The word cadence comes up repeatedly when people are talking about the poet’s ear. With respect to poetry, it denotes “rhythm, rhythmical construction, measure” or in Samuel Johnson’s words, “the flow of verses or periods” (OED). More generally, it refers to rising and falling (especially falling) rhythms, vocal or otherwise, or in music, the “conclusion or ‘close’ of a musical movement or phrase.” This flowing or falling towards closure is a big part of poetic “ear.” Someone with a good ear will know more acutely than others when a sonic sequence will finish playing itself out, will know further in advance which foot will first hit the curb across the street. This is surely what Pound meant in his 1948 comment about the importance of “the tone leading of vowels.” The poet’s ear, then, has always been as much about the relations between sounds (rhythm, measure, syntax, etc.) as the sounds themselves. I would argue that the classical metaphor of “flow” has been extended and in some ways supplanted, at least in postmodern practice, by what Language poet Ron Silliman has called “torque.”

In its application in physics and mechanics, torque is defined as “The twisting or rotary force in a piece of mechanism (as a measurable quantity); the moment of a system of forces producing rotation” (OED). Moment, in its basic mathematical sense, means “any of various functions describing torsional effects, generally having the form of the product of a force and a distance; spec. the turning effect produced by a force.” In Silliman's usage, torque thus becomes a figure for the way syntactic deviations, line breaks, and other aspects of textual arrangement enforce dramatic shifts of direction and attention, enabling the poem to play on readerly expectations, to swerve or twist away from a strict construal or single valence.

Techniques such as enjambment and off-rhyme have historically served to temper prosodic rigidity, creating a mimetic suggestion of “naturalness.” Their chief aim for centuries was to buttress and enhance underlying structure, not to negate or deform it. But at some point in the last hundred years or so, deviations from prosodic “flow” began to take on an increasingly autonomous valuation. Torque may be seen as the point at which poetic swerving broaches perversity, where the per- prefix signifies an intensity or completeness of the “versity” or quality of turning, where prosodic and semantic turns sharpen into pronounced torsion or tortuousness.

Verse enjambment induces torque by effecting a modulation that is experienced as a curvilinear irregularity in syntactic “flow.” This could mean a) setting up an expectation of a certain continuity that must subsequently be revised, or b) creating a patterned (e.g., spiral) alternation between normative syntactic structure and the artificial divisions imposed by linebreaks. Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man” uses enjambment to redivert the reader’s syntactic focus continually:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

With the exception of the lines ending “car” and “going,” each linebreak is in direct tension with the syntactic “flow.” The effect is comparable to what happens when a strip of film gets out of alignment and part of the top of the picture is visible at the bottom. It creates the disorienting sensation that one is going both quickly and slowly at the same time, or that two versions of the same event are unfolding at different speeds but are nevertheless in sync with each other on some rhythmic level. If the grammatical contents of the poem are the axis, the elements that are in torsion around it are the two distinct formal phenomena of a) the reader’s syntactic expectations, and b) the actual enjambed disruptions of those expectations.

For my next and final installment in these posts on ear, I’ll look at a poem constructed around even more radical effects of torque.

Originally Published: April 22nd, 2013

K. Silem Mohammad is the author of several books of poetry, including Deer Head Nation (2003), A Thousand Devils (2004) Breathalyzer (2008), and The Front (2009). In The Sonnagrams (2009), Mohammad anagrammatizes Shakespeare’s sonnets into all-new English sonnets in iambic pentameter. He is also editor of the poetry magazine Abraham Lincoln and faculty editor...