“It will therefore be desirable from time to time that in certain passages the rhythm should be deliberately dissolved.” —Quintilian
“The essential thing in form is to be free in whatever form is used. A free form does not assure freedom. As a form, it is just one more form. So that it comes to this, I suppose, that I believe in freedom regardless of form.” —Wallace Stevens
Every poem has a form and rhythm, and therefore a prosody. T.V.F. Brogan defines rhythm as “any sequence of events or objects perceptible as a distinct pattern,” noting that such patterns are characterized by “regularity, variation, grouping, and hierarchy.” D.W. Harding similarly describes rhythm as an “immediate perceptual whole” that we see arise from “a mere succession of events…by perceiving one or more of the events as salient and the others as subordinate.” The basic elements of poetic rhythm are content rhythm and language rhythm. Content rhythm refers to meaning, statement, implication, narrative, theme, tone, and symbolism, as well as a poem’s contextual meaning in the widest sense—personal, societal, and historical. Content rhythm is the focus of general literary criticism, biographical analyses, and cultural critiques. Language rhythm concerns the specifics of poetic language in sound, visual presentation, and structure, and is emphasized by close reading, prosody, and formal studies. Because effective rhythm is characterized by unity in variety as well as expressiveness, content rhythm and language rhythm must combine into an expressive whole that is enlivened by its rhythmic subsets. We may call this highest level of poetic rhythm—where meaning, context, and the particulars of language converge—a poem’s ultimate rhythm. This concept refers to the experience of reading as well as the unattainable goal of prosody—an asymptotic totality within which we may block out those areas of rhythm we are able to describe.
ultimate rhythm (the poem)
content rhythm (semantic, symbolic and contextual meanings)
structural rhythm (quantities, patterns, and groups; grammar)
visual rhythm (typography and spacing; free verse lineation)
phonetic rhythm (rhyme, alliteration, consonance, etc.)
cadence rhythm (caesuras)
stress rhythm (meter or free verse)
Scansion is a way of mapping language rhythms.1 Syllabic and counted verse are based on the number of syllables and words per line, respectively, and so emphasize structural rhythms. Grammar is inherent to linguistic structure; the “elemental” quality of H.D.’s poetry is linked to the core grammatical progression of subject-verb-object:
At least I have the flowers of myself, s-v-o
And my thoughts, no god o-s
Can take that; v-o
I have the fervour of myself for a presence s-v-o
And my own spirit for light … o
The parallelism of Whitman is structural, as are the more circuitous repetitions of Gertrude Stein or D.H. Lawrence, which can be mapped with a spindle diagram, as in this passage from The Making of Americans:
A man in
his living has many things inside him,
he has in him
his important feeling of himself to himself inside him
he has in him
the kind of important feeling of himself to himself that makes
kind of man;
Visual rhythm is central to the work of such historically disparate poets as Herbert, Mallarmé, Cummings, Scalapino, Saroyan, and Howe. The increased prominence of visual rhythm in the 20th-century was partly technological, through the invention of the typewriter. Lineation is always structural, but the free verse line is also importantly visual, as there is no way to determine the line breaks from hearing the poem.
A line break can be scanned on a scale of tension, with 1 for minimal tension (e.g. end-stopped), 2 for moderate tension that implies some additional material, and 3 for extreme enjambment. There is also the special case of revisionary enjambment, in which a line’s meaning is revised by the following one.
Why should I blame her that she filled my days R
With misery, or that she would of late 2
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways, 1
Or hurled the little streets upon the great, 1
Had they but courage equal to desire? 1
Rhyme is a form of rhythm, specifically of phonetic rhythm, which also includes alliteration, consonance, assonance, and various kinds of slant rhyme.2 The most basic phonetic scansion is the rhyme scheme; the Shakespearian sonnet is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. A more detailed phonetic scansion could be marking the sounds in Stevens’ poem “The Comedian as the Letter C” associated with that letter. Contrasting phonetic groups—long and short vowels, continuants and stops, voiced and unvoiced consonants— can also be marked, and may impact the tone and pacing of a poem in subtle ways. Cadence rhythm relates to caesuras, which are brief pauses between syntactic units. They are correlated with punctuation but can also be unpunctuated. They divide a line into rhythmic units:
/ x x / ' x x / x
Not with a bang but a whimper.
When there is not a clear and specific phrasal division—a place where one would pause when reading the line out loud—there is no caesura, and the line may be said to have a running cadence.
Stress rhythm is the most frequently discussed kind of rhythm in poetry.3 English is an accentual language, which means it is comprised of stressed and unstressed syllables, which traditional stress scansion represents as follows, with “foot” divisions:
x / | x / | x / | x / | x /
To err is human; to forgive, divine
Because the forms of rhythm derive from the same unity—the poem— their hierarchical nature is complicated, and counteracted to an extent, by their interwoven, overlapping, and mutually-shaping connections. Structural and visual rhythms frequently coincide; visual spacing affects sound rhythm through perceived silence or delay; cadence rhythm is inextricable from grammar; and content and language rhythms are themselves as inseparable as signifier and signified. This is not to unravel rhythm’s hierarchical nature but to indicate specific ways these subsets are interlaced. Conversely, cadence and stress rhythms are almost entirely independent, but these are synthesized on a higher level as we read:
x / x / ' x / x / x /
If thou survive my well-contented day …
x / x / x / ' x / x /
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see …
Charles O. Hartman notes that although these lines have identical stress patterns, they are rhythmically distinct. The caesuras are placed differently, and the distributions of content energy, a property of content rhythm, are also different. The energy is concentrated around “survive” and “well-contented” in the first line but is more evenly distributed in the second. More sophisticated treatments will consider this kind of rhythmic integration. As Hartman writes, “Within the small, concentrated space of a single line words can speed up and slow down and group themselves in a wide variety of ways,” so that every poetic line has “its own characterizing rhythm.” This idea of a unique rhythmic fingerprint is analogous to the concept of ultimate rhythm.
