The art and the practice of it (3)

Now, after the last post, it’s time for more detail.  I’m sure I can’t contribute anything new to a discussion of rhythm (and meter), but I can at least give a very brief account of how I listen, and hoping it will be useful to others.  This exercise is not about “getting something right”—which would feel like a test.  Judgment in the arts depends on the ear or eye or kinetic sense of the judge—the better ear will hear pleasures or problems that the less trained ear won’t notice.  Well, virtuosity does have its tests, but they are for the sake, ultimately, of expressiveness, pleasure and the powers of the work.  I remember Michael S. Harper saying many years ago that the technical virtuosity of Gwendolyn Brooks’s first book, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), was the proof of the commitment of her civil rights politics.

Let’s look at Ezra Pound’s famous little poem, “The Return” (1913).  Pound was on the way toward creating his own free verse—by which I mean lines of variable length and also variable rhythm.  (Igor Stravinsky composed his “Rites of Spring” in 1912, making use of time signatures that change as frequently as every measure—with opening measures in 4/4, 3/4, and 2/4, and, to add even more complexity, containing notes grouped by three, by five, as well as two or four.  It’s impossible to hear such passages as being in measures, because it’s a kind of musical free verse.  Stravinsky also combines regular time signatures and irregular ones in the same piece—just as Moussorgsky had done in his suite “Pictures at an Exhibition,” although not nearly no strikingly.  The effect is that the rhythms sound more spontaneous, and in the case of Bartok, for example, we may hear the real song and dance measures of Balkan folk song, which are incredibly complex compared to the double or triple beat of folk songs of regions farther west.)

But Pound’s momentous experiment in “The Return” goes only halfway from metrical verse to free verse, for here Pound is using different metrical sequences of feet (rather than regular metrical lines)—sequences that he breaks into lines of irregular length.  This is not meter but rather the use of small metrical “figures”—that is, patterns shorter than a line that we can find in metrical lines all the way back to Shakespeare.

“The Return” poem is widely available on line, so you might try opening another window in order to see the entire poem as you read this brief commentary on Pound’s rhythms.  I’m not able to show the poem in a side-window.

I’ll scan the first four lines:

../………………../…………. /…………/……../…..

See, they | return; | ah, see | the tent |ative |


Movements,| and the ‘ slow feet,                                 [total = 3 feet]


The troub |le in | the pace |and the | uncertain


Wav |ering!

Once we have underlined both the speech stresses and marked the metrical accents, which takes only a moment (and which one quickly learns to do in the mind’s ear), we can see that the whole stanza (like the rest of the poem) is in iambic meter, with perfectly typical “substitutions”—that is, here and there a foot that is trochaic, or, as in line two, what I’m calling “that other thing” (see the previous post), which consists of two syllables with no speech stress at all followed by two that are both naturally stressed.  Together the four syllables make up two feet.

(Some readers—and poets—argue that both feet can be scanned as iambic, if one wishes to be consistent; but such consistency is really for the sake of creating a kind of system of meter that can naturalize as many different configurations of a metrical foot as possible, but to me that is a kind of arithmetic, and what I’m interested in is hearing what the lines do in relation to an unforced, more or less natural speech stress such as we use in conversation.  And I also think that my way of reading is a way of seeing the basic ground of meter as systematic, as in fact it is, while simply allowing for some variations that work, and counting on the poet’s and reader’s ear to hear that some just don’t.)

So line 1 is iambic pentameter, with the lovely touch that the last two syllables have no appreciable speech stress—let’s say (using the scale of 4 that I mentioned in the previous post) a 1 and a 2.  Line 2 has three feet, not one of which is iambic, but all of which are acceptable (by which I mean not only consistent with metrical verse but also enjoyable, rather than inept) substitutions: a trochee and then that “other thing.”  Lines 3 and 4—if we read them together across Pound’s enjambment in the middle of a foot—add up to to seven perfectly consistent feet in iambic meter.

Pound’s idea of free verse at this point seems to be that the poet needs to “break the back of the pentameter,” as he put it, simply by breaking lines in metrically iambic rhythm (with some emphatic substitutions) into irregular lengths, and even breaking a metrical passage in the middle of a foot.  Pound had a wonderful ear.  Scanning the lines (that is, reading them for the meter) shows us how he, like almost all English-language poets until the twentieth century, plays the speech stresses against the reader’s expectation of a regular iambic meter.  Nowadays, too few readers seem to hear this interplay, and so the rhythmic effects of a poem like this are only perceived as interesting somehow, or emphatic.  (Which they can be.)

