Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

"The Ghost of Meter" by Annie Finch (Univ of Michigan Press, 1993)

"Previous critical thought about the relationship between meter and literary meaning may be categorized into three general theories: the theory of propriety, the idea that certain meters inherently suit certain poetic themes or genres; the iconic theory, the idea that meter can reinforce a poem's meaning at particular points by adding expressive sound effects or by emphasizing particular words; and the frame theory, the idea that a meter constitutes a meaningful "contract" with the reader by evoking prior poems in the same meter", (p.1). This book introduces a fusion of 2 of these theories - "The metrical code is intimately related to the frame theory, since is concentrates on meter as a cultural artifact that evokes previous literary associations and relates a poem to a poetic lineage. Like the iconic theory, however, the metrical-code theory interprets special cases rather than conventions, analyzing the interaction between meter and meaning line by line or even foot by foot" (p.11-12), using poems by Dickenson, Whitman, Crane, Eliot, Lorde and Charles Wright.

Just another excuse for stringing together examples of metrical analysis? Well partly, and one person's chopped-up prose is another's irregular iambic pentameter. We discover that "Dickenson usually finds the pentameter a suffocating threat to the self - an attitude that correalates with her cultural situation as a female poet. Whitman, by contrast, tends to fail back on the authority of the pentameter as reassurance of the ego's power and autonomy. Both poets associate the pentameter with pain and even imprisonment" (p.31-32). This book provides historical context to the moments of change.

Whitman shook things up. In 1875 Arthur Clive suggested that prose was a superior literary form to verse (citing Whitman!) and he wasn't alone - formal verse was gaining detractors. Perhaps Whitman's influence passed via the French, but anyway around 1913 free verse burst upon the US scene with an intensity I hadn't realised.

  • J.Issacs estimated that an unprecedented one thousand poets published more than two thousand volumes during the first ten years of free verse.
  • According to Horace Gregory "In grade schools throughout the United States something like a children's crusade for "free verse" took fire" around 1915.
  • In 1913 "Poetry" was the only periodical devoted to poetry (a third of it written by women). By 1916 new magazines were bursting forth.

But interest waned, and people soon feared a new hegemony.

  • "A poet who wishes to give expression to realities in modern life ... will find in practice that he is confined for his literary expression to the two media of prose and free verse", Storer, New Republic, March 1916, p.154
  • "Some of the major free-verse poets themselves also began to become disillusioned with free verse by the end of the 1910s", p.96
  • "That the present trend is away from unrhymed and unmetrical verse cannot be denied", Poetry, 1923

Eliot helped redress the balance, but Finch thinks things settled down rather later "This quiet yet momentous change in attitudes towards meter probably occured during the period at midcentury after the free-verse tradition had been widely established" (p.129). Quiet indeed - "we ... have no choice but to write in free verse", Bly, American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, Harper and Row, 1990, p.38.

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