Meter is synonymous with regularly patterned stress rhythm, and the basic meters of English poetry are strong stress and accentual-syllabic. Strong stress counts only the beats per line, while accentual-syllabic counts both the beats and offbeats. Strong stress is the oldest meter in English and is found in Beowulf, written before 1000AD, and Piers Plowman, written in the late 14th century. It was then that Chaucer essentially invented the iambic pentameter, which belongs to the accentual-syllabic meter. (The iambic pentameter was new, but other kinds of accentual-syllabic poetry in English dated back to the 12th-century with the Ormulum.) Though accentual-syllabic would become the dominant meter in English, strong stress continued, as seen in the following:
Edmund Spencer, Shepheardes Calender (February eclogue)
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Christabel”
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Sensitive Plant,” “The Cloud”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Break, break, break”
Robert Browning, “Meeting at Night”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “A Musical Instrument”
Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Inversniad”
Algernon Charles Swinburne, “The Triumph of Time”
Thomas Hardy, “On the Departure Platform”
W.B. Yeats, “Easter, 1916,” “Wild Swans at Coole”
Robert Frost, “In Time of Cloudburst,” “Come In”
E.E. Cummings, “what if a much of a which of a wind’’
Langston Hughes, “Song for a Dark Girl”
W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety, “As I Walked Out One Evening”
Elizabeth Bishop, “The Fish”
Notably, strong stress is also the meter of nursery rhymes, folk song, and other popular verse.
As English pronunciation continued to develop after Chaucer, however, the accentual-syllabic meter was lost for 150 years until the Renaissance, when poets rediscovered the rhymed iambic pentameter and, starting with the Earl of Surrey, also began writing in unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is known as blank verse. The works of Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spencer, and William Shakespeare solidified the centrality of the accentual-syllabic meter in the first revolution in English poetic rhythm. For over 300 years, from the Renaissance through the Victorian Era, the accentual-syllabic meter, and the iambic pentameter line in particular, was the primary rhythmic basis of English poetry.
The most characteristic forms of the two meters are the dolnik and iambic pentameter:
Dolnik Iambic pentameter
Meter Strong stress Accentual-syllabic
Beats 4 5
Offbeats Variable Usually 5 or 6
Quality Song or chant More nuanced speech rhythms
Genre Nursery rhymes, popular Literary poetry
verse, literary song
Line ends Rhymed, mostly end-stopped Rhymed or unrhymed, capable
Line groups Often in quatrains With or without stanzas
Strong stress is the more powerful of the meters, with a chant- or song-like quality, and is almost always rhymed. This strength makes it less flexible, however, and the accentual-syllabic iambic pentameter lies closer to everyday speech, with a wider range of complex shadings. While more formally constrained in the individual line, the iambic pentameter is otherwise less constrained, tonally and structurally.4
Remarkably, in terms of prosodic understanding, meter was only set on its true basis in the late 20th century, with Derek Attridge’s theory and method of beat prosody. (The most accessible overview is Meter and Meaning by Attridge and Carper.) Attridge saw that in metrical poetry the stresses and unstresses give rise to the emergent property of beats, which is itself the fundamental basis of meter.5 This provides not only a new theoretic basis for meter but also an improved scansion method with new variables:
beat B b (promotion)
offbeat O (demotion) o
To scan a metrical poem, mark the stressed and unstressed syllables with the traditional symbols / and x. At first, focus on each word on its own, in its natural pronunciation, without trying to fit the line into a pattern. Very common single-syllable words (like pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions) are generally unstressed, but otherwise every word will have a stress. Stresses will often coincide with beats (/ ➞ B) and unstresses with offbeats (x ➞ o), but there are also cases of promotion (unstressed beats) and demotion (stressed offbeats). Promotion may occur when there are three unstressed syllables in a row; the middle one will likely take a beat.6 In addition, if two unstressed syllables begin or end a line, the one next to the edge will likely take a beat. These conditions can be shown as follows (where # is a line edge):
x x x ➞ o b o
# x x ➞ # b o
x x # ➞ o b #
In the following passage, we scan the stressed and unstressed syllables as they would be pronounced, without artificially stressing “as” or the last syllable of “daffodils.” Then we translate that scansion into the symbols of beat prosody, following the rules of promotion. Because promotion has only a small impact on pronunciation, beat prosody encourages a more natural pronunciation of metrical poetry:
x / x / x x x /
I wandered lonely as a cloud
o B o B o b o B
x / x / x / x /
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
o B o B o B o B
x / x / x / x /
When all at once I saw a crowd,
o B o B o B o B
x / x / x / x x
A host, of golden daffodils;
o B o B o B o b
We can then omit the initial stress notations from the final beat prosody scansion.7 One of the most interesting things about promotion is how the same word can assume different rhythms depending on its metrical context:
o B -o- B o
impossible to know
o B o b o B
The ballad stanza is a good demonstration of the reality of metrical beats, as one can hear (and notate) a silent fourth beat in each of its shorter lines:
Because I could not stop for Death—
o B o B o B o B
He kindly stopped for me—
o B o B o B [o B]
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
o B o B o B o B
o b o B o b [o B]
Demotion is when a stress functions as an offbeat, and this occurs when there are three successive stresses or when a line begins with two stresses. (A musical analogy for demotion is a drum being hit on the upbeat.)