(Again, an analogy from music: scarcely any of us can hear the emotional qualities of the different keys on the piano.  For example, A-major vs. E-flat, vs.  F-sharp minor, vs. C-major: Bach regarded C-major, precisely because its tuning, even on a well-tempered piano, was close to perfect, as the key of God.  We don’t learn to hear these expressive qualities of key signatures because we don’t hear that many pianos, and because the keyboard instruments that we do hear are no longer “well-tempered” but blandly tuned to match the tuning of electronic keyboards.  Nor, I think, do we much notice the emotional effect of how a composer moves a piece from one key to another and back.)

Hearing a free-verse poem or a metrical poem if we haven’t trained our ears can give us only a vague idea of how and why rhythms are interesting or emphatic.  And a poet who doesn’t hear the rhythmic workings of a metrical line or even a strongly rhythmic (which doesn’t necessarily mean “regular”) free-verse line won’t be able to hear what Pound soon realized: the metrical “figures” (such as a trochee followed by an iamb, and the that “other thing”) can be used in free verse, too.  They’re no longer “metrical figures,” but they’re still “rhythmical figures.”  A poet who doesn’t hear rhythms, even with intuitive responsiveness, isn’t able to do much with them in a new poem.

Pound’s favorites are, first, the initial trochee followed by an iamb: “See, they return,” “See, they return,” “These were the Wing’d-,” “Gods of the wing-,” “With them the sil-,” “Sniffing the trace,” “These were the swift,” “These the keenscent-” (the speech stress on keen is a 3 and on scent a 4, let’s say), “Slow on the leash,” Pallid the leash-” (there are more instances of this repeated pattern than we would expect to find in a more politely behaved iambic poem).  And second, a packing of speech stresses (iambic meter can do this without disrupting the pleasing iambic alternation of weak and strong metrical accents by using unequal stresses of 3 or even 3.5 before a 4, instead of 1 and 4); Pound puts two only slightly unequal speech stresses in the same foot, or uses “that other thing”: “and the slow feet,” “Haie! Haie!,” “and half turn back,” “keenscented,” “leashmen.”

Altogether in this poem there are 50-some speech stresses, out of just over 100 syllables.  Which is about what we would expect in English.  But Pound gets more forceful rhythms out of them.  And he also uses the line to create a rhythmic slowing down in the last nine lines by making them shorter and stopping each at the end with punctuation (whereas in the first four lines, which I scanned, above, the sentence flows easily past the enjambments at the ends of lines 1 and 3).  So the rhythms of the poem become more compact and more emphatic as it concludes, as it intensifies its feeling of awe and dread in this vision of the Greek gods, as if even now they might fly to see the world as it has become.  (Hermes had winged shoes, but all the Olympian gods seem to be able to fly wherever they want, instantaneously.)

When Pound then moved on to his Cantos, he began that sequence with an unmistakable nod in the direction of meter, and an unmistakable announcement that he was now writing something new that had the same power of rhythmical emphasis that metrical poetry has, but uses it more freely.  He went the rest of the way to truly free verse, but without losing the rhythmic power that meter had made possible.  In Canto I, he creates a mock-epic episode that he indicates he is translating or rephrasing from a Renaissance Latin translation of the ancient Greek original of the Odyssey.  (I’ll underline the speech stresses, all of them 3s or 4s).

And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and

We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,

Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also

Heavy with weeping, so winds from sternward

Bore us out onward….

The packing of speech stresses (in five out of six syllables from the end of line three through the beginning of line four); the use of emphatic alliteration in imitation of Anglo-Saxon verse (“set… sail…swart ship”; “bore… aboard…bodies,” etc.); and behind these lines, the lively “ghost of the pentameter”—as T. S. Eliot put it—create a potent narrative opening.  (The hovering of that “ghost” is notable in Eliot’s The Waste Land, especially in part III (lines 231-256), where he the ghost into view very expressively to suggest the squalor of a kind of  mechanical modern life—in his day, the mechanical music of the phonograph and the “mechanical” rhythm of loveless sex.

(More to come.)

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