Work in Progress

I have never really understood prosody. I might as well start there. It has always felt like some sort of coded speech that only those who were well trained in the tradition understood. It felt for many years as if there were some who had prosody so deep in their blood that even when they were merely two cells, it beat within those two cells and then as their cells divided, the understanding was built into their body cell by cell and then it came to define how their heart beat. My heart seemed to beat otherwise. Sometimes whoosy. Sometimes swishy. Sometimes at forty beat per minute. Sometimes at one hundred.

I thought this body thing because it was often said that iambic pentameter is like a heartbeat, that it is biological. “An iambus is the metrical term for a heartbeat: the natural inner rhythm of the human being and the first sound we hear in the womb.” “The Greek physician Galen quotes an earlier medical writer as saying that the heart's weak-strong diastole and systole, whose sound is described as lub-DUBB or ka-BOOM, is like the weak-strong iambic foot (as in the word "alive").” “The da-DUM of a human heartbeat is the most common example of this rhythm.” I took those lines from various descriptions about how to read poems on the internet. There are a million more I could have put there too.

Still I tried to understand prosody. I was an English major for many years of my early life and I wanted to be someone who understood poetry and I also wanted to be a poet for some reason and so I wanted to understand meter because meter defined the tradition, especially the tradition that came from England but also from other parts of Europe. And so I spent years trying to pass as one of these humans whose heart beat in iambs. Every so often I would be in a class and the professor would read the poem and beat the rhythm out with their hands. They would write a line on the board and then they would put little marks over the words. And it still didn’t make sense. Or it made sense in that moment but if I had to do it on my own, it made no sense. I could not get it. Then I would pull out the dictionary and I would look up each work and attempt to get the “right” stress within a word. And the dictionary would be little help. It seemed to be keyed to a different sense of stress. I confess, I was in love with Russian formalism at some point in my life. That should have helped but did not. And I still seem to be seduced by data. I spreadsheet and then I pivot table in these spreadsheets regularly. And I have always read these tendencies as a way to cope with how what makes literature excellent has often been inscrutable to me. I mean I know what I like and it often isn’t called excellent by many. So I have a sort of life long quest to understand what I am missing in the formation of excellence because I often can’t see it in the work. And yet none of my attempts stuck.

One day though I was given Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” to read. I am not a huge Olson fan, to be honest. But his claim about breath: “If I hammer, if I recall in, and keep calling in, the breath, the breathing as distinguished from the hearing, it is for cause, it is to insist upon a part that breath plays in verse which has not (due, I think, to the smothering of the power of the line by too set a concept of foot) has not been sufficiently observed or practiced, but which has to be if verse is to advance to its proper force and place in the day, now, and ahead.” That gave me some understanding. Or more misunderstanding perhaps as it gave a reason to stop worrying about the meter stuff as much and yet it kept to the body as the way that poetry gets made.

I am not saying anything you probably haven’t already thought before. The meter beating professor is a cliché. The post-Olsonian the line is the breath is also a cliché. But I still want to say something about how these claims about iambic pentameter as the natural meter troubled me.

Once in a job interview I was asked if I could teach prosody, yes I said; yes, I can. When I got the job, I had to confess I couldn’t figure out how to do it and one of the faculty members who was at the job interview complained about my deception again and again, angrily; apparently I had been hired because she did not like having to teach it and the idea was that I would take it over. I eventually agreed to teach a prosody course and I filled it with anthropology. I taught Steven Feld on lament, Lila Abu-Lughd on the ghinnawa, stuff like that. I taught an anti-body meter. It went okay although several students were upset that all the work we read was in translation and we could not really count the meters.

The story I am trying to tell here is about why this Colloquy matters and why I wish it had existed prior to this moment. This is a collection of essays that are attempting to be attentive to meter but to also be attentive to more than meter. They are chartings of what Meredith Martin calls the fantasies of poetic form. They admit, as Reuven Tsur does, that nobody has really ever gotten the rules of meter. They theorize meter’s contemporary, as Natalie Gerber does using K’naan’s work, and how it is being reshaped by artists who bring “the prosody of their first language to bear upon the rhythmicization of English.” They theorize, as Eric Weiskott does, prosodies that existed prior to the development of the theories of meter. They attempt as David Nowell Smith does to figure out how to score meter to account for its variation, not its regularity. They locate as does Tamara Chin, using Aurobindo Ghose’s work as example, an anticolonial possibility in meter, a way to engage the tradition against the tradition. They, as Courtney Weiss Smith does, locate meter in natural history and science. They describe, as Setsuko Yokoyama does, new digital technologies for understanding these new meters. And they, as MacArthur Miller does, develop the tools to understand these new prosodies. It’s a cultural prosody that emerges, one contestatory of long-standing nationalist and body-based prosodies. And that’s a huge relief.

