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Rhythm, temporality, and "inner form".


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." Glaringly, our most popular poetic pedagogies heavily background, or even omit entirely, full poetic analysis, their major pedagogical point. (4)

It is just a fact: the logic of a poem's "inner form" has escaped us, so much so and for so long now that many, perhaps most, think that any understanding of poetic form is just impossible, an unrealizable dream. To cite an example, consider this despairing comment near the opening of a 1992 book, A Poetics, by Charles Bernstein, one of our most original, insightful, and subtle commentators on poetic form:

Consideration of the formal dynamics of a poem does not necessarily disregard its content; indeed it is an obvious starting point insofar as it can initiate a multilevel reading. But to complete the process such formal apprehensions need to move to a synthesis beyond technical cataloguing, toward the experiential phenomenon that is made by virtue of the work's techniques. Such a synthesis is almost impossible apart from the tautological repetition of the poem, since all the formal dynamics cannot begin to be charted. (Bernstein 10-11)


Unfortunately, the problem of poetic form is quite a bit larger and more difficult than even this charting of formal effects that Bernstein finds "nearly impossible." One of the great delights of poetry, certainly, is that it triangulates forms of language with both psychological forms, that is, forms of sensibility and mind, and reference to forms out in the world: that is, physical forms, biological forms, social forms, cultural forms, and so forth. Poetic symbolism uses references to forms in the world to express forms of sensibility and mind in and through rhythmic, linguistic, and rhetorical forms.

As a result, the problem of poetic form is not an isolated one; it is a part of the much larger problem of form more generally, both subjective and objective. That is, any frill treatment of poetic form cannot be just a treatment of linguistic form; it must be a philosophy/metaphysics of the interrelated forms of mind and world more generally, language included. It must be big-think of the biggest sort, a "theory of everything," as far as form is concerned, in the tradition of the great analogical systemizers in the history of thought: the Pythagorians, Aristotle, the Medieval alchemists, Vico, Blake, Hegel, Spengler, Bergson, Cassirer, Foucault, or more recently, the "integral" philosophy of Ken Wilber (I have not even mentioned recent work in chaos theory, systems theory, spiral dynamics, natural classicism, and other, more scientifically oriented approaches to artful manifestations of order and form in nature and culture, but now fly in the face of a fully skeptical scientific culture that is aggressively intolerant of such systematic, analogical-based claims about the genesis and evolution of form). (5)

For two decades now, I have been arguing that a promising way to revive and update such analogical/poetic thinking about form is through rhythm. (6) Until recently, rhythm has been only weakly theorized, especially in poetics; but when this deficiency is overcome, as it now is in things like contemporary music theory, rhythm provides a wonderfully productive way to view what poets are doing in their analogical triangulation of forms in language, world, and mind.

At base, poetry is concerned with qualities. It builds analogies between phenomena that are qualitatively related when viewed from a formal perspective. The qualities that poetry uses to triangulate language, world, and mind, I claim, are rhythmic, temporal. As Amittai Aviram likes to say, poetry "tells time," and uses a peculiar sort of temporal logic or "telling rhythm" to do so.


In trying to understand the nature of the "temporal logic" that underpins form, both poetic and otherwise, the first task is to understand the nature of rhythm; and given the tradition of rhythmic analysis in poetics, this is a big task in itself. Perhaps because of the ancient roots of this analytical tradition, poetic rhythm has been radically underspecified and even so, misconstrued, so much so that there is no way to get from traditional rhythmic descriptions of poetry to any sort of adequate understanding of rhythm and therefore any clear view of the interrelated qualities of rhythmic forms. (7) To get where we need to go to develop a temporal poetics, we have to revise our normal modes of rhythmic description. I struggled with this problem for almost a decade early on in my career and published the results in my 1992 Longman book Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse. I can't review the contents of that whole book here, but perhaps I can hint at what it suggests, for those who are unfamiliar with it.

For the most part and with few significant exceptions, rhythmic description and interpretation in poetry have been limited to what music theorists call meter/beating; and in an enormously confused way that both under-specifies this beating and conflates it with both versification (i.e., artificial constraints on the composition of poetic language) and linguistic prosody (i.e., the level of linguistic organization usually involved in these artificial compositional constraints). As a rhythmic response, metrical beating is continuous, gestural, hierarchical, and strong-initial; but this tradition in poetics has viewed it as divided, vocal, rising, and flat. (8)

For instance, in traditional "foot-substitution" scansion, a line of iambic pentameter such as The plowman homeward plods his weary way is claimed to be composed of five binary, rising feet, of equal rhythmic status at one level of structure, even though both the metrical beating and the rhythmic phrasing have many levels, are not divided at the claimed foot boundaries, and largely fall or lilt at these levels rather than rise.

One Dimensional Scansion (Foot-Substitution)
v   /       v   /      v     /      v    /    v  /
The plow | man home | ward plods | his wea | ry way

Worse yet, this analytical tradition in poetics has argued that metrical beating is just a kind of regular, normative model of the rhythmic phrasing, when in many ways, the two forms are radically distinct. By and large, the rhythmic phrasing is grouped and rises, while the metrical beating is ungrouped and falls. Therefore, the rhythmic energies of these two distinct components of rhythm, meter and grouping, are not at all aligned, but normatively polarized/opposed, like body and soul. Within the phrased measure, meter is "projected" from a strong initial beat and then winds down, while phrasing starts weakly and builds to a climax/cadence. Metrical projection and phrasal cadence then stand at the end points of the phrased measure, like a baseball pitcher and catcher, while the rest of the line, like the baseball itself, rides inbetween. (9)

