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Prufrock Moment

By Daisy Fried

There’s a particularly lovely bit in Stephen Colbert’s interview with Elizabeth Alexander the night after the inauguration.
Colbert: [mock-pathetic] “Poems aren’t true, right? They’re made up, right…because I recently read this thing called The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock which is about a guy, you know, in his mid-40s like I am, and he’s facing mortality and he’s got a sense that no matter what his achievement is in life, he’s never really gonna be great. That’s not true, right?
Alexander: [pitch-perfectly playing the straight woman] A poem should be in some way emotionally true…Prufrock might speak to you because there’s something in the poem that resonates, that feels true to you. And that’s how people connect with poems.
Colbert: [mock-distressed] He says ‘I’ve heard the mermaids singing each to each/ I do not think that they will sing to me.’ They—they’re still singing to me, though, aren’t they?
Alexander: [mock-maternally] They are if you want them to be.
Colbert: Desperately!
Prufrock is a comically-delivered tragic poem, of course, and Colbert/Alexander’s comedy on the subject had just enough, well, emotional truth in it, to make it more than poet-insider wisecracking. Maybe it’s a sign of how deprived poets are of any kind of mainstream recognition, but this actually seemed to be the most serious, and seriously informative, non-poetry-world exchange on poetry in a long time. (More informative than many in the poetry world too, come to think of it.)
In any case, it’s a Prufrock moment. Maybe it’s always a Prufrock moment. The Academy of American Poets recently unveiled this year’s National Poetry Month poster.
npm_poster_2009_150.gif
AAP’s own press release calls the image “Daring”—by which they may mean not stinking of Uplifting Messages of Poetical-Educational Opportunity for the Benighted. I don’t know if the poster is daring, really –the word is thrown around quite a bit—but the Paul Sahre design certainly is startling, elegant, and something of a departure from past Academy efforts.


The poster presents a famous line from T.S. Eliot’s (arguably) best poem, written, apparently, by a finger on a fogged window. Already I’ve heard it called creepy, wonderful, childish, eye-catching, cheap and evocative. It is being talked about–and who doesn’t think that’s a good thing?
Several people said they were glad to see this image rather than a field of flowers. Actually, the Academy has generally been hipper than that. Past years’ selections are viewable here. Ten years ago the AAP’s NaPoMo poster featured a Jasper Johns map of America and Whitman’s “I hear America Singing”; other years presented scrupulously inclusive collages of photos of American poets. But the poetry quotes, though often from great poems, tended to be relentlessly upbeat, and the words themselves tended to get lost next to the image. That stands to reason–design people are image people, not word people. But Sahre has made his image out of words, and that makes a difference.
It’s great to see the Academy coming out in favor of poetry’s ability to disturb rather than console. That the line is written in dripping—therefore disappearing—letters, letters created by wiping something away, on a window that’s translucent but not transparent, only adds to the poster’s impact and complexity. This could be seen as a challenge to poets–disturb the world! Or to audiences: Disturb yourself by reading (more) poems.
It’s rare to see poetry treated in a complicated and grown-up way.

Comments (57)

  • On February 5, 2009 at 3:25 pm Jason Tuttle wrote:

    Great comments. Your comment re that graphic designers don’t major on words reminds me of my brand-spanking-new issues of Poetry with the Tony Fitzpatrick poem-images. In our consumer, media driven culture, poetry is my departure from the fast paced, efficient life into a slower, contemplative world full of puzzles and hidden glades. I’m glad to see poetry made more accessible by imagery and TV, but still need the simple structures of words on a page (or my iPhone).

  • On February 5, 2009 at 4:25 pm john wrote:

    Interesting stuff, Daisy.
    You’re right, Alexander was charming in that bit, as was Colbert. The biggest thing I got out of that interview, though, was that Alexander had blown her reading. I’m familiar with “praise songs,” and her reading of her poem never made me suspect that that was what she had been trying to say. She had pronounced “praise song” as a spondee, which conveys the phrase as an imperative, with “praise” as a verb. “Praise song,” with “praise” as an adjective, should be a dactyl. Oh well. Other than that, you’re right, it was a good discussion.
    And that’s a great poster! For all the reasons you said.
    One day in Beijing, on a cold March day 9 years ago, I saw a man copying calligraphy from a book, writing on a plaza. His writing implement was a long plastic tube filled with water, as long as a cane, with a sponge on the end. I looked up the Mandarin word for “poetry” in my phrase book and approached the man. “Shih?” I said. He nodded and smiled. Poetry! By the time he got to the end of the poem, the beginning had evaporated. His calligraphy was lovely.
    Happy universe disturbing.

  • On February 5, 2009 at 5:10 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    This image of writing on a foggy window reminded me of someone I’ve been thinkng about lately – a 7th century theologian-monk, Maximus the Confessor. For standing up for the traditional “confession” of the church at that time, against a Byzantine Emperor and government bent on watering-down the doctrine out of political expediency, Maximus was sent into exile to Lazica, on the wild eastern edge of the Black Sea. Oh, & he also had his tongue cut out, and his right hand cut off. He was truly considered, by the then Powers that Be, a “disturber of the universe.”
    Out there in prison, in Lazica, Maximus, a slight old man in his 80s, figured out how to keep writing : he attached two flexible twigs to his amputated limb, and so (before he died) wrote a few letters to his disciples.