/ / / ➞ B O B
# / / ➞ # O B
A sunbeam found a passage there,
o B o B o B o B
A gold chain round her neck so fair;
o B O B o B o B
As secret as the wild bee’s song
o B o b o B O B
She lay there all the summer long.
o B o B o B o B
Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” also features both promotion and demotion:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
o b o B o b o B o B
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
o b o B o b o B o b
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
O B o B o B o B o B
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
o B o B o B o B o B
To show that they function as a unit, we indicate two successive offbeats with the symbol -o-. Similarly, to show there is always an offbeat between successive beats, although it is silent, we mark these as well: if there is no punctuation between the beats we use ô, and if there is punctuation we use [o]. This is because the punctuation serves to smooth out the rhythm a bit more.8
Star light, star bright,
B ô B [o] B ô B
First star I see tonight,
B ô B o B o B
I wish I may, I wish I might,
o B o B o B o B
Have the wish I wish tonight.
B o B o B o B
To be, or not to be—that is the question:
o B o B o B [o] B -o- B o
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
B -o- B o b o B o B o
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
o B o B o b o B o B o
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
-o- B ô B o B o B o B o
And by opposing end them …
o b o B o B o …
Importantly, beat prosody does not use the foot divisions of traditional scansion, which can obscure the rhythmic movement as a whole, especially when there are rhythmic inversions:
/ x | x / | x x | / / | x /
Batt’ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
B -o- B -o- B ô B o B
Moreover, there are cases where several foot divisions are equally valid:
/ | x / | x / | x /
/ x | / x | / x | /
Tyger Tyger, burning bright
Which is correct: iambic without an initial unstress, or trochaic without a final unstress? The question is meaningless and only convolutes our understanding of a very simple meter. Also, when an accentual-syllabic line has extra syllables, critics may be tempted to bring in a variety of abstruse foot terms, several combinations of which could serve equally well. Countless interpretations have gone off the rails by giving weight to such illusory distinctions.9
Scansion always involves interpretation, and as such it provides a way to clarify and compare different readings. Meter encompasses a much greater range of rhythms than is often realized. Strong stress only counts the beats, but accentual-syllabic has its own flexibility through the use of promotion, demotion, and rhythmic inversions. These mean that an accentualsyllabic line like the iambic pentameter can encompass a large range of rhythmic patterns.10 Even as our prosodic understanding increases, we will never arrive at the end of rhythmic complexity. As Attridge wrote, poetry’s “movements never allow themselves to be fully and finally mapped.”
Free verse is irregular stress rhythm, and the matter of distinguishing between effective and ineffective free verse rhythm is so complicated that, despite attempts, no real system has been devised for it. As George R. Stewart said, “Our poets have led, rather than followed our prosodists.”
Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855, the same year Charles Baudelaire’s prose poems began appearing in Paris. Both poets were historically transformative in the eventual shift towards free verse as the dominant form. The later French Symbolists like Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Laforgue (who translated Whitman) extended Baudelaire’s experiments in vers libre, and Ezra Pound declared of Whitman, “His message is my message.” At the same time, Baudelaire and Whitman drew on earlier examples of free verse; Baudelaire, for example, was influenced by the prose poetry of Aloysius Bertrand.
Whitman’s style of free verse, the long-line prophetic, goes back to the King James Bible, printed in 1611. Whitman called the Bible “the axis of civilization and history through thousands of years” and said, “No true Bard will ever contravene the Bible.” Poets who adopted this style before Whitman include Christopher Smart, William Blake, Christopher Pearse Cranch, and Martin Tupper.11 The long-line prophetic style uses grammar as the basis of its diction and lineation, and is characterized by parallelism and cataloging. This style of free verse is subsequently seen in the last section of The Waste Land, as well as in the work of Carl Sandburg and Allen Ginsberg.
The free verse revolution of 1913–16 was a major event in the history of poetry. Almost overnight, free verse overtook the accentual-syllabic meter as the dominant basis of poetic rhythm. Related to wider cultural factors, the shift centered on the Imagist poets in London, including H.D., Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, and Amy Lowell. In 1912 Aldington posted a notice in Poetry announcing that the Imagists were pursuing experiments in “vers libre; trying to attain in English certain subtleties…of the kind which Mallarmé and his followers have studied in French.” By 1916 Harriet Monroe, the magazine’s publisher, said, “Never before was there so much talk about poetry” and “the present danger may be that poetry is becoming the fashion.” Poetry returned to obscurity, of course, but free verse remains the foremost rhythm a century later. This can be viewed as a fundamental shift from a regular rhythmic basis to an irregular one. It would be difficult, however, to imagine 20th-century literature without poems with more formal qualities such as:
W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” “Sailing to Byzantium”
Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”
T.S. Eliot, “Whispers of Immortality”
Hart Crane, “The Broken Tower”
Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again,” “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)”
W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “Musee des Beaux Arts”
Theodore Roethke, “My Papa’s Waltz”
Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”
Robert Hayden, “Middle Passage”
Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”
Robert Lowell, “Inauguration Day: January 1953”
Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool”
Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse”
Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”
Frederick Seidel, “My Tokyo”
John Ashbery, “Some Trees,” “Hotel Lautréamont”
Ezra Pound left the Imagist movement in 1914, the same year he met T.S. Eliot. This happened through Conrad Aiken, who knew Pound and had been Eliot’s roommate at Harvard. After visiting Pound’s nearly windowless apartment for tea, Eliot showed him “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which Pound immediately forwarded to Harriet Monroe, calling it “the best poem I have yet had or seen from an American.” While primarily drawing on the work of Laforgue, with its irregular rhymes and varying line lengths “Prufrock” is an irregular ode. Popularized in the 17th century by Abraham Cowley, whose Pindarique Odes (1656) sought to convey the emotional intensity of the ancient poet, the irregular ode tradition continued with Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Keats’ “Ode to Psyche,” Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” and Eliot’s “Prufrock,” the most celebrated example of the form by an American.
