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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Sunday, July 25, 2004

I've been thinking a lot about Jonathan Mayhew's assertion last Monday that "human nature" is an ideological construct and about Henry Gould's post last Tuesday on the difference between Modernist/post-modernist/avant garde approaches to form and those of at least some of the New Formalists or metrists in general. At the time I wrote what probably seemed like a snippy comment at HG Poetics, saying that Henry is more comfortable with metaphysics than I am. I apologize for that apparent tone, and now I realize that that's not really the issue anyway. Before I explain what I think the issue is, let me say that I do not in any way speak for the New Formalists. Most of them don't know who I am, and I've never spoken about any of these things with any who do know me except Fred Turner, and that was thirty years ago, when he and I both had very different notions about poetry and philosophy than either of us have now.

It's ironic, possibly tragic, that some artists and some philosophers lost their nerve and began to deny the possibility of anything but arbitrary reference between human intellection and the world at precisely the time when it began to be possible to explore the actual nature of that relationship, when physics and biology began, for the first time, to shine light onto the foundations of our existence in ways which did not depend on the individual or cultural history of the man or woman holding the flashlight: "Everything is relative" is a bizarre misunderstanding of Einstein's work, which showed that observers form any arbitrary inertial frame could reach identical conclusions about the motions of the physical systems being studied — and it certainly doesn't matter whether a particular observer is a 60-year-old female atheist at Stanford University in California or a 25-year-old male Sunni Moslem at the University of Lampang in Indonesia. Certainly that light reveals a strange world, often counter to our intuitions, but that is nothing new. Though a misquote, "Credo, quia absurdum" is so commonly cited that it reveals a deep divide between matters of faith and our ordinary perception of the world, and though Aquinas believed we are made in God's image, that certainly didn't for him entail complete understanding of the mind of God.

What is new is that biology, and in particular recent work in evolutionary psychology, explains the gulf between our everyday perception and our conceptions of the underlying reality. "She's God and you're not" doesn't tell us why we're pretty darned good at negotiating those aspects of the world which matter to survival and reproduction but indifferent or blind to things at non-human scales of space or time. But in evolutionary terms, it simply doesn't matter that a leopard is mostly empty space. What matters is avoiding being eaten. Some elementary math is good for that, and therefore some counting isn't too hard for us or for a number of other animals. Partial differentiation of systems of non-linear equations is pretty tough.

And what matters for poetry in all that is that the new sciences do not invalidate our intuitive understanding of the non-human world or of each other's actions. In fact, they provide a strong argument for expecting that intuitive understanding to be correct most of the time in the ways that matter to our ordinary lives, and even shed some light on how and why we make the mistakes we do. More importantly, understanding language to be part of our evolved toolkit supports our natural belief that our speech refers to that part of the real world that matters to us.

It's quite remarkable, in fact. For the first time, our deepest conceptions of the world support our ordinary understanding even as they show its limits. That's bad news for the School of Phlogiston, for the children of Jorie, for the Oulippeans, and for post-modern theory in general. Disruption of ordinary language doesn't jolt us out of our ordinary perception: unless it's clear that some kind of game is being played, it merely convinces most of us that the speaker is crazy or incompetent. (Even in Zen, "Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.") If there is a game, the rules have to be clear enough to be grasped quickly but complex enough to sustain interest, and, unlike what we expect of poetry, we don't normally expect games to apply outside their artificial worlds (game theory in economics and psychology has little to do with the games we play for fun).

But though most of us want poems to be more than self-referential toys, a poem is not its paraphrasable sense, nor an experiment, nor a way of thinking or feeling. It's a way of saying something about the world in such a manner that other people find it memorable and moving. Meter is a powerful tool to those ends, though hardly the only tool available. What but pride, prejudice, or mistaken theory could persuade a poet never to use it?


For much of the last year, the workstations which the developers on my team were expected to use literally sat in the shower. I had a hard time filling up the days at work, and I did a lot of thinking which showed up in this blog or in poems. Well, the computers are out of the shower and on desks now, and I'm pretty busy trying to make up lost time. I come home tired and without a running start, so the blog has returned to its previous pace of 10-15 posts a month. It's likely to stay at the lower end of that range.


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Monday, July 19, 2004

via Jilly: Reading Hexametric Rhyme Supports Cardiac Synchronization, Especially After A Heart Attack


Fixed the link


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Chris Lott's back!


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Good responses to that last post from Jordan Davis, Henry Gould, Kasey Mohammad, and my dearest friend Sam.

