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Over the past few weeks, I have been spending time with Susan Howe’s latest (and perhaps last) book, Debths. I am working on a review of it that I will send to a Real Venue—this is not that. Rather, fortuitously, two other books I’ve read or am currently reading have helped to frame my reading of Debths in an interesting way. This is about that.

Recently, I read The Poetics of the New American Poetry, a collection of essays and remarks laying out the background prosodic views of the poets included in The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. It is a fascinating volume, a document that captures the ferment that accompanied the flowering of the American free verse tradition. Recurring in that volume is a revolt against received form. Each poetic moment must find its own form, and should not be mutilated into the shape of a sonnet. Interestingly, this revolt had a distinctly irrationalist bent. Here, for instance, is Robert Duncan:

Form to the mind obsessed by convention, is significant in so far as it shows control. What has nor rime nor reason is a bogie that must be dismissed from the horizons of the mind. […] The reality of the world and men’s habits must be constricted to a realm—a court or a salon or a rationale—excluding whatever is feared. […] It is of the essence of the rationalist persuasion that we be protected, by the magic of what reasonable men agree is right, against unreasonable or upsetting information. […] [T]he rationalist aesthetic was an heroic effort to find balance against this admission of vertigo, against the swirl of a vastly increased vision of what man might be. (pp. 197, 199, 203)

Reason and order, embodied by the use of received poetic forms, are on this view reduced to protective measures against everything that threatens to disorient. As so often, this irrationalism eventuates in the myth of spontaneity: “first thought best thought,” as Ginsberg put it (p. 350).

I’ll admit: when I read this, it made me angry. Even when, after reading on and finding out what, exactly, Duncan was protesting and very much rightly protesting, I calmed down, still it struck me as a manifestly uncharitable, limiting view of the use of received forms: damning the many for the sins of a few. Free verse does not require irrationalism, and received form is more than a coward’s retreat. But…

But now I have begun reading Paul Fussell’s Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England. Fussell looks at the conservative prosodists of this time, who favored metrical regularity to such an extreme that Pound’s injunction not to compose “in the sequence of the metronome” seems less like a ridiculous straw man (what I had previously thought) than like a serious critique. Fussell provides examples in the first chapter of these prosodists “correcting” Milton and others for their irregularities. These corrections can only be described as howlers.

And how do these lovers of regularity justify themselves? Their defense was explicitly moralistic. The human mind is threatened by disorder and must discipline itself. This works itself out in different ways in different aspects of life. In poetry, it works itself out in the establishment of clear, fixed prosodic principles. Regularity is the sign of an ordered mind; irregularity the sign of a disordered mind. First regularity, then piety, to summarize Johnson’s praise of Gilbert Walmesley (Fussell, p. 43).

Now the poets of The New American Poetry were certainly not reacting against 18th century British prosodists. But the British prosodists answer so perfectly to the 20th century American’s caricature of their critics that I begin to wonder whether that caricature is not, in fact, a perfectly fair and accurate representation. I don’t know, but I’d no longer be surprised to find it so.

Where does this leave us? We have, on the one hand, a conservative prosody that emphasizes regularity on moral grounds as a bulwark against disorder and chaos. And we have, on the other hand, a liberal prosody that eschews regularity in an explicit attempt to welcome disorder and chaos, to stand before it unafraid.

Which brings me back to Susan Howe and Debths. At first glance, Howe seems clearly to be the descendant of the liberal tradition. Open Debths to a random page and you may see something like this:

Howe, Debths

There aren’t even full words, let alone regular recurrences of stress. Look further and the connections continue. Debths is published by New Directions, a company noteworthy for publishing a great many of the poets represented in The Poetics of the New American Poetry (off the top of my head, Pound, Williams, Ferlinghetti, Lorca, and I know there are plenty more). In more ways than one, then, she does fit into this tradition.

But, as I read Debths, I think the relation to order and disorder is different from the irrationalist embrace of chaos represented by Duncan. (In fairness to Duncan and the rest of his generation, their statements are more extreme than their practice. But I am going by their statements here.) Howe’s book comes to grips with the reality of the poet’s coming death (Howe is 80). We can think of organisms as temporary pockets of order in a world that trends toward disorder; on this conception, the organism that is Susan Howe is nearing the point of disintegration, of ceasing to be able to hold its own against disorder.