By 1917, Pound and Eliot were remarking on the “tenth-rate” free verse appearing and determined, as Pound recalled, “that the dilution of vers libre, Amygism… general floppiness had gone too far and that a counter-current must be set going. . . . Remedy prescribed: rhyme and regular [stanzas].” This turn to traditional form led to Eliot’s synthesis of metrical elements and free verse with “Gerontion” and The Waste Land (which was edited by Pound).12
Free verse that incorporates metrical elements, especially those related to the iambic pentameter, is known (in contrast with the more general term vers libre) as vers libéré. This “freed verse” moves between irregular stress rhythms and metrical passages. This style recalls the choruses of Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671), which are free verse sections within a larger metrical context. Stevens and Eliot, however, blended their free verse and metrical passages throughout sections and entire poems. Following Mallarmé, Eliot described this style as being haunted by meter.13 Stevens instead saw his approach as making use of both free verse and metrical elements: “I am not exclusively for free verse. But I am for it.” Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, Transport to Summer, and The Auroras of Autumn convey the iambic pentameter without adhering to it strictly. A distant precursor of vers libéré is found in ancient Greek prose rhythm and oratory. As Demetrius wrote, “Plato in many passages owes his elegance directly to the rhythm…which seems to glide along and to be neither altogether metrical nor unmetrical.” Longinus observed that “over-rhythmical passages become merely pretty and cheap, recurring monotonously without producing the slightest emotional effect.” They and others in the ancient world favored the artful disruption of regular rhythms.14
The short-line imagistic style is associated with the poets of the Imagist anthologies, especially H.D., Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. Seeking the direct spirit of ancient Greek poetry in a contemporary lyric, H.D. wrote in short lines with vernacular stress rhythms, pared-down grammar, and an emphasis on natural imagery. This style recalls a classical tradition in English poetry that includes Milton’s Samson Agonistes as well as other classically-inspired works that feature free verse by Robert Southey (Thalaba the Destroyer) and Matthew Arnold (Empedocles on Etna). Williams added enjambment to H.D.’s approach in breaking the line against grammar in surprising ways. Williams’ use of enjambment was also connected to his attention to visual form; his stanzas often display visual symmetry. Today the short-line imagistic poem with frequent enjambment is probably the most characteristic style of free verse.
There is also the “meter-evasive” approach of poets like D.H. Lawrence, in which widely varying line lengths evade any approximation of stress pattern. As noted, along with Gertrude Stein’s work, some of Lawrence’s poems can also be categorized as “circuitous,” a style based in phrasal repetition. Dorothy Z. Baker said when a poet uses “a given poetic form…he or she is calling up his literary past,” and this is now true of these influential styles of free verse as well.
Lineated free verse can be seen from two perspectives, each of which may be useful in different contexts: as writing in lines, or writing with line breaks.15 Either way, lineated free verse, like metrical poetry, is segmented language, in contrast to the flowing language of prose. Both segmented and flowing language predate the invention of writing, as spoken metrical poetry and ordinary speech. The poetic line was an aural perceptual unit before it became a visual one.16
Lineation has powerful rhythmic effects in itself. It slows the reading process away from skimming and towards a real-time experience, which heightens the attention to rhythmic detail. For free verse poetry, as well, lineation increases the number of stresses per line, and so the probability of an alternating stress rhythm. Lineation can be said to push the language towards meter, although in free verse it does not reach that point. Of course, the longer the line, the more this effect is diluted, as one approaches the flowing language of prose, with its faster style of reading, which pays less attention to word stress.
Because free verse is non-metrical, its stress scansion uses the traditional symbols of / and x. The symbol s can be used to represent optional stress, which is when a syllable may function as either.17 This follows the same conditions as promotion, except we omit initial promotion because there is no metrical “pressure” in free verse to force the first syllable of a line towards stress:
x x x ➞ x s x
# x x ➞ # s x
x x # ➞ x s #
Here is a stress scansion of a short free verse poem, Amiri Baraka’s “Ancient Music.”
x / /
The main thing
x s x /
to be against
/ x x /
As it would be artificial to stress either syllable in the penultimate line, it evades the conditions of optional stress.18 Free verse stress scansion can be used for longer poems as well, as with John Ashbery’s “Crazy Weather”:
s x / x / x s x / x
1 It’s this crazy weather we’ve been having:
/ x / x / / x / x / x /
2 Falling forward one minute, lying down the next
x / x / / x x / / / x /
3 Among the loose grasses and soft, white, nameless flowers.
/ x s x / x x / x / x s
4 People have been making a garment out of it,
/ x x / x / x x / x x / x
5 Stitching the white of lilacs together with lightning
x / x / x x / x x / /
6 At some anonymous crossroads. The sky calls
s x / / x x / x x s x /
7 To the deaf earth. The proverbial disarray
x / x x / x / x x / /
8 Of morning corrects itself as you stand up.
s x / x x / x /
9 You are wearing a text. The lines
/ x x / x x x / x / x / x /
10 Droop to your shoelaces and I shall never want or need
/ x / x / x x x s x / x s x /
11 Any other literature than this poetry of mud
s x / x s x / x s x / x / x / x x
12 And ambitious reminiscences of times when it came easily
s x / / x / / x /
13 Through the then woods and ploughed fields and had
x / x x / x / x x s x / x / x
14 A simple unconscious dignity we can never hope to
x / x x / x / x / x x / / x x
15 Approximate now except in narrow ravines nobody
s x / x / / / x s x /
16 Will inspect where some late sample of the rare,
x / x s x / x x / / x / x x / x / x /
17 Uninteresting specimen might still be putting out shoots, for all we know.
Performing such a scansion draws our attention to certain rhythmic features. Here we note the difficulty of scanning the first line, the short middle line and long final line, and the triple stresses and unstresses (underlined above). This scansion can then generate the following rhythmic charts.19
Syllable-Stress Count: Syllable-Stress Ratio:
The chart on the left shows the number of syllables per line overlaid by the number of stresses, as a range and average. The lower limit of the stress range omits the optional stresses, and the upper limit includes them. We can see that lines 5–8 are basically in pentameter, while the second half of the poem shifts towards longer 6 and 7 stress lines. Not only is line 9 the shortest line in the poem, aurally as well as visually, it is also a clear turning point for an expanding movement that concludes with the final and longest line. The exceptions are lines 13 and 16, which along with line 9 act in counterpoint to this general expansion.