  • On February 5, 2009 at 7:01 pm Mairead wrote:

    I too loved that particular bit of Colbert/Alexander dialogue, and I too am madly in love with this year’s poster. At first glance, it is less, let’s say, child-proof than some of the previous years’, but it reminded me that “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” was the line that struck (and stuck with) me most when I first read Prufrock, at the age of 13. Here’s hoping for more such disturbance.
    (For some reason, your link didn’t work for me. In case others have that trouble, here’s the poster gallery: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/98?utm_source=poetsupdate_020509&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_campaign=npm&utm_content=npm_poster_2009)

  • On February 5, 2009 at 7:18 pm Chris Piuma wrote:

    It’s great to see the Academy coming out in favor of poetry’s ability to disturb rather than console.
    Are they? Is this saying that poetry should be disturbing, or that poetry reminds us that we’re not alone in wondering whether we should “disturb the universe”? I mean, it’s possible to read the “I” as the voice of poetry speaking, but I’m not sure that’s the most likely reading.
    “Prufrock” has been the quintessential exemplar of what poems should be, how poems should work, and what poems should accomplish for, it seems, almost a century. (It even tends towards iambic pentameter, and occasionally rhymes!) Holding it aloft again as a driving example of poetiness doesn’t disturb much.
    The poster is designed and crafted well enough, and I’m amused to see it show up at the same time that Geof Huth starts working in that medium.

  • On February 5, 2009 at 8:20 pm Martha Silano wrote:

    Wow, thanks for sharing the Colbert/Alexander exchange–I am trying to imagine Colbert actually quoting Eliot on the air, on TV, during his talk show. Wow! I need to find that on YouTube or something. And I absolutely love the poster, for all the reasons you mentioned. And because it’s been a question on my mind since I first read this poem in high school. For ages it seemed it wasn’t okay to admit I loved this poem. It wasn’t, well, scrupulously inclusive, you know? It was just about some poor pathetic guy with his trousers rolled. I love the thought that it’s starting to be okay again to love a poem because it’s a good poem. One of the best poems in the English language. Period.

  • On February 5, 2009 at 9:05 pm michael robbins wrote:

    John, you need to brush up on yr metrics. “Praise song” cannot be a dactyl no matter how you pronounce it.

  • On February 5, 2009 at 11:42 pm john wrote:

    Busted!
    I meant trochee, of course.

  • On February 6, 2009 at 7:22 am Jason Guriel wrote:

    Thanks, Daisy, for posting this. I missed the Colbert-Alexander exchange, first time around, so I’m glad it’s here, transcribed. And the poster’s great, too.

  • On February 6, 2009 at 9:14 am Tom Thompson wrote:

    Thanks for this post, Daisy! I want to add another bit of praise to the Academy for this poster. It’s far and away their best effort — and the only one I’d be proud to paste up on vacant buildings, passing trains, my cubicle wall, etc. I’d like to see a whole movement of disappearing lines written in snowbanks, morning dew, melting butter… Shoot each one vanishing on your cell phone and upload to YouTube or flickr.

  • On February 6, 2009 at 9:32 am Daisy Fried wrote:

    Sorry about the broken link; I’m technologically inept. I tried to fix it but it still didn’t work. Maybe somebody at PoFo could help? In the meantime, Mairead’s link above works.
    Tom–I was thinking the same thing! Blake would be great for this: “Rose thou art sick” or “Tyger tyger…” or “weep weep weep weep.” A rash of the words “so delicious” on a restaurant row somewhere. “You have pissed your life” vindictively outside failing Wall St. firms. The letters L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E ironically placed, say, on the foggy window of an Escalade. “Life, friends, is boring” would be great just about anywhere. I’m sure others will come up with better…
    Daisy

  • On February 6, 2009 at 9:34 am Daisy wrote:

    ps. I think “Praise song” is more of a spondee.

  • On February 6, 2009 at 10:25 am john wrote:

    “Praise song” as a noun is definitely a trochee. As a command, “verb noun,” it’s a spondee.
    Nominee for a catch phrases for Nat’l Poetry Month:
    “you are not great you are life”

  • On February 6, 2009 at 10:41 am C. Dale wrote:

    Some of us do not believe in the “spondee.”

  • On February 6, 2009 at 11:30 am Daisy wrote:

    C. Dale–
    In that in all two-syllable phrases have more stress on one syllable than the other, you mean? I agree, and yet, I find “spondee” useful to describe a foot in which both syllables are closer to each other in stress than not. Thus “Praise Song” is more spondee-ish than, say, than the word “because.” Usefulness perhaps being more important than perfect accuracy in our insufficient scansion system…
    Maybe we could start using that term–”spondee-ish”…
    D.

  • On February 6, 2009 at 2:22 pm Cathy Halley wrote:

    Hello peanut gallery–
    Thanks for all the lively comments. Someone tried to leave an anonymous comment providing a link to the relevant Colbert Report video clip, but Harriet won’t let us publish anonymous comments so I thought I’d share the link myself:
    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/216596/january-21-2009/elizabeth-alexanderhttp://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/216596/january-21-2009/elizabeth-alexander
    Thanks.