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Prosody: Alternative Histories

What are the historical stakes of prosody, and why should we ask? ‘Prosody’ refers both to the patterning of language in poetry and to the formal study of that patterning.


In both senses, it is roughly synonymous with ‘versification.’ Like many terms in the modern study of poetics, ‘prosody’ derives from a Greek word of much wider application (prosōdía, ‘song; tone’). In Modern English, ‘prosody’ additionally designates a branch of linguistics concerned with the intonational and rhythmical patterning of speech.

The multiple meanings of ‘prosody’ hint at the historical perplexities of the term. One major difficulty is the qualitative difference between prosodic theory and practice—often itself a historical difference. In English literature, for example, the practice of meter predates metrical theory by 900 years. Between the composition of the Old English poem Cædmon’s Hymn (late seventh century) and the publication of George Gascoigne’s Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English (1575), poets practiced but evidently did not theorize English prosody. (Modern poets’ continuous proselytizing letters, essays, and talks promulgating their prosodic theories has now more than made up for this gap!) Nonetheless, the medieval centuries are notable for metrical experimentation, from twelfth-century forays into syllabic verse to Geoffrey Chaucer’s invention of the French- and Italian-inspired iambic pentameter in the fourteenth century. This experimentation is incomprehensible without situating English in a cross-linguistic context, one that includes, at minimum, French, Italian, Latin, Norse, and Welsh, each with its own complex history.

The study of prosody in the centuries since Gascoigne has presented any number of historical complications, and the present era is no exception. Even as it enjoys a resurgence of interest, spurred by concurrent discoveries in sound studies, cognition, performance, psycholinguistics, and new technologies, verse prosody remains a problematic field. The linguistic turn of the twentieth century, for example, has meant that many prosodists have focused on developing, and refining, metrical theories, i.e., descriptive systems that account for the match or ‘fit’ between the phonological structure of the language and the aesthetic structure of the verse. This approach, originally sponsored not by a linguist but by a literary critic—that “every language has the prosody which it deserves”[1]—has certainly advanced a fundamental understanding of technique, but it has done so at significant cost: the assumption of verse’s artificiality as a transparent stylization of natural language, with an attendant, and surprising, lack of curiosity about the historical factors conditioning these outcomes.

Following the linguistic turn, literary scholars have endeavored to describe metrical traditions and to coordinate metrical histories and historical prosodic theories with cultural, intellectual, material, and social histories. Yet what is the status of such description and coordination, given the gap between practice and theory, or between cultural production and cultural analysis? Do early theories of prosody, from Pāṇini to Snorri Sturluson to Gascoigne, clarify the nature of verse or entail new epistemological problems? Do later approaches, from generative metrics to cognitive poetics to historical poetics, represent research progress or just add terminological complication? Can the historical practice of prosody be disentangled from the history of prosodic study—and if not, whence prosody?

Contemporary poets at all levels face an analogous gap between practice and theory: to what extent can the researches of prosodists influence or be of use to poets? What utility could there possibly be, given the outright inaccuracies of meters in most poetics handbooks (here, a reverse historical dilemma: practice may continue to outstrip theory, but theory outstrips primers). Does the textbooks’ persistence in oversimplifying and misrepresenting metrical study only prove the point that the academic pursuit of verse prosody is immaterial to practice?

Prosody thus traverses a set of vexing historical oppositions—between structuralist and poststructuralist, or formalist and historicist, or empirical and theoretical, methodologies; between departments in the twenty-first-century university—especially the languages, linguistics, cognitive sciences, and comparative literature; not to mention between poets and critics, the producers and analysts of prosody. Hoping to move past these artificial divides, this Colloquy brings together work in multiple media across disciplines, all considering reciprocal relationships between prosody and history, variously defined. The goal of the discussion is to inspire the kinds of productive disagreements that can move prosody closer to Donald Wesling’s vision of a unified field: “When literary criticism can complete linguistic metrics, and when it can in turn be completed by being deepened with a cognitive psychology of the reader, and when it can be fully historicized, then we shall have a prosody adequate to the greatness and range of poetry in English.”[2] This Colloquy shows that verse rhythm and aesthetic pleasure always exist in a dialectic relationship with many histories.

[1] George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody (3 vols.) (London: Macmillan, 1906-10), vol. 1, 371.

[2] Donald Wesling, The Scissors of Meter: Grammetrics and Reading (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1996), 22.

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