Apr 272004

What distinguishes poetry from prose? Any poetry critic who can’t tell you should turn in his union card. Yet the answers to this question, from the history of criticism, are surprisingly unsatisfactory. The old Horatian formula of “instruction and delight” is not unique to poetry. Wordsworth offers “emotion recollected in tranquility,” a definition in which neither element seems strictly necessary, and which again applies equally well to prose. Other critics, especially poet-critics, take refuge in impressionism, like Emily Dickinson’s “if it feels like the top of my head has been taken off, that is poetry.” Paradise Lost has not, I suspect, taken off the top of anyone’s head for quite some time, but no one calls it prose on that account. Most critics do not trouble themselves over the question at all: they assert, like Justice Stewart on pornography, that they know it when they see it. But remarks like “that isn’t poetry” are slung about frequently, and even offered as criticism. Clearly the question is worth troubling over.

I suggest a more prosaic definition, so to speak: a poem is what scans. Two objections suggest themselves immediately. The less serious is that it fails to exclude doggerel, like obscene limericks. But if obscene limericks aren’t poetry, are they prose? Or is there some third category of neither/nor? If we do not deny the title of prose to the speech of Monsieur Jourdain, I see no reason to deny the title of poetry to the limerick. Poetry, like art, is not an evaulative but a technical term.

The more serious objection is that my definition excludes vers libre, which doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t scan, but is poetry nonetheless. To deal with this requires a brief theoretical preamble. The basic foot in English is the iamb, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. All natural speech in English is iambic. The previous sentence, for instance, is a line of iambic pentamenter (with a feminine ending).

Iambic rhythm so dominates English that its avoidance often sounds comedic, a fact that Lewis Carroll exploited brilliantly in his Longfellow parody, Hiawatha’s Photographing. It is written, like the Longfellow original, in unrhymed trochees, which are iambs in reverse.

Next to him the eldest daughter:
She suggested very little,
Only asked if he would take her
With her look of “passive beauty.”
Her idea of passive beauty
Was a squinting of the left-eye,
Was a drooping of the right-eye,
Was a smile that went up sideways
To the corner of the nostrils.

Hiawatha, when she asked him,
Took no notice of the question,
Looked as if he hadn’t heard it,
But when pointedly appealed to,
Smiled in his peculiar manner,
Coughed and said “it didn’t matter,”
Bit his lip and changed the subject.

Nor in this was he mistaken,
As the picture failed completely.

The ridiculous matter, set to trochees, is rendered supremely ridiculous. Other non-iambic meters lend themselves to similar effects, like George Wallace’s beloved double dactyls. Feminine line endings tend to undermine iambic movement, and although some serious poets, like Greville and Dryden, are partial to them, they are seen more often in light verse like W.M. Praed’s.

When writing poetry in English, you can studiously adhere to iambic meter or you can studiously avoid it. Anything in between is prose. Free verse consists, essentially, in avoiding any metrical norm by varying the movement continuously. This is much harder than it sounds.

An example may help. Let’s begin with a free verse poem that obviously is a poem, W.C. Williams’ To a Dead Journalist. Read it first, then look at the scansion. Primary accents are bold, secondary accents italic:

Behind that white brow
now the mind simply sleeps
the eyes, closed, the
lips, the mouth,

the chin, no longer useful,
the prow of the nose.
But rumors of the news,

cling still among those
silent, butted features, a
sort of wonder at
this scoop

come now, too late:
beneath the lucid ripples
to have found so monstrous
an obscurity.

Williams wrote in a letter that for him the purpose of free verse was to vary the speed of the foot, and one could not find a better demonstration. The lines range from two to seven syllables, and no two scan, let alone move, alike, even if we disregard strength of accent. The short lines, like 4 and 12, tend to be slow, and the long lines, like 2, 7, and 14, tend to be fast.

Discernible consecutive iambs appear in three places, with point. The list of features in lines 4 and 5, bracketed by the heavily accented monosyllable “closed” and the lightly accented appositive “no longer useful,” is echoed, metrically, by their description in line 10. Williams produces a metrical miracle in lines 12 and 13, with its heavy iambs, after which the poem trails off in a sort of low mutter. The colon at the end of line 13 cleaves life from death absolutely. Continuous variation is impossible to sustain, and would weary the reader in any case, which is why good free verse is short, and scarce; but this poem succeeds completely.

