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The case for pace.

I wish to suggest one category that can be helpful in focusing our attention on the rhythm of free verse, one that is similarly applicable to metrical verse. The category of pace, which I am offering here, has the advantage of operating across several levels of a given text and its perception. In linguistics, one finds that pace (often termed tempo, and at times inaccurately meshed with duration) is a suprasegmental parameter that sometimes appears as a component of rhythm in ordinary language. (1) As a crude working definition, one can begin to think of pace as the speed of a stretch of language. Changes in pace can explain some of the flexibility in metered verse (two iambic pentameter lines can have differing pace dynamics), and pace can also operate in free verse regardless of the metrical element. In the context of the traditional distinction between meter and rhythm, pace can be found on the side of rhythm: pace is not metrical, and it operates both inside and outside of a metrical context. Furthermore, pace does not necessarily rely on a regularity or recurrence of numerical elements in any strict sense. It is rhythmical by virtue of engaging the reader in an experience of speed, and therefore temporality.

Researchers in linguistics or psycholinguistics classify pace, which they call "speaking rate," into two or three components. The first is "articulation rate," "the tempo of articulating an utterance, excluding any silent pauses, but including non-linguistic speech material such as filled pauses [=any gap in the verbal structure of a speaking-turn filled by non-linguistic material] and prolongations of syllables" (Laver 539). This is measured in number of syllables or words per time units, for example, number of syllables per millisecond. The other two variables, embedded under the term "pause rate," have to do with the number and duration of pauses in the examined utterance. In a stretch of speech, the overall impression of tempo has to do both with speed/pace/rate of the words uttered and (sometimes independently) with the frequency and duration of the pauses interspersed between the syllables or words uttered. John Laver points out that there are different relationships possible. For example, a stretch of speech can be characterized by a fast articulation rate, but could still exhibit a relatively slow speaking rate, if the speech has frequent or long silent pauses (541). Empirical research on speaking rate has produced a myriad of results, which may hint at the significance of pace in poetry, though the area of investigation is not poetic. (2)

John Ciardi, the American poet and critic, stands out as giving the most attention to pace as the key to illuminating the effects of poetry. In his book, How Does a Poem Mean?, Ciardi states plainly that "[a] poem, by the very fact of its existence in time rather than in space, has duration and pace" (994, emphasis in the original). Earlier Ciardi argues that "one poem may obviously urge the voice at a faster pace than does another. Within the same poem, moreover, one part may urge itself much more rapidly than another. Even within an individual line, one phrase may clearly be indicated as moving more rapidly or more slowly than another" (920). In fact, it seems that for Ciardi, pace is the definitive element of rhythm in poetry, and he makes an effort to systematically account for devices that affect a poem's pace.

When Ciardi claims that one part of the poem "may urge itself much more rapidly or more slowly than another," he is suggesting not just that pace changes throughout the poem, and is therefore relative, but also that the poem itself indicates its pacing. Although pace becomes physically manifested when the poem is read out loud (and echoes of pace can be heard by an attentive silent reader in the proverbial mind's ear), there are cues or indicators of pace within the written text, and we are not solely in the realm of subjective performance whereby any string of words can be performed at various speeds at will. (3) Accepting this principle, we can now refine our understanding of what pace is, in a poetic and written-text context. Pace is related to how the organization of the linguistic material of the poem either causes, or cues, a relative acceleration or deceleration throughout the text (or, more accurately still, pace is related to the reader's interpretation thereof). In poetry, pace is not just a component of rhythm, but can be a poetic device. The task, then, is to discover what affects pace and what cues for pace in written poetry.

Pace has been pointed out repeatedly in some metrical contexts, which can be a good starting point. No lines are more renowned for their pacing than Pope's:
   When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
   The line too labors, and the words move slow:
   Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
   Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main. (11.

