David Antin: Notes for an Ultimate Prosody (1)

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:35 AM
The Contribution of Meter to the Sound Structure of Poetry is and has been Trivial.

Most discussions of prosody begin and end with metrics, but the contribution of meter to the sound structure of all poetry that was neither sung nor intended for musical accompaniment, when it has been at all specific, has been trivial. Yet because most writers on prosody would probably dispute this, and since some recent poets have worked out sound structures on the basis of implicit defects in metrical theory, it's probably worth taking a look at the metrical background.

Almost all writers on metrics agree that meter is a compositional constraint. In this theory a particular meter is a pattern of distribution of some phonological feature over stretches of language. A particularly simple example is iso-syllabic verse. The pattern prescribes that for each language stretch called "the line" there must be an equal number of syllables. The syllable is a phonological feature of most European languages. Even in English, where it is not always possible to determine syllable boundaries, it is usually possible to agree about the number of syllables in an utterance. But "the line" is another matter and has no linguistic existence. It is therefore a matter of metrical convenience where the line is broken. If there were no additional constraints preventing the poet from ending lines in the middle of words or from ending or beginning poems in the middle of lines, the only constraint on the poet would be the requirement that he either count while composing his poem or afterward when arranging it on paper; and the preceding sentence would class as a kind of didactic isosyllabic verse.

it is therefore
a matter of
metrical con
venience where the
line is broken

This little poem is extra-formal in that the total number of syllables is an integral multiple of the permissible number of syllables per line. While this is a clear-cut example of a compositional constraint (at least insofar as setting down the poem on paper), it is not at all evident how such a constraint enters into the sound structure of the poem. For this to occur there must be some manner of marking off line endings in an unequivocal fashion, say by rhyme, or sounding an instrument, or by some theory of recitation, however arbitrary, by which the line endings could be made audible. Even this would not ensure the perceivability of the number of syllables per line, though it would establish unequivocal line endings. A fairly large number of syllables per line would make it virtually impossible to listen to the words and count the syllables at the same time. Naturally it is possible, when there is a written text, to inspect the line endinqs and then read the poem with the conviction that one is "hearing" the syllable count. This is something like a music student at the opera, reading a score of Tristan and using the orchestra as an auditory aid. It may be enjoyable but it is not listening to Tristan. Now I am perfectly aware of the visual and conceptual fascination of printed texts, musical scores and architectural plans. That is the way of concrete poetry. But printed lines are no more verbal poems than drawn lines are architecture. Up till fairly recently the printed text has primarily been a notation for some language utterance, which must be audible. In his history of German prosody Andreas Heusler mentions a poem of Rueckert's which was composed entirely without the phoneme /r/. Is it reasonable to suppose that this constraint enters into the sound structure of the poem?

It may be suggested that this is an unreasonable analogy, that English poetry, for example, is typically written in syllable-stress meters and that syllable-stress is distinctly perceivable in English, but that "our ear is not accustomed to estimate line lengths simply by the number of syllables." This is quite true but not especially relevant, since the ear is not accustomed to estimate line lengths by counting anything at all. It is no more a part of normal linguistic behavior to count syllable stresses than to count syllables. In fact counting is simply not a normal part of linguistic perception.

Moreover English "syllable stress" meter is complicated still further by the circumstance that no one can be quite certain what phonological feature is distributed, whether it is a single phonological feature, or whether it is a phonological feature at all. For a more or less thorough discussion of this problem it is worth looking at Seymour Chatman's A Theory of Meter. The metrical theory he advances is not convincing, but his review of the phonological problems is fairly up to date. Briefly, the main difficulty in identifying the metrical ictus of English poetry with English stress is that it is now by no means certain how we are to identify English stress. Traditionally linguists and grammarians agreed that there was a feature of emphasis marking either prominent syllables or their syllabic vowels. Formerly this emphasis in the Germanic languages was believed to consist of increased intensity of articulation resulting in increased loudness or acoustical intensity. Experimental phonetics has indicated that increased loudness is by no means the most significant factor in the perception of this emphasis. Most work in speech
synthesis has suggested that the main factor in perceiving stress is increased duration of the syllabic vowel, and that vowel quality and pitch deflection are also of considerable importance. These results do not lend support to the acoustical intensity theory of stress, but it is quite possible, nevertheless, that syllable duration, vowel quality and pitch deflection are simply cues to recognition of the increased articulatory force required to produce the emphasized syllables. Moreover it now begins to appear that stress within word boundaries -- lexical stress, may have to be distinguished from phrasal accent, the relative prominence of a syllable in phrasal grouping. The most convincing descriptions, which are still no more than tentative, suggest that phrasal accent.results from the interaction of lexical stress rules with rules for pitch contours.

