Academic journal article Style

Free, Verse, Rhythm: An Introduction

Academic journal article Style

Free, Verse, Rhythm: An Introduction

Article excerpt


Take this very sentence, for example. Read it a few times. Read it again. Does it have rhythm? Or, put differently, is there a (legitimate?) way to read it that can expose the rhythm that it has, or give it rhythm? Does it come down to performance? Could the act of lineating this sentence grant it rhythm? Could some other linguistic or cultural context used to frame this sentence give it rhythm? If we knew that it was taken from a poem deemed to be metrical, would we be more inclined to find or make it rhythmical? Of course a large part of the answers to these questions would come down to our definition of rhythm, rightly described in a parenthetical aside by T. V. F. Brogan as "surely the vaguest term in criticism" (1068).

Taking the road most travelled by, we would probably focus on syllables; given that the sentence is in English, we would be attentive to the distribution of stressed and unstressed ones. Although any sequence of words can technically be scanned for stresses and slacks, one is often searching for some recurrence or patterning. Indeed, a typical description of rhythm refers to things such as regularity, repetition, expectations, and pattern. (1) Finding such recurrences, under certain conditions which themselves are subject to debate, can salvage the line (is this a line?) from nonrhythmicity or arrhythmia. When the recurrence is palpable and recognizable enough, we would probably place the line within metricity, and therefore certainly within rhythmicity.

In fact, rhythm and meter, at least within literary prosody and pedagogy, are so commonly linked, and the focus of prosodic study on the cases of meter is so dominant, that it is not a trivial matter to think of rhythm outside a metrical context. Take, for example, Philip Hobsbaum: "Metre is a blueprint; rhythm is the inhabited building. Metre is a skeleton; rhythm is the functioning body. Metre is a map; rhythm is a land" (7). These metaphors convey both the connection and the distinction between the two terms: whereas the metrical pattern is a deep-structure defining feature of the verse line, rhythm is what is fleshed out in the phenomenology of the specific line. Yvor Winters makes the same point when he writes that, though the two terms are often confused, "Meter is the arithmetical norm," and "rhythm is controlled departure from that norm" (133). (2)

G. S. Fraser writes that a "succession of lines of the same metrical pattern, a succession of iambic pentameters, for instance, is rather like the succession of waves breaking on the shore. Each has a similar pattern ... but none is absolutely identical with any other" (2). Two lines of iambic pentameter, then, are identical metrically, but may still differ rhythmically. Traditional foot-substitution approaches capture part of the flexibility and enormous rhythmic variations between the two lines of iambic pentameter (e.g., trochaic substitution, truncated foot, extrametrical syllable). (3) Variation is also elegantly captured by generative prosody, which aims to delineate the contours of the boundary between the metrical and nonmetrical. The number and location of in-line pauses (caesuras and other breaks), as features not captured by simple scansion, also contribute to rhythmic variation. In addition, the difference between the two iambic pentameter lines could reside in relative degrees of stress, since "iambic" typically means any foot in which the first syllable is somehow less stressed than the second. Using a more elaborate system of degrees of stress (like Trager and Smith's system that utilizes four such degrees) would expose other differences between the two iambic lines.

Thus, in much of the thinking that is represented by the foregoing, rhythm and meter are interdependent. Understanding meter as a case of rhythmic regularity, or rhythm as a controlled departure from a metrical base, offers a conveniently simplified way to discuss rhythm and to combat its daunting vagueness. …

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