Debths exists at or around this very boundary between order and disorder. Connections can be traced throughout the work, they swirl in and out of consciousness, now apparent and graspable, now beyond our reach. The collage poems (“Tom Tit Tot” and “Debths”) feel like frayed thoughts, crowded by indistinct, marginal voices. There is order, but it is imperfect, and perilously maintained. A page like the one given above captures a moment of a near-total wane in order, yet even this waxing and waning has a rhythm of its own, which Howe captures.

What this means for the reader is that the reader must take a rationalist approach to the book: must seek out its order intellectually. This is not a book that can be felt intuitively. It must be puzzled over. And yet it is a world away from the moralistic drudgery of Johnson. Johnson loved regularity because it satisfied the mind’s expectation of order. Howe’s poem works by satisfying that expectation only intermittently, and otherwise frustrating it. Still, the frustration cannot exist without the expectation.

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In The Book of Forms—which, when I was teaching myself the rudiments of meter, was perhaps the most helpful source I encountered—Lewis Turco includes a few “rules of scansion in English” (p. 19). Here is one of the rules:

In any series of three unstressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through promotion and will be counted as a stressed syllable.

There is a corresponding rule for three stressed syllables in a row: one of them will fail to take a stress. Turco calls these “rules of thumb,” an appropriate designation since they have exceptions. The famous exception to the rule for stressed syllables is Tennyson’s Break, Break, Break. The heavy pauses between each “break” allow each stress to emerge fully, without the middle being demoted.

Can something similar happen with the rule against three consecutive unstressed syllables? It can. The poem Fabliau of Florida by Wallace Stevens is a nice illustration:

Fabliau of Florida

Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

The lines range from monometer (are dissolving) to trimeter (foam and cloud are one), though many lines can be scanned in multiple ways, depending on just how heavy the stress is. For this particular poem, I prefer to count only the heaviest, clearest stresses, for reasons detailed below.

The lines I am most interested in are the last two lines. To satisfy the rule forbidding three consecutive unstressed syllables, the lines must be scanned as being at least trimeter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

—and perhaps even as tetrameter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

But both of these ways of scanning the line fundamentally mishear it, and miss the rhythm of the poem. Let us drop immediately the fantasy of stressing the first syllable of each line: they both clearly open with anapests (there will nev-; to this dron-). The entire poem is lightfooted, giving each stress space to breathe, except where it takes a heavier hand for a specific, local effect: “fill your black hull / with white moonlight.”

The only real question concerns “be” and “of”, syllables that are naturally unstressed, but which seem to be likely candidates for promotion as the middle occupants of a string of three unstressed syllables. Read the lines aloud, however, and listen. Each falls into two natural units:

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both “be an end” and “of the surf” are natural anapests, and this comes out in reading the line. The key is that, in reading the lines, there is the slightest of pauses where I have placed the “|”. That pause eliminates the need to stress “be” and “of”. Thus the proper scansion is (with the vertical bar now indicating a break between feet):

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both lines are anapestic dimeter, with the first anapest of each line containing what might be called a mid-line feminine ending. This is the only reading of the lines that does justice to their lightness.

Why insist on this? It reveals a more general point about meter. While there is a clear distinction between heavy stresses and the complete absence of stress, there is a whole range of intermediates whose proper treatment is less clear. A system of meter should introduce some ordered way of approaching them. That is what Turco’s rules do, and they do it ably, in a way that works for the majority of metrical English language poems. But there is nothing inherent in the language that requires that syllables that take a light stress count toward a line’s stress count. It really depends on the sort of regularity one is trying to create. Stevens, in Fabliau of Florida, was writing in a loose, light meter where it is only appropriate to emphasize the heavier stresses, and that creates a context in which the very slight stresses placed on “be” and “of” should not be counted as proper stresses.

In the end, the ear is the supreme judge, and will tolerate system only so far.

Poem: [As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame]
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kíngfìshers cátch fìre, drágonflìes dráw fláme;
As túmbled óver rím in róundy wélls
Stónes rìng; like éach tùcked stríng tèlls, éach hùng béll’s
Bòw swúng fìnds tóngue to flíng òut bróad its náme;
Éach mòrtal thíng dòes óne thìng ánd the sáme:
Déals òut that béing índòors éach òne dwélls;
Sélves—gòes itsélf; mysélf it spéaks and spélls;
Crỳing Whát I dó is mé: for thát I cáme.

Í sày móre: the júst màn jústicés;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his góings gráces;
Ácts in Gód’s èye whát in Gód’s èye he ís—
Chríst—for Chríst pláys in tén thòusand pláces,
Lóvely in límbs, and lóvely in éyes nòt hís
To the Fáther thróugh the féatures óf mèn’s fáces.