  • On February 6, 2009 at 4:20 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    Louis Simpson in his very commendable book “Three on the Tower”
    says that Modern Poetry begins with that first simile in the opening lines of ‘Prufrock’:
    Let us go then, you and I,
    When the evening is spread out against the sky
    Like a patient etherized upon a table . . .
    —if this third line has ever intrigued you, you might find some amusement in my “You Are There” fable of its genesis,
    which you can find by googling
    Knott/ Where Modern Poetry Began

  • On February 6, 2009 at 4:21 pm john wrote:

    Dear Cathy Halley,
    I am afraid you are mistaken. We poets do not comprise a peanut gallery. We are disturbers of the universe.
    Yours sincerely,
    John

  • On February 6, 2009 at 6:01 pm michael robbins wrote:

    The spondee might be rarer than many believe, but not even Tim Steele doubts that they exist: “Come, come,” says Gertrude, to which Hamlet responds, “Go, go.”
    But it is so silly to argue about scansion: nothing is “definitely” a trochee. Any handbook on versification will admit the high degree of subjective judgment that comes into play. My students at the U of C disagreed almost evenly about whether “blow, burn” was a spondee or an iamb with an especially heavy initial unstressed syllable.

  • On February 6, 2009 at 11:16 pm Derek Catermole wrote:

    Anyone else wondering why Henry Gould just keeps popping up with the weirdness? Or have you all decided not to let him disturb your universe?

  • On February 7, 2009 at 8:32 am Daisy wrote:

    Michael– Yeah, the fun of scansion is its indefiniteness. Or, the way it’s half irrelevant and half essential. Daisy

  • On February 7, 2009 at 9:27 am Henry Gould wrote:

    My comment, Derek, was actually addressed to T.S. Eliot. In a backchannel message, the Old Possum wrote : “Henry, I share your fascination with Maximus the Confessor, one of the founders of Western Culture. As you imply, my poetical character Mr. Prufrock is something of a pathetic parody of a true “disturber”, such as St. Maximus. The window’s “written on water” line, taken from my poem, could stand as an ironic warning of the subjective solipsism which perennially threatens the psychology of “ordinary” persons, as well as the artist in particular – not to mention the American poetical scene.”
    Thank you, Mr. Eliot. I hope you will not be disturbed by my purveyance of your otherworldly message to the environs of the Harriet Blog. Requiescat in pace.

  • On February 7, 2009 at 4:33 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    A further thought : the theological/political dilemma & fate of Maximus the Confessor is similar to that of St. Thomas a Becket, the protagonist of Eliot’s verse play, “Murder in the Cathedral”.
    Colbert, in the exchange with our “inaugural poet” above, comically identifies his own self-seeking & self-centered anxiety with the psychological uncertainty of Prufrock. So it’s kind of a parody of a parody. Self-centered narcissism swirling into its own vortex… is this the reigning tone, the attitude which frames the current relation between poetry & the “non-poetry” public? Or is it just a late-night joke.
    What lasts, in art? What deserves to last? I keep thinking of the image of the famous Prufrock line drawn on the windowpane – its fleeting quality, & the unusual method of inscription – in relation to the image of the 80-yr-old, tongueless, imprisoned monk, 1600 yrs ago, writing letters with two willow twigs affixed upon his amputated limb. Some of those letters are still around…

  • On February 7, 2009 at 10:53 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Henry: What lasts, in art? What deserves to last?
    That’s a good question.

  • On February 8, 2009 at 11:14 am Robert Thomas wrote:

    The Colbert interview really was interesting. I think it got at the reason (“metaphor is lie”) for a lot of people’s resistance to poetry. Colbert got the biggest audience cheer when he asked why anyone would say “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” when they could just say “You are hot–let’s do it!” I’m sure certain schools of poetry (not mine) would agree! And as a bonus, Colbert made a great point about Prufrock: the irony of Prufrock saying the mermaids would not sing to him when they obviously were, as he wrote one of the most lasting poems of the century.

  • On February 8, 2009 at 2:10 pm Daisy wrote:

    Actually, Henry, I found the exchange rather moving.
    Parody of parody of feeling is very O’Hara, after all, and O’Hara is often tremendously moving.

  • On February 8, 2009 at 2:47 pm david chirot wrote:

    Isn’t this image just an already overused one–
    a nostrum of long forgotten old tomes of fotos and advertising examples-
    as wel as brand new ones rejuvenating it
    as with al the rediscovred images of “modern” imagery–
    repeating each other not so much as “windows with writing on them”
    as walls of hanging mirrors–
    in a continaul homage to the “ever youthful appearance of the classic cliche”-
    that of the image and saying–
    the moving finger having writ
    in the dust
    moves on
    and repeating the Prufrock line which is of th most concern in a society whose timidity is becoming a Pavlovian reflex–
    Dare i eat a peach?–Dare i wear my trousers unrolled–

  • On February 8, 2009 at 6:48 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I wish I had actually seen it, Daisy. Yours & Robert Thomas’ comments make clear how interesting it must have been. I wasn’t knocking it : comedy is comedy. Funny to see the old Puritan strictures (metaphor is a lie, poetry is fallacious) showing up on late-night.
    For some reason, I have never found Frank O’Hara’s poetry “moving” – though it’s very pleasing & enjoyable. Maybe I’m just tone-deaf to certain ranges. To me he comes across as basically melodramatic & histrionic. He’s a nervously happy excited fellow who uses language as a kind of theatrical tour-de-force. I can see his affinity with Mayakovsky.

