Temporal Poetics: Rhythmic Process as Truth

Article excerpt

Over the years, many have lamented the weaknesses in prosody (in the sense of our theories of poetic rhythm) and poetics (in the sense of our theories of poetry), but to my knowledge none have claimed that these two weaknesses are closely related. Over the past twenty years or so, I have been working with a strong version of the opposite assumption: that these two weaknesses are the same. I call this approach to our understanding of poetic rhythm and poetry temporal poetics, because rhythm creates our experience of subjective time, and this approach to prosody and poetics uses an explicit, detailed theory of rhythm in order to develop an explicit, detailed theory of poetry.

Temporal poetics has a considerable history. It took on a substantially finished shape about ten years ago; I have been teaching and writing about it ever since; and it has already been used by others (in one case, used as a book-length argument). Whether it will significantly influence the future of prosody and poetics, only time will tell. At this point, I can report only that it seems promising.

The prosodic tradition has always been primarily interested in the voice, how it moves rhythmically from syllable to syllable, stress to stress. But for whatever reason, this tradition has always given vocal movement a very regular, one-dimensional, and minimal representation (e.g., poetic feet, with foot substitution, etc.), while claiming that all more regular movement is just an abstract norm of this vocal movement and all less regular movement is not rhythmic at all.

This conception of rhythm can be useful for certain basic critical tasks, but is much too narrow and misleading to be of further theoretical or practical use. Actually, the movement of the voice (what linguists and music theorists call rhythmic grouping) is not at all one-dimensional, regular, and minimal but multi-levelled, variable, and complex. Similarly, the simpler and more regular movement that often accompanies the poetic voice (what music theorists would call meter) is not at all abstract and normative of the voice but gestural and cyclical, a felt pulsation that winds down in relatively fixed, alternating patterns that are directly opposed to the normative contours of the voice. All complex rhythms have more volatile linear and non-linear components, too, what music theorists call prolongation and theme, respectively.

This critique of the prosodic tradition leads to a new conceptual framework for the study of poetic rhythm, a new definition of poetic rhythm. In the prosodic tradition, rhythm is a simplified tracking of the regular motion of the voice, and everything else is collapsed into this one thing (or neglected entirely). The implicit claim is that rhythm has some sort of unified temporal logic (i.e., isochronous repetition, iambic feet, or whatever) and everything else is a kind of significant/negligible variation from this temporal norm. Therefore, a poem's rhythm can be fully described by specifying (or assuming) this temporal norm and then cataloguing the deviations from it, whenever and wherever they might occur.

In temporal poetics, however, rhythm (and therefore subjective time) is not homogeneous and logically unified but multiple, divided, and dialectically conflicted. Rhythm is not one thing but four very different things in inherently tense, complementary interaction. I like to call these four different things the major components of rhythm. Each of these major rhythmic components creates a different sort of subjective time. Meter creates cyclical time, which is associated with sensation, perception, and physical ecstasy. Rhythmic grouping creates centroidal time, which is associated with the centered self and emotional expression. Prolongation creates linear time, which is associated with volition and action. And theme creates relative time, which is associated with thought, imagination, and memory.

In this approach to prosody, rhythm is not just the regular movement of the voice but the concerted and conflicted movements of our major psychological faculties--sensation, emotion, volition, and thought; body, soul, will, and mind. …