By and large, this ride from metrical projection to phrasal cadence is a linear motion, which is carried by a third component of rhythm, what music theorists call prolongation. In language, prolongation is largely controlled by the syntax, the linear level in linguistic form. Rhythmic prolongation is a matter of connected, goal-oriented motion, as it is articulated on many levels: formal anticipation, arrival, and extension within regions of explicitly connected, structural flow. (10) For instance, in the syntax of The plowman homeward plods his weary way, the syntactic subject The plowman anticipates the syntactic predicate plods his weary way, while the more freely positioned and connected adverbial homeward is felt as a linear extension of the subject before the predicate arrives. Within the predicate, there are further prolongational anticipations at subordinate levels. The verb plods anticipates the direct object his weary way, and within the noun phrase his weary way, the determiner (his) and premodifer (weary) anticipate the head noun (way). As a result, as in many rhythmic structures in both poetry and music, the linear/prolongational movement of this line is chiastic, within an overall anticipatory motion. It is anticipational in its global motion, but at more local levels, it first extends tensely and then anticipates at several levels before achieving the structural arrival that resolves the linear energies as a whole.

When put together, this falling motion from meter, rising motion from grouping, and chiastic motion from prolongation form what theorists of Western tonal music call CANONICAL RHYTHMIC FORM.

A dot matrix can be used to indicate metrical beating, "s" and "w" can be used to mark strong (s) and weak (w) grouping peaks and valleys; and "a," "r," and "e" can be used to mark prolongational anticipations (a), arrivals (r), and extensions (e), respectively. With this simple formalism, a more illuminating representation of the multidimensional/multicomponential rhythm of The plowman homeward plods his weary way is this:
Multidimensional Scansion
(Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse)

/                                                  w-a             s-r
_____________________  _______________
/                    \/               \     phrasing

       S        w-e    w-a      s-r
___________  _________  ___  _________
/          \/         \/   \/                                       w-a   s-r
___________  _________  ___  ______  __
/          \/         \/   \/      \/    W  S  W    S   W           W  S  W
  V  /  V    /   V      /    \  /  V  /     prosody
The plowman homeward plods his weary way
      .                .
      .      .         .        .     .     meter
  .   .   .  .   .     .    .   .   . .

Much else needs to be said about these three components of rhythm--meter, grouping, and prolongation--but it is sufficient here to note how different they are, even in this scansion of just one line. Meter is gestural; grouping is vocal; prolongation is syntactic. Meter is initializing, falling, and retrospective; grouping is centering, climactic, and rising-and-falling; and prolongation is prospective, finalizing, and falling-and-rising. Meter is simple, regularly alternating, and symmetrical; grouping is more complex, flexible, and proportional; and prolongation is even more volatile, subtlety articulated, and asymmetrical. Because of these conflicting qualities, these three rhythmic components, as they are woven into a poetic rhythm, almost never flow in the same direction, almost never have their most salient events in the same textual location, and almost never divide the text into similar parts or regions. Rather, almost necessarily, these rhythmic components are aggressively bent against one another, as counter-currents, albeit in tightly controlled, articulate ways.


While meter, grouping, and prolongation connect events or textual regions that are juxtaposed in a rhythmic experience, we also have the ability to cognize rhythms that are more discontinuous. Music theorists call this fourth component of rhythm theme. In thematic rhythms, events are connected into loose networks composed of strands of discontinuous events related by some principle of cognitive significance--similarity, difference, part-whole, cause-and-effect, physical or structural positioning, transformation, permutation, and so forth. These thematically related events form rhythmic motifs whose elements foreground related, but variant, differences. These theme-and-variation gestures are structurally free and complex; therefore, in most cases, it is these gestures that give a rhythmic experience its personality, its air of improvisational uniqueness.

In poetry, thematic rhythms can be set up by many different sorts of structures--sound, intonation, syntax, etc., but the major linguistic source of thematic rhythm is meaning, especially lexical meaning. For instance, in this well-known passage from William Carlos Williams' Paterson, we feel the improvisational differences in the thematic relations among the various references to mind, world/space, and line/time.
   Without invention nothing is well spaced,
   unless the mind change, unless
   the stars are new measured, according
   to their relative positions, the
   line will not change, the necessity
   will not matriculate: unless there is
   a new mind there cannot be a new
   line, the old will go on
   repeating itself with recurring
   deadliness: without invention
   nothing lies under the witch-hazel
   bush, the alder does not grow from among
   the hummocks margining the all
   but spent channel of the old swale,
   the small foot-prints
   of the mice under the overhanging
   tufts of the bunch-grass will not
   appear: without invention the line
   will never again take on its ancient
   divisions when the word, a supple word,
   lived in it, crumbled now to chalk.

--William Carlos Williams, Paterson, Bk II, Pt I (11)

Many of these references to mind, world, and line are realized by formally parallel nouns.

Thematic Nouns

The Mind

invention, mind, mind, mind, invention, invention

The World/Space

nothing, stars, positions, nothing, witch-hazel, bush, alder, hummocks, channel, swale, foot-prints, mice, tufts, bunch-grass

The Line/Time

line, line, deadliness, line, divisions, word, word, chalk

There are many other significant thematic motifs in the text, too: the motif involving the negative conditionals, which varies between the function words without and unless: the motif involving renewal, which involves largely adjectives and adverbs; the motif involving measure and change, which largely involves verbs and participles; the many negatives in the text; the motif involving modals and other auxiliary verbs; and the motif involving tense and time reference.