  • On February 8, 2009 at 10:53 pm john wrote:

    Scansion is neither irrelevant nor essential. It’s part of one’s experience of language. Why would arguing about that be silly?

  • On February 9, 2009 at 8:22 am Daisy wrote:

    Henry–O’Hara’s death-haunted, though, and all that energy is not just life force, but I think, desperation to not be dead while living… Daisy

  • On February 9, 2009 at 3:12 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Read more carefully. Saying a foot “definitely” adheres to one or another stress pattern is silly. Nothing is “definite” in meter. Arguing in that WAY is silly. One can certainly argue about whether something is a trochee or an iamb or whatever, but “argue” is a bit strong here, since subjectivity plays such an important role, as everyone recognizes.
    Alexander had the opportunity to discuss genealogy & allusion but failed to note that “I hear the mermaids singing” is borrowed from Donne. One wonders whether she even knows that.

  • On February 9, 2009 at 4:34 pm john wrote:

    Michael,
    Write more carefully. “It is so silly to argue about scansion.”
    And yes, something can definitely be a trochee. For instance, the word “instance” as I sound it out in my head as I write it. LOUD-soft. Not LOUD-LOUD. Not soft-LOUD. Not soft-soft. Someone else might pronounce it differently (the subjective element, the social element, the regional element, the dialectal element), but LOUD-soft is “definitely” a trochee, if words have agreed-upon meanings.
    This controversy made me realize that Elizabeth Alexander was probably the first person I had ever heard pronounce the words. In the Colbert interview, she pronounced it more like a spondee than a trochee the first time and more like a trochee the second time. Colbert pronounced it as a trochee when he asked whether it was “a praise song” as opposed to a command.
    The evidence as presented in this post is 2-to-1 in favor of trochee. Others may say it differently. Definitely.

  • On February 9, 2009 at 5:57 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Well, you can think like that if you want to, John, just as you can pretend that sentences end wherever you please (“It is so silly to argue about scansion: nothing is ‘definitely’ a trochee,” for INstance), so that you can make them mean whatever you feel like. You can follow Tweedledum in that practice & in scansion too. But if you think that individual words can be trochees then you have more reading to do than I thought. Nothing, as I & others — say, everyone who’s ever written about versification — have pointed out, is EVER a metrical foot outside a poem, which is to say outside a poem’s metrical context. And yes, believe it or not, scansion does sometimes require us to pronounce words differently than we would in ordinary speech. Again, read some work on the subject. Next you’ll be telling us that we all speak blank verse.

  • On February 9, 2009 at 8:45 pm michael robbins wrote:

    OK, forgive the tone there, please. I’m just saying that metrical feet are technically composed of syllables that occur within poems. We can say that “instance” is usually sounded like a trochee, & we loosely speak of words as iambs or whatever — principally to explain the concepts to students — but in a poem any so-called trochaic word might well be part of an iamb or any other foot — “one in / stance could /”. Versification can’t really take place outside verse, for the very reason that scansion is completely, utterly dependent on context. Tim Steele’s book is, as I think I mentioned, a terrific guide, though rather stodgy at times.

  • On February 10, 2009 at 1:32 am john wrote:

    Scansion in poetry was exactly what I was talking about. Alexander’s pronunciation of “praise song” as a spondee in her poem made me completely miss her intention that she meant to indicate a “praise song” rather than a command that we “praise” “song.” My entire point was that her meaning would have been clearer if she had pronounced these syllables *in her poem* as a trochee.
    Or a dactyl.
    “Pray-is song.”
    Think, southern drawl.

  • On February 10, 2009 at 11:01 am michael robbins wrote:

    I know that, but then you said “instance” was a trochee, outside any poetic context. But this is getting, as I sagely predicted, silly. So I stand athwart the train of scansion & cry Stop.

  • On February 10, 2009 at 11:14 am Don Share wrote:

    Where’s George Saintsbury when you need him?

  • On February 10, 2009 at 1:19 pm john wrote:

    Michael,
    You were completely fine with discussing “praise song” outside of poetic context, and making a dogmatic statement about how it could not “be” a certain metrical foot. Numerous dictionaries give single words as examples of trochees — “apple,” “season” — but you’re right, metrical feet exist in metrical verse. I should have said:
    instance instance instance instance
    instance instance instance instance
    There. Those are “definitely” trochees, at least as most speakers of English (and all dictionaries that I know of) pronounce them. Which was the point of my comment:
    While there are many gray areas and points of subjectivity, there *are* definites in prosody as well.
    I can see why you want this discussion to Stop, because you have been wrong on the substance.

  • On February 10, 2009 at 5:02 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Calm down, John. Everything will be OK. As everyone from Sidney to Saintsbury (since Don brings him up) to Attridge to Steele recognizes, to scan a line is not to insist that everyone will or must read it exactly the same way. Forgetting for the moment that the lines you give are not actually poetry, the context might well demand a subtler reading than trochaic tetrameter. As Steele says, “Though we may all read a line according to the same fundamental scheme, we may individually shade syllables & phrases, depending on our feeling for the poet’s words.” This is about the least controversial point to make about prosody, & despite the shrill tenor of yr comments far less is as stake than you seem to believe. & now I really am done, so feel free to leave a hysterical response, which shall go unanswered.

  • On February 10, 2009 at 6:04 pm john wrote:

    But of course it’s all substance. Thanks for prodding me to put things more clearly.
    Cheers.