Ciardi analyzes the reason for the acceleration of pace in the fourth line, a line that both speaks of and acts out an accelerated pace:

Flies o'er/the unbend/ing corn, // and skims/along/the main

Ciardi writes that the "first cause of the acceleration is obviously in the anapest of the second foot. Just as sixteenth notes must be played more rapidly than eighths, so the two unaccented syllables of the anapest must be read more rapidly than would be a single unaccented syllable" (927). From this Ciardi moves on to define the "fundamental basis of all metrical acceleration": "the more unstressed syllables are brought together between accents, the faster the line will tend to move" (927). (4)

Various assumptions are meshed together in Ciardi's articulation of the rule of acceleration in this way. One seems to be that the duration of time per foot is equal. This duration is divided between the syllables within the foot: the three syllables of the anapest will have to share the time allotted for the two syllables of the iamb. The unstressed component, which has been changed from one syllable (iamb) to two (anapest) "pays the price" in that the duration of time for an unstressed syllable is shortened by half. The effect of this is a local acceleration in the line, possible elision notwithstanding. If pace, understood as rate or speed, is measured mathematically by syllables per time unit, the anapestic foot has three, while the iambic has two. The pace is accelerated by 1.5.

The much-contested issue of isochrony, or equal timing, here would relate to the tendency of stressed syllables to occur at more-or-less equal intervals rather than to the duration of syllables themselves (and therefore should not be confused with an adjacent dispute, whether quantity is a viable option for English verse). The received, though controversial, view is that English is a stress-timed language, a language that exhibits, or tends toward, this kind of isochrony. As has been argued and empirically verified, isochrony is subjective and based on perception rather than on actual measured timing. (5) Still, perception counts, and perception is what is at stake rhythmically. If there is a tendency to perceive the time span between stresses as equivalent, we may very well shift the pace of articulating unstressed syllables to accommodate this time span, as is most clearly evident in nursery rhymes or ballads. (6) In these types of explanations, Ciardi and others are essentially taking the isochronous tendency of the English language and applying it to metrical verse.

Yet the notion that an anapest amid iambs tends to accelerate the pace can be justified without recourse to isochrony. Less in the spirit of "timers," this alternative explanation is closer to the rival camp, to those who see rhythm as, in Reuven Tsur's words, "based on an abstract structure which is confirmed or violated and re-confirmed by the sequence of linguistic stresses" (295). Since Pope's lines consist mostly of iambs, it is possible to look at the local acceleration in terms of a deviation from an established norm. The established norm is that of a regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, and so when we suddenly have two (or more) successive unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one, we perceptually make the two into one, in order to preserve the pattern. One way to actualize the "two becoming one" is hurrying over the two unstressed syllables.

If a norm and deviations from it are the key, one has to reject the more sweeping generalizations one finds, as when Ciardi says above that the line will move faster "the more syllables are brought together between accents." The anapest owes its speed to the embedding iambic context; it would make little sense to proclaim that anapests are generally fast. In a predominantly anapestic line, one can hypothesize that an iambic substitution would lead to a perception of deceleration. It is always the case that pace is relative, and is rendered significant not by its absolute value, but by its relation to other passages, lines, parts of lines, or another unmarked "norm."

Whereas in an iambic context anapests and successions of unstressed syllables are associated with acceleration, spondees and successions of stresses are associated with deceleration:
                         '     '     '
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,

      '   '   '                '     '    '
The line too labors, and the words move slow

Stephen Adams gives this prosodically famous line from Paradise Lost: "Rocks, caves,/lakes, fens,/bogs, dens,/and shades/of death" (18), where the three first feet seem spondaic. Hobsbaum states generally that in a "thrusting line," there is a tendency to have a comparatively high proportion of heavily stressed syllables: "Such a ratio of stressed syllables to light syllables slows the line down and gives an effect of weight" (114). Paul Fussell analyzes the same lines by Pope and likewise equates successions of stressed syllables with "effects of slowness, weight, or difficulty," and successions of unstressed syllables with "rapidity, lightness, or ease" (35). Ciardi, in correspondence with his fundamental basis of metrical acceleration, states that "the more caesuras and the more stressed syllables that occur in a given passage, the slower its pace will tend to be" (927).

