Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody

Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody

by Charles O. Hartman

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To make sense of "free verse" in theory of in practice, the study of prosody—the function of rhythm in poetry—must be revised and rethought. In Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody, Charles Hartman develops a theory of prosody that includes the most characteristic form of twentieth-century poetry.


To make sense of "free verse" in theory of in practice, the study of prosody—the function of rhythm in poetry—must be revised and rethought. In Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody, Charles Hartman develops a theory of prosody that includes the most characteristic form of twentieth-century poetry.

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Free Verse

An Essay on Prosody

By Charles O. Hartman


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06438-3


Some Definitions

To begin with the name: Does "free verse" mean anything at all? Is it, as its opponents charged, an oxymoron like "foolish wisdom"? "No vers is libre," said T. S. Eliot, "for the man who wants to do a good job." Can any meanings of the two words plausibly coexist?

The odd phrase symbolizes the confusions that threw the study of prosody into such disarray. "Free verse" was one of two names given, first by detractors and later by the poets themselves, to nonmetrical poems. It competed with the French it translated, vers libre. In 1920 Amy Lowell, while expatiating on Modern Poetry, remarked that "our English substitute for the French term is thoroughly misleading" (73, 141). One is tempted to agree. But she mistook the source of confusion: "The French word vers," she noted, "does not mean 'verse' but line." This merely shifts the ambiguity to English; as an opponent pointed out, not only vers but "'verse' actually means line if we use our terms accurately" (57, 392-93).

Our language contributed to imprecisions like Lowell's. The confusions intensified by the name and fact of free verse were already implicit in the whole subject. They are still manifest in the very words we use, so that it becomes difficult to "use our terms accurately." "Verse," for instance, has taken on three meanings. In historical and logical order, they are: a line of poetry, a group of lines (a stanza or strophe), and the form or process whose usual paraphrase, "metrical composition," begs the questions posed by free verse. In fact, ambiguities becloud both parts of the phrase; "free" is yet more obscure. It will be simplest to begin by looking more carefully at "verse."

"Verse" is sometimes used interchangeably with "poetry." Exactly or not, one can speak of "poetry" in relation to an immense range of human activities and experiences, not all of which involve language. If I say "poetry in motion," people will have at least a vague sense of what I am talking about. That sort of sprawl makes a word comfortable, but nearly useless for analysis. "Poetry" seems impossible to define rigorously and permanently. "Verse" is bad enough; but it has the advantage of referring clearly to the form of a linguistic expression, not its content or value. It is one of two such forms, established by convention, the other being prose. An opposition between prose and poetry, though common enough, is also commonly rejected. "Prose-poems" exist. "Prose-verse" contradicts itself; the words oppose each other exactly. Even so, distinguishing them is one of those problems that attract critics by providing inexhaustible grist. Northrop Frye's essay, "Verse and Prose" (88, 885-90), which grinds both terms very finely, shows how complex the question can become.

Yet to make a clear and simple distinction, we need only remember what Howard Nemerov calls "the hard-nosed definition laid down by Jeremy Bentham, that when the lines run all the way to the right margin it is prose; when this fails to happen, it is [verse]" (80, 129). Verse is language in lines. This distinguishes it from prose. (There is a logical connection, it seems, between the original meaning of "verse" and the more general one.) This is not a really satisfying distinction, as it stands, but it is the only one that works absolutely. The fact that we can tell verse from prose on sight, with very few errors — Nemerov (80, 126-35) describes an amusing and instructive one, interpreting a pair of addresses as a lyric — indicates that the basic perceptual difference must be very simple. Only lineation fits the requirements.

That this distinction is more powerful than it seems will be my theme in later chapters. The point here is that, understandably, it would have satisfied few students of prosody in 1912. Their emphasis on metrical organization as the defining trait of verse had its own analytic virtues; with modification, it is still useful. To go beyond traditional definitions profitably, we must account for them, use what we can from them, and provide for the functions they served. An idea of prosody that accounted only for free verse, or that assumed its centrality, would be as false and otiose as those that presuppose meter.