  • On February 10, 2009 at 9:19 pm john wrote:

    Michael,
    When I wrote my last comment, yours hadn’t yet appeared. Harriet can be funny that way.
    Shrill? LOL, as the saying goes. Projection, my friend, you are suffering from projection. Stakes? Who around here has been dropping insults from the get-go?
    Hysterical indeed.
    Cheers. Thanks again for the clarification.

  • On February 12, 2009 at 1:27 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Is ‘Praise Song’ ever a trochee? I don’t think so. Iamb or spondee.
    Here it’s an iamb:
    Praise song and all the things you need to praise.
    Here it’s a spondee:
    Her loves? Football, picnics, praise song.

  • On February 13, 2009 at 8:15 am Anonymous wrote:

    The error made on this thread re: versification is a simple one, and that much more devastating for being so simple.
    The principle of versification is a simple and universal one (despite the teaching of the pedants): duration, or time.
    ‘Instance instance instance instance’ is a line of trochaic words which does NOT sound like a trochaic line.
    THIS, however, does sound like a trochaic line:
    Once upon a midnight dreary.
    Why?
    Duration. Even though ‘instance’ has emphasis on the first syllable, IN-stance, it still takes a great deal of TIME to pronounce ‘STANCE.’
    Verse obeys the same principle as Music:
    TIME.
    The rest is…well…we have seen it demonstrated on this thread…

  • On February 13, 2009 at 12:08 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Actually, & uncontroversially, the governing convention of English versification is precisely NOT duration, in contrast to several other languages’ verse: it is stress, or accent. That’s not in dispute. No one — no one — writing about versification ever neglects to point out that English versification is exceptional for having NOTHING TO DO with duration or syllable length. Amazing, really, that one could not only be so far wrong but presume to correct others in public, anonymously. Again, consult Attridge or Steele or anyone else.

  • On February 14, 2009 at 9:54 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Michael,
    I think “Anonymous” is onto something, though s/he’s not completely correct.
    You have to count both duration & stress – in the larger context of the metric chosen, by the poet, for the work as a whole. The pattern sets the rule. This is perhaps why the theory is so snarled : the evidence is always so mixed. It’s a synthesis of both. S/he’s right :
    “‘Instance instance instance instance’ is a line of trochaic words which does NOT sound like a trochaic line.
    THIS, however, does sound like a trochaic line:
    Once upon a midnight dreary.”
    Ok, but……
    PRAISE Song, ON a MIDnight DREAry (OH
    HOW I PONder, WEAK & WEAry
    OVer MANy-a VOLume OF forGOTten LORE) :
    PRAISE Song : PANeGYRic :
    HOW troCHAic CAN you GET?
    So……… John’s right. “Praise song” CAN be trochaic…..

  • On February 15, 2009 at 8:25 am Harriet wrote:

    A reminder, dear readers: you can call yourself Anonymous if you need to wear a disguise. But please supply an e-mail address when you submit your post (which will not be accessible to anyone but our moderators) – else your valuable comments can not be approved. Alrighty?

  • On February 15, 2009 at 8:31 am Thomas Brady wrote:

    Michael,
    With all due respect,
    Don’t you mean ‘pedantically,’ rather than ‘actually and uncontroversially’ when you refer to ‘the governing convention of English versification?’
    ‘No one–no one–writing about versification ever neglects to point out that English versification is exceptional for having NOTHING TO DO with duration…’
    [i]No one[/i]?? Are you quite sure? Have you ever heard of Edgar Allan Poe?
    ‘Amazing’ really, for [i]you[/i] to ‘presume to correct’ me ‘in public’ when you have failed to ‘consult’ the “Rationale of Verse,’ the most rigorous and least pedantic treatment of the subject.
    Nor, it seems, have you consulted your own common sense, but are rather beholden to this ‘governing convention’ of yours, an Idol as impressive as any, I’m sure.
    Before I quote Poe, I will just give an example off the top of my head based on common sense. The word ‘forceful’ is trochaic. We experience, physically, ‘forceful’s’ trochaic quality, in English, by the fact that a speaker takes longer to enunciate ‘force’ than to enunciate ‘ful.’ Is this because the quality of the voice changes as one says the word, or because one shouts ‘force’ and whispers ‘ful?’ No, and one can test this out; for example, if we use ‘forceful’ as the last word in a sentence which is a question, or in any manner at all; it still retains its trochaic character–which is based, as we can hear, on the difference in duration between the two syllables, the long (‘force’) and the short (‘ful).
    This is the law of versification in English which you claim ‘no one writing about versification’ has [i]ever[/i] failed to point out has ‘NOTHING TO DO’ with this at all. ‘Amazing,’ indeed.
    I’ll now give you the Poe so you may purge yourself (in public or in private) in its fire:
    “Ex uno disce omnia. The fact is that Quantity is a point in whose investigation the lumber of mere learning may be dispensed with, if ever in any. Its appreciation is universal. It appertains to no region, nor race, nor era in special. To melody and to harmony the Greeks hearkened with ears precisely similar to those which we employ for similar purposes at present, and I should not be condemned for heresy in asserting that a pendulum at Athens would have vibrated much after the same fashion as does a pendulum in the city of Penn.”
    And one more passage, which really brings the point home. Note how the rigor tames the pedantry:
    “And here let me pause to assert that more pitiable nonsense has been written on the topic of long and short syllables than on any other subject under the sun. [b]In general, a syllable is long or short, just as it is difficult or easy of enunciation. [/b] The natural long syllables are those encumbered — the natural short syllables are those unencumbered with consonants; all the rest is mere artificiality and jargon. The Latin Prosodies have a rule that “a vowel before two consonants is long.” This rule is deduced from “authority” — that is, from the observation that vowels so circumstanced, in the ancient poems, are always in syllables long by the laws of scansion. The philosophy of the rule is untouched, and lies simply in the physical difficulty of giving voice to such syllables — of performing the lingual evolutions necessary for their utterance. Of course, it is not the vowel that is long (although the rule says so) but the syllable of which the vowel is a part. It will be seen that the length of a syllable, depending on the facility or difficulty of its enunciation, must have great variation in various syllables; but for the purposes of verse we suppose a long syllable equal to two short ones: — and the natural deviation from this relativeness we correct in perusal. The more closely our long syllables approach this relation with our short ones, the better, ceteris paribus, will be our verse: but if the relation does not exist of itself, we force it by emphasis, which can, of course, make any syllable as long as desired; — or, by an effort we can pronounce with unnatural brevity a syllable that is naturally too long. Accented syllables are of course always long — but, where unencumbered with consonants, must be classed among the unnaturally long. Mere custom has declared that we shall accent them — that is to say, dwell upon them; but no inevitable lingual difficulty forces us to do so. In fine, every long syllable must of its own accord occupy in its utterance, or must be made to occupy, precisely the time demanded for two short ones.”
    Thanks, Mr. Poe, and happy 200th, by the way!
    And thanks for listening, Michael.
    Yours,
    Thomas Brady