Jordan answered my first question, about whether Clark Coolidge's distortions of syntax were any less bad those of incompetent metrical poets, in two ways:

  • by suggesting that what I'm really after is "whether it's imperative that a piece of writing be instantly interpretable, or whether some suggestive confusion might not only be acceptable but desirable," and
  • more directly, by acknowledging that while "rewiring of parts of speech" was problematic, "in light of his [Coolidge's] persistent curiosity about the relation of (to borrow Lawrence Perrine's terms) sound and sense," not "a major flaw."

They're good answers, and intimately related. I'm convinced by the second that, regardless of the quality of the poetry produced, something different is going on in Coolidge's distortions than in doggerel. Hey, I'm easy. But for most people, and most of the time, even for those of us who have studied or taught Perrine or even Wittgenstein and Quine, the relation of sound to sense is just not problematic. That doesn't mean it's not a real issue or that it's not worthy of serious thought or that it has no place in poetry. We'd lose most of Shakespeare if that were the case.

But does a poet who consistently and systematically thwarts an educated reader's attempts just to get to the end of a sentence or to make a connection between consecutive phrases have any cause to complain if most such readers choose to ignore that poet? There's no getting around the fact that some matter is just hard, even between people with intimate knowledge of each other and largely shared assumptions about the world, and it's true that sometimes direct statement is more misleading than tentative exploration, but isn't it the responsibility of all writers, not just poets, to write as clearly as possible while being faithful to their understanding of their material?

It's possible for various people to answer "yes" to that question in good faith and to still have very different opinions about poems from Clark Coolidge, or Jorie Graham, or Ron Silliman, or Rhina Espaillat. Some of that variance may stem from their response to my second question. Jordan suggests that, in fact, human consciousness did change because of "the automobile, the airplane, and the world war." I think that anti-biotics and modern sanitation are even more important in changing Western culture, but changes in culture are not changes in human character: it's pretty clear that that hasn't changed for about a hundred thousand years.

Henry, seconded by Kasey, instead suggests that metrical practice in English hasn't been as invariant as I may have seemed to claim, thus obviating the need for special explanations of what happened as free verse and other prosodies became prominent in the last century. It's interesting that both adduce 14th century practice, the last time there was a significant change in the structure of English. Old English is a Germanic language, highly inflected, and its poetry was primarily in the same four-beat alliterative line used in other early Germanic poetry, such as the Norse sagas. But during the first 300 years of the Norman occupation Old English disappeared as a literary language, and when it resurfaced its character had so radically changed that we call it Middle English.

Most inflections were gone and there was an enormous influx of French and latinate vocabulary. Many poems still used the old meter: Piers Plowman, most of the Pearl poet's work, many of the Scots makyrs. But Chaucer was writing something new, and by the time Middle English had become Early Modern English, most poetry was written in accentual syllabic meters. There were still changes to come (the Great Vowel Shift), but there have been no significant structural changes in English, and accentual-syllabic prosodies have remained dominant in most people's experience in the six hundred years from that time to now. There have, of course, been times when various specific forms (notably the sonnet) have been in and out of fashion, and there has been, from time to time, more or less acceptance of various variations from the nominal meter of a poem. Of course there has been a great deal of argument over the terminologies and principles of scansion. But not until around 1900, not even in the great shift from accentual-alliterative to accentual-syllabic verse, did poets in any number question the centrality of meter in their practice.

What motivated that change? I know of no better explanations than the several offered in Tim Steele's Missing Measures. (Before you finish groaning, Kasey, read this short statement.)

This post is already too long, but it's interesting to note that English may be now on the verge of a change as significant as that from the 11th to the 14th centuries. What will happen to English prosodies as, in the US, UK, Australia, India, Pakistan, and South Africa, English evolves with Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and with the astonishing linguistic variety of Africa and of the Indian sub-continent? I don't doubt that meter will be central, but I would be astonished if iambic pentameter remained the central meter for another six hundred years.


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Saturday, July 17, 2004

Both Jordan Davis and Jonathan Mayhew praise Clark Coolidge (here and here). I don't find Coolidge at all interesting, and though that may be a personal problem, Jonathan partially explains Coolidge's rhythmic practice this way:

It's about the rhythmic phrasing in relation to the phonological structure of the language. A word used as another part of speech, noun as adjective, verb as noun, creates a sort of syntactic "hiccup" which is felt rhythmically.

Isn't that just the kind of sacrifice of ordinary language to prosody which anti-metrists condemn in poorly handled meter?