This poem arouses in me a curious emotion, something like a nostalgia for Christianity, only it cannot be true nostalgia, for I have never been Christian. Nor indeed religious at all: though I grew up in a nominally Jewish household, I was an atheist from the moment I was competent to form my own opinions, and my “religious” growth from that point on was primarily a matter of coming to reject merely “cultural” Judaism as insipid, a walking, mocking skeleton of the faith that once invigorated it.

Yet there remains something in me—perhaps not the best part of me, perhaps it is only the nihilistic, world-weary, rest-seeking part of me—nonetheless there is some part of me that longs for a kind of Christianity, that longs to be able to acknowledge my wretchedness before the glory and mercy of God. Why, exactly, I should feel this, I do not know, but may guess. I suspect that it would allow me to view what I recognize as wretchedness and smallness as perversion of something purer, and not as all there is. Yet I know it is all there is; thus Christianity is closed to me. Whence the nostalgia.

As I said, it is only a part of me that knows this longing, because only a part of me views myself as wretched, and not necessarily the best part. It is only when that part is stirred that the nostalgia comes—and this poem stirs it.

The octet of this poem reads as a great affirmation of life, of a kind of self-reliance: “each hung bell’s / bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.” The world expresses itself with inexhaustible beauty. And after all, is it not expression we want. Here Emerson:

For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.

The octet, taken by itself seems enough. But immediately it is shown not to be enough: “I say more.” And what is the more? Precisely that man does not merely express himself, but that he “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is— / Christ—”. Now all this self-reliance of nature seems small, and seems small precisely because it is mere self-reliance. Thus it lacks in loveliness, the lovely flickering of Christ’s features like flame through our faces.

Here a word on the metrical side of this poem, which I have heretofore avoided, is requisite. The poem’s first line is perhaps the most perfect line in the history of English poetry, with its subtle interactions between the dipodic rhythm and alliteration (king/catch and drag/draw alliterating for primary stresses; fish/fire/flies alliterating on the secondary stresses) that are then carried upward by the line-ending clashing accents (draw flame), with “flame” picking up the alliteration of the secondary stresses and giving it completion. It is a line of unparalleled mastery, a miracle, the greatest advertisement imaginable for the expressive powers of sprung rhythm.

Yet in its own way the final line is equally a miracle. It is a miracle precisely because it violates the expectations of sprung rhythm. For, if sprung rhythm rests on one requirement, it is that a stress is a stress. Lines in sprung rhythm will happily require the demotion of normally stressed words to mere secondary stresses (e.g. “fire” in line one), but only rarely is a normally unstressed syllable heightened to take on a stress. Precisely this, however, occurs not once but twice in the final line of this poem. By the principles of pure sprung rhythm, the line should have only three primary stresses: Fath-/feat-/face-. But the poem demands that it have five stresses, so “through” and “of” must be promoted. The result is a line that is extraordinarily light, diaphanous, the opposite of the density at which Hopkins excelled. The first line tells us of kingfishers catching fire and dragonflies drawing flame, but it is only in this final line that we see the true flickering of the divine flame.

It is unbearably beautiful, so beautiful that the sestet makes the octet seem paltry, destroys all satisfaction it once gave. In so doing it reawakens the main anxiety I have about self-reliance in a world without God or natures. For even Emerson, in singing self-reliance, insists that what is found in the end is impersonal, even if we must tunnel into ourselves to find it. He does not call this impersonal by the name of “Christ,” but structurally his thought mirrors Hopkins’ in this poem. And next to this beautiful impersonal, this impersonal that lacks all the flaws and partialities of this wretched body I am, what joy is there in the now meager self-reliance of the kingfisher and dragonfly—a self-reliance, note, that is equally enjoyed by the lifeless stone? It is in this that brings to the fore my latent nostalgia.

I do not mean to endorse it, nor to reject it. It is an aspect of myself with which I am still coming to terms. This poem has done me the service of making it apparent.