I said a moment ago that poetry could not be rigorously and permanently defined. To search out an exclusive definition — one that will not only include everything that can or should be called poetry but will exclude everything else — is to seek the chimaera or the true shape of Proteus. But one can construct any number of inclusive definitions, which cover all kinds of poetry and too much else besides. Most of these beg the question in one way or another, by depending on words like aesthetic or by mere vagueness. I want to suggest one, however, that will provide a reasonable basis for a theory of prosody: A poem is the language of an act of attention. But whose act of attention is the poem? The poet surely has to perform one in writing it; and as readers we often hypothesize or project such an act as the motivation of the poem, which in this sense "represents" it. But the act of attention is also our own as readers. The poem is its cue, its control, and in this sense its "opportunity." Standing alone between poet and reader, the poem serves as the matrix for both their acts of attention.

The definition still needs narrowing; it will not distinguish poetry from prose fiction or a telegram. Rigorous distinctions of this kind may well be impossible. But we can at least learn more about poetry by considering its relation to space and time. This question is old and troublesome. Certainly both space and time are involved, but it seems to me that the spatial characteristics of poetry have always been secondary. Our poetic conventions derive from a time when poetry was not only aural but oral. There would seem to be reasons for retaining this fiction. Some philosophical and theoretical critics now interest themselves in écriture, in books as books and not as records of speech. If this idea should gain ascendancy over the way we read, the spatial element in poetry might take on a greater importance. Some hints of this have already appeared, as in the poems of Cummings or in more recent "concrete poetry." Also, written verse always involves some admixture of spatial organization. The shape on the page of metered stanzas creates a presumption of order; this allows flexibilities that would otherwise court anarchy. (A comparison with songs, such as I have made elsewhere [45; 47], dramatizes this point.) Nevertheless, for the present we continue to think of language, and thus verse, as a temporal medium.

This brings me to the term a book on prosody most needs to define: The prosody of a poem is the poet's method of controlling the reader's temporal experience of the poem, especially his attention to that experience. But how can the poet control the reader's experience? How does the reader know what to pay attention to, among the many linguistic events the poem comprises? The prosody, to function as a prosody, must be shared. This implies a communication between the poet and the reader; but the only communication would seem to be just those facts (marks on a page) whose characteristics are in question. Yet there is also an indirect communication. The poet can count on the reader to share, not only the direct experience of the marks, but the context of conventions within which they become a set of words (the conventions of a language), and beyond that a passage of verse (the convention of lineation), and beyond that a poem with a particular prosody. As traditional theorists partly recognized, prosody depends essentially on conventions.

To create and control attention requires organization — or at least that is the most obvious way to do it. This may tempt us to distinguish poetry or verse from prose on the grounds that prose is less highly organized. But it has often been shown that any mode of organization found in any poem (except lineation) will also occur in some passage of prose — usually in many, though rhyme, for instance, had a short and relatively disastrous career in English prose. Organization disappoints two hopes prosodists have entertained. It is not a measure that will absolutely distinguish prose from verse; only lineation can do that. Nor can it distinguish prose from poetry; probably nothing will. But it does provide a set of tools for the analysis of prosody.

What I have already said about the temporality of poems suggests that prosodic organization is rhythmic. Rhythm, in poetry, is the temporal distribution of the elements of language. According to this definition, all language unavoidably has rhythm. But it follows from my earlier definitions that poetry makes us especially aware of rhythm. As the Gestalt psychologists have been demonstrating since the Great War, organization or structure lies, to an important extent, in the eye of the beholder. The more attention one pays to rhythm, the more profoundly one is likely to perceive it as organized. Whatever the "facts" — and they may be impossible to determine in isolation from our experience of them — rhythm in poetry generally seems more highly organized than in other uses of language. This suggests a form of my definition of prosody that approximates and includes the traditional one: It is the system of rhythmic organization that governs the construction and reading of a poem.

"Organization" implies elements to be organized, and prosodic organization will employ the elements of speech: (1) timbre (in recurrences such as alliteration, assonance, and rhyme); (2) duration (which, when applied as it commonly is to syllables, is called quantity); (3) pitch or intonation; (4) intensity or volume (these two being distinguishable acoustically but not psychologically, and so not prosodically); and (5) boundary. The first four are commonly accepted as the elements of all language. This is not so true of the fifth, which may help to clarify some aspects of my definition of prosody.