Spondaic substitutions, or a succession of two or more stressed syllables in an iambic context, are widely disputed. Indeed if stress is relative, then a spondee is, to use Wimsatt and Beardsley's phrasing, "illusory," because "it is impossible to pronounce any two successive syllables in English without some rise or fall of stress--and some rise or fall of stress is all that is needed for a metrical ictus" (158). But if a spondee is metrically an iamb, it is also still a spondee, rhythmically, and in terms of its effect on pace.

Of course both isochrony and metrical context of organization can play a part in deceleration too, just like in acceleration. Strict temporal analysis, as Tsur shows via scrutinizing Thomas Cable's "Pause" entry in the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, will assign an "unrealized beat" (a metrical, usually weak, position that is held by a pause instead of a syllable) between two adjacent stressed syllables. Cable claims that a separating unheard beat, realized only in silence (and therefore in a sense of deceleration between two adjacent stresses), will occur unless there is a subordination of one of these stresses (891). Tsur is more wary of accepting unrealized beats, but does concede to one when a syllable is missing (i.e., not a spondaic substitution, but a succession of stresses brought about by what in a different context might be called a monosyllabic foot, as in the King Lear line quoted by Cable: "Pull off/my boots:/har/der, har/der: so," in which an unstressed syllable is "missing" from the third foot). This is easy to understand given a structural approach, since it is only the established pattern that causes us to perceive that a syllable is lacking.

The deceleration associated with adjacent stresses, a phenomenon that exists both inside and outside metrical circumstances, can be explained without regard to meter. Outside of a metrical context, Derek Attridge notes the tendency of English to alternate strong and weak syllables. He cites different studies all showing that this regular alternation is preferred in everyday speech, as in our tendency to say "a free and easy manner," in which a stress clash is avoided, over saying "an easy and free manner," which has two successive stresses. We will go to some lengths to maintain the alternation of stresses and slacks, as when we shift the stress in the word "outdoor" from the second to the first syllable, switching from saying "outdoor activities," to "outdoor sports" (Rhythms of English Poetry 70-71). So, when we encounter a situation where we have, say, three successive stresses, this creates a marked difficulty in the language, which tends toward a regular alternation. I would posit that a reasonable and likely manifestation of this difficulty is deceleration. (7)

For the purposes of discerning pace, a succession of stressed syllables creates a stress clash, which is an impediment and will tend to push in the direction of deceleration. This deceleration is rhythmical and not necessarily metrical. When the stress clash is caused by an omission of an unstressed syllable in an iambic context (the King Lear example), the established norm of the context propels to halt between the two stresses to make up for the missing unstressed syllable. Primarily, though, both in that case and when the stress clash is a result of spondees (the Milton example above), the deceleration is borne out of the phonetic reality involved in articulating adjacent stresses.

Again, while pace indicates speed, and is therefore inextricably bound with time, one does not need to subscribe to a strict and verifiable isochrony, or be a "temporalist" who scans lines with musical notations in order to be aware of pacing. Seymour Chatman, cautious of claims for temporal constancy, nevertheless recognizes features, both metrical and phonological, which either suggest or cause slowness or rapidity, such as dense consonantal clustering, caesurae, or the metrical set's constraining us to avoid eliding a relatively weak syllable (79, 197-202). Ciardi shows how Pope's line "When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw" is slowed down "by the effort required to wrestle through the consonantal cluster" in the first half of the line (924). Here, the phonology offers a particular challenge because both "Ajax" and "strives" in the sequence "Ajax strives some" end with the same consonant with which the next word begins. A possible performance would simply run the words together, but the reason that "The line too labors, and the words move slow" is that in order to read the words separately we must fight against this tendency. Potentially, then, the line invites us to pronounce a discernable pause between each of the words so as to avoid overriding the word boundary. Accepting this invitation by the language of the line results in an impeded reading or a slowing of the overall pace of the line.


