid, and bet with bed. The vowel before the voiced stop is longer.

So it's conceivable that one could manage a quantitative line in English, but it seems like an arduous process whose results might be so subtle as to resemble the inaudible regularity of syllabic verse—which sounds to our iambic ears like free verse.

h. I'm trying to work with accentual verse now. More on that later.

i. Lines almost never occur to me in pentameter. Tetrameter and trimeter are the natural lengths of my process for some reason. I haven't a clue why. To write pentameter, I always have to add something in that wasn't part of the initial discovery of the line.

I'll get back to this stuff in a later post.

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