Member Rara Avis
pros·o·dy n. pl. pros·o·dies
1.The study of the metrical structure of verse.
2.A particular system of versification.
Hi, my name is Ron, and I'm a prosodist.
( HELLO, RON! )
My sad story, I'm sure, is little different than anyone else in PP (Prosidists Pseudonymous). Like many, my addiction to prosody began in childhood, with a child's all too common fascination with rhyme. My first lover, I think, was Mary and her stupid little lamb. My initial poetic attempts were a reflection of that fascination, in that they rhymed and did very little else. Much later, in high school, I think, a dealer in the guise of an English teacher introduced me to my first taste of the hard stuff.
Yea, I'm talking about meter. I was addicted almost immediately, of course, though I didn't realize at the time that my dealer, even then, was still holding back on me. What she called meter was more accurately syllable-stress meter, a system of counting both syllables and the accents within those syllables. This is the most common system in English, and for several years I would dream in iambic pentameter, with frequent nightmares in trochaic tetrameter. Life was hard, and I often found myself standing apart, ostracized from normal human society. But I survived.
Then, in college, I sank yet deeper into the quagmire of prosody.
I discovered that meter, my old friend that always seemed so mathematical and scientific, often wore far more nebulous masks. French and Japanese poetry, for example, was measured using only syllables and, increasingly, I saw much twentieth century English and American poetry doing the same. I stumbled across Anglo-Saxon strong stress meter, which counted only beats or stresses, and soon realized that many of the nursery rhymes that had hooked me as a child followed the same convention. Meter, it suddenly seemed, wasn't always so simple as I first thought.
Confused and weakened, I began exploring the darker side of poetry. Quantitative meter, I found, was based on the duration of vowels and consonants. A "beat" was longer than a "bet" because it took longer to pronounce, which seemed simple enough at first. Wasn't it just long and short vowels? Nope, because the consonants surrounding the vowels also counted, making "stretch" also longer than "bet," even though they shared the same e sound. And this was the meter virtually all Greek and Latin poetry followed? Oh, my!
Suddenly, I found myself facing a terrible truth, one that would dominate my life for decades to come. Any method of counting a regular pattern in the lines of a poem qualifies as meter. And poets, being the imaginative creatures they are, had invented many such systems. Robert Francis, for example, counted words. James Laughlin used typewriter spacing (in any couplet, the second line had to be within two typewriter spaces of the line preceding it). W.D. Snodgrass went further still, using graph paper to keep the margins straight up and down, turning every stanza into a perfect rectangle. My addiction to meter apparently was without limits.
Facing despair, I ignored the cautions my pleading unconscious whispered to me, delving yet deeper into the darkness. And then, when all seemed lost, I discovered what I felt certain would be my salvation.
Free verse, called vers libre by its earliest practitioners, was to be my Calvary. This relatively new form of poetry, first introduced to me by T.S. Eliot, didn't count syllables or words or accents or anything else. It was free of all meter, devoid of that accursed addiction called prosody. It did not measure by the sentence, like prose, nor by the foot, like metered poetry, but served instead as an intermediary, measuring only by the line.
With free verse, the poet's main concern is how to move from one line to the next. Where does one end and another begin? You can end-stop or enjamb at will, with precedents but no rules. Louis Simpson contends that poets create line breaks according to personal impulse, while Allen Ginsberg insists breath is the main factor. Marvin Bell criticizes "enjambing out of anxiety." Charles Wright scanned his free verse to make sure no adjacent lines have the same count of syllables or stresses. Mark Strand, in his earliest poetry, tried to make the lines come out fairly even, but later tried to vary the line lengths more to create a ragged appearance. Walt Whitman kept his lines very long, often with rhetorical devices like anaphora, creating rolling cadences as in his "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." William Carlos Williams preferred very short lines, usually heavily enjambed. Robert Duncan perfected the Open Field composition, with varying lines and free indentations and even snippets of prose. As with meter, the way of lines and line breaks was limited only by the poet's imagination (which seemingly had no limit).
It didn't take long to realize I was still counting. It was just line breaks now, instead of accents and syllables. More, free verse had to compensate for its lack of standard meter, and to do that it used things like assonance, consonance, internal and slant rhymes, ruptured syntax, and inventive line breaks when least expected. Rhythm and voice still very much mattered. Robert Frost compared free verse to playing tennis with the net down, but neglected to mention that it's not impossible to play a good game of tennis without the net. It's just a whole lot harder. The freedom of free verse was never free, and the cost it entailed was a high one.
There is very little beauty in chaos, and even less meaning. Poetry stripped entirely of structure become a hopeless jumble of words. At the lowest level, we provide structure by ordering the words into meaning. At the other end of the spectrum, poetic forms like sonnets and villanelles impose much of the structure for us, determining syllable-stress meter, line lengths, and even the shape of our stanzas. In between these extremes lie an infinite progression of varying structure, each point adding its own beauty and its own meaning, each appropriate for its own unique message. Poets can work their magic by measuring syllables or accents or lines, or by balancing rhyme and rhythm and sound, but in the end, all of the tools they use are simply building beauty and truth into a recognizable structure.
In short, no matter the form my words may choose to take, whether adhering to the constraints of traditional meter or the not-so-free free verse, I remain a recovering prosodist. Still looking for a cure where I suspect none ever existed.