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Alan Holder. Rethinking Meter: A New Approach to the Verse Line

A Review of Rethinking Meter: A New Approach to the Verse Line by Alan Holder


by Annie Finch
Miami University
Annie Finch


Copyright © Annie Finch 1998
Received: 22 February 1998; Published: 3 March 1998

KEYWORDS: versification, verse line, foot, iambic, scansion, phrasalism, intonation, poetic meter, prosody

REVIEW OF: Rethinking Meter: A New Approach to the Verse Line by Alan Holder. 1995.
Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg (London: Associated University Presses). pp. 298.
ISBN: 0-8387-5292-6. $42.50 hb.


Limping Prosody


Readers who have kept up with prosodic history will know that there is a line of often distinguished thinkers (the best-known members are Sidney Lanier and Edgar Allen Poe) who have decided, each in their turn, that English-language poetics needs a complete overhaul--and that no one else is qualified to do the job. Alan Holder's sense of isolated zeal, sometimes so passionate as to unbalance his arguments, fits him admirably for membership in this cranky club. Rethinking Meter is unified less by its author's organizational plan than by his bitter resentment of the generally accepted system of scanning (mapping the sound-patterns of) metered poetry.

Holder sets out saying that he will "clear the field," and it's hard to find a prosodist he doesn't completely trash in his first chapters; indeed, as the author of one book he critiques, I must say I was rather honored to be trashed in such good company. Holder's bibliography is extremely impressive, and his book takes on an overwhelming amount of material. For all the earlier chapters' sound and fury, however, they are likely to remain largely unconvincing to the informed reader. Only in the last couple of chapters, when Holder stops criticizing and finally advances some ideas of his own, does Rethinking Meter become the worthwhile—and indeed the valuable—book that it really is.

Holder's first project is to try to discredit the conventional system of scanning by regular rhythmic units, or "feet." He does this by listing examples of inaccurate scansions from a variety of prosodists on the one hand, and by critiquing the common explanations of how meter affects a reader, on the other. Neither of these approaches is particularly persuasive, in spite of the heartfelt annoyance with which Holder intersperses his arguments. Prosody is admittedly a subjective art, and no prosodist would deny making mistakes or finding occasional lines unscannable—but these exceptions don't necessarily discredit the vast majority of easily scannable lines. Similarly, no prosodist would deny that accounts of how meter makes you "expect" a certain rhythmic effect, or of how an "ideal" metrical pattern haunts each actual line, are just clumsy attempts to explain the experience of reading metered verse. But these arguments don't do away with the actuality of meter anymore than a discussion of the inaccuracies of color theory does away with the experience of perceiving color.

It would probably be fruitless to argue this point, or any other points about traditional prosody, with Holder; he does not disguise the fact that his bottom line, the real reason he wants to discredit traditional prosody, goes far beyond any rational argument. He resents the conventional system of foot-scansion because it "imposes" a unified "system" onto various poetic lines. Over and over, the reader of Holder's first four chapters is made aware of the extent of his bitterness over this fact, his sense that the infinite, natural beauty of the speech-patterns that make up the poetic line is being somehow "forced" into unnatural, mechanical foot-patterns by a conspiracy of anal-retentive control freaks. Given the basic weakness of his logical arguments, and the fact that he discusses very little actual poetry, Holder's continual kvetching makes tedious reading for those not as viscerally threatened by the prevalent system of foot-scansion as he is. This is not to say, however, that his unchecked pique does not give rise to a few truly amusing insults, like "the foot fetishists." When Holder begins to attack specific prosodic approaches, it seems clear that much of his onus against traditional scansion is based on misunderstandings about how the system works. Holder seriously misreads a classic work on the history of prosody, John Thompson's The Founding of English Meter. Thompson's book explores the vast changes that took place between George Gascoigne's mechanical view of meter as rigid and unvarying, in 1575, and the openness to variation from the metrical norm that accompanied the metrical fluency of Sidney and Shakespeare a half-century later. Holder seems not to have read the second half of Thompson's book; he conflates Thompson's view of meter with Gascoigne's, and criticizes Thompson several times for thinking that meter forces the unnatural pronunciation of words. Nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone who has read all of Thompon's passionate tribute to the expressive counterpoint between meter and actual speech patterns can testify. Holder also overlooks the importance of the caesurae, or midline pauses, in traditional metrical theory. This is a shame, since at the end of the book Holder argues eloquently for the importance of grammatical phrases in the poetic line, and the caesurae provide a simple way to mark such phrases within the traditional system.