Boundary is demonstrably necessary as a prosodic element. Without it, as W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley point out in one of the best modern treatments of meter, the characteristics of standard prosodic forms grow hazy: "To have verses or lines, you have to have certain broader structural features, notably the endings. Milton's line is not only a visual or typographical fact on the page, but a fact of the language. If you try to cut up his pentameters into tetrameters, for example, you find yourself ending in the middle of words or on weak words like 'on' or 'the'" (108, 591). Ending on "on" or "the" would destroy Milton's prosody; it is acceptable, even normal, in the prosodies favored by William Carlos Williams or Robert Creeley. Milton's line, in short, is determined by more specific conventions than the phrase "a fact of the language" would suggest. But in any case, endings make meanings. The effects of lineation (to be discussed in Chapter Three) depend on line boundary. Furthermore, at least within Milton's prosody, the length of words and the distribution of their junctures become significant rhythmic elements. As Wimsatt and Beardsley observe, the inherent flexibility of iambic pentameter "combines further with the number and length of the words involved in a line to produce contours of tension so special as perhaps better not translated into any other kind of meaning but simply regarded as shapes of energy" (108, 597). Such "shapes of energy" are among the effects of prosody. A simple example is the trick known to any careful writer of iambic verse: A two-syllable word crossing a foot boundary will tend to speed the line up, while one that coincides with the foot will slow it down. "Foot boundary" — like lineation — is obviously not a fundamental element of all language, but it has become essential to some prosodies, as lines are to all.

Yet this presents a puzzle. Some historical linguists, thinking how language originates in speech, might claim that word boundary — so lately introduced into typography — is not really part of language. And syllable boundary is often imperceptible to the eye. Perhaps one or the other, but not both, could be organized rhythmically in verse, depending on whether verse speaks to the eye or the ear. But prosody obviates disputes about the precise linguistic status of various kinds of boundary. We recognize both word boundary and syllable boundary because we have learned our language both by reading and by listening, just as we recognize foot boundary when we have learned to scan metrical verse. As the example of foot boundary demonstrates, these elements act in our understanding of verse as conventions rather than as simple acoustical or spatial facts.

As Wimsatt and Beardsley remark, "The main thing to observe about the principles of relative stress and counted syllables is that by means of these you can explain the necessary things about English syllable-stress verse" (108, 593). "The necessary things" means the information a reader must share with the poet. This is not to deny that other elements have rhythmic effects in a passage of verse, but the poet will choose one, or a combination, to dominate his prosody. The choice will be determined partly by his language. Each language trains the ears of its speakers to attend more to some characteristics of sound than to others. Thus in each poetic tradition one or two rhythmic elements are likely to dominate and determine the conventional prosody, though the poet may be able to use others. (The difficulty of doing so is clear in the attempts of English poets to import quantitative organizations from the languages that gave English its theoretical prosodic tradition.) In Chinese, for instance, words are monosyllabic, so word boundary and syllable boundary reinforce each other. Pitch distinctions (the four "tones") are also clearly marked and semantically important. Chinese prosody tends to combine these, distributing set patterns of tones over set numbers of words. In French, a language with minimal accent, the traditional prosody organizes syllables. On the other hand, Anglo-Saxon had prominent accents, closely linked with meaning, and their rhythmic organization constituted Anglo-Saxon prosody. English, influenced by French, descended from Anglo-Saxon. Latin contributed a foot-based theory, which requires two prosodic elements (in the case of Latin, syllabic quantity and boundary). It is not surprising that English prosodies have depended upon both syllable boundary and accent.

I should pause to say something about accent as a prosodic element. It is not one of the elements of speech as I listed them earlier. Rather, accent is compounded of intensity, pitch, and to some extent duration. It frequently implies something about timbre as well. (Stress often changes timbre — "evil," "establish" — though not always: "defense.") Furthermore, accent is sometimes governed by particular linguistic conventions (as in polysyllables), and sometimes depends on context. The pitch factor in accent takes its own place in a complicated system of "pitch contours" indigenous to the language (84). The placement of accent also involves the meaning of the words, which it both determines (is "permit" a noun or a verb?) and is determined by. (One can read "I don't want it" in at least three ways. If we encounter it on a page, only by considering its contexts — prosodic and other — do we know where to put the accent.) Because accent is so powerful semantically, and so evident to the ear, English favors it for prosodic organization, along with syllable boundary.


Excerpted from Free Verse by Charles O. Hartman. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Charles O. Hartman is professor of English and Poet in Residence at Connecticut College.

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