Since pace is not solely dependent on a metrical grid, but also results from a manipulation of the rhythms of the language, and emerges differentially throughout the poem, we can now apply some of its principles to a nonmetrical or less-metrical poem. Consider, for example, Robert Creeley's short poem "You":
   Back and forth across
   time, lots of things
   one needs one's

   hand held for. Don't
   stumble, in the dark. Keep
   walking. This is life. (501) (8)

A pace-sensitive reading of the poem is aware of certain difficulties, unevenly distributed throughout the short text and functioning as a poetic-rhythmic device. First, concentrating our rhythmical attention on the first and longest of the poem's four sentences, we note that it has only one disyllabic word. The two monosyllabic function words and and of offer moments of relative relaxation, but both are found in the first part of the sentence, typographically in the first two lines of the poem. This is also where the single disyllabic word is found: across. Disyllables relax the rhythm because they inherently include an alternation of lexical stress and nonstress. As such, the first two lines have a fairly smooth and comfortable alternation of stresses and slacks. This alternation changes radically when we encounter a highly marked succession of stresses across the next two lines: "one needs one's/ hand held for. Don't."

Second, a concentration of proximate similar-sounding pairs of words lends them extra weight and deceleration, a result of bringing out the distinction between them. In the line "one needs one's," both ones refer to the same one, and would most likely both be stressed. But there is a slight sound difference between one and one's, and articulating this difference would require a concerted effort, a kind of contrastive or extra stressing on the already stressed one's. For the same reason of differentiating, we are pushed to labor in the attempt to intersect the vowel sound in needs in between the repeating assonance of one and one's. In the next line, we are asked by the language of the poem to stress the sounds that would differentiate the similar (in alliteration and consonance) hand and held.

Phonological difficulties could stem from challenging combinations of consonants, which too can be dealt with by deceleration. The deceleration effect borne out of the stress clash of "one needs one's" is augmented by the /n/ consonantal clash: "one needs." As with Pope's "Ajax strives some," sequencing words so that the first ends and the second begins with the same consonant could also result in eliding the word boundary in performance. However, respecting the word boundary would require inserting a discernible pause between the words. And, regardless of performative decisions, such a consonantal combination across adjacent words linguistically props up the words involved. The line is vexed, and a potential manifestation of this vexedness is a discernable pause between each of the words and an impeded reading.

The quality and quantity of pauses affect pacing and work to decelerate the line. If we understand pace not in absolute terms but as relative, then a pause within a line will decelerate the pace compared to, say, the same number of syllables in a line without the pause, since pause adds duration (time) without adding utterance. There are many kinds of pauses across different syntactic and phonological groupings, and a full account of pacing devices would need to enumerate each of these and evaluate their contribution to pacing. In this poem, it is easily noticeable that the second stanza exhibits four in-line stops that are highlighted by punctuation. If we accept that a line break too corresponds to, or signals, some sort of pause compared to a theoretical rendering of the very same text unlineated, then there are additional pauses, which prose typically lacks. (9) Lineation impacts pace particularly when the line break introduces pauses in unexpected or less obvious places (across/time; Don't/stumble; Keep/walking). (10) Taken together, these in-line and across-line pauses puncture and retard the smoothness of the faster paced second, third, and fourth sentences. The only line that remains devoid of either in-line pauses or consonantal and stress clashes is the first.

