the map that hangs by me (or, thomas hardy, or, blogging the MSA, part two)

It's neat to see someone you know is a very sharp critic give a smart talk (or to see someone whose poems you expect to like read new, good poems), but it's even neater in some ways to come across truly informative arguments from a critic you've never encountered at all. The best paper I heard in Long Beach by a critic whose name I'd never before seen was also one of the best, and most ambitious, arguments about poetry I've heard all year: the critic was Eve Sorum, and the argument had to do with the poetry of Thomas Hardy, the late-Victorian practice of cartography, and the debate about how to read English metres which was taking place while Hardy wrote his poems. Which poems? What debate? What maps? Huh? More below the fold.

Sorum starts with this poem of Hardy's, "The Place on the Map," a mysterious minor lyric in which the poet (or, in an earlier version, a schoolmaster) examines a map and remembers-- well, something; it's not clear what-- that took place at a seaside spot the map indicates. Whatever happened there, it put an end to the "weeks and weeks" of seaside love Hardy and his beloved enjoyed: "the map revives her words, the spot, the time,/ And the thing we found we had to face," which mysterious thing-- suspected bigamy? suspected pregnancy? infidelity? the poem itself does not say-- put an end to their heavenly time. (The poem may belong to the famous group of sad poems Hardy wrote after the death of his first wife, Emma; it's in the same book, though not part of the famous sequence.)
I'm not going to do justice here to Eve Sorum's argument, but I can say that it did what all the best arguments about poetry do-- it took me deeper into the poem; like most of the best such arguments these days, it started way outside that poem, with the cartographers who are deciding how to make accurate maps of England, and with the debaters (among them Coventry Patmore) who are having an argument about whether English metre is "really" composed of feet with two or three syllables, or whether instead it's "dipodic," having feet (as in the scansion of classical languages) which often contain two strong beats.
Sorum convinced me that the poem's weird scansion-- most of the stanzas have first lines of five or six feet, then seven, then three, then six for the rest of each stanza-- mimics the movements, in the poem, between past and present, which is to say between territory and map (I hope I got that part of it right). These stanzas also try to turn the poet's movement between past and present (his movement within memory, in time) into the record of a place: they create a sort of "thematic map," which is to say that the poem itself is like a map, which is to say, too (though she didn't say this) that this poem of Hardy's really resembles, and may even be one source for, Elizabeth Bishop's much-quoted poem "The Map."
Sorum also thinks-- and here I want to read more on the topic: I'm interested, but not convinced-- that Hardy is experimenting with dipodic metre, crafting at least some of his lines in a way that (according to dipodic metre's advocates) speaks to the history of the English language, a way that keeps faith with that language, just as the man in the poem wishes he could keep faith with the beloved who vanishes into his past.
There are several versions of "dipodic metre," and several ways to take this argument. I'm not sure from Sorum whether the mode of English scansion Patmore advocated, and Hardy (if we believe her) contemplated, was the dipodic metre Annie Finch says Poetry Foundation blogger Patricia Smith uses really well (I think the latter is a way to hear ballads, whereas the former is a unit of analysis applicable to many stanzas and lines). I myself don't hear lots of two-beat units within most lines from this poem of Hardy's, whose hexameter conclusions remind me instead of his poem about the Titanic. Hexameters like Hardy's tend either to break in half, into trimeters, or to hold up as integrated units: which one, and when, can determine the sound of a poem. Moreover I'm not sure how much the maps in this poem, or the maps in the other poem she discussed, are informed by the history of maps. (I'm fascinated by maps these days; I'm writing about poems and maps myself, though not about Hardy.)
I am sure, though, that these arguments about how lines in a poem are like spots on a map, and how both are like Hardy's versions of memory and of metre, made me want to read more-- more Hardy, of course, and more about Hardy (especially this book by Dennis Taylor, which true Hardy-heads have always already read), but also more of Sorum's own claims about how to read a poem, how other people hear the poems I read, and how everyone used to read English maps. There's not much more, from a critic, that I can ask.

Originally Published: November 6th, 2007

Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. Burt has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006),...

