English prosody depends on identifying syllables and stresses (or accented and unaccented syllables). To indicate which syllables receive emphasis, the convention is to use an acute accent (') and for syllables receiving less emphasis to use a breve ("). The first line of Robert frost's "Birches" would thus be scanned as follows: "When i see birches bend to left and right." Against this underlying rhythm, which operates throughout the poem, a reader might add less repetitive rhythmic emphasis appropriate to the sense of the passage. Scansion is the process of identifying the stressed and unstressed syllables of a particular poem and noting how they are arranged in patterns.
Rhythm and meter are not synonymous. Meter is a specific form (or variety of forms) of rhythm; more specifically, meter is an arrangement of syllables that underlies a rhythm. Perhaps the most common form of meter is iambic pentameter, in which each line of poetry contains 10 syllables, with every other syllable accented (sometimes a group of syllables will not follow the iambic pattern, yet the majority of groups of syllables do). The line from Frost cited above is an example. Iambic pentameter that does not rhyme is called blank verse. Some theorists have argued that rhythm is a subtler term than meter, since it includes sound effects that cannot easily be described by the language used to understand meter.
Free verse is most simply defined as nonmetrical poetry. A subtler definition would note that free verse may have meter and rhyme, though not in a strict, repeated pattern, such as iambic pentameter. The critic
Charles Hartman says, "Free verse, like all verse, is prosodically ordered and not aimless" (24). Prosody also includes efforts to explain the irregular rhythms of free verse, as well as the effects of meter and rhyme.
Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855) is the first major work of American poetry to be written in free verse. But, as Chris Beyers explains in A History of Free Verse, unmetered verse existed in English and American poetry before Whitman, notably in parts of the King James version of the Bible, in the prophetic books of romantic William Blake, and in the 18th-century work of Christopher Smart. The effect of Whitman's long free verse lines in Leaves of Grass was not to be felt strongly until the 20th century, long after Whitman's death in 1892. In the first half of the 20th century, most free verse poets were trying to define their own styles as distinct from Whitman's.
After Whitman's practice came the work and theories of Ezra pound, William Carlos WILLIAMS, and Charles olson. Pound wanted to break with the metrical tradition by identifying a more flexible organizing principle—cadence. Making an analogy with musical structure, Pound claimed that cadence had been the basis for the rhythms of good poetry since the classical Greeks (Beyers 19).
The word cadence comes from the Latin cadere, meaning "to fall." It refers to the rise and fall of the voice in speaking, though the term may refer to modulations of tone as well. Most loosely, cadence refers to the rhythmic flow of the whole poem and serves to remind us that traditional prosody is more a matter of how the lines sound when read aloud than of how they appear on the white space of the page. But some 20th-century poets, such as Williams, were concerned with both the sound of verse and the appearance of the poem on the page.
Pound's musical analogy raises the question of duration, a concept borrowed from Greek and Latin poetry to interpret the auditory dimension of both metrical and free verse lines. Duration refers to how long it takes to say a particular syllable out loud. In English, however, unlike Greek and Latin, there are no agreed-upon measures of syllabic duration in the practice of poetry. Although linguists analyze duration, there is no fixed vocabulary for discussing specific durations in poetic practice. The lack of such a standard means that a reading of a given line or poem based on the duration of the sounds in the line depends on the highly subjective and variable interpretation of the individual reader.
Pound's idea, "to break the pentameter, that was the first heave," current long before he articulated it in canto LXXXI (of the cantos), set forth a cause that Pound's friend Williams elaborated on under the term, variable foot (Williams 289). Williams claimed that traditional meter was "wholly unrelated to our language" (quoted in Beyers 187). Williams used variable foot to describe means other than metrical scansion to determine the length of the poetic line.
Although there is still no agreed-upon way of "measuring" its form, free verse was, through most of the 20th century, the dominant mode or style of poetry. Few notable 20th-century American poets wrote no free verse, and several notable ones wrote only free verse, including Allen GINSBERG and Marianne moore. Many poets, in fact, have written in both metered and free verse forms, including Theodore roethke and Adrienne rich. It is possible to write in rhyme and not in meter or to use alliteration (similar consonant sounds at the beginnings of words), consonance (generally, similar consonant sounds), or assonance (similar vowel sounds) to provide form in a poem. Pound's famous two-line poem, "In a Station of the Metro," though nonmetrical, used assonance in the words crowd and bough. Advocates of free verse have argued that such subtleties of sound are more likely in free verse than in metered verse, and considerable artistry is required to achieve them.