Other Syntactic Themes

negative conditionals

without, unless, unless, unless, without, without

adjectives and adverbs of exhaustion and renewal

well, new, new, new, old, spent, old, ancient, supple, crumbled, now

verbs and participles of repetition and change

spaced, measured, change, matriculate, repeating, recurring, lies, grow, appear, lived


nothing, not, not, not, nothing, not, not, never

modals and other auxiliary verbs

is, are, will, is, be, will, does, will, will


relative: spaced, change, be, recurring, margining, spent, overhanging, crumbled future: will ... change, will ... go on repeating, will ... appear, will ... take on present: is, are ... measured, is, lies, does ... grow past: lived

Both within and among these groups, many semantically related words are presented in parallel syntactic structures, too, further heightening their thematic relatedness.
Theme-and-Variation Syntax

without            invention
                   nothing      is
              well                     spaced
unless    the      mind                change
unless    the      stars        are
              new                      measured
unless there is a  new    mind there can   not
                a  new    line
without                   invention
                          nothing                 lies
                the       alder      does not     grow
                the small footprints will not     appear
without                   invention
                the       line       will never
                                                  take on
                its ancient division
                a              word
                a   supple     word

The general logic of these thematic rhythms is also strongly supported by the physical presentation of the text--its visual form. This visual form cuts across the continuities and partitionings established by the other three components of rhythm--meter, grouping, and prolongation--repeatedly interfering with their intentions and, in the process, creating a series of textual fragments that, if anything, are also thematic in texture. The language contained within these visual lines takes on a static arrangedness that is similar to atonal music.

For instance, in my experience, the first 10 visual lines in this text form a fairly regular sestet of primarily four-beat lines, with the most salient level of beating, what musicians call the metrical tactus, sweeping along at a prosodic level somewhere above lexical stressing. The firm syntactic parallelism and inherent constraints on metrical structure stabilize this high-level beating, providing relatively clear points of metrical onset (i.e., strong, hypertactical beats) at various hierarchical levels. In the display of metrical lines, I mark my experience of tactical beats in bold letters. (12)

Visual vs. Metrical lines (First Half of the Text)
Visual Lines

   Without invention nothing is well spaced,
   unless the mind change, unless
   the stars are new measured, according
   to their relative positions, the
   line will not change, the necessity
   will not matriculate: unless there is
   a new mind there cannot be a new
   line, the old will go on
   repeating itself with recurring

Metrical Lines

   Without invention nothing is well spaced,
   unless the mind change, unless the stars are new measured,
   according to their relative positions, [beat]
   the line will not change, the necessity will not matriculate:
   unless there is a new mind there cannot be a new line,
   the old will go on repeating itself with recurring deadliness:

The second half of this text can be gestured in eight similar metrical lines, a response that would make the text as a whole 14 metrical lines, or exactly sonnet length, an effect that Williams might indeed have intended, however subliminally. If we take the second without invention as a metrical coda on the sixth metrical line and a phrasal up-beat to the second half of the poem, the second half of the text might be metrically gestured as follows.

Visual Lines vs. Metrical Lines (Second Half of the Text)
Visual Lines

   without invention
   nothing lies under the witch-hazel
   bush, the alder does not grow from among
   the hummocks margining the all
   but spent channel of the old swale,
   the small foot-prints
   of the mice under the overhanging
   tufts of the bunch-grass will not
   appear: without invention the line
   will never again take on its ancient
   divisions when the word, a supple word,
   lived in it, crumbled now to chalk.

Metrical Lines

   nothing lies under the witch-hazel bush,
   the alder does not grow from among the hummocks margining
   the all but spent channel of the old swale,
   the small foot-prints of the mice under the overhanging
   tufts of the bunch-grass will not appear: without invention
   the line will never again take on its ancient divisions
   when the word, a supple word, lived in it, [beat]
   crumbled now to chalk, [beat]

Instead of emphasizing lineal beginnings, middles, and ends, visual lines in this text often foreground their peripheries, and in these peripheries, we often find just those items that are major elements in the thematic rhythms we have just outlined. For example, the second visual line is bracketed by unless, one of the function words involved in the negative conditionals:

unless the mind change, unless

The sixth line is bracketed by verbal auxiliaries (will and is), which play a significant role is the thematic elaboration of tense.

will not matriculate: unless there is

The ninth line is bracketed by repeating and recurring, synonyms that play a significant role in the theme of renewal and change.

repeating itself with recurring

The tenth line is flanked by deadliness and invention, thematic antonyms.

deadliness: without invention

Line, the thematic center of the text, appears in line peripheries three times--in lines 5, 8, and 18:
   line will not change, the necessity
   line, the old will go on
   appear: without invention the line

And so forth. Being the text's versification, this visual thematicizing pervades the text and strongly suggests that theme is the dominant rhythmic component in the poem as a whole.


When these qualities of thematic rhythms are added to the qualities of the other three components of rhythm--meter, grouping, and prolongation--it becomes evident that these qualities are not just loosely related. Rather, they produce a tightly organized paradigm of developmental processes that move smoothly and in concert from subjectivity to objectivity, fixity to freedom, similarity to difference, falling to rising, local to global, and so forth, producing a kind of neo-Hegelian logic based in the qualities of rhythmic forms.

Other analyses are certainly possible, but at the moment, I like to represent these features in n dimensions. I call this featural matrix "The Temporal Paradigm."
The Temporal Paradigm


TEMPORAL     Meter          Grouping        Prolongation  Theme
FEATURES     cyclical       centroidal      linear        relative

equative     similarity     difference-     similarity-   difference
relation                    in-similarity   in-

sequential   occurrence     correspondence  transition    connection
relation     repetition     prominence      direction     distinction
             succession     proportion      implication   simultaneity

subject-     participation  obligation      cooperation   freedom

subject-     subjective     objective-in    subjective-   objective
event                       subjective      in objective

semiotic     icon           emblem          index         symbol

experiential reaction       affection       exploration   creation
process      passive        reciprocal      active        improvisatory

clock time   past           present         future        relative

scope        proximate      local           regional      global

position     initial        medial          final         peripheral

contour      fall           rise-fall       fall-rise     rise

The basic claim of this paradigm is that these rhythmic components represent different temporal logics, or temporalities, what I call cyclical, centroidal, linear, and relative time. (13) As the temporal paradigm details, each of the rhythmic components is associated with different qualitative events, different relations between events, different relations between the perceiver and the events perceived, different interpersonal relations, different modes of signification, different types of cognitive processing, different temporal orientations, different structural scopes, different degrees of structural freedom, different positional foci, and so forth.

