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Meter in English: A Critical Engagement.

David Baker, ed. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1996. xxiii + 368 pp. $38.00 cloth; $20.00 paper.

Prosodists, like paleontologists, come in two varieties. There are the splitters, who conceive of a new metrical form for every unusual poem (or name a new species after every new bone). And there are the lumpers, who reduce every kind of meter to a single base that generates all the rest (or fit every new fossil into a previously described species).

Robert Wallace is a lumper. His final formulation in Meter in English is a good example. "Iambic and trochaic, anapestic and dactylic rhythms are mirror-image and . . . indistinguishable from one another as meter. Moreover, with substitution, any may ambiguously move toward or become one or more of the others. These rhythms, therefore, form a continuum - the single meter of English" (348-49).

Robert Hass calls Wallace's reorganization of thought about meter a "paradigm shift" (125). But a paradigm shift must involve a new way of seeing things, and Wallace's essay "Meter in English" does not. Instead, with great clarity and parsimony, Wallace argues that accentual-syllabic meter is a single system that is the only possible meter in modern English. Any other way of perceiving the organization of poetic lines - by quantities, syllable counts alone, or accent counts alone - may be interesting, but for Wallace, it is not meter. Furthermore, all meters can be scanned as iambic if you take enough trouble, making notions of anapestic, trochaic, dactylic, amphibrachic, or other meters unnecessary.

To create this book, David Baker included Wallace's essay "Meter in English" along with responses from fourteen writers - poets, critics, and poet-critics - and added a reply by Wallace. Some of the respondents, like Hass, largely agree with Wallace. Others object to some of Wallace's smaller points, like his insistence that spondees exist (Susanne Woods believes that any two syllables aligned will tend to vary in stress), or his insistence that pyrrhic feet do not exist (both Annie Finch and Rachel Hadas observe that pyrrhics - feet of two unstressed syllables - do occur, whatever we want to call them).

There are two large issues raised by Wallace's essay. The first is his argument that all English meter is accentual-syllabic, and that quantitative, purely syllabic, or purely accentual prosodies are not valid descriptions of English meter. English readers, Wallace argues, do not hear quantities or syllable counts, and so cannot perceive them in poetry. We can hear accents just fine, but any system of accentual verse, according to Wallace, resolves to accentual-syllabic with more or less substitution of unstressed syllables between the stresses.

There is no serious disagreement in the book about quantities; most critics feel that quantities cannot be used to construct English verse - though one can learn to hear them in scanning Latin verse, and can obviously hear them in lyrics set to music. Wallace's argument against syllabic meter seems odd because so many syllabic poems exist in English. Margaret Holley makes an especially strong argument (153-57) for the ability of readers to perceive syllable counts in poems by Marianne Moore and Dylan Thomas, especially when those poems are rhymed. Ultimately, however, Wallace's exclusion of syllabic meters rests on an all-but-tautological definition of meter. Syllabics are not metered because they are not accentual. They may be measured, in a form perceptible to both poet and reader, but they are not metered - because meter is, by definition, accentual-syllabic.

With regard to accentual poetry, some readers are no doubt asking: "But what about rap? What about nursery rhymes? What about Old English poetry?" Their questions are taken up by Finch, who observes that accentual meter dominates "rhymes and nursery songs" and many a "popular triple-meter rap tune" (69). Dana Gioia goes further, to suggest that Wallace's elimination of accentual prosodies is "hopelessly wrong" (80). "Anyone who doubts the existence of accentual meter," says Gioia, "should attend a rap concert. Or . . . they might try reading nursery rhymes aloud to a child" (81). Using examples from Mother Goose to W. H. Auden, Gioia demonstrates that accentual meters span the whole corpus of poetry in English, and are reducible to iambic scansion only by means of "some tortuously complicated theory of iambic substitutions" (81).