The chart on the right shows the ratio of syllables to stresses per line, and a lower number means a higher stress concentration. It is calculated by dividing the number of syllables by the upper and lower stress range.20 A 2 represents one stress for every two syllables—i.e. a duple (iambic/trochaic) ratio—while a 3 represents a triple (anapestic/dactylic) ratio. Most of the poem falls in between these, which is typical of regular speech in a lineated form; therefore we note the lines outside this area: 1, 2, 3, 12, 13, and 16.
This brings us back to the first line, from which the poem takes its title. The reason this line is so unusual is because it is extremely colloquial; it sounds like something overheard in a diner. This conversational quality resists the usual stress reading, even though the line can scan as a regular duple rhythm. As Beyers notes, a strong conversational tone, even if it technically scans as a regular rhythm, will tend to call for “a less regular pattern of accents.” We hear a specific tonal delivery, including speech inflections, behind this familiar cliche, and this pulls against the stress rhythm.
Relatedly, the lines with triple unstresses resist the workings of optional stress. There is no way to read the last syllable of either “shoelaces” or “literature” with even the lightest of stress. Those lines are near the middle of the poem as part of its central turn. They are mirrored by the opposite figure of triple stresses, which appears close to the beginning and end of the poem, as a kind of rhythmic “frame” within it.
Even from this brief look at its stress rhythm, we can see that “Crazy Weather” employs several methods of resisting the rhythmic tendencies of lineated poetry, through conversational language, evasion of optional stress, and long lines. Each of these is contrasted with its opposite: definite stress patterns (lines without optional stresses), triple stresses, and a short line as a turning point. These features imply a close concern with textuality, which is the subject of the central turn of the poem. Even as its gestures appear nostalgic, the poem is most centrally concerned with its own present unfolding and textual reality in relation to the world. In light of these contrasts, and that a quarter of the poem is in iambic pentameter, this reads as an updated version of vers libéré: a poem that alternately makes use of and subverts metrical elements to achieve uncommon effects.
The synthesis of content rhythm and language rhythms can also be seen as the integration of content and form, which is to say that language rhythm is basically synonymous with form.21 Every poem has a form, but the term has connotations of regular patterning—in meter, rhyme, and measured stanzas. Because content and form unite in creating poetic meaning, a form cannot have a narrowly particular meaning in itself; any meaning it can be said to have could always be ironized by the content.22 Wordsworth and Baudelaire (in his lineated verse) treated new subjects in traditional forms, thereby extending and renewing them. The most concise articulation of modern disintegration, “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats, makes use of rhyme and meter. In 1855 a poet adapted an ancient prophetic line to sing of himself, “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs.” To equate Whitman’s line with democratic freedoms, however, would be reductive and historically inaccurate. Though Whitman used it for new purposes, his form dates to ancient Israel by way of 16th–17th century Britain, neither of which was a democracy. This is why a poem cannot be judged based on its form alone. As artistry concerns the whole poem, form and content, aesthetic judgement must occur on the level where these combine.
The foremost philosophical basis of the free verse revolution is the concept of organic form. Free verse preceded German Romanticism, but the free verse revolution can be seen as a natural outcome of the organic theory of the Romantics.23 Friedrich Schlegel coined the term “Romantic poetry” in 1798, writing:
Romantic poetry is a progressive, universal poetry. . . . It tries to and should mix and fuse poetry and prose, inspiration and criticism, the poetry of art and the poetry of nature. . . . Other kinds of poetry are finished and are now capable of being fully analyzed. The romantic kind of poetry is still in the state of becoming; that, in fact, is its real essence: that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected. . . . The romantic kind of poetry is the only one that is more than a kind, that is, as it were, poetry itself: for in a certain sense all poetry is or should be romantic.
Ten years later his brother August Wilhelm Schlegel invented the term “organic form”:
Most critics…interpret [form] merely as mechanical, and not in an organic sense. Form is mechanical when, through external force, it is imposed on the material as an accidental addition. . . . Organic form is innate; it unfolds itself from within, and acquires its being through the complete development of the seed. . . . We everywhere discover such forms in nature…from the crystallization of salts and minerals to plants and flowers, as well as the human body. . . . All genuine forms are organic, that is, determined by the qualities of the materials. In a word, the form is nothing but a significant exterior, the speaking physiognomy of each thing, which, as long as it is not disfigured by any destructive accident, gives a true evidence of its hidden essence.
Coleridge imported the concept into English literature, and it was then carried into American Romanticism, as with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet” (1844).24
For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form.
That essay was a vital inspiration for Whitman, who wrote in the Preface to Leaves of Grass:
The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity. . . . Perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form.
A.W. Schlegel first devised the concept of organic form to defend the irregularities of Shakespeare’s plays, and to advocate for the radical juxtapositions called for by Romanticism. The importance the movement placed on experimentation along with organicism’s emphasis on the natural unfolding of the expressive moment encouraged a shift to the vernacular stress rhythms of free verse, for Whitman and beyond. Organic theory was an important inspiration for the free verse revolution, the major event in English poetic rhythm in three centuries.
