The Dance of the Syllables: some remarks on prosody

musesRecently, a friend shared a link to an interview with Australian poet Robert Adamson citing this remark on craft as a teaser:  “Poetry is song, every word in every line must work, each word transcribed like a note, each line connected to a breath.”

Whatever the merits of Adamson’s poetry, this observation on the art of poetry is just plain hokey. The identification of poetry with song is threadbare and, in a sense, disingenuous, unless he really is setting words to music. Likewise, that “every word in every line must work” (though clearly intended prescriptively) states little more than the principle of parsimony, an element of literary competence, the assumption that no element of a work of art is nonfunctional. When he goes on to equate words with notes in a song, he departs from the identification or metaphor he starts with (or, more charitably, develops it along his own lines for his own purposes) as songs notate, more or less, the syllables of their words. And to “connect” each line to a breath is belated at best, questionably phonocentric at worst. Sadly, such homespun poetics appear more the rule than the exception.

Instead of equating poetry with song one could as easily characterize the recitation of a poem as a dance, not of the whole laverbody but, at a minimum, the vocal apparatus. After all, reciting a poem demands the articulation of the phonemes that constitute its utterance by means of the complex but no less describable movement of the vocal organs and their parts. The written text of a poem imagined this way is not a musical score but a choreography. Of course, reciting a poem demands more than just speaking its words: posture (standing or sitting, for example), facial expression, and gesture, all bodily movements, are included, all aspects of the poem’s performance here conceived as dance.

The connection between poetry and dance is at least as time-honoured as that of poetry with song. The traditional manner of describing a poem’s prosody is scansion, the analysis of the line into its constituent feet and their stresses. The study of scansion is inherited from the days when education included the parsing of Greek and Latin verses both in terms of their grammar and their meter. The study of poetry in school finds an important precursor in the memorization of the Homeric epics in antique Athens, where schoolboys would learn the poems through a combination of stamping their feet and gesturing. This seated dance mimicked the more recognizable one of the tragic chorus whose dance steps were timed to its chanted lines, a performance descended from the ritualistic origins of classical drama. Those imitators of Greek culture, the Romans, not only adopted the pedagogical practices of their models, but also integrated it into their military training, wherein the legionnaires, wielding weapons and wearing armour twice the weight of the usual, drilled chanting and stepping in time, a performance in line with the diction of The Iliad that describes the fighting of its heroes as a war dance. This relation of scansion to archaic rite doubtless prompted Ezra Pound’s observation that “Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance… poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.”

However illuminating these reflections on the poetic foot may be, that scansion past and present pupils sweated through and rolled their eyes over was already outmoded in the 1920s when the Russian Formalists began to apply the powerfully precise methods of modern linguistic analysis to the meter and rhythm of poetry, rising to the challenges of establishing a “science” of literary study and of finding a way to appreciate and meaningfully discuss the radically novel Zaum poetry their friends the Futurist poets had just started composing. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with an introductory linguistics textbook or the application of linguistic methodology to the acoustics of poetry will likely wince at well-meaning but ponderously quaint pronouncements on the poetic art, such as that by Adamson.

But even “scientifically” precise descriptions of a poem’s sound can never escape the abstractness that lends them their power of articulation. What opened my ears to poetic meter was hearing Yeats recite “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Regardless of the merits of Yeats’ performance, one can’t help but discern the “tune” (as Yeats called it) that orchestrates his recitation. Metrical systems are only the faintly waling ghosts of the melody a poem is sung to. When one combines this understanding with Carlyle’s observation that “all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in it: not a parish in the world but has its parish-accent;—the rhythm or tune to which the people there sing what they have to say” then by a constant, arduous practice of “close listening” the music of poetry and even everyday speech fills the ear and refines and quickens the appreciation of poetry. As Pound admonishes in his Treatise on Metre:  “LISTEN to the sound it makes.”

(An application of the notions sketched here can be read in my appreciation of the sound of a short poem by Elaine Equi.)

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