For comparison most any selection from the poetry magazines would do, but let’s pick on someone famous. Let’s pick on Frank O’Hara. This is an excerpt from The Day Lady Died, which in its entirety runs too long for my purposes; you’ll have to trust me that the rest of it is exactly the same:

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the Golden Griffin I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the Park Lane
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a New York Post with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 Spot
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Here the conscious variation one finds in Williams is absent. There is no point in scanning this: it has no scansion. Note the indigestable chunks of iambs, like lumps in the mashed potatoes, in line 2, lines 4-5, and lines 16-17. (There would be more, and they would be more obvious, if not for O’Hara’s habit of stringing together sentences with “and” to simulate the breathless effect that Williams achieves without such cheats.) Any reasonably sensitive reader will recognize this passage as prose, and not very good prose either. O’Hara, along with other bad poets, is sometimes praised for his “prose rhythms,” which is like praising a mouse masquerading as a rat for being a mouse after all. O’Hara, says one reviewer, “expand[ed] our ideas about what is poetic.” What say we contract them a little?

(Update: Jim Henley accuses me, correctly, of treating the term “poetry” normatively while taking others to task for doing the same thing. I should have picked a “poem” that I thought was prose but good prose, instead of the one I did. I’ll think about a suitable example and post it when I find it. Kevin Holtsberry comments. Was it really that arcane? mallarme comments.)

  14 Responses to “Free Verse Scansion”

  1. Is O’Hara really your favorite poet? It was Keats last I checked. But regardless of your predispositions I know you have some sensitivity to language. I cannot believe that, reading the two poems side by side, you could fail to acknowledge Williams’ to be superior in every way.

    “Quandariness” is affected but tolerable, far more tolerable than the brand names, intellectual and otherwise. I stop breathing at the end mostly because the run-on sentence has left me out of breath.

  2. But if obscene limericks aren’t poetry, are they prose? Or is there some third category of neither/nor?

    Was it in T S Eliot’s squirming introduction to his selection of Kipling’s verse that he made a point of using "verse" as a term of art to be distinguished carefully from poetry by criteria other than scansion?

    Even if it wasn’t, that’s how I use the term, but "prose poem" is still not an oxymoron for me, even if "chopped-up prose" is never a compliment. (For me, at least, Frank O’Hara’s stuff has compensating pleasures.)

  3. but Aaron–"quandariness"!! isn’t that wonderful? and you must be one of the few people in the world who does not count themselves amongst the "everyone" that stops breathing along with Frank as the "poem" and the song end…

    I will grant you your "it doesn’t scan" argument, and if you don’t want to call this stuff poetry I don’t think you should be obliged to–but I love reading O’Hara! It would make sense if my favourite poet turned out to be a prose writer…


  4. I am enlightened by your distinction of poetry and prose, but it seems to cover only the formal element, which I am fairly ignorant of. It seems to me, however, that one should also speak to the different purposes these forms are put to. In ancient Greek literature, epics and tragedies are poetic; philosophy and history are not. There is, in Plato’s Republic, a famous controversy between poetry and philosophy, which I think we can translate as a controversy between poetry and prose. I don’t think that Socrates’ objections to Homer rest simply on the ability to scan.

  5. In The Republic and other places like the Ion, Plato pretty clearly uses "poetry" in the sense of "fiction," and his objections to it rest on the fact that it’s, well, fictional. It’s a different distinction from the one I was interested in.

  6. Fiction, or better, myth, is the issue, but I am fascinated that the attack on mythology took the form of prose.

    Our sense of things is that prose is the everyday and poetry something out of the ordinary, but the presence of poetic myth before prosaic philosophy suggests that, in the primitive world, poetry held a more central position than it does today. Vico claimed that the first laws were sung. (Whether that stands up to contemporary anthropological scrutiny, I don’t know.)

    The poetry you write about was written in a world dominated by prose, but perhaps we are the exception to the rule. I acknowledge that you are concerned with a different matter, but I think that a full definition would include a thing’s ends and not just its form.

  7. Why don’t you just say what the difference between poetry and prose is in one simple statement instead of 5 pages worth.

  8. "Poetry scans" is too long-winded for you?