Perhaps one can already detect a critical potential within an extreme interpretation of organic theory, as an attack on traditional form. This censorious view was partly implied by, yet is also partly contracted by, the theory’s earliest beginnings. While many poets of the free verse revolution did not reject traditional form as such, William Carlos Williams took up this polemical side, or negative organicism. (Incidentally, Williams’ first book of poems, which he disowned, consisted of bad formal verse in meter and rhyme.) Williams described meter as a “meaningless metric” that is “wholly unrelated to our own language” and “designed to separate the work from ‘reality.’” He maintained that it required “meaningless words put there for the sound alone”—a “da ding da ding da ding da ding”—saying instead, “When I came to the end of a rhythmic unit, I ended the line.” This recalls Pound’s statement: “If you are using a symmetrical form, don’t put in what you want to say and then fill the remaining vacuums with slush.” Pound, whose impact in the free verse revolution is probably unequalled, distinguished between good and bad metrical poetry, but Williams apparently saw meter as inherently flawed. Because Williams greatly admired Shakespeare, he was probably most centrally saying that free verse was uniquely suited to his own time, but since his arguments are so representative, they are worth considering and addressing.
Art always contains an ingredient of artifice. It is created through a medium, and so is necessarily mediated; poetry is made. Poets more than anyone are attuned to language’s arbitrary qualities. There is always a degree of “aesthetic distance,” and to deny this is a fiction. The Schlegel brothers viewed meter as compatible with both organic form and Romanticism; as mentioned, the concept was created to defend Shakespeare, and Friedrich Schlegel saw a place for “the poetry of art” in his vision of radical contrasts. Meter is not an entirely arbitrary imposition but a patterning of inherent stress rhythms. It has always been an artifice—at no time did people speak in metrical English—yet one may hear metrical passages in conversation, just as one hears accidental rhyme. The specific selection of these properties is an artifice, but they are part of the language.
Coleridge was central to the development of organic theory, and his critical writings are an appropriate counter to the later excesses of negative organicism. Coleridge wrote in meter while fully aware that this is done “artificially, by a voluntary act.” He saw meter as “a union…of passion and will, of spontaneous impulse and of voluntary purpose” that resulted in aesthetic pleasure. He further noted meter’s origins not as detached from passion but as “the offspring of passion,” as well as its power as an artistic device to create a more “vivifying language than would be natural in any other case.” Most centrally he understood:
Art itself might be defined as of a middle quality between a thought and a thing…the union and reconciliation of that which is nature with that which is exclusively human. It is the figured language of thought, and is distinguished from nature by the unity of all the parts in one thought or idea.
Alongside its connections to natural thought, a poem is a manmade thing shaped through the medium of a particular language. The artist should not be a mindless bush or a dripping crystal. As Quintilian wrote, “Above all it is necessary to conceal the care expended upon our rhythms so that they may seem to possess a spontaneous flow, not to have been the result of elaborate search or compulsion.”25 Furthermore, the great poets have often attained a mastery for which metrical writing became in fact entirely natural. Friedrich Schlegel’s assertion that all poetry is or should be Romantic reminds us that without expression there is nothing to shape, and nothing human in art; and yet without any shaping, where is the artist? Poetry is shaped expression.
Returning to the origins of organic theory, we can note that it implies both a spontaneous method and a view that the whole should be derived from its parts. The spontaneous method is when, to varying degrees, a poet writes without a fixed structure in mind. These two implications of organic theory can be contrasted with a predetermined approach as well as a more comprehensive view of the whole.
The aesthetic whole is its own level of artistic statement. It is articulated by the poem as a completion, and so is only fully conveyed in the silence that follows a poem. It is the final stamp and finish of the artwork. Sometimes it is best that the whole be strictly derived from its parts—silent and transparent, as organicism suggests—just as the artistry is sometimes in leaving a rough edge. In other cases a more finished and ruled edge is better, and then the aesthetic whole should be more active in shaping the work. Much as form and content are in dialogue, and ultimately speak with one voice, so parts and whole should be in balance; each should have its say.
Free verse means irregular stress rhythm, and a low degree of irregularity will tend toward metrical approximation. When the form of a free verse poem can be described concisely this may be called loose form. That a spontaneous approach often results in loose form is due to the inherent powers of these quasi-regular rhythms. Loose form is fine in itself—it has its own reality and integrity—as long as the poet has applied formal awareness. It makes sense for a poet who writes in some kind of loose form—say 3–4 stress lines in 4–5 line stanzas—to be aware of this, which can then lead to further considerations. Maybe some of these poems could be cast into a related form, or maybe the poet would have a particular talent for such a form, like the ballad stanza. After drafting a free verse poem, one can apply scansion and a sense of the aesthetic whole to see if the poem is already leaning towards a form, and if so, one can try nudging it further in that direction. When this works, we may get an innovative poem in regular rhythms. In this way, an awareness of the aesthetic whole is compatible with a spontaneous approach. The application of formal awareness to loose form could be a way to revitalize formal poetry in our time.
A predetermined approach means writing with a specific formal shape or structure in mind. Firstly there are the “traditional forms”—like blank verse, strong stress verse, the sonnet, the dolnik, rime royal, and rhymed couplets and quatrains. The rhythmic patterns that define these, which vary in their degree of strictness or flexibility, generally relate to meter, rhyme, and stanzas. Some forms like the villanelle, sestina, and pantoum also make use of structural repetition. The second kind of predetermined form is based on the same rhythmic qualities but in combinations that haven’t been used before; these are “original rhythmic forms.” Almost all of the traditional forms began as original rhythmic forms.
The last type of predetermined form is based not on rhythm but on a procedure or concept, and these are “original procedural/conceptual forms.” This work goes back to the early 20th century, with the Dadaists and Objectivists. Indeed, given this history and the early examples of transcription-based “found poetry,” the recent transcription-based works of the conceptual poetry movement instead belong to traditional form. Original procedural/conceptual forms, in contrast, use new procedures that the poet has invented to derive both form and content.