The number and significance of these features and the entailment relations that they present, both within each rhythmic component and across the four components as a whole, suggest a highly explicit and constrained theory of temporal form, one in which the choice of a certain sort of temporal investment also entails a wide-ranging collection of other investments as well. For instance, according to the temporal paradigm, normatively, an investment in similarity also entails an investment in the proximate, the past, the passive, the fixed, the falling, the initial, and so forth.

These four rhythmic components are ordered, both in their developmental history and their structural complexity. Meter develops first and is the simplest form; theme develops last and is the most complex form. Grouping and prolongation mediate between meter and theme, with grouping closer to meter and prolongation closer to theme. Given this graded complexity and developmental sequence, I like to number the rhythmic components and their associated temporalities and refer to them as "levels." Meter and cyclical time is level 1; grouping and centroidal time is level 2; prolongation and linear time is level 3; and theme and relative time is level 4.
The Four Components of Rhythm and their Temporalities

Level 4    Theme and Relative Time
Level 3    Prolongation and Linear Time
Level 2    Grouping and Centroidal Time
Level 1    Meter and Cyclical Time


The hypothesis I have been pursuing is that form is paradigmatic in organization, with the qualities of the four rhythmic components being the agents of this structuring. That is, there seems to be evidence that the form of many things in language, mind, and the world is also quadratic in form and that this quadratic divisioning follows the qualities of the four rhythmic components. That is, using the temporal paradigm, I claim that the qualities of these four rhythmic components are "told out" into language, mind, and world so that language, mind, and world take on a shared rhythmic shape and development. The function and major effect of poetry, I claim, is to tell us about this common temporal shaping. When they are considered as a whole, I like to call these quadratic temporal "tellings" "the poetic paradigm."

For instance, within literary studies, this claim connects elegantly with Northrop Frye and Hayden White's quadratic theory of the maj or types of literary production, the major literary genres, the major modes of literary emplotment, the four master tropes, and the major systems of literary imagery. Through the work of Stephen Pepper, White connects these literary quadratures with the four basic metaphysical orientations. And this claim dovetails elegantly with Barbara Hermstein Smith's quadratic array of discourse structures in poetry. (14)
The Poetic Paradigm: Literature

           Level 1     Level 2       Level 3         Level 4

           cyclical    centroidal    linear          relative

           meter       grouping      prolongation    theme

work       song        poem          fiction         play

genre      epic        lyric         narrative       dramatic

plot       romance     comedy        tragedy         satire

trope      metaphor    synecdoche    metonymy        irony

imagery    spring      summer        fall            winter

           morning     noon          evening         night

           birth       growth        maturity        death

           child       youth         adult           elder

           mineral     vegetable     animal          human

           earth       water         air             fire

           rain        fountain/     river           ocean/sea

           heaven      Eden          purgatory/      hell

           etc.        etc.          etc.            etc.

The Poetic Paradigm: Metaphysical Systems

1             2           3            4
formism       organism    mechanism    contextualism

The Poetic Paradigm: Discourse Structures

1             2           3            4
paratactic    logical     temporal     dialectical

While the phenomena considered by Frye, White, Smith, and Pepper deal more with the articulation and organization of meaning, the positional preferences of the four rhythmic components also provide a strong basis for motivating the inventories and uses of the major rhetorical schemes. For instance, among sound schemes, alliteration repeats syllabic onsets and therefore is a reflex of meter; assonance, rhyme, and reverse rhyme repeat syllabic nuclei and therefore are reflexes of grouping; consonance repeats syllabic codas and therefore is a reflex of prolongation; and pararhyme repeats syllabic peripheries and therefore is a reflex of theme. These positional preferences also suggest a coherent organization of both syntactic reorderings--preposing vs. centering vs. postposing vs. peripheralizing--and schemes of lexical repetition--anaphora (i.e., initial repetition) vs. antistrophe (chiastic/centering repetition) vs. epistrophe (final repetition) vs. symploce (initial and final repetition together) and epanalepsis (repetition at peripheries).
The Poetic Paradigm: Rhetorical Schemes

            1              2               3            4

schemes     alliteration   rhyme           consonance   pararhyme
                           reverse rhyme

schemes     preposing      centering       postposing   peripheralizing

schemes     anaphora       antistrophe     epistrophe   epanalepsis

This approach to form becomes even more productive as the formal system considered becomes more complex and therefore more elaborately fractal. For instance, much of linguistic form itself also seems to be organized into quadratic paradigms that "tell" us about the qualities of the four rhythmic components, recovering, now with an explicit theory, Roman Jakobson's famous claim that poetry tells us what language is rather than what it does.