  • On February 15, 2009 at 11:30 am michael robbins wrote:

    Edgar Allen Poe as a master of versification? No, thank you. I’ll take the historical record. Of course there are long & short syllables in English. But what is counted in scansion is accent, not duration, as is proved every time a short syllable receives a stress. That duration & accent often coincide is hardly a refutation of the uncontroversial & indeed pedantic truism that it is accent that we record in our language’s meters, whatever poetasters like Poe believed.

  • On February 15, 2009 at 12:00 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Thanks, John, but I don’t think inserting ‘PRAISE song’ into a trochaic pattern works.
    No reader could pronounce ‘song’ as a short syllable without sounding ridiculous.
    ‘Pattern’ is important, but not so much so that it embraces error to its bosom. Or, to put it another way, you are guilty of favoring one pattern over another.
    The line may not violate the foot, even if the line’s pattern is inviolable–and this is perhaps the source of your error; you assume there cannot be two inviolable patterns (line and foot) at once.
    Praise song, as I have said, can be either spondaic or iambic, but not trochaic.
    The closest to making ‘praise song’ sound trochaic might be:
    “Praise song, love song, know song, Mary!
    But compare the above to this trochaic line, again:
    “Once upon a midnight dreary”
    And one realizes that ‘praise song’ will NOT be wrenched into a trochee, simply because it takes too long to enunciate the ‘NG’ at the end of ‘song.’
    If one dropped the ‘g’ and pronounced ‘song’ as ‘soh,’ then my line would move into trochaic category, and I’m sure a rock singer could pull it off, but I’m not sure a reader of poetry could.
    This is trochaic:
    Praise me. love me, know me, Mary.

  • On February 15, 2009 at 2:57 pm anonanew wrote:

    You are certainly right that Poe was not pedantic– he was dogmatic. But he was the absolute opposite of rigorous– which does not by itself mean that he was mistaken about English prosody, though he was mistaken about English prosody.
    You are mistaken about it too, for several reasons. Here’s one obvious reason: http://americanspeech.dukejournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/82/4/367. But the more general reason is that you are confusing linguistic prosody (a grossly simplistic version of which lies behind your bald assertion that it takes longer for a speaker (?!) to pronounce “force” than “ful”) with what you call a “law of versification in English,”
    Because vowel duration in English is not phonemically contrastive, it is at best a secondary cue for even distinguishing vowel identity. (The distinction that does matter phonemically in English is “tense” and “lax,” which can correlate, though imperfectly, with duration).
    There is (to put it mildly) disagreement about the role duration plays in English-language speech processing. One study– Dietrich, C., Swingley, D., & Werker, J. F. (2007). Native language governs interpretation of salient speech sound differences at 18 months. Proceedings of the National Academy of
    Sciences of the U.S., 104(41), 16027-16031– suggests that native English speaking infants lose their acutest ability to routinely perceive durational differences at about 18 months. (Japanese speakers will retain it, because in Japanese, the difference between words can depend entirely on vowel duration.)
    Even if this study is not decisive (and there is some dispute about it) your “common sense” isn’t going to settle the question about what the relation between the perceptibility of duration and the role that linguistic prosody plays in determining poetic prosody– it barely even comprehends the question.

  • On February 15, 2009 at 5:14 pm Thomas Brady wrote:

    Anonanew,
    Thanks for your remarks–of which I can make neither heads nor tails.
    I quoted Poe saying, “Of course, it is not the vowel that is long (although the rule says so) but the syllable of which the vowel is a part.”
    You respond with this: “Because vowel duration in English is not phonemically contrastive, it is at best a secondary cue for even distinguishing vowel identity. (The distinction that does matter phonemically in English is “tense” and “lax,” which can correlate, though imperfectly, with duration).”
    Who said anything about “vowel identity?”
    Did you read my post?
    The link to the Duke study did not work for me, but frankly, you have failed to show me where I (or Poe) have gone wrong, nor have you provided any counter-examples.
    The sum impression I get from your post is that of a miffed person striking at what they cannot see.