Iambs are the second major issue in the book. Wallace makes no prescriptive call for poets to write in iambics; rather, he suggests that all poets writing in meter are writing in iambics, whether intentionally or not. He would see trochaic, anapestic, and dactylic meters as just iambic meters with liberal substitutions of the other basic feet.

Wallace's assertion is challenging, because just as there are English poems in syllabics, there are many kinds of poems in these other kinds of accentual meter. Trochaic poetry? Hiawatha, "The Raven." Such poems are so common that John Frederick Nims wonders here, following George Saintsbury, whether the trochee, rather than the iamb, might be the basic English foot. Anapestic poetry? Several writers here cite Robert Browning's "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix," which even Wallace admits is "heavily anapestic." David J. Rothman points out that the Browning poem is so anapestic that it contains no two-syllable feet except occasionally at the beginning of a line. Rothman also notices that the "most popular American poem ever written, Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas,'" is in anapests (214). I would agree, except to wonder whether Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas is not now even more popular - and equally anapestic.

And though dactyls are rare as the main "metrical contract" of English poems, there are certainly dactylic poems in English, like Hardy's "The Voice":

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me. Saying that now you are not as you were When you had changed from the one who was all to me, But as at first, when our day was fair.

For a more extended example, as Timothy Steele points out (241), one can go to Longfellow's Evangeline.

Even in the name of simplification, one wonders why Robert Wallace would insist on reducing such a complicated field as English metrics to the grand unifying attractor of the iambic line. The examples that others raise, but he leaves out, are telling. On the one hand, admirably, Wallace wants to free English metrical thought from the last vestiges of Greek and Roman terminology, and introduce Saxon common sense. On the other hand, he does not want to extend the definition of poetry to include song, nursery rhyme, or popular verse. A comment from Wallace's reply to his respondents is significant:

We sometimes enjoy artificial rhythms for incantations and in poems about ghosties like "The Raven," or about General William Booth, jolly St. Nick, or galloping on horseback. But we may account for these easily as... mannerisms resulting from excessive rigidity of rhythm and performance together, since it occasionally happens even to iambics in fourth-grade recitations. (337-38)

That, it seems to me, is the heart of the matter: noniambic meters do exist, but they are silly, and more than silly, they are childish. Grown-ups write iambic verse.

Ultimately one can see Wallace's cleaning-up of English prosody as a cleaning-up of the canon of verse socially as well. To the question "What about rapT' he makes no answer, probably because he does not approve of rap as an object of academic study in the first place. As a leading cleric once wondered about Anglo-Saxon rappers: "Quid Hinieldum cum Christo?" What hath M. C. Hammer to do with Poesy?

Whatever the fate of Wallace's ideas in the creative-writing classroom or the conference session, I would strongly recommend this book to all teachers of the writing of poetry, and to anyone introducing ideas about form and structure in literature classes. Meter in English shows us some of the best poets at work in America today thinking about their craft, and shows readers of poetry how deeply poets care about the right word, the right rhythm. Exceptional learning and great delight in the rhythms of language fly off every page here. The presentation of that welter of aesthetic argument is excellent, as Baker provides an introduction, highly useful indexes of propositions and poets, and a strong bibliography.

Readers of Style who are interested in linguistics will note the negative tone taken in Meter in English toward much of the linguistic metrics of the 1970s and 80s. Morris Halle, Samuel Jay Keyser, and Paul Kiparsky are not celebrated by Wallace or by most of the respondents, who seem to see their inductive and generative analyses of English meter as pretty much foreign to the way poets write and read verse. More recent work, such as that of Marina Tarlinskaja ("Meter and Mode," Style 21 [1987]: 400-26) is, unfortunately I think, altogether ignored here. Such elisions and antagonisms are perhaps understandable, but it would be a good thing if the dialogue in Meter in English provoked further dialogues among linguists, critics, and poets about the nature of poetry.

Timothy Morris University of Texas at Arlington
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Author:Morris, Timothy
Publication:Style
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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