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Saturday, December 11, 2004

Two blogs added to the blogroll under "Blogs on Poetry": brave boots and Tributary.

3:53:49 PM    comment: use html tags for formatting []  trackback []

In all these posts on enjambment, I'm deliberately ignoring its expressive effects. A blog, with its necessarily short and more or less ad hoc entries, isn't the place to handle that topic, even assuming I had the knowledge and skill to do it justice. Nor do I have time or space to deal with substitutions, catalexis, anacrusis and the like. I'm strictly concerned with the relationship between enjambment and the integrity of the line, and how that relationship differs in English-language accentual-syllabic and non-metrical verse — indeed, it's nearly inverted in non-metrical verse.

Since this has gone on for most of a week, a summary of what I've said about enjambment in accentual-syllabic verse, with some additions and clarifications, may be in order:

  • Unlike Classical meters, which specified varying kinds of feet in more or less set order and were thus easily recognizable to even untutored ears, English accentual-syllabic meters specify the number of feet of a single kind which appear in a line: iambic pentameter specifies a line of five iambic feet; dactylic trimeter specifies a line of three dactylic feet. Since the English line is not a rhythmic pattern but rather a length over which a pattern is repeated, and since, before the dominance of non-metrical poetry readers did not pause at line end without some grammatical or syntactic reason to do so, the line normally requires, in order to be recognizable to a listener, either syntactic/grammatical unity or some device such as rhyme to mark the line endings.
  • It's simply easier to hear a short line as a unit than to hear a long line that way. The pentameter line, in particular, tends to break naturally into two parts, one of three and one of two feet. Expressive manipulation of this caesura is one of the tools available to the IP poet, but repeated strong and eccentrically placed caesuras can weaken the rhythmic unity of the line.
  • Enjambment — running on the sense of a line past its ending and into the next line — is likewise a useful tool but, even more than the caesura, tends to weaken the perceived unity of the line. There are certainly degrees of enjambment, some of which still allow a slight pause or other clear marker of the line's end, but Samuel Johnson was right when he said that it was difficult to read Paradise Lost in such a way as to enable listeners to hear the beginnings and endings of lines.
  • When it's hard to perceive the beginnings and endings of lines, it's hard to tell how long the line is, and the meter, which in English is just the span over which a particular foot is repeated, can lose its integrity.
  • Since the rhythm of accentual-syllabic verse depends on the interaction between the meter and the rhythms of ordinary speech, both must be, at some level, perceptible, and neither can be allowed to dominate or distort the other. Because of its corrosive effects on the perceptibility of the line, poets should ordinarily be very wary of strong enjambment in accentual-syllabic verse, and particularly in the pentameter.

Non-metrical verse (prose poems are not verse, and neither aleatory poems nor things like Silliman's fibonacci-based poem are non-metrical) is utterly different: its rhythm is principally built on repeated grammatical and syntactic structures, or on an interaction between the line as a whole and ordinary speech, or on some combination of the two. Since the first case precludes enjambment and the third brings nothing really new, it's the second which interests me here. Since most of my readers are quite familiar with non-metrical practice I'm going to be very brief.

In the pure second case, excessively end-stopped free verse is rhythmically flat: enjambment is all there is to produce a rhythm different from that of prose, and it doesn't work if the reader doesn't pause at the end of the line just because it is the end of the line. It's quite shocking to hear W. C. Williams ignore his line breaks, and a damned good thing that everyone else just ignores the way he read.

Since free verse has for many years been the dominant form of poetry in English, and both its rhythmic branches, for different reasons, require a pause at line end, it's not at all surprising that many readers have come to think that all poems should pause at line ends. But that robs metrical poetry of enjambment as a powerful expressive and rhythmic tool, since it leaves enjambed lines indistinguishable from the rest.

But didn't I just say "poets should ordinarily be very wary of strong enjambment in accentual-syllabic verse"? Yup. It's wise to be wary of any powerful tool, and to use it only when appropriate. It's stupid to refuse its use when it is appropriate. Knowing which when is which is one of the things poets have to learn.

3:36:04 PM    comment: use html tags for formatting []  trackback []

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