  • On February 15, 2009 at 7:44 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Thomas Brady, let me guess – you;’e not from the Midwest. Either that, or you haven’t spoken English out loud in some time.
    In my diffident part of the country, “Praise song” – referring here to a type of song (panegyric) – certainly could be trochaic. “Song” sounds a lot like “son”, where I come from. You have to be careful not to chop general understated mellifluousness too harshly into your binary metrical word processor.
    “Say Blanche, what’s panegryric?”
    “Why, it’s PRAISE song, honey.”

  • On February 16, 2009 at 8:30 am thomas brady wrote:

    Anonanew,
    It’s nice of you to ponder the “role ‘linguistic prosody plays in determining poetic prosody,” but versification is the subject under discussion, and more specifically the question: what type of rhythm is manifested by ‘plain song?’
    Actual examples have been presented here, and this seems to me the most expedient manner in which to carry forth an investigation–one in which common sense does prevail and we don’t get all tangled up in one type of English prosody shedding light on another, due to some Duke University Speech study. I would rather avoid that rabbit hole, unless you wish to speak of the Duke Speech study in a manner the rest of us can comprehend.
    You may have any opinion of Poe in general you wish; dogmatic is rather close to pedantic, and Poe is neither; have you read “The Rationale of Verse?” One of the more interesting aspects of “Rationale of Verse” is the way it shows how verse and language illuminate one another. You seem to want to see them as separate things, but Poe is less–shall we say, dogmatic–on the question, and you might notice this if you care to peruse what he has written.
    I quoted Poe saying, “Of course, it is not the vowel that is long (although the rule says so) but the syllable of which the vowel is a part.”
    You respond with this: “Because vowel duration in English is not phonemically contrastive, it is at best a secondary cue for even distinguishing vowel identity. (The distinction that does matter phonemically in English is “tense” and “lax,” which can correlate, though imperfectly, with duration).”
    Who said anything about “vowel identity?”
    Poe said, “it is not the vowel that is long…” Did you not read this correctly?
    You also say ‘tense’ and ‘lax’ (which I assume refer to enunciatory muscle action) “can correlate…with duration.” Yes, I would hope so.
    Sincerely,
    Thomas Brady

  • On February 16, 2009 at 10:33 am Thomas Brady wrote:

    Oh dear, this is not much of a real time conversation, is it?
    Posts don’t appear right away, so it gets rather confusing.
    Michael Robbins says,
    “I’ll take the historical record.”
    I don’t think it’ll have you.
    Unless you refer to the ‘historical record’ that says you are a genius and Poe a mere pup. In that case, I’m sure you’ll ‘take it.’
    Accent is the cause, of which duration is the inevitable effect. As Poe pointed out, Greek hexameters don’t work in English, but he shows this is due to babel, not science. The pedants–who are legion–would throw out the science and keep the babel.
    Henry,
    Chahmed, ahm shu-ahr.
    I love examples, and you have provided one!
    “Pa-RAISE son’, HON-ey” is cheatin’ a bit, but ah give you an A for tryin’!
    “Pa-RAISE ‘son” is no trochee what’s that ah evuh did see.
    Don’ you know rock stahs sound Southern? Evuh heard Mick Jagguh?
    An’ ah did mention Rock Stahs.

  • On February 16, 2009 at 11:26 am michael robbins wrote:

    There has been, throughout this discussion, a persistent confusion of speech stress & metrical accent. It is simply not the case that duration is the cause of accent, & this is obvious when one reads poems wherein stress is granted to syllables that do not naturally receive stress in speech. As Timothy Steele writes, in contrast to length-based meters such as Greek & Latin, “English meter measures stress, which depends not only on phonemics & phonetics, but also on verbal, grammatical, & rhetorical context. To determine metrical values, we must look at more than the intrinsic nature of the syllable.” Again, this is obvious: the shorter syllable of a foot often receives stress, while the longer is unaccented. And it’s not in dispute. LOL, once more, at Poe’s being held as a paragon of metrical comprehension — one of the few English poets (as Harold Bloom noted) to improve by translation, largely because you couldn’t produce anything as bad as the original.

  • On February 16, 2009 at 12:35 pm anonanew wrote:

