Academic journal article Style

Rhythm, Temporality, and "Inner Form"

Academic journal article Style

Rhythm, Temporality, and "Inner Form"

Article excerpt


The problem of poetic form is an interesting and difficult one, especially if by "form," we mean, not a classification of poems by speech act, content, or versification (or some combination of these three), but poetic form proper, what Helen Vendler likes to call "inner form"--the flowing architecture created by a poem's internal structure and dynamic shape (Vendler 106, 113-19).

Poetic kinds based on speech acts, content, and versification (or some combination of these three) are indeed forms of a sort, and can indeed present problems as well, especially as they blend these three concerns; but these forms and their accompanying problems are associated more with the other literary genres--drama, prose fiction, and song--than with poetic expression per se, and therefore have tended to be more accessible and tractable. Speech acts are performative, like plays; content is representational or referential, like prose fiction; and versification is largely a matter of meter and rhyme, like song. Over the centuries, we have accumulated quite a bit of information about these dramatic, fictional, and song-like poetic forms, and this knowledge has become well known. We have many excellent, detailed treatments of such things as versification and sonnets, elegies and pastorals, poetic meditation and prayer. (1)


Form as Speech Act/Dramatic Performance
--meditation, conversation, debate, prayer, etc.
Form as Content/Fictional Representation
--nocturne, elegy, aubade, epithalamion, pastoral, etc.
"Outer Form"
--sonnet, ode, song, ballad, limerick, etc.
"Inner Form"

Our understanding of "inner" form in poetry has been much more scattered and uncertain, though, if we have understood it at all. In fact, we really haven't known enough about poetic structure to identify kinds of "inner" forms much at all, as we do when we classify poems by their speech acts, content, or versification. The best we have been able to do is to highlight some of the choices that are available in a poem's rhythm, language, rhetoric, and symbolism--and leave it there, assuming that a thorough analysis of a poem's "inner" form will consider as many of these formal choices as possible--come what may. (2)

The major difficulty with this, of course, is that these formal choices are both multitudinous and diverse, and without much else being known and said, as more and more of these choices are considered, the critical result becomes more and more diffuse and ad hoc, too. It is all well and good if a poem turns out to be, say, binary, alliterated, nominal, 3rd person, paratactic, appositional, declarative, anaphoric, metaphoric, and metrical, as many poems are, but so what? Even if we describe as carefully as possible the individual contribution of each of these formed choices to the overall effect of the poem, the critical result does not have the stabilizing and unifying effect of the recognition of a poetic "kind" like a sonnet or an elegy. Just the opposite. The better and more complete the analysis, the more disparate and destabilizing the result. In fact, given what we know about these matters at the moment, any close, attentive reading of an accomplished poem's "inner form" will be so disparate and diffuse that most critics avoid such exhaustive formalistic reading entirely and pursue other critical tasks. (3) What does metaphor have to do with nouns, or alliteration with apposition, meter with the 3rd person, or parataxis with binary form? To this point, we have just not known enough about the constructional "logic" of the "inner form" of poetry to say.

This "state of the art," I presume, is not lost on anyone who has to teach a course entitled "Introduction to Poetry," as I did, two or three times a year, for thirty years, and would like to find some material to help them with this task. At the same time that our most popular poetic pedagogies are often very thorough in their survey of the elements of "inner form"--sound, syntax, rhythm, imagery, tropes, schemes, and so forth--often providing full, detailed chapters on each of these topics, to the last, these verse pedagogies have next to nothing to say about how their chapters interrelate and therefore how the blither of formal patterns that they urge students to note can ever coalesce into either effective poems or recurrent poetic "kinds. …

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