Pace is thus experienced, if we are attuned to it, as marked changes in the perceived speed of the utterance on the level of the materiality of the text, though it is not restricted to that level. One can extend the concept of pace further to more abstract realms than stresses and consonants. Significantly, in the first sentence but not in the others, syntax joins phonology in mounting impediments, impeding comprehension or processing. Using one as the subject of the sentence is sufficiently vague, but the odd placing of "lots of things," not at the end of the sentence where it would normally be placed, threatens comprehension. Compare the sequence as given in the poem (l) to its unmarked alternative (2):

1. lots of things one needs one's hand held for

2. one needs one's hand held for lots of things

Note that (1) could have been much more swiftly comprehended if it were rendered as (2). This alternative formulation, incidentally, would also have avoided a stress on for, and thus reduced not only the syntactic difficulty but also the phonological one. Indeed, reading through the poem without "stumbling in the dark" proves to be impossible, as the phonology causes this very stumbling on a somatic level, and the blurred syntax causes us to be "in the dark" on a semantic one. The slowness of pace is thus operative on many levels at once, and the difficulty to keep reading puts the reader in a position to iconically act out the poem's imperative to "Keep/walking." The iconic function of pace in the case of this poem confirms Alan Golding's point that "prosody in free verse serves a semantic function," as the free verse poet uses "personal and uncanonized rhythms," to which we can apply no ready-made patterns (66-67).

We see here the possibility of another realm of pacing devices: the syntactical, rhetorical, or even the semantic. Like a periodic sentence that goes on and on, which we may respond to by accelerating in order to catch its end before its beginning escapes us, our response to contorted syntactical structures could be a shift in pacing. This area of pacing takes us well beyond verse. Language that is particularly dense, or difficult to decipher or even decode, could be marked by a retardation of the pace, in this case not of articulation but of absorption. We are not far from how pace or speed have been shown to operate in prose narrative, most famously by Genette. A single page of a narrative text that covers a represented time span of a minute is much "slower" than a page that covers the events of an entire year. A narrative typically varies its speed, producing, according to Genette, effects of rhythm (88). (11)

If we see pace as a helpful tool that directs our awareness of rhythm in verse, both more and less "free," we would have to begin to specify, as I have here, the different pacing devices, and how they work and even interact. In this short poem by Creeley, we observed a series of pacing devices, which we may term the phonological, punctuational, syntactical, rhetorical, and finally semantic. Further attention needs to be given to the line unit as a pacing device, including the idea that manipulating line length can, under certain conditions, cue for an accelerated or decelerated reading in much the same way as manipulating the length of a foot can. (12) If we think of the visual manipulations performed by some poets, like Cummings's inserting spaces or entire lines between the letters of a single word, or joining words together without space, another device, typographical pace, suggests itself. Pace thus goes from the material all the way up to the conceptual, from the text causing the reader to physically accelerate or decelerate, to cueing shifts in pace on the level of comprehension, perception, and meaning.


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Roi Tartakovsky



(1.) David Crystal puts tempo with pitch and loudness as elements of a language's rhythm (Encyclopedia 177); The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics puts duration with pitch and stress as the three intonational characteristics of spoken language (312). See also analyses of tempo in conversational contexts by Auer, Couper-Kuhlen, and Muller, where one of the uses of shifts in tempo is to signal saliency or relevance (28-29).

(2.) For example, Miller, Grosjean, and Lomanto, working with data extracted from recordings of subjects being interviewed, found that in a conversational situation, "the variation in average syllable duration is substantial, typically on the order of hundreds of milliseconds" (222). Grosjean and Lass, in a cross-linguistic research involving English and French, report that listeners estimate the rate of a passage read to them regardless of familiarity with the language (201), which signals pace's importance in human speech perception. Interesting attempts have also been made to explore the connection between emotive meaning and tempo. Maciej Pakosz, based on earlier findings, labels the emotive meaning tempo carries as "deliberate": lento (a slow tempo) would be connected to [+deliberate], i.e., "determined, hesitant, worried, satisfied," and allegro (a fast tempo) would be connected to [-deliberate], as in "excited, angry, impatient" (317). McKenna and Lewis report on studies that have found a connection between speech rate and levels of depression (347). In their own research, in which they measured the time it took for subjects to count as fast as possible from 1 to 50 before and after elation-inducing or depression-inducing procedures, they showed that pace is a good behavioral indicator of affective states and changes in affective states. More specifically, after a subject is asked to read through a set of self-referent statements expressing depression, she will tend to slow counting pace; after a subject reads statements expressing elation, the pace tends to be faster (350).