    Thomas, if you can’t argue in good faith (“did you read what I wrote?”), this will be the last time I respond to you. I read what you wrote and I disagree with it. I have read and disagree with Poe too, precisely because I find him to be mistaken in what he thinks verse shows him about the nature of language. You can point to Poe, but if Poe isn’t right on the empirical point, his authority doesn’t make your argument stronger. I’m happy to try to explain my argument if it was unclear.
    When you (and Poe) are talking about the length of time it takes to pronounce a syllable or a word, you are already talking linguistics (specifically, phonetics)– and you are taking a piece of linguistic data to determine the laws of versification. There are several reasons why the examples you cite don’t show what you mean for them to show. I’ve suggested two:
    1) Regional variation. There is no fixed or even steady duration for a particular syllable. This was also Henry’s point, and the Duke study provides just a bit of empirical evidence for that common sense claim. (Don’t know why the link doesn’t work, sorry; but the study is straightforward, not a thicket, and there’s no reason why you or anyone would have trouble comprehending it.).
    2) The structure of English. Poe’s claim about “the physical difficulty of giving voice to such syllables” is one instance of a dogmatic assertion masquerading as analytic rigor. I cited the bit about vowels to suggest that even if it were true that the particular syllables that Poe thinks are difficult to voice are in fact difficult to voice (and he gives us no particular reason to accept this), the differences are not so great as to overcome a native English speaker’s general (though not total) insensitivity to duration. In other words, one reason duration (of vowels, of syllables, what have you) is not a strong candidate for structuring English versification is because we don’t hear it very well, and the reason we don’t hear it well in syllables has to do with the particular demands (in this case, a lack of demands) that English vowels make during early language acquisition.

  • On February 17, 2009 at 8:50 am thomas brady wrote:

    Michael,
    You write, “There has been, throughout this discussion, a persistent confusion of speech stress & metrical accent. It is simply not the case that duration is the cause of accent, & this is obvious when one reads poems wherein stress is granted to syllables that do not naturally receive stress in speech.”
    First of all, I said accent was the cause of duration, not the other way around, as you have written above.
    Secondly, there has been no “confusion” on my part between “speech stress & metrical accent,” nor was there any confusion re: “speech stress & metrical accent” on Poe’s part. You are obviously not familiar with Poe’s ‘Rationale of Verse.’
    As for ‘speech study links,’ I don’t see great harm in using “linguistic” ideas in discussing versification; in fact, Poe does so very astutely.
    If you will indulge me, let me quote a couple more passages from ‘The Rationale of Verse,’ for I fear we are rushing to conclusions on this work without having read it. One can see Poe was acutely aware of the variety involved, and below he speaks to all the qualifications voiced on this thread:
    “The perception of pleasure in the equality of sounds is the principle of Music. Unpracticed ears can appreciate only simple equalities, such as are found in ballad airs. While comparing one simple sound with another they are too much occupied to be capable of comparing the equality subsisting between these two simple sounds taken conjointly, and two other similar simple sounds taken conjointly. Practiced ears, on the other hand, appreciate both equalities at the same instant, although it is absurd to suppose that both are heard at the same instant. One is heard and appreciated from itself, the other is heard by the memory, and the instant glides into and is confounded with the secondary appreciation. Highly cultivated musical taste in this manner enjoys not only these double equalities, all appreciated at once, but takes pleasurable cognizance, through memory, of equalities the members of which occur at intervals so great that the uncultivated taste loses them altogether. That this latter can properly estimate or decide on the merits of what is called scientific music is of course impossible. But scientific music has no claim to intrinsic excellence; it is fit for scientific ears alone. In its excess it is the triumph of the physique over the morale of music. The sentiment is overwhelmed by the sense. On the whole, the advocates of the simpler melody and harmony have infinitely the best of the argument, although there has been very little of real argument on the subject.
    In verse, which cannot be better designated than as an inferior or less capable Music, there is, happily, little chance for complexity. Its rigidly simple character not even Science — not even Pedantry can greatly pervert.
    The rudiment of verse may possibly be found in the spondee. The very germ of a thought seeking satisfaction in equality of sound would result in the construction of words of two syllables, equally accented. In corroboration of this idea we find that spondees most abound in the most ancient tongues.”
    *********************************
    “It is the business of the poet so to construct his line that the intention must be caught at once. Even when these men have precisely the same understanding of a sentence, they differ and often widely, in their modes of enunciating it. Any one who has taken the trouble to examine the topic of emphasis, (by which I here mean not accent of particular syllables, but the dwelling on entire words,) must have seen that men emphasize in the most singularly arbitrary manner. There are certain large classes of people, for example, who persist in emphasizing their monosyllables. Little uniformity of emphasis prevails; because the thing itself — the idea, emphasis, — is referable to no natural — at least to no well comprehended and therefore uniform law. Beyond a very narrow and vague limit, the whole matter is conventionality. And if we differ in emphasis even when we agree in comprehension, how much more so in the former when in the latter too! Apart, however, from the consideration of natural disagreement, is it not clear that, by tripping here and mouthing there, any sequence of words may be twisted into any species of rhythm? But are we thence to deduce that all sequences of words are rhythmical in a rational understanding of the term? — for this is the deduction, precisely to which the reductio ad absurdum will, in the end, bring all the propositions of Coleridge. Out of a hundred readers of “Christabel,” fifty will be able to make nothing of its rhythm, while forty-nine of the remaining fifty will, with some ado, fancy they comprehend it, after the fourth or fifth perusal. The one out of the whole hundred who shall both comprehend and admire it at first sight — must be an unaccountably clever person — and I am by far too modest to assume, for a moment, that that very clever person is myself.”
    The subject is difficult, and Poe is cognizant of the difficulty. Most call the subject impossible and study as little of it as possible—and become indignant that Poe dares to find some delight in overcoming a difficulty.
    Poe-hating is a strange phenomenon; professor Harold Bloom felt the need to diminish Poe because the poet wildly succeeded in French. Bloom’s quirky remark was not original; he got the idea (if such a thing can be called an idea) from T.S. Eliot, who borrowed it from Aldous Huxley.


Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, February 5th, 2009 by Daisy Fried.