Free verse has been studied extensively with the goal of finding a way to indicate the rhythm of free verse lines. Most analysts have been forced to fall back on the examination of stressed and unstressed syllables or to borrow terminology, such as the phoneme (an abstract, written entity that corresponds to a sound made in speech) from linguistics. More comprehensive and successful attempts to understand the workings of free verse have taken into account the visual and grammatical as well as the auditory reasons for establishing line breaks.
Enjambment designates the carrying over of sentence syntax from one line to the next. Williams relies heavily on enjambment for his poetic effects. In "Poem" (1934), for instance, which begins "As the cat / climbed over," a single sentence is sustained without punctuation through the 12 lines of the poem. The movement of the sentence thus imitates the cat's smooth climbing over various obstacles, an effect Williams might say would be impossible with rhyme and meter dictating consistency.
The study of the forms of free verse encourages readers to look beyond the regular rise and fall of meter to find more complex and individual elements of order, including grammar and syntax. "In a Station of the Metro," for example, ends each line with a break in the syntax. Each of the two lines of the poem is a grammatical unit, though, interestingly, the poem as a whole is not a sentence but simply the two parallel noun-based phrases, each of which has embedded in it a prepositional phrase.
For most free verse poets, the form of the poem evolves from the inner necessity of the poem's meaning rather than the form being a rigid external pattern that the poem's "meaning" must be made to fit. For example, Olson's formulation in his 1950 essay "Projective Verse" (which he attributes to Robert creeley), "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT" (387), echoes Ralph Waldo Emerson's "meter-making argument" in "The Poet" (1844), which influenced Whitman. In other words, for Olson, as for Emerson, content should create form, not be made to fit a preexisting form (see ars poeticas.)
Although Williams's application of the term variable foot can be confusing, it is at least clear that he was concerned with establishing a standard by which the integrity of the free verse line might be judged. In a given poem, Williams's lines tend to look the same. They are relatively short, often characterized by stairstep indentation, and grouped in threes. Although Williams used enjambment a great deal for various effects of meaning and sound, he started with the syntactical unit (the phrase or clause) as the basis of the line. According to Beyers, "What Williams was after, and what he spent his entire career pursuing, was the sound not of words but of meaning" (216). The sense, or meaning, of the sentences therefore tends to take precedence over the line breaks.
olson's "Projective Verse"—his theory of "open field" poetics—has often been cited as a seminal document laying out the principles of "composition by field." olson proposes "projective" verse as a desirable alternative to "closed" verse, "which print bred and which is pretty much what we have had in English & American, and have still got, despite the work of Pound & Williams" (386). Olson argues that "composition by field" makes the poem a transfer of energy "from where the poet got it . . . by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader" (387).
The basis of olson's organic conception of form is human breathing. Where a practitioner of traditional prosody, such as Frost, hears in meter the regular orderly rhythm of breath and heartbeat, olson hears constraint. olson therefore shifts emphasis from the causal rhythm of meter—against which syntax, tone of voice, duration, and so on are played—to an open form in which syntax, breath pauses in speech, and modulations of meaning and tone become the dominant rhythm of the poem.
For olson, as for more traditional prosodists, the syllable (or its audible counterpart, the phoneme) "is the king and pin of versification, what rules and holds together the lines, the larger forms, of a poem" (388). Although Olson is not particularly coherent about exactly how the syllable is supposed to work in pro-jective verse, he does explain that "the two halves" (of poetic practice, presumably) are the syllable, which he identifies with "the HEAD, by way of the EAR," and the line, which he identifies with "the HEART, by way of the BREATH" (390).
The line, for olson, follows Williams's practice of making form, in olson's words, "an extension of content." Although theories about free verse have often attempted to identify or establish rules by which to judge the form, free verse remains flexible and various in practice. But then, much of free verse has been an effort to inject new energy and complexity into the literary form called "poetry."
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