Observing the strong inclination to the spontaneous method among the recent “avant garde,”26 Mark Wallace asked:
Is it true that predetermined forms really control the act of composition, or that such control is, in all instances, a bad thing? Is it possible to write a poem without having some prior assumptions about the form of poetic language? . . . One answer might be that since language structures exist prior to their users, working in predetermined forms reveals the condition that all language users already occupy.
Such realities were well-known to mid-century semiotics yet haven’t encouraged much attention to predetermined form. Wallace acknowledges that traditional forms can convey the awareness “that language structures exist prior to the act of composition,” but he only advocates for the original procedural/conceptual forms, believing only these enable “form to continue as a problem for which new solutions can be invented, rather than as a problem for which answers are already known.” I would suggest that form remains “a problem” for poets of traditional verse—we know this because the poems are bad. Form is always a problem, namely the problem of writing a good poem. What could engage with the contingencies of language like adopting, perhaps altering, in a self-aware manner, its most apparent yet now thoroughly neglected usages? Wallace’s general defense of the predetermined method is good, but his exclusion of rhythm-based predetermined forms is unconvincing. It is also a very limited view, especially when one considers the examples he cites, most of which one can’t imagine any other poet ever adopting; form becomes either spontaneous or atomized to its poet-creator, without any directly communal aspect whatsoever.
Today irregular rhythms and the spontaneous method are undoubtedly the tendencies of the age. That predetermined rhythmic approaches oppose this may go far in explaining the failures of much recent, and not so recent, formal verse. (Stevens, who supported both free verse and metrical poetry, believed that among his contemporaries only the former had “any kind of aesthetic impulse in back of it.”) In pursuing predetermined rhythmic approaches, contemporary poets tend to become rigid and unimaginative. Form only works if one demonstrates spontaneity within it; otherwise it is just a dead figure. Meanwhile, most of the poets with a living “aesthetic impulse” have simply ignored the possibility of regular rhythms.
There is however no reason that a skilled poet today couldn’t write in predetermined rhythmic forms. Surely there are plenty of contemporary subjects that have never been treated in these structures, which could be used to play against, disrupt, or ironize their supposed limitations or connotations. The blandness of most recent formal verse is not an indictment against it as such, and if anyone would deride regular rhythms they should first acknowledge the horrible quality of most free verse, mainstream and “avant” alike. Far from being outside of tradition, experimental poets are directly within the tradition of formal disruption and juxtaposition called for at the dawn of Romanticism—calls that remain ahead of us in some ways. Only form breaks form, and what is called experimental poetry is most centrally concerned with form—that is, with formal innovation.
Late in life, and looking back on his career as a poet, Whitman summarized his approach with one word: “Suggestiveness.” He continued:
I round and finish little, if anything. . . . The reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine. I seek less to state or display any theme or thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or thought—there to pursue your own flight.
That suggestiveness is a matter beyond form is demonstrated by Emily Dickinson, who addresses the same quality:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
Now a century into the free verse revolution, perhaps it is time to renew an exploration of suggestiveness within more regular rhythms. Indeed, we are already seeing a number of early-career poets begin to innovate in this way.
The point is to be free with regard to form. Certain things can only be said in regular rhythms. Any renewal will be made from the vantage of our time and in light of all that has gone before, including the innovations of the last century. Today we have poems in primarily irregular rhythms, with regular rhythms as variations (even if this often goes unnoticed); perhaps there are ways to explore the reverse as well. For many poets today it may work best to put formal considerations largely to the side while drafting a poem; that does not mean we should ignore them entirely. We can practice formal awareness by looking for loose form and metrical passages in the free verse poems that we read and write.
To a large extent, the rhythm chooses the poet. Formal awareness can bring these internalized rhythms, implicit and intuited, into the realm of consciousness. Such awareness can show us how poems achieve their effects and is akin to color theory for a painter. It is useful whether we pursue radical admixtures in disjunction, regular rhythms, or anything in between. Eliot foresaw much of the poetry of the late 20th-century when he said, “The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.” Another of his predictions has yet to occur:
[Free verse] was a revolt against dead form, and a preparation for new form or for the renewal of the old; it was an insistence upon the inner unity which is unique to every poem, against the outer unity which is typical.
In the same essay Eliot also wrote, “A poem, or a passage of a poem, may tend to realize itself first as a particular rhythm before it reaches expression in words, and this rhythm may bring to birth the idea and image.”
Poetry is a pluralism; free verse and metrical poetry each have traditions spanning four hundred years. Certain times may prioritize the part or the whole, the Romantic or the classical, the expressive moment or the aesthetic shape, but each is always present. As poets we must continually tear down the formal prohibitions set up by our predecessors and contemporaries. An artist keeps an open mind with regard to form, knowing that neither form nor content is anything in itself. A free poetry speaks in the rhythms of its choosing. Whether in disruption or renewal, let us pursue it as meaningfully as we can.
Derek Attridge, The Rhythms of English Poetry
Derek Attridge and Thomas Carper, Meter and Meaning
Eleanor Berry, “The Free Verse Spectrum,” College English, LIX, 8, 873–97
Chris Beyers, A History of Free Verse
Eniko˝ Bollobás, Tradition and Innovation in American Free Verse
Philip Dacey and David Jauss, eds., Strong Measures
Martin J. Duffell, “The Iambic Pentameter and Its Rivals,” Rhythmica, I, 1, 61–85
T.S. Eliot, The Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets
Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes, eds., An Exaltation of Forms
Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form
Harvey Gross and Robert McDowell, Sound and Form in Modern Poetry
Harvey Gross, ed., The Structure of Verse
D.W. Harding, Words into Rhythm
Charles O. Hartman, Verse: An Introduction to Prosody
—Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody
H.T. Kirby-Smith, The Origins of Free Verse
Timothy M.B. O’Callaghan, “Prose Rhythm: An Analysis for Instruction,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, XVIII, 3, 101–110
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, “Free Verse,” “Prosody,” and “Verse and Prose”
1 Richard D. Cureton’s method of content rhythm scansion is an intriguing exception. Based on principles from music theory, it charts the movements of a poem, on different simultaneous levels, in relation to various “peaks” of prominence. I recommend the method as adapted and clarified by Derek Attridge in Poetic Rhythm.