Poem: [No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief]
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins


My previous attempts to scan this poem were produced under doubly disadvantageous conditions. First, at the time it was the only Hopkins poem I had attempted to scan; in other words, I was a mere beginner. Second, I did not realize the volume I own of Hopkins’ poetry, the 1948 third edition of Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, published by Oxford University Press (which I found in a lovely local used bookstore), contains extensive notes, including Hopkins’ own markings of his poems. Since those attempts, I have rectified both of these issues. Here is the fruit, what I believe, with some confidence, is the proper scansion of this poem:

Nó wòrst, thére is nòne. Pítched pàst pítch of gríef,
Mòre pángs wìll, schóoled at fórepàngs, wílder wríng.
Cómforter, whére, whére is your cómfortíng?
Máry, móther of ùs, whére is yóur relíef?
My críes hèave, hérds-lòng; húddle in a máin, a chíef
Wòe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-òld ánvìl wínce and síng—
Then lúll, then léave òff. Féry had shríeked ‘No líng–
ering! Lét me be féll: fórce I múst be bríef’.

O the mínd, mínd has móuntains; clíffs of fáll
Fríghtful, shéer, nó-man-fàthomed. Hóld them chéap
Máy who né’er hùng there. Nór does lóng our smáll
Dùrance déal with that stéep or déep. Hére! créep,
Wrètch, únder a cómfort sérves in a whírlwìnd: áll
Lìfe déath dòes énd and éach dày díes with sléep.

The differences are:

Line 2: from “móre pangs wìll” to “mòre pángs wìll”
Line 6: from “wórld-sòrrow; [R] òn an” to “wórld-sorrow; on an
Line 6: from “áge-old ànvil” to “áge-òld ánvìl”
Line 9: from “Ó the mìnd” to “O the mínd”

Line 2: Hopkins does not mark “pangs” as an outride, and I trust him in that. Given that all three syllables take some kind of stress, that means that pangs must take a primary stress.

Line 6: My first instinct to treat “on an” as outrides was correct, and my “correction” to include a rest was a mistake, as indicated by the fact that Hopkins marks all of “sorrow; on an” as outrides. This forces the further change that “age-old anvil” be treated as two dipodic trochees rather than as one dipodic first paeon. In hindsight, this change sounds better anyway.

Line 9: This change was not prompted by considering Hopkins’ own markings. Rather, I’ve simply come to think that “mind” has to take a stronger stress than “O.” This means that “O the” must be treated as an anacrusis, but Hopkins using anacrusis to open a sestet is not uncommon.

Poem: The Caged Skylark
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins


Taking a break now from Hopkins’ terrible sonnets, here is Hopkins in his uplifting mode, so far as it goes. My attempt to scan the poem is below, with commentary following. As usual, an acute accent marks a primary stress, a grave accent marks a secondary stress, and underlining marks outrides (all outrides follow Hopkins’ own markings).

As a dáre-gàle skýlàrk scánted in a dúll cáge
….Màn’s móunting spírit in his bóne-hòuse, méan hòuse, dwélls—
….Thát bìrd beyónd the remémbering hís frèe félls;
Thís in drúdgery, dày-lábouring-óut lìfe’s áge.

Though alóft on túrf or pérch or póor lòw stáge,
….Both síng sòmetímes the swéetest, swéetest spélls,
….Yet bóth dròop déadly sómetìmes ín their célls
Or wríng their bárriers in búrsts of féar or ráge.

Nót that the swéet-fòwl, sóng-fòul, néeds nò rést—
Whỳ, héar hìm, héar hìm bábble and dròp dówn to his nést,
….But his ówn nést, wíld nést, nò príson.

Man’s spírit wíll be flésh-bòund when fóund at bést,
But úncúmberèd: méadow-dòwn is nót distréssed
….For a ráinbòw fóoting it nòr hé for his bónes rísen.

Sprung rhythm allows for four basic types of foot, and, because it is dipodic, ten sub-variations within these four types:

Monosyllable: (1) /
Trochee: (2) / u | (3) / \
Dactyl: (4) / u u | (5) / \ u | (6) / u \
First paeon: (7) / u u u | (8) / \ u u | (9) / u \ u | (10) / u u \

Examples from “The Caged Skylark”:

(1) dull; line 1
(2) mounting; line 2
(3) dare-gale; line 1
(4) –yond the re–; line 3
(5) That bird be–; line 3
(6) n/a
(7) scanted in a; line 1
(8) n/a
(9) meadow-down is; line 13
(10) drudgery, day; line 4

I want to focus on Hopkins’ use of feet of types (1), (3), and (10). He uses each to excellent effect, demonstrating the expressive power of sprung rhythm.