First, the organizational logics in these rhythmic components closely parallel the organizational logics in the four major levels of linguistic structure--paralanguage/phonetics/phonology, prosody, syntax, and semantics.
The Poetic Paradigm: Levels of Linguistic Structure

            1              2          3         4

Language    Paralanguage   Prosody    Syntax    Semantics

Second, according to our standard descriptive grammars, much of the formal elaboration within these four levels of linguistic structure is also quadratic. For instance, within prosody, it has been suggested that there are exactly four levels of stress (weak, tertiary, secondary, and primary) and four levels of prosodic phrasing in the prosodic hierarchy (syllable, clitic phrase, phonological phrase, and intonational unit). This quadratic framework might also provide an elegant motivation for the four basic tonal movements (fall, rise-fall, fall-rise, and rise). And within syntax, one finds a vast system of quadratic elaborations that parallel the rhythmic components: the basic levels of structure: word, phrase, clause, and sentence; the basic morphological processes: compounding, derivation, inflection, and conversion; the basic sentence types: declarative, exclamative, imperative, and interrogative; the major word categories: noun, adjective, verb, and adverb; the basic verbal specifications: voice, aspect, modality, and tense; the basic nominal specifications: number, gender, case, and person; the basic tenses: past, present, future, and relative; the basic aspects: perfective, imperfective, progressive, and perfect; the basic persons: 3rd, 1st, 2nd, and generic; the basic voices: passive, middle/reflexive, active, and causative; the basic types of nominal reference: generic, specific, definite, and proper; the basic clause elements: subject, verb, object, and adverbial; the basic clausal constituents: subject-predicate, auxiliary-predication, verb-complement, and complement-adverbial; the major types of adverbials: adjuncts, subjuncts, conjuncts, and disjuncts; and so forth. (15)
The Poetic Paradigm: Linguistic Form

                     1              2                3

temporality       cyclical      centroidal        linear

prosodic           stress        prosodic       theme-rheme
level                           hierarchy

stress              weak         tertiary        secondary
prosodic          syllable        clitic       phonological

tonicity                                          phrase
intonation          fall        rise-fall        fall-rise

level               word          phrase          clause

sentence        declarative    exclamative      imperative

mood             indicative    subjunctive      imperative
elaboration      apposition    conjunction      correlation

basic clause
pattern         intransitive     copular        transitive
                     SV            SVC           SVO/SVOC/

constituency      subject-      auxiliary-         verb-
                 predicate     predication        object
clause            subject          verb           object

adverbial         adjunct        subjunct        conjunct

phrase type         noun        adj ective         verb
                   phrase         phrase          phrase

elaboration      apposition    modification   complementation

noun phrase
specification    quantifier      ordinal          central
                  cardinal                      determiner

verb phrase
specification      voice          aspect         modality

voice             passive         middle          active

aspect           perfective    imperfective     progressive
tense               past         present/         future

modality         necessity      obligation      probability

word class          noun        adjective          verb

reference         generic        specific        definite
person              3rd            1st              2nd

derivation      compounding     derivation      inflection


temporality       relative

prosodic         intonation
level             tonality

stress             primary
prosodic            tone

tonicity            unit
intonation          rise

level             sentence

sentence        interrogative

mood              dubitive
elaboration        comment

basic clause
pattern           adverbial

constituency      adverbial

clause            adverbial

adverbial         disjunct

phrase type        adverb

elaboration     specification

noun phrase
specification   pre-determiner

verb phrase
specification       tense

voice             causative

aspect             perfect
tense            non-finite

modality         possibility

word class         adverb

reference          proper
person             generic

derivation       conversion

While a complete analysis of language from this rhythmic perspective is a very large project, and perhaps still remains to be done in full, even slight, incomplete progress on this task yields very interesting results for our understanding of poetry. For instance, if this analysis of language is correlated with its literary and rhetorical parallels, it yields strong, reasonable stylistic profiles of the poetic genres. For example, in this analysis, the canonical lyric poem, which compared to the other literary genres is a reflex of centroidal time, is stylistically organic, comedic, logical, synecdochic, rhymed, stanzaic, chiastic, copular, conjunctional, phrasal, adjectival, copular, modifying, present tense, ist person, imperfective, subjunctive, exclamative, gendered, aspectual, reciprocal, and derivational, with a rise-fall intonation, a prosodic focus on tertiary stress and the clitic phrase, and an imagery that tends to focus on youth, Eden, growth, summer, noon, water, plants, and so forth--a very reasonable characterization. Many of our canonical lyric poems have just this stylistic center.

In less canonical cases, this theory of poetic style as "rhythmic telling" can be especially useful in exploring how poets use linguistic and rhetorical form to mix, amplify, and position the conflicting rhythms that characterize their sensibility, both across their poetic corpus as a whole and in individual poems. For instance, in the "Without Invention" passage, the strong lyrical rhythms of the text are amplified by its logical argument (the negative conditionals: unless/without X, Y), by its lyrical imagery (vegetation, water, etc.), by its largely hyponymic organization of lexical meaning (nothing vs. the witchhazel bush, the alders, the swale, the mice, etc.; and within these, the tufts vs. the bunch-grass, the channel vs. the swale, etc.) by its tight syntactic parallels, by its moderate use of the present tense (is, lies, etc.) and copular clauses (unless there is.., there cannot be ..., etc.), by its strong thematic motif with adjectives (new vs. old/ancient/spent/recurring), by its moderate use of aspect (recurring, repeating) and reciprocals (repeating itself), by its moderate use of derivational morphology (invention, deadliness, divisions, etc.), and its relatively strong use of assonance (line-mind-lies-mice; nothing-among-bunch-under-hummocks-tufts-crumbled; invention-unless-measured-relative-necessity-spent-never; etc.).

However, this lyricism is strongly muted by the text's avoidance of chiastic structures, the first person, rhyme, logical generalization, a more syllabically controlled meter, rise-fall intonation, exclamatives, elaborated phrases (e.g., relative clauses), gender, subjuncts, comparisons and comparatives, indefinite reference, and a thematics that centers on personal relationships: worship, praise, blame, etc.