Henry says "every era in language & poetry develops its own approaches to rhythm." But in only one era in the history of Western poetry did any significant number of poets think it necessary or desirable to abandon meter. Could human character have actually changed in or about December of 1910?


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Friday, July 16, 2004

It's the 10th anniversary of my marriage with Deana, so I only have time for a quick reply to Henry, who is a hero of moderation except in his complex and often beautiful poetry.

I don't believe that accentual-syllabic poems are inherently better than free verse poems. For instance, among the Americans, only Robert Frost comes close to rivaling the achievement of Walt Whitman. I was talking about the fact that nearly all the greatest poetry in English, even in the free verse-dominated last century, has been written in accentual-syllabic meters, and offering my explanation for that fact: that that tradition has the richest toolset in our language. Part of that toolset, respect for ordinary speech, is shared by mainstream free verse, and that helps explain why free verse is the only real rival, in English, to accentual syllabic meters. Any poetry is doomed to coterie status when it does not respect our human use of language to share with each other our feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Language is not just arbitrary signs or sounds.


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Thursday, July 15, 2004

There are of course many ways to make poems, some just as formally constrained as the usual meters, but none, not even the free verse of the last century, has been the basis of a body of work remotely comparable in quality and variety to that produced in the accentual-syllabic tradition. It's not for lack of trying, or talent, or even genius.

The reason is that in our language no other method is able to play a perceptible, formal rhythmic impulse against the rhythms of ordinary speech in such endlessly varied and expressive ways. We can't even hear syllabic or quantitative verse in English. Accentual prosodies can't modulate what happens in normally unstressed syllables. Free verse depends on line breaks and syntactical rhythms, both also available in every other kind of poem. The more exotic formalisms — mathematical, aleatory, graphic, to name a few — distort the poem's language in an even more ludicrous fashion than does badly handled meter.

Accentual-syllabic verse lives by this rhythmic interplay. If the meter is so variable that it becomes unnoticeable, it cannot affect the way we read or hear the poem. If the meter distorts the poem's language beyond what might be possible in human speech, the effect is risible or boring and probably both. It matters that poets in this tradition care both about our syllable-and-stress patterning and about writing in the language of one human being speaking to others about things that make a human difference.


Update 7/16: That first sentence above should begin "There are of course many ways to make poems in English, …" I do not presume to speak for poetry in other languages, in some of which accentual-syllabic verse is as impossible as true quantitative or tonal prosodies are in ours.


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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

I'm not blind to the possibility that I over-value metrical poetry because I've worked hard and long (30 years!) at understanding its mechanics and at making the stuff, but I can't let this pass. Jonathan can play Humpty Dumpty all he likes, and it won't make "I define a stressed syllable here as the main stress of a content word" have any application to metrical stress, not even in purely accentual poetry. In accentual-syllabic verse, only relative stress within a foot matters, and, given the long practice of constrained metrical substitutions, none of the lines he cites presents the slightest difficulty to traditional scansion. And while meter plays with word-boundaries, and the resultant tension is a powerful source of the rhythm of metrical lines, word boundaries are not considered in accentual-syllabic meter nor in its scansion. In the explanations below I've marked the stressed syllables of a foot by capitalizing them: surely no one needs to be reminded that this does not imply that all the upper-case bits receive the same stress and the lower-case bits are all equally whispered. In the Marvell, for example, the two metrically stressed prepositions have considerably less vocal stress than either metrically unstressed "green."

In Stevens's line, the third and fourth feet (separated here by a "-") are a common metrical variation in IP. Some call it a pyrrhic followed by spondee; the spondicidal call it a double iamb (my preferred term) or an ionic minor:

ComPLA / cenCIES / of the - PEIGNOIR, / and LATE

Frost's line puts the double iamb in the first foot, but it's the same common substitution as above:

If de - SIGN GOV / ern IN / a THING / so SMALL

Marvell's line might be read as two double iambs, but he likely thought of it as trochee iamb trochee iamb, since the most common substitution in English iambic verse is a trochee in the first foot of a line or in the first foot after a caesura or strong pause. In exactly the same way, the Henry V line is trochee iamb | trochee iamb iamb.

OF a / green THOUGHT / IN a / green SHADE

GENTly / to HEAR, | KINDly / to JUDGE, / our PLAY

Sometime in the next few days, if the creek don't rise, I'll let you know how much and when I think about these things as I'm writing a poem. The trailer says "not much anymore."