Foot type (3)

Foot type (3) (along with foot type (9)) is one of the anchors of a dipodic rhythm. Both (3) and (9) create a pleasant and balanced rocking motion, whereas all other dipodic feet ((5), (6), (8), (10)) are “unbalanced” because of how their stresses are distributed. Hopkins especially likes to place feet of type (3) back-to-back, as occurs several times in this poem:

Line 1: dare-gale skylark
Line 2: bone-house, mean house
Line 9: sweet-foul, song-foul, needs no
Line 10: hear him, hear him

The use in the first two lines is especially powerful. The poem is an extended comparison between man and the skylark. In line 1, “dare-gale skylark” (the first two feet of the poem following the opening anacrusis) establishes the latter of these as courageous and noble, daring to take on the gale. (And with only a little imaginative extension, we can imagine the rising and falling motion of these feet as the movement of the skylark in the gale.) In line 2, we get a similar rich introduction to man and his “mounting spirit.” The absence of secondary stresses here gives the feeling of a continuous upward movement, echoing rhythmically the mounting of man’s spirit. But this then hits a brick wall with “bone-house, mean house,” where the back to back dipodic feet introduce a sense of falling—falling, that is, into our bodies. That is, because of the way the rhythm (and sense) of the first half of the line contextualizes these two feet, they take on a very different feel from the corresponding two feet in the first line, despite being rhythmically identical. Moreover, this very contrast deepens our experience of the meanness of man, for it brings us to feel this meanness in contrast with the very bravery of the skylark.

The overall effect of the first two lines is thus two-fold. The primary sense of the lines draws a straightforward parallel: just as the “dare-gale skylark” is reduced to life in a “dull cage,” so too “man’s mounting spirit” is forced to reside in a “bone-house, mean house.” But the rhythm produces a kind of semantic counterpoint, creating a second comparison between the meanness of man’s bone-house and the skylark daring the gale. This comparison makes us feel more acutely man’s wretchedness.

Foot type (1)

The use of monosyllables (foot type (1)) in sprung rhythm inevitably leads to clashing accents (back to back stressed syllables). Because each foot in sprung rhythm should be of roughly equal duration, this means that monosyllables must be dwelt upon, slowing down the poem and concentrating a great deal of emphasis in a small space. For instance, “dull cage” in line one disrupts the rhythm established by “dare-gale skylark,” just as the cage itself disrupts the skylark’s flight.

But the really striking use of monosyllables comes in line 11, where Hopkins places three back-to-back, leading to four consecutive stressed syllables: “own nest, wild nest.” The emphasis concentrated in these four words is tremendous, corresponding to the heightened emotional pitch of this line. We have just seen, in the final lines of the octet, the skylark and the spirit of man drooping in their cages. In the sestet, Hopkins is quick to assure us that he is not saying that the wild bird does not struggle, does not escape the need for rest, but notice where it rests: in its own, wild nest. The comfort is not perpetual vigor, but the ability to be at home where one rests. This sets up the final tercet, where we see that man’s spirit, when found at its best, is in a similar position: flesh-bound, but uncumbered.

Foot type (10)

This discussion will focus less on meaning and more on simply pointing out a metrical curiosity of this poem. While all 10 metrical feet surveyed above are allowable in sprung rhythm, I find that two of them are especially rare: (8) and (10). Indeed, I often use a desire to avoid feet of type (8) as an aid in scanning Hopkins. The reason is that these feet are strongly unbalanced (the dipodic dactyls are also unbalanced, but less strongly so) in where they place the stresses. I find it hard to explain just why, but they sound less natural to my ear than (7) or (9).

In this poem, however, there are three instances of foot type (10). Interestingly, Hopkins marked the slack syllables in each case as outrides. Since outrides are extrametrical and not counted in the scansion, in a sense these feet are technically of type (3), but their rhythmic effect is dramatically different from genuine type (3) feet, so I’m going to treat them as type (10) feet. Here they are:

Line 4: drudgery, day
Line 10: babble and drop
Line 14: footing it nor

It is worth noting that an alternate scansion of line 10 would put a primary stress on “drop” and a secondary stress on “down.” I avoid this for three reasons. First and foremost, because I think it sounds less good. Second (and in a sense this is just an elaboration of the first reason), because it would create a foot of type (8) (“drop down to his”). Third, because it would leave no explanation for why Hopkins marked the slack syllables as outrides. Every other instance in the poem is in a four-syllable foot (two of type (10) and one of type (7)).

Ultimately, I don’t see that the use of these type (10) feet contributes noticeably to enhancing the meaning of the poem, but it is interesting that this rare foot appears three times in this poem, and that (though this is no surprise, for it is Hopkins we are discussing) each time it enhances the rhythm of the line in which it appears.