The more linear, prolongational rhythms in the text are supported by its thematic focus on achievement vs. failure and life vs. death, by its strong use of clauses, by its prominent verbs (space, change, be, measure, lie, grow, appear, take, live, etc.), by its moderate use of the progressive aspect (recurring, repeating, etc.), by its strong use of modality (will, can) and inflectional morphology, by its many references to future time, by the implicational relations in the correlative structures that present the negative conditionals, by its rich use of fall-rise intonation and tactical beating near the level of the phonological phrase, and by its relatively strong use of consonance (e.g., will-alder-all-channel-old--swale-small-crumbled; invention-unless-mind-change-line-cannot-among-hummocksspent-bunch-again-ancient-when-crumbled).

However, these linear '"tellings'" are strongly muted by its discontinuous, nonlinear visual form and by its avoidance of a narrative storyline, the 2nd person, the active voice, definite reference, pronouns, and conjunctive adverbials, and transitivity and other sorts of complementation (besides the prepositional).

The great agents of the text's stylistic undermining of these lyric and narrative rhythms are its intense orientation, first, toward perception and the body, and their more static, cyclical rhythms, and then a more pervasive orientation toward memory and aesthetics, and their more relativistic, thematic rhythms.

The cyclical rhythms in the text are supported stylistically by its generally repetitive texture and paratactic argument, its many appositives (unless... unless; the line ... the necessity; nothing ... the alder ... the small foot-prints of the mice...; the word ... a supple word), its rich use of nouns (invention, mind, stars, line, mind, bush, alder, hummocks, channel, word, chalk, etc.), its pervasively generic reference (the mind, the stars, the line, the necessity, a new mind, a new line, invention, the alder, the channel, the foot-prints, the bunch-grass, the work, chalk), its prominent compounds (witch-hazel, footprints, bunch-grass), its pervasively intransitive verbs (matriculate, change, lie, grow, appear, live, etc.), its strong use of the passive voice (spaced, measured, crumbled), its foregrounding of contrasts in number (invention, mind, line, etc. vs. stars, hummocks, foot-prints, tufts, etc.), its strong use of falling intonation, its climactic reference to past time (lived), its many adjuncts (under.., from among ..., on ..., in ..., to ...), and its prominent alliteration (nothing-not-new-never-now; mind-measured-mice-margining; relative-repeating-recurring-; overhanging-hummocks-hazel; change-ancient-channel-chalk; line-lies-lived-unless; spaced-stars-spent-small-supple; etc.).

The relativistic, thematic rhythms are supported by the text's concern for the role of art in human sensibility, by its fragmenting and thematicizing visual form, by its generally variational texture, by its many negatives (nothing, not, never, etc.), by its prominent disjuncts (without ..., unless ..., again), by its prominent morphological conversions (new measured, the old), and by its subtle pararhyme (e.g., swale-will-well; swale-small-itself; change-channel-ancient-invention).


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Richard Cureton



This essay is a revised version of a keynote address delivered on September 2005, in San Diego, CA, at the American Literature Association Symposium on Poetic Form.

(1.) For a useful list of 33 poetic kinds based on content, speech acts, outer form, see Vendler 617-19. Vendler recognizes address to a reader, ballad, child's poem, dawn poem/aubade, deathbed poem, debate poem, echo-poem, ekphrasis, elegy, emblem poem, epigram, epitaph, epithalamion, hymn, inscription, letter, lover's complaint, lullaby, muse poem, nocturne, pastoral, political poem, praise poem, quest poem, religious poem, romance/fairy-tale poem, seasonal poem, self-reflexive poem, shaped poem, song, twin poems, valediction, variations on a theme--although she concludes by admitting that this list is open/incomplete, adding, as an afterthought, bird poem, eclogue, georgic, testament, and conversation poem. For another list, see Frye 293-303. Frye recognizes charm, participation mystique, poem of continuity, panegyric, public religious poem, the oracular, inscape, associative rhythm, iconic response, recognition, expanded consciousness, innocent vision, emblematic vision, riddle, poem of the quiet mind, carpe diem, pastourelle, paradox, satire, epigram, outscape, poem of melancholy, complaint, epitaph, funeral ode, thenody, legends about gods, prayer, rhapsodic and diphrambic forms, Medieval love vision, parable, fable, descriptive poem, debate, testament poem, satire, epistie, danse macabre, narrative tragedy, historical epitaph, ballad, and tragic panegyric. In the critical literature on poetry, forms such as these have long been elaborated, catalogued, analyzed, and illustrated, and this critical labor has been sifted, organized, and assembled into exhaustive handbooks, vast encyclopedias, and long bibliographies (Brogan, Turco, Hollander, Preminger, et al., Preminger and Brogan, etc.).

(2.) Vendler addresses the issue of "inner form" most closely and completely in her chapter on "The Play of Language," 145-69, and here, she does indeed suggest some generalizations, albeit while separating these generalizations from her detailed discussions of prosody (593-611), speech acts (612-14), and rhetorical devices (615-16), which she relegates to (unrelated) appendices. The language of a poem, she suggests, can be additive, sequential, radial, or logical ("clarification by hierarchy, clarification by a comparison of then to now, clarification by here vs. there, or clarification by rise-and-decline"), again, leaving this list open/unfinished, saying that "internal forms are infinitely variable, since they represent emotional response, always volatile" (114). It is not at all clear to me, though, why "inner forms" are any more "infinitely variable" than "outer forms," forms defined by speech acts, or forms defined by content. Technical vocabularies can be elaborated at will. The level of detail is just constrained by usefulness, rather than necessity or logical possibility. Clearly, what Vendler's has to say about kinds of "inner forms" is just more original, and therefore slight/partial, than her discussion of (more traditional, commonly recognized) poetic kinds based speech acts, content, and/or "outer form." Vendler rightly insists, over and over, that in poetry, it is exacdy the intense patterning of "inner form" that is the central accomplishment. And so the rub. To do justice to a poem's central accomplishment, just where she/we need to be more attentive, more organized, and more detailed, rather than less, she/we fall short.