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Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Linguistic prosodies have next to nothing to do with the practice of poets, as is evidenced by this eleven thousand word monstrosity that never quotes a line of poetry, never mentions the iamb, mentions the foot only once (and only to belittle the concept), and is apparently intended to support a notion which only a Martian could expect to be controversial: that time is more important than space in the experience of poetry.

I supose I should thank Jonathan Mayhew for bringing it (and indirectly, Clark Coolidge's talk on bop prosody) to my attention, since the fact that such silliness is taken seriously by at least part of the academic world these days clarifies a good deal. People do value what they pay dearly for, and, believe me, time spent with this stuff is time dearly spent.

It probably looks like I'm trying to pick a fight with Jonathan. I'm not. It just happens that, since his return, he's posted substantively and clearly on topics dear to me, and I think he's too smart to be fooled for long. But maybe poets just don't belong in the university.


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Monday, July 12, 2004

I'm finally, after a year, able to do work at work, so I've been missing a lot of blogging, both good and bad. One example of each on the same subject has been the discussion between Greg Perry and Jonathan Mayhew on English prosody. Jonathan just doesn't get it, and if Clark Coolidge thought he was writing metrical poetry, neither did he: Greg was right from the beginning and had no need for even the slight backtracking that he did.

  • In English accentual-syllabic poetry, three unstressed syllables in a row cannot occur. If you read a line that way, you're reading it wrong — and you're on opiates. It's not a matter of "saving" the meter by counting secondary stresses: that is the way English speakers naturally speak, and you can see it on an oscilloscope ( you can see elision on a scope, too). On the other hand, while in a metrical poem those secondary stresses sometimes have slightly more emphasis than in ordinary speech, it's just as unnatural to elevate them to the level of the primary stresses, which is where I think Silliman's preposterous "tub-thumping" comes in.

  • "Veritably unimpressive" has at least three and probably four stresses and two possible elisions ("Veri" and "bly un") for a maximum of 2 countable unstressed syllables in a row. There's no need to invent chimerical scansions for the phrase. In a strongly iambic poem it could occur at the beginning of a line or after a caesura as a trochaic substitution with elision (dactylic if you must) in the first position :

    VERita / bly UN / imPRES / sive (XXXX or feminine ending)
    Although medial iambs are rare in English trochaic verse, if strongly supported by the rest of the poem it might be possible to scan it like this:
    VERi / taBLY / UNim / PRESsive.

    But the mere fact that we can apply a scansion to the words is not enough. While it is often useful to make up scannable lines as examples, no group of words, however regularly its stresses are spaced, is metrical except in the context of a metrical poem.

  • In one extraordinary poem, Tennyson, perhaps the most skilled metrist ever to write in English, managed (twice, but with the same line both times) to write three successive metrically stressed syllables. But notice how much he does to make it work:

    First, the line's three words are all the same monosyllable ("break," of course), beginning with a voiced plosive into a long vowel and ending with unvoiced glottal stop. There really aren't many options in reading that line.
    He used short lines, which are more metrically stable and can handle more variation than the pentameter. In this poem, though no two adjacent lines are metrically identical (I was wrong), all but two are three-stressed: the third lines of stanzas three and four (the last) are tetrameter. That last stanza begins with the opening line of the poem.
    That makes the last stanza a kind of prosodic miniature of the whole poem: mollosus, trimeter, tetrameter, trimeter.
  • While Tennyson's poem is wonderfully managed het-met, only Procrustes could make Clark Coolidge's "Light As Mica Broken" metrical. It's difficult to write much English without occasionally producing mostly iambic-feeling sentences, and the preponderance of iamb-like syllable groups in the piece is evidence only that Coolidge wrote in English, or, at any rate, a simulacrum thereof. But "Light As Mica Broken" is no more metrical than it is sense-making or evocative or anything but crap — fodder for bad dissertations, perhaps, but not poetry.


    Update, July 13: I shouldn't blog after bedtime. Neither dactyl to iamb nor trochee to anapest are possible combinations in English metrical verse, and the only way to fit "veritably umimpresssive" into an iambic line is with elision. In this case, even that's ugly.


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Saturday, July 10, 2004

Couple of pretty good days: changes to "Medical Advice" and a new poem:

Fashion Sense

They work so hard to make their message clear,
But secret-seeming knowledge is the best:
Like fingers, touching here and here, then here,
The eyes find skin that's glimpsed the sexiest.

Drafts at the Draft House


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Tuesday, July 6, 2004

My wife, our two girls, my brother, and my sister-in-law all came visiting over the long weekend. It was wonderful, but nothing remotely related to poetry happened. When I come down off the clouds I'll be back with real content.


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