The most recent work pointing in this direction is Chomsky's The Sound Pattern of English. But the earlier work of Kenneth Pike and Dwight Bolinger also tends in this direction. In any event we are no longer confronted with the single syllabic emphasis of lexical stress or even with the marvelously complex but symmetrical theory of four independent stress phonemes and four equally independent pitch phonemes hypothesized by Trager and Smith back in 1951. Since the problem of assigning ictus in English syllable stress meters is the problem of comparing immediately adjacent syllables for relative prominence regardless of word boundaries, phrase boundaries, or even discourse boundaries, it is more reasonable to assume that any available sign of relative prominence will be used. What is in fact distributed is then "syllable prominence," which may result from a variety of phonological, syntactic and discourse factors. This is apparent if one merely looks at the standard account of the conventions for distributing metrical accent in typical English meters. One degree of accent is recognized, so that there are only accented and unaccented syllables; and the accent is determined by comparing immediately adjacent syllables in a left to right direction in sets of two or three (according to whether the meter is duple or triple) for relative prominence. The process of comparison is abruptly terminated when the "line ending" is reached. Generally it is quite possible to reach agreement in comparing syllables, but there are certain cases in which the comparisons are, to say the least, difficult and others in which they are probably nonsensical. Within a word it is always possible to determine which of two adiacent syllables is more prominent. In a phrase group, given an understanding of the domain of the speaker's emphasis, it is also often possible to agree more or less unequivocally. But when the comparisons of relative prominence have to cross phrase juncture or sentence juncture boundaries, it is frequently impossible to reach any meaningful decision. In a phrase like " . . . in chase of him . . . " when the central accent falls on "chase" and the pitch contour begins to fall from "chase" and falls smoothly to "him," where the fall in pitch is abruptly cut for what Trager and Smith used to call "single bar juncture," who can say with certainty whether "of" or "him" is more prominent? Or in the sequence "He left me: I called after him." who can with any assurance assign relative prominence by comparing "me" and "I". That there is a convention that legalizes such successions of two unaccented syllables ~ the pyrrhic foot) or in some cases two accented syllables (the spondee) is not the point. The introduction of successions of this sort makes it impossible to rely on the number of prominent syllables to determine the location of the line ending or to count the feet by adding up the number of accents. It is usual to refer to these substitutions as occasional variations on a well established pattern, but they are not occasional and what metric pattern is established in a passage like the following, from which they come?

…quickening then the pace (line 131)
of the unwieldy creature he bestrode,
He left me: I called after him aloud;
He heeded not; but with his twofold charge
Still in his grasp, before me, full in view, (line 135)
Went hurrying o'er the illimitable waste,
With the fleet waters of a drowning world
In chase of him; whereat I waked in terror,
And saw the sea before me, and the book
In which I had been reading, at my side. (line 140)

I doubt that anyone will deny the brilliance of the checked music of this passage from the Fifth Book of The Prelude, but it is hardly a metrical pattern that determines the musical effects. In order to scan these lines as "blank verse" we must assume at least two pyrrhic feet in line 132, two more in line 133, an inverted (trochaic) foot in 134, another one in 135, two more pyrrhics and one anapest in line 136, two more pyrrhics in 137 plus a possible spondee, a probable pyrrhic in 138 and an additional unaccented syllable at the end of the line, a pyrrhic in 139, and two or (conceivably) three pyrrhics in line 140. Add to this that while 7 of the lines have some clear junctural breaks at the line endings, there are at least 7 junctural breaks within the lines, so that the caesura, which is the basis of the sound of the passage, cannot be used as a clue to the line ending. For the sake of clarity, this is my conjectural scansion of the passage:

… quíck ên/îng thén /thê páce (line 131)
ôf thê/ûnwiél/dy créa/tûre hê/bêstróde,/
Hê léft/ mê: Í/ câlled áf/ têr hîm/â lóud/
Hê héed/ êd nót,/ bút wîth/ hîs twó/fôld chárge/
Stíll în/ hîs grásp,/ bêfóre/ mê, fúll/ în víew,/ (line 135)
Wênt húrr/ yîng óer/ thê îl lî / mî tâ/ blê wáste,/
Wîth thê/ fléet wá/ têrs ôf/ â drówn/ îng wórld/
În cháse/ ôf hím;/ whêreát/Í wáked/ în térrôr/
Ând sáw/ thê séa/ bêfóre/ mê, ând/ thê bóok
În whích/ Î hád/ bêen réa / dîng, át / mˆy síde./ (line 140)

But this seems like a foolish exercise, since it could not be resolved by any ear. It hardly seems likely that the lines were composed with the metrical restraints in mind. The poet like the centipede would have too many options for the "metric" to provide him with an unequivocal way of going on. Nor is the passage atypical.

[Originally published in George Quasha’s magazine Stony Brook (number one, December 1968), Antin’s essay was accompanied by the following note from the editor: “Mr. Antin wrote these Notes as a paper, originally, which was not amended for publication. I persuaded him to publish it, though he is not happy with the presentation, because I believe it raises crucial questions. It is coherent if not thorough, and it may succeed in bringing about some relevant discussion, hopefullv in future issues of STONY BROOK. Part Two of the Notes will begin to investigate the poetics of that area inhabited by himself, Rothenberg, MacLow, Cage, Duncan, etc.”

There was no followup, however, nor is it certain that one was intended. The essay, never republished, is a clear indication of Antin’s ongoing thoughtfulness in these matters. The second half of the present segment will appear in a later posting.]

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