Thursday, June 25, 2009
I say striking because I am hard pressed to recall any moment during my university education when a professor enjoined us to consider the metrical construction of a Shakespearean sonnet, a 17th century Donne poem, or the variations on metre introduced in Whitman’s poems in the 19th century or by Eliot and Pound in the 20th century. Judging by what I’ve heard from others, I doubt formal scansion is a prerequisite at many schools. Should it be? With the presence of so much free or open verse, some might answer No. I'll leave the counter arguments to another day and for the moment focus on some basic premises underlying both free and traditional form, while offering a few observations.
So what is rhythm anyway? Simply put: a recurrent sequence of accents at predictable intervals…first experienced by the fetus with the beating of its mother’s heart, later with its own breathing and by the natural and unnatural sounds and occurrences that surround us throughout our lives: the sound of our walking, phases of the moon and changing of the seasons, waves breaking on the shore, the sound of someone slapping dough to make bread, children playing jump rope, couples in coitus, sports like running and rowing and badminton.
While the argument for nature’s role in rhythm makes a kind of intuitive good sense I wonder about the extent of culture’s role in our understanding and use of rhythm. Rhythm is something we understand as a more deliberate pleasure in the songs we learn as children, as we learn to dance, play an instrument, etc., in other words as a product of cultural experience. But a longer view of “culture” is required here; rhythm as a facet of cultural learning occurs not solely within our own lifetimes and the framework of existing or current culture, but may have already occurred, worked out centuries, perhaps millennia before, as a product of pre-linguistic and early linguistic culture.
Consider, for example, the length of time it took African rhythm to find its way into popular Western music (e.g. Delta blues, Rock and Roll). No fewer than four centuries passed – from the beginnings of the African slave trade in the 16th century to the cotton fields of 19th century southern US to the jazz clubs and big band sounds of Chicago and New York of the 20th century – before Africa was recognized as the progenitor of modern pop music rhythm. I speculate that through out this time there occurred an acculturation of the western ear to distinct African rhythms.
Central to the pleasure that African rhythms gives us is the meshing of regular and irregular beats or accents while we dance - or, as we eventually discover within a line of music or poetry.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
What poetry and music both use are accents "to divide passing time into measurable units." The difference, says Corn, is that music provides "a precise notation of that division in a way that poetry does not.” Music employs beats with a fixed number of these within a bar, the first beat being the strongest, something poetry does not do (and only infrequently employing an initial strong beat at the beginning of a line). Poetry relies instead on the “variable energy required to articulate syllables of each word” coupled to the regular occurrence of accent.
Music composers provide separate rhythmic notation; poets do not. “In poetry, rhythmic notation is fused with the actual words of poems themselves.” Read by a single voice, poetry does not provide an equivalent to musical harmony. Nor does it employ timbre as music does - timbre in poetry depending on the arbitrary quality of the speaker’s voice. Poetry appeals instead to the ear "based on the interplay between vowels and consonants and their noticeable recurrence.” Corn stresses, however, that poetry remains "primarily concerned with the regulation of rhythmic accent.”
In short, the differences between poetry and music far outweigh their similarities. Will this stop people from continuing to draw positive comparisons between the two? Not likely. Scholars will remind us that the word “feet” to describe the division of a poetic line has its roots in ancient Greek poetry, which was accompanied by music and dance. Harmony undoubtedly will continue to be used to describe elements of poem, if only in a figurative sense. And no doubt we’ll continue to hear people talk about a poem’s “pitch” if only in a looser and more general way to describe heightened moments within the overall text.
The focus here has been on metered poetry. Others have interesting things to say about the relation between music and free verse. More later.
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