(3.) Over his entire career, Donald Wesling, one of our best readers of poetry, lamented this avoidance of close and complete formal analysis in poetic criticism in high tones. What we lack, he reiterated for several decades, is a theory of poetic form that yields fall readings of the formal detail of complete, accomplished poems. Wesling put a lifetime of effort into trying to overcome this theoretical and practical limitation in poetic criticism (e.g., Chances, New Poetries, and Scissors), but like Vendler's theory of "inner form," what he arrived at in the end, his theory of "grammetrics," the "scissoring" of levels of syntax (word, phrase, clause, etc.) by levels of poetic form (half-line, line, distich, stanza, etc.), which, as he claimed, can indeed produce effects of continuity/discontinuity, irregularity/regularity, hierarchy/equivalence, unexpectedness/expectedness, coherence/incoherence, is also partial and scattered. Like Vendler's theory of "inner form," it is more a practical guide for analysis rather than a workable theory of poetic form. Wesling's "grammetrics" gives us no new theories of poetic rhythm, poetic language, poetic rhetoric, poetic symbolism, and so forth, much less a theory that coordinates these disparate realms, in a principled way, into a workable theory of poetic form. In the end, Wesling's "grammetrics" claims that, if we are inclusive enough in our attention to form, a theory of enjambment can give us a theory of poetry. Other than Wesling himself, I'm not sure that anyone else would agree. For instance, what do tropes, or symbolism, or intonation, or diction, or speech acts, or discourse logics, or grammatical choices (noun vs. verb, present vs. past, subjunctive vs. imperative, etc.), or any number of other things, have to do with formal "scissoring"?

(4.) For example, see Nims, Parini, Meyer, Turner, Brooks and Warren, Ciardi, Proffitt, Hunter, Kennedy, Kinzie, Turner, Boynton and Mack, Sugg, Kalaidjian, Roberts, Raffel, and Turco Poetry. Vendler is a pleasing exception. In her 665-page introduction to poetry, she does read one poem completely, Keats' sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" (119-27), if spending eight pages on a poetic analysis can be considered "complete." For a number of complete formal analyses using the "temporal poetics" I am advocating here, see "Temporality" for Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay, "Stylistics and Poetics" for Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Process as Truth" for the opening of Walt Whitman's "Song of the Broad-Axe," "Jakobson Revisited" for W. B. Yeats' "The Sorrow of Love," "Analysis," for William Carlos Williams' "To a Solitary Disciple," "Rhythmic Process" for D.H. Lawrence's "To Women, As Far As I'm Concerned," "Schizophrenic Poetics" for Robert Frost's "Acquainted With the Night," and "Cummings and Temporality" for E. E. Cummings' "somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond."

(5.) Even if it were possible, this is no place to discuss the details of what I have taken away from these thinkers and the philosophical traditions that they founded. In addition to their inclusive analogical thinking, which relates inner to outer, nature to culture (body to soul, soul to spirit, spirit to mind, and then mind back to body), the importance of these thinkers for poetics is that, using Stephen Pepper's four-part typology of "world hypotheses," these thinkers mount the three-pronged resistance to the dominant mechanistic/functional/scientific world view of our times. In Pepper's terms, in their metaphysical presuppositions, these thinkers are all formist, organist, and/or relativist, and in the best case, all three together, without giving up their attention to culture and nature as we know it. By and large, they all see both nature and culture as caught up in a shared evolutionary process, determined by some common, but unknown, logic/code, that leaves behind recursively elaborated, self-similar, holarchical structures (i.e., ones that build the results of earlier evolutionary stages, usually quadratic and paradigmatic/oppositional in organization, into the results of later evolutionary stages). The great need of poetics has been to uncover the logic/code that underpins what these thinkers have observed about the organization and evolution of natural and cultural forms elsewhere, so that it can be used to understand how poets coordinate the major elements of poetry--rhythm, language, rhetoric, meaning, etc.--both with one another, and with other, nonpoetic forms. Where possible, over the last half century, I have read each of these thinkers directly, albeit usually in translation. I detail these original sources in the list of works cited. For schools of thought, rather than individual thinkers, I cite one or two references, among the many that I have found useful. For example, for chaos theory, I cite Mandelbrot, Barrow, and Gleick. For spiral dynamics, Beck and Cohen; for natural classicism, Turner; for systems theory, Holland, Barrow, and Bateson Ecology and Necessary Unity, for the Pythagoreans and Medieval alchemists, Jung and Heninger.

(6.) For a few examples, see Cureton "Unfinished Tasks," "Linguistics," "Disciplinary Map," "Telling Time," and "Language of Poetry."

(7.) For a review of 15 of the major theoretical approaches to poetic rhythm, see Cureton Rhythmic Phrasing 1-75. For a critique of these traditions, see Cureton "Multilevel Analysis," "Myths and Muddles," "Aspects," "Rhythmic Cognition," "Rhythm and Verse Study," and Rhythmic Phrasing 77-117.

(8.) The view that meter is continuous, gestural, hierarchical, and strong-initial is standard in contemporary music theory. For example, see Jackendoff and Lerdahl. For an adaptation of this contemporary "musical" theory of meter to English verse, see Cureton Rhythmic Phrasing 126-36 and "Meter and Metrical Reading."