  9. The fault lies with me not you. I have not recieved the proper education to really appreciate your comments. I understood what you were saying but they lacked a certain power because of my almost total lack of exposure to the subject of poetry in any depth.

  10. Interesting post and a nice reading of that Williams poem. He’s one of my favorites. Still, I’m a contrarian sort of guy, so I wrote this up:


  11. Aaron, you should be discussing this stuff at Eratosphere…

    I have an even shorter answer to your initial question: margins.

  12. My problem with your definition is that technically prose, well, also scans. For a good one, you could check M.L. Gasparov’s A History of European Versification, which I don’t have next to me to quote. Excellent post, nonetheless.

  13. I think I understood your line of thought better now (sorry, english is not my first language): poetry ought to be what makes metrical sense; and since free verse also makes sense, albeit running constantly from a model rather than attaching itself to one, it’s also poetry. That seems reasonable, but you have to realize that it would be necessarily a crippled definition, since there are very different metrical systems in other languages.

  14. This is a good poem to bring a refreshing view about poetry. Only there is one part is not very clear. And The author gives a good insight about poetry and poet in a poem form, and not a bad poem either.

    What Is Poetry?
    by Laijon Liu

    Poetry pleases my ears
    that words sound in harmony,
    but not to a foreign tongue.

    Poetry draws a picture
    to invite my eyes,
    but still puzzles my mind.

    Poetry blows with wind,
    in water He flows,
    shouts in thunders,
    and bounces as rock in roll.

    Poetry preserves His truth,
    in secret codes, simple words,
    only reveals to the worthy.

    Poetry sings to my ears,
    dances in front my eyes,
    kisses my lips,
    brings fragrance,
    that fills my mind
    and imprints my soul.

    Poetry does not like as I like
    as whenever I use as like wrongly,
    and it is unfair He uses
    correctly all times He does,
    but I make him to like
    as I do like anyway.

    Poetry tells stories
    to company my journey,
    writes jokes
    to convert my tragedy
    into a comedy,
    and builds a rainbow bridge
    where my dream
    and reality meet.

    Poetry blinded Homer
    with Helen and war,
    afflicted Catullus
    with his love and hate,
    taught Beowulf
    how to fight!

    Poetry made Li Bai drunk
    in magical words,
    brought sorrows to Du Fu,
    so he spoke in painful tones,
    convinced Confucius
    to collect His words
    as his first book,
    the Book of Odes.

    Poetry invited Shakespeare
    to our glamorous stage,
    frightened us with the image
    in Dante’s hell.

    Poetry composed Mozart
    painted Picasso,
    dropped an apple on Newton,
    combed Einstein’s cool hair.

    Poetry introduced the Tao
    in Lao Zi,
    explained the Art of War
    in Sun Zi,
    shared His sufferings
    with Buddha,
    works for God
    as the way He wills.

    I love the poem as Jesus told,
    He is the Word,
    and He was a man.
    He came and left,
    born in the stable,
    died on the cross,
    resurrected in the tomb,
    condemned and blessed,
    received and rejected.

    He is the poetry
    who is an only poet.
    He brings the life,
    tells the truth,
    and shows me the way.

    Water of living,
    Rock of faith,
    Promise of hope,
    Conqueror of love,
    The Poetry is the Poet.

    I see poetry on the dirt
    that stained the fire fighter’s face.
    I see poetry on the blood
    that painted the ER angles’ white dress.
    I see poetry on the gray hair
    of my elementary school’s teachers.
    I see poetry on my name
    that reminds me a couple’s sacrifice.
    I see poetry every time,
    I see my love and soul mate.
    And I see my poetry running around,
    growing up, to be a great poem
    as I always dream.

    Our image mirrors
    in Poetry;
    Beasts roam,
    birds fly
    and fish swim
    in Poetry.

    Seeds sprout,
    grass grow,
    flowers blossom,
    plants fruit
    in Poetry.

    Sun shines
    in the day,
    Moon and stars light
    the night
    in Poetry.

    Ocean gathered,
    earth solidifies,
    and air purifies
    in Poetry.

    The light shines
    in Poetry,
    as the wind blows,
    as the water flows,
    the Poet started His Poem.

    Poetry Poem by Laijon Liu


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