For syllabic and counted verse, see pages 185 and 306–11. Marianne Moore, Dylan Thomas, and W.H. Auden each wrote poems in syllabics. Works quoted below: “Eurydice” by H.D.; The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein; “No Second Troy” by W.B. Yeats; “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot; An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope; “Sonnet 32,” “Sonnet 18,” and Hamlet by William Shakespeare; “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth; “Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson; “I Hid my Love” by John Clare; “Lycidas” by John Milton; and “The Tyger” by William Blake.
2 These include rhymes between stressed and unstressed syllables (son/abandon), two unstressed syllables (executioner/murderer), and different vowel sounds (killed/cold). (Moving Words, 71; Verse, 104.)
3 That English has more than two stress levels can be seen, as Hartman notes, in a word like “incendiary.” Compared with traditional scansion, beat prosody captures more of this complexity.
4 Attridge believes the iambic pentameter is characterized by its evasion of the powerful 4-beat rhythm: “Other line-lengths than five-beat are usually felt to be versions of the basic four-beat rhythm.” For an historical overview of the dolnik see Moving Words; for its tendency to quatrains see Poetic Rhythm. The early history of accentual-syllabic meter is treated in the essay by Duffell.
Iambic tetrameter (4-beat accentual-syllabic) has aspects of both the dolnik and the iambic pentameter. Its greater syllabic control gives it more subtlety than the dolnik, yet it retains some of the song-like quality, with a tendency to rhymed quatrains.
5 “Beats occur in normal English speech when the series of stressed and unstressed syllables approaches a degree of regularity in its alternation; metrical verse is thus a heightening of a tendency present in the spoken language. . . . The rhythms of verse are, and can only be, created out of the rhythms of the language itself, usually by heightening whatever tendency to regularity the language already possesses.” (Moving Words, 4, 57.)
6 A relatively rare occurrence, sometimes the middle syllable cannot take the slightest stress. When this happens promotion is resisted, and we instead have three successive offbeats.
7 To translate beat prosody variables back into traditional stress marks, the lower-case letters (b, o) become unstresses and the uppercase letters (B, O) become stresses.
8 This distinction is the one exception to the rule that cadence rhythm (caesuras) and stress rhythm do not interact.
9 See the discussions in Holder, Rethinking Meter, 115–19, and Moving Words, 25.
10 In this section, the H.D. scansion draws on Beyers, 171, and the spindle diagram is adapted from Steven Meyer’s introduction to The Making of Americans. For this definition of effective rhythm see O’Callaghan; for grammatical rhythm see Wesling, The Scissors of Meaning; for line breaks see Berry and Hartman, Verse; for cadence rhythm and caesuras see O’Callaghan, Harding, and J.C. Nesfield, English Grammar, 436; for rhythmic figures and inversion see Meter and Meaning, 148.
11 Long-line free verse, Beyers writes, “was by no means the invention of Whitman.” Cranch was T.S. Eliot’s great-uncle. Besides Arnold, Tupper, and Cranch, Whitman’s free verse contemporaries in English include Stephen Crane, Adah Isaacs Menken, and William Ernest Henley (whose book In Hospital was reviewed by Oscar Wilde).
12 In addition to a general use of vers libéré, and the long-line style of its final section, The Waste Land features metrical passages as well as portions of short-line free verse.
13 Writing on Laforgue, Mallarmé noted, “I will say that the reminiscence of the regular line, close at hand, haunts these diversions and that they benefit from this.” (Kirby-Smith, v.) Eliot drew on this passage (and the ghost and figure of Polonius from Hamlet) in writing: “The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. . . . We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only true freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.”
14 Steele, Missing Measures, 73; Beyers, 248.
15 “The line-break is just as much a part of the language as the period, comma, or parenthesis, and it shows that there are things that can only be said as poetry.” —George Oppen
16 See Attridge, Moving Words, 203–21. The shift from rhymed to unrhymed pentameter was itself an early shift towards visual rhythm, as the enjambments of blank verse can make the line breaks unclear from hearing alone.
17 Optional stress can also be used to mark possible rhetorical emphasis.
18 The same is true of the final syllables of lines 12 and 15 in the following poem.
19 These charts were made with Apple Numbers. For Ashbery, see Free Verse, 160–171, and Attridge, Moving Words, 115–120, which discusses the same poem.
20 The syllable count of the first line is 10, and the stress range is 3–5. This results in a stress-syllable range of 2–3.3, with an average of 2.7.
21 The only subset of language rhythm not implied by the term “form” is grammatical rhythm. This points to the potential of grammatical fragmentation—in addition to contemporary subject matter—within otherwise traditional forms.
22 This is not to suggest that all forms are equally effective. The history of English poetry gives a special prominence to the iambic pentameter, its primary rhythmic basis for three centuries. Though not an exclusive one, the iambic pentameter has a real and permanent connection to English poetry, by nature rather than convention, and this will only end with the language itself.
23 The Friedrich Schlegel passage is from “Athenaeum Fragment 116,” translated by Peter Firchow. The A.W. Schlegel passage is from A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, adapted from John Black’s translation.