  1. November 7, 2007
     Alicia (A.E.)

    Hi Steve--thanks for bringing us back to the subject of poems! It sounds like this talk had some overlap of ideas, too, with your own interesting presentation on landscape in poems at ALSC. I've just been rereading Hardy.
    The poem swings prettily easily into dipodic verse for me--(though as is often the case it takes a couple of lines to pick up--or pick up on--the momentum). Hardy is the king of nonce verse forms, but they all have their internal logic, and this no different--this scans quite regularly, with the stanzas all going (in dipodic measure):
    3 strong beats (i.e., "For the wonder and the wormwood of the whole")
    4 strong beats
    2 strong beats
    3 strong beats
    As if he has in the first two lines divided up a heptameter, and in the second, divided up a pentameter line.
    The Victorians--and the Georgians--were engaged in all kinds of interesting metrical experiments that got thrown out with the bathwater in the vers libre movement. Alas, much post-Victorian metrical poetry (at least in the US) has gone back to an almost 18th century rigidity.
    Since I doubt dipodic verse is all that familiar to most people, I am tempted to do a separate post on the issue...

  2. November 27, 2007
     Annie FInch

    Hi Steve and Alicia, It’s so good to see a post involving prosody here that I will plunge right into the thread…. By dipodic, I mean not anything to do with a number of stresses, but the alternation of strong and weak stresses in each line, so the line swings along as if on two different “feet.” (this is the definition explored by Housman in the famous footnote to his essay “The Name and Nature of Poetry,” where he makes great claims for the future of dipodic meter). A famous example is Gilbert and Sullivan’s
    I AM the VERy MODel OF a MODern MAJor GENerAL
    (My bold isn't coming out here so I'll just say that the caps are in bold on the syllables AM, MOD, MOD, and GEN to indicate the stronger stresses)
    Many strongly metrical poems can easily be heard as dipodic; Poe’s “The Raven, ” for example, can fall without much effort into a pattern of alternating strong and weak trochees:
    WHILE i PONDered, WEAK and WEARy.
    (Caps are bold on WHILE and WEAK to indicate the stronger stresses)
    A more complex example, both because it doesn’t make any metrical sense unless you hear the dipodic pattern, and because it also has a strong caesura in the middle, is Meredith’s “Love in the Valley”:
    NEAR the FACE of DAWN, that || DRAWS aTHWART the DARKness
    THREADing IT with COLour, || like YEWberRIES the YEW.
    (caps are bold on NEAR, DAWN, DRAWS,and DARk, and on THREAD, COL, YEW, and YEW, to indicate stronger stresses)
    The Gilbert and Sullivan song might be called iambic-dipodic, since it alternates strong and week iambs. The Meredith would be trochaic-dipodic, alternating strong and weak trochees.
    At first I heard the Hardy poem as dipodic, but now I really don’t think it is. If it were dipodic, it would have to be trochaic-dipodic, I think, like “The Raven.” That scansion would work pretty well for this line:
    SHE in FORMed me WHAT would HAPpen BY and BY.
    (caps are bold on SHE, WHAT, and the first BY to indicate the stronger stresses)
    But not well at all for this line:
    COLoured PURPle, WITH a MARgin OF blue SEA.
    (caps are bolld on COL, WITH, and OF to indicate the stronger stresses)
    Dipodics is not the kind of meter that poets tend to vary much–it’s too easy to lose track of the pattern–and a poet of Hardy’s ear would not be likely to stress “of” more than “sea.”
    Good prosodists tend to subscribe to he Occam’s razor principle of scansion–the simpler, the better–and I think in this case the simplest and most accurate scansion of “The Place on the Map” would be not dipodic at all but iambic. Hardy does use some fairly daring variations in the iambic meter. Each stanza has a pattern of varying line-lengths: a pentameter, a heptameter, a trimeter, and another pentameter. There are plenty of anapests, especially in the third and fourth last line of each stanza. But he doesn’t do anything that breaks the iambic pattern. Iambic meter is the only scansion that makes sense of not only the two lines I just looked at–
    She inFORM/ed me WHAT/ would HAP/pen BY /and BY
    colored PUR/ple WITH /a MAR/ gin OF/ blue SEA
    and also of all the other lines in the poem.
    The paper you heard sounds fascinating in so many ways, but unless there are scansions there that will convince me otherwise (if there are, I’d love to see them and will happily change my mind), I think the dipodic part of the argument is not valid. Though Hardy did use some noniambic meters (among the most memorable, to my ear, the dactyls of “The Voice,”) “The Place on the Map” is an iambic poem, as is most of his poetry. Generally, he was more adventurous in terms of form (how the stanzas are built in temrs of rhyme, line length, etc) than meter.
    Thanks, Steve, for the intriguing post.…