Beneath Our Feet
I recently took a trip to visit some friends in Portland. My hosts were most gracious and I had lots of time to write poetry and read some books I had been meaning to get to for a long time. One of these books was Robert Pinsky’s ‘The Sounds of Poetry’. I really enjoyed Pinsky’s brief guide to aspects of English prosody. It is written in a breezy, highly accessible style; in addition the author uses the first person so you feel like you are being taught by knowledgeable Uncle who feels passionately about the topic of prosody. At times Pinsky is opinionated. And at other times he can be dismissive. But on the whole I found the book thoroughly enjoyable.
I was particularly struck by a section in Chapter 3, ‘Technical Terms and Vocal Realities’ where Pinsky discusses the role and function of iambic interpretation of English ‘vocal realities’. Such interpretation of English has been central to English formal verse for many centuries and remains so to this day for many English language poets.
What I found revealing, and applicable to a syllabic approach, was Pinsky’s discussion of alternative ways of parsing English speech. Pinsky uses Robert Frost’s poem ‘To Earthward’ as an example. Pinsky focuses on the line ‘Love at the lips was touch’ and parses the line in a standard way, as iambic trimeter, with the first grouping, ‘love at’, possibly a trochee (which I found a little odd; it seems to me ‘love at’ instantiates an iamb fairly easily). Here is what Pinsky writes about different ways of parsing this line:
“What reason is there not to divide each line differently, for instance by describing the first line,
‘Love at the lips was touch,’
“as two feet: one thunketta (‘Love at the’) followed by a thunk-pa-thunk (‘lips was touch’)? Though I have invented somewhat silly-sounding terms, they make sense: they describe something all can hear.
“But still other descriptive terms for the same line – the same vocal reality – would also make sense. For instance, I could also describe the line
‘Love at the lips was touch’
“as an initial monosyllable (“Love”) followed by an anapest (“at the lips”) and an iamb (“was touch”).”
Pinsky offers a few other possible parsings of the line and then concludes:
“What is wrong with these terms? Nothing – in the sense that, though arbitrary, they do register something that is there in the sound of the words. Each set of terms does give a roughly accurate description of what one hears.”
(Robert Pinsky, ‘The Sounds of Poetry’, pages 54 and 55)
Pinsky goes on to reject these alternatives on the basis that such an approach fails to distinguish between ‘rhythm and meter’. Pinsky’s view is that the iambic meter is central, and that the other types are a rhythmic reading that overlays the underlying iambic pulse.
The syllabic approach to English poetry has a different understanding. Let me illustrate by making an analogy to music. Let’s start with twelve even pulses:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 – 11 – 12
How will these twelve evenly spaced pulses be felt? One way is to have three measures of 4-4 time:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 : 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 : 1 – 2 – 3 – 4
This will produce the kind of rhythm that is used in countless songs and compositions.
Another way of handling the twelve pulses is four measures of 3-4 time:
1 – 2 – 3 : 1 – 2 – 3 : 1 – 2 – 3 : 1 – 2 – 3
This is a common dance rhythm, the basis for the minuet and waltz.
One could have six groups of two pulses each:
1 – 2 : 1 – 2 : 1 – 2 : 1 – 2 : 1 – 2 : 1 – 2
Which is often heard in marches.
One could have two groups of six:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 : 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
This is an alluring rhythm found in many compositions.
And one could divide the twelve pulses into one group of five followed by a group of seven:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 : 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7
Composers like Bartok and Brubeck might do something like this. It is also one of the basic structures for Japanese poetry.
Each of these arrangements articulates the twelve pulses differently. Underneath all of these arrangements lies the bedrock of the twelve pulses and their steady march forward.
What I want to suggest is that the flow of syllables resembles the flow of pulses in music. And the metrical arrangement of syllables into iambs, trochees, anapests, etc., is a way of arranging the syllables, just as different meters in music are different ways of arranging and combining the steady flow of the musical pulse.
From a syllabic perspective the English language isn’t primarily iambic or primarily anapestic. Just as music allows for different meters so also the steady flow of syllables allows for different arrangements of metrical validity. The reason Pinsky was able to uncover numerous ways of parsing the rhythm of ‘Love at the lips was touch’ is the same reason that the steady pulse, or beat, of music can be arranged in different meters. An iambic interpretation of the line is legitimate (and knowing Frost was likely the poet’s intention). But other rhythmic arrangements are also legitimate and equally valid.
Pinsky’s view, and it has a lot of support from centuries of metrical verse, is that a particular meter underlies the English language; that particular meter is the iamb. From a syllabic perspective it is not a particular meter that underlies the English language, rather it is the flow of syllables. In other words, beneath the metrical feet of English language poetry one finds syllables. And syllables are congenial, are willing, to be shaped into various metrical arrangements; just as the pulse, or beat, of music is congenial, willing, to be shaped into various meters, or groupings. Both the flow of syllables and the pulse of music are fluid as to the possibilities of grouping them into metrical units.
I enjoy visiting coffee houses and listening to people talk. Similarly, I enjoy hearing people talk on the street, at the store where I work, and in other ordinary situations. What I hear is a flow of sound that has a basic, but fluid, pulse. This fluid pulse ebbs and flows, becomes slower or faster, but always seems to be there, even as the conversation moves from one person to the other. I think it is this pulse that allows us to distinguish particular words in an ordinary conversation. It is generally not appreciated that there are no spaces between words in ordinary speech; rather there is a continuous flow of sound, interrupted by breaths, emotional stressing, thought searching, and other considerations. It is the underlying fluid pulse which allows us to parse the flow of sound into units of words and it is the syllable which is the carrier of the pulse.
It is for these, and other, reasons that I tend to think of syllabics as more fundamental, more primal, than meter. I realize that this runs counter to centuries of English language prosody; a point I take seriously. Yet, I don’t think a syllabic view of English language poetry is in conflict with a metrical view. To continue with the musical analogy, arranging the twelve pulses into particular groupings doesn’t conflict with music in 4-4 time, or in 3-4 time. Similarly, regarding the syllable as the basic unit of English language poetry allows for iambic constructions, but it also allows for other kinds of metrical constructions as equally valid and equally a part of the English language; a point that, I believe, Pinsky illustrates rather well. But it would be wrong to insist that 4-4 time is the primal reality of the musical pulse, thinking of 3-4 time as somehow a substitution. And, I think the same can be said for poetic meters; namely, that an iambic pulse does not exclude the possibility of other arrangements of the flow of English syllables. Looking beneath our feet at the syllabic stream of the English language and one finds a wide range of metrical possibilities. Some, such as odd-numbered lines, have only recently been used systematically. Others, I suspect, remain to be discovered.