(3.) Others have made similar claims. Cooper writes that though tempo "does not technically exist in written language ... we often infer tempo to some extent from punctuation, line structure, word choice, and so on" (222). The New Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics too says that while "[a]ctual duration falls under the category of performance," "some linguistic features of the line obviously do affect tempo, the chief among these being morphology" (312).

(4.) Of course there is the possibility of elision, which Ciardi seems to disregard when he treats the second foot as consisting of three syllables, "the un ben." But elision does not fully invalidate Ciardi's claims here. We can see elision as a kind of performative-pragmatic solution to the pressure exerted by the language to accelerate. In that sense, elision is maximal acceleration; a syllable is accelerated to the extent of not being voiced at all.

(5.) Crystal refers to "subjective isochrony" rather than "objective" (Dictionary 185); Roach writes that "the regularity of the stresses is more apparent than real" (75). For another account, which reaches the same conclusions, see Bertram Incidentally, isochrony was advanced early as a principle of free verse by Amy Lowell, who describes experiments of measuring actual durations. These were meant to grant scientific validation to her notion of roughly equal timing between accents, regardless of the number of syllables (54). For a detailed and illuminating discussion of the intimate relationship between the Modernists' conception of rhythm and technological and cultural developments of the time, see Golston.

(6.) See a very similar explanation of acceleration by Hobsbaum in a trisyllabic substitution exemplified with Marvell's "Time's win/ged cha/riot hur/ry ing near" (8-9, 56). Adams (44) and Roethke (73) discuss nursery rhymes in terms of pacing.

(7.) Attridge speaks of a succession of three stresses in terms of "demotion," which in a metrical context enables a stressed syllable to "realize an offbeat," or be in a metrically weak position (Rhythms of English Poetry 168-71). He goes on to note the decelerating effect of demotion, and the accelerating complimentary effect of "promotion," both in metrical and free verse (171-72). The crucial thing for pace is that making the second of three stressed syllable somewhat less stressed in performance or perception does not completely neutralize the deceleration but marks the difficulty that a decelerated pace manifests.

(8.) The poem is republished here by permission of the University of California Press.

(9.) Nigel Fabb shows how ancient a dispute this is, in quoting various opinions from eighteenth-century scholars about what kind of pause, if any, should be performed at the end of lines in Milton's blank verse (147-48). Hartman offers, to my mind, the best defense for a pause at the end of a line, when he frames it as a psychological, rather than acoustic fact (182). I believe the same logic applies to many of the pacing devices: one does not have to acoustically or empirically perform the poem in a certain way, but there is a psychological "realness" to lineation and to pacing devices.

(10.) Pinsky notes that in addition to the decelerating effect of lineation, there is pushing-forward dynamic that may become associated with acceleration: "the syntax is trying to speed up the line, and the line is trying to slow down the syntax" (29).

(11.) For a more recent conceptualization of narrative speed, see Hume, who associates rapidity in contemporary fiction with causing the reader to lose control and orientation by throwing at her a multiplicity of details or plot elements that are given without "meaningful transitions and links," two techniques she calls multiplication and subtraction (111). Semantic density, which I would associate with deceleration, thus causes, according to Hume, a sense of acceleration. The reasons for this productive discrepancy are beyond the scope of this article.

(12.) Hartman brings up the possibility of this "lineal isochrony" in relation to Williams' three-line stanzas, but claims this is, at least in part, derived from our knowing Williams intended the lines to be regarded as isochronous (35).
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Author:Tartakovsky, Roi
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Date:Mar 22, 2015
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