Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse

Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse

Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse

Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse


Though many recent poets insist on their poetry's "musical" qualities, few offer linguistically satisfying explanations of that "music". This book helps to fill that gap. It is a linguistically based study of rhythmic structures, and of the nature of rhythm, in the free verse of T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, and James Wright. It was written for accessibility to readers who, although not necessarily specialists in linguistic poetics, have some knowledge of language and poetry.

The book begins with an examination of rhythm in language as a whole, and of rhythm as a basic mental structure. This discussion touches on concepts from metrical phonology, acoustic phonetics, Russian Formalist and New Critical ideas of rhythm and meter, and music theory. It then analyzes what the author (borrowing a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins) calls "rhythmic figures of sound", syntax, line structure, and intonation in the poetry of Eliot, Lowell, and Wright.

Although the book focuses on these three writers, other poets are considered -- notably Jimmy Santiago Baca, Denise Levertov, and Etheridge Knight -- in order to illustrate the way different dialects use different intonation patterns for poetic effect. The book also contextualizes contemporary poems with brief comparisons to work from previous centuries.

The author argues that in discussions of rhythm and its structures, the old-fashioned way of analyzing types of "metrical feet" proves less than useful, and that the relatively new field of metrical phonology also has serious limitations. Instead, he advances a new approach based on "figures of sound" or "figures of rhythm", both of which involve the repetition of some key linguistic component: asound, a sequence of sounds, a method of forming words, a phrase structure, a line structure, or an intonational melody (literally, a tune -- the movement of pitch through time).

In the simplest language possible, the autho


Eliot's four-stress meter is challenging to describe, as we have just seen, but most readers do seem to agree that there is some kind of metrical regularity in it. in free verse, such as that which Lowell and Wright began writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many readers see no such metrical regularity. a number of writers (Lehiste 1991, for one among many) have in fact said that the only consistent difference between free verse and prose is that free verse is divided into lines. This sounds flippant at first, but it actually turns out to be a meaningful distinction; line structure has profound effects on the way we perceive other aspects of a poem's structure.

Nevertheless, being chopped into lines is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a piece of discourse to be recognized as a poem. On the one hand, there are many kinds of writing divided into lines: grocery lists, price sheets, computer programs, and so on. This does not mean that they are all free verse. True, anything with lines can be read as a poem, but some things do not make very interesting or emotionally involving poems. in fact, one might say that's why we have poets: to put together interesting and emotionally involving poems. and because we do not expect a grocery list to reward our close reading in that way, we do not approach it as a poem. On the other hand, if a poem is printed in paragraph form it is still, arguably, a poem. This is true not only of "prose poems," but also of ordinary verse. Indeed, medieval manuscripts often saved parchment by writing poetry in paragraph form (that is, filling out the left and right margins), and no one seemed to mind.

Still, medieval strong-stress verse, or medieval and later iambic verse, has regular enough lines that they can be recognized as units even if they are not displayed as graphic lines. and when we recognize one of these traditional line patterns, we instantly know it is meant to be poetry and bring all our . . .

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