After promising throughout several chapters that he will get to his own proposals eventually, Holder finally does come through in his final chapters. Two thirds of the way through the book, when he turns his attention away from attacking the prevalent system and at last starts discussing something he believes in, Rethinking Meter shows its true worth. In the final chapters, the organization changes from rambling to lucid, the tone of the writing changes from sophomoric to serious, and we begin considering important ideas instead of tiresome prejudices. Holder's discussion of the significance of the line as a poetic unit is thorough, original, well-argued, and extremely valuable. His exhaustive chapter on the history of phrasalism successfully defends the importance of attention to phrases (though his avoidance of the central role of phrases in traditional prosody—e.g. the caesura— weakens the point). Holder's discussion of the various schools of intonational theory is also extremely impressive; here as in the phrasalism chapter, he proves himself one of the rare prosodists conversant with linguistics-based theories of prosody. These chapters are definitely worth reading, and they are bound to increase the reader's sensitivity to the phrasal and intonational aspects of metered verse while adding significantly to the embryonic but growing body of thought about free-verse prosody.

Holder's own scansions, based on phrases and intonation, are sometimes very perceptive (though his proposed system would be difficult to adopt widely, since it requires each line of poetry to take up about 10 lines' worth of page space). His openness to nonmetrical effects makes it even odder that his ear for meter seems to have been trained on the poetry of another language (strangely, his ideas about meter in English most resemble those of the eighteenth century, when syllabism, based on French models, was the norm). Reading Holder's proposal to rework the idea of iambic pentameter until it becomes nothing more than a decasyllabic line, or his scansion of a Shakespeare sonnet completely ignoring a major rhythm reversal (trochee) in the middle of a line, I can only conclude that Holder has never had the opportunity to appreciate hearing meter. My sense is confirmed by the times during the book when he simply doesn't notice a clear dactylic or iambic rhythm, or when he fails to acknowledge the hold that metrical tradition may have over poets who have been trained in meter. Overall, Holder's book makes it clear how utterly alienated a relatively sensitive poetry-lover, a scholar devoted to free verse (Holder's previous books include works on Pound, Eliot, and Ammons) has become from the sound of metrical poetry. As a metrical poet myself, and a lover of metrical poetry, I find the extent of his disaffection a rather horrifying wake-up call.

Holder's metrical misreadings wouldn't bother me so much if they didn't seem related to a much broader phenomenon, a general misunderstanding of how meter works: why some decasyllabic lines sound like iambic pentameter and others don't; that even noniambic meters can be varied, and how much pleasure arises from variations on a metrical norm; how the feet Holder so hates actually increase, rather than distorting, the accentual and tonal capabilities of the language. All these things can be easily taught in a month or so, as basic music appreciation is taught. But lately they have not been taught. The general state of metrical ignorance is ripe for someone like Holder—and many less qualified than he—to take it on themselves, once more, to rework the whole business from the bottom up.

It would have been nice if someone had advised Holder to compress the first two-thirds of the book into a preface and concentrate on developing a subject that clearly enthralls him: the role of phrases and voice intonations in poetry. His ear is out for other things than meter—and that is wonderful, because he can, and does, help us to hear the beauty of phrases, tones, and other kinds of sound-effects in poetry. But his perceptions don't really require him to revamp the entire current prosodic system single-handedly in 240 pages; in fact, if he understood the current "system" more deeply, he might find that the caesura maps phrases and that the foot itself marks different levels of intonation. There is still much to be learned about the foot-system (and relearned, in the wake of the last century); many of Holder's own observations about phrase and intonation could be usefully incorporated into it. There is also much that prosodists like Derek Attridge can teach us about accentual verse, and much that prosodists like Charles Hartmann and Holder himself can teach us about free verse. But accentual-syllabic metrical poetry, whether Holder likes it or not, is written according to regular, systematic patterns, and the foot system of scansion is prevalent because it explains those patterns in a way that is accurate, efficient, and flexible, as well as easy to teach, to learn, and to write with.

In the final analysis, Alan Holder embodies a much larger problem in contemporary poetics. His malaise reflects a widespread confusion between prosodic tools. After extensive thinking about