(9.) No music theorist would ever claim that meter and grouping/phrasing have the same basic form, with meter being just a normative phrasing. But, astonishingly, myself aside, as far as I can tell, no student of poetic rhythm has ever claimed otherwise. In literary study, this oddly mistaken view that poetic meter and poetic phrasing are related as (ideal) norm and (concrete) variation has ancient roots and seems to be universal (and ineradicable). Analogically/poetically speaking, saying that poetic meter and poetic phrasing are related as (ideal) norm and (concrete) variation claims that body and soul are similarly related--or word and phrase, or spring and summer, or mother and son, or earth and water, or rock and plant, or white and green.

(10.) For more on prolongation, see Cureton Rhythmic Phrasing 146-53, 164-70.

(11.) Williams 50.

(12.) My focus here is on thematic rhythms. Because of space limitations, I can't provide a full metrical and phrasal analysis of the poem, as I did for The plowman homeward plods his weary way above. But I have indeed done such a full metrical and phrasal analysis. See Rhythmic Phrasing, 278-323. When I wrote Rhythmic Phrasing, 22 years ago, following Lerdahl and Jackendoff, I analyzed rhythm into only three components rather than four. Shortly after finishing my book, I added the fourth component, theme. Rhythmically, free verse is predominantly thematic. Therefore, temporally, free verse is predominantly relative. In music, there is no such thing as versification. So there is no "free verse" controversy. Rather, as I am suggesting here, in the West, the break between 19th- and 20th-century music is a break between tonality and atonality. Rhythmically, this is a break between linearity and nonlinearity. Tonal music, which is melodic, is predominantly linear, with meter (cyclical), harmony (centroidal), and theme (relative), which carries the other rhythmic components, adding support. In rock music, for instance, the melody is carried by the lead singer, while the drums carry the meter, the rhythm guitar, harmony, and the lead guitar, theme. In atonal music, this predominant linearity in Western tonal music is undermined, if not eliminated altogether. Tone rows, and other variational, nonmelodic, and therefore, nonlinear, patterning, make the music "undirected." In nonlinear music, if a linear motion is established, it is soon fragmented or misdirected, or frustrated entirely; and as a result, the music becomes "multidirectional," "ambiguously directional," "adirectional," or whatever. For examples, see Kramer. This shift in rhythm from linear to nonlinear is exactly what happens when conventional, metrical, versified poetry becomes "free." In its versification, free verse is primarily visual. Visual spacing, visual lines, and visual stanzas cross-cut the linearity of the syntax, "arbitrarily," creating nonlinear effects--hesitation, breaking, reanalysis, ambiguity, questioning, tentativeness, discontinuity, etc. These nonlinear rhythms can then be supported by other thematic forms in the poem--pararhyme, adverbs, compound-complex sentences, the perfective aspect, relative tense, generic person, shifting tenses, shifting persons, irony, dialectical discourse patterning, colloquial/slangy diction, symploce, prominent intonational patterning, and so forth. See the discussion below of how thematic rhythms are played out in these formal "tellings." In essence, Wesling's theory of poetry as a "scissoring" of language by versification is a theory of free verse, albeit an incomplete one, one that needs to be supported by a theory of how these thematic rhythms can also be played out in sound, syntax, rhetoric, and meaning. Hartman's theory of free verse is similar to Wesling's, and so is similarly partial.

(13.) For work on these rhythmic components in music, for meter, see Lerdahl and Jackendoff; for grouping, see Meyer and Cooper and Meyer Emotion and Explaining; for theme, see Rheti. For applications of this work on rhythm and musical time to contemporary music, see Kramer. For philosophical treatments of time, see Bergson Time and Braun. For studies of the role of time in the various domains--physical, biological, psychological, social, cultural, aesthetic, etc.--see Fraser Of Time and Genesis and Fraser et al, eds.

(14.) Frye 141-58, 243-347; White Metahistory, Tropics, and Content; Smith.

(15.) Standard grammars, such as Quirk et al. for English, which I taught for 25 years, unknowingly elaborate these quadratic paradigms, but lacking the means, usually say nothing about their shared qualities and therefore analogical relations. For further discussion, see Cureton "Temporal Theory of Language." Work in universal grammar often does the same. See Comrie Aspect and Tense. With his "projection principle" (i.e., that poetic language projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of similarity to the axis of combination), Roman Jakobson got very close to the claim I am making here about the paradigmatic organization of linguistic form, but like Hegel, Wilber, Spengler, and other great formalists in the tradition, in the end, Jakobson failed to characterize both that "principle of similarity" and the paradigmatic structures that produce them, and therefore had no way to interpret the poetic language that results when these "similar" structures are "projected" into the "axis of combination." For further discussion, see Cureton "Jakobson Revisited." My claim is that principle of similarity is rhythm, as it plays itself out in the paradigmatic forms in the poetic paradigm that are produced in evolutionary processes by the dialectically opposed qualities in the temporal paradigm.

The "temporal" theory of linguistic form that I am suggesting most closely resembles Kenneth Pike's tagmemics, which also analyzes linguistic forms into four-part paradigms based on dialectically opposed qualities, and as a result, claims that linguistic forms across all levels of structure (sound, prosody, syntax, meaning, discourse, etc.) are related by pervasive formal similarities, although Pike never suggested that rhythm is the source of these analogies and therefore never developed a logic to underpin his formal observations. See Pike Unified Theory, Linguistic Concepts, "Particle, Wave, and Field," and Pike and Pike Grammatical Analysis and Text and Tagmeme. In cognitive linguistics, Deane's approach to syntax is also close to what I am suggesting. Deane sees syntax as motivated by a small group of "root" metaphors, whose qualities closely resemble rhythmic qualities and their componential organization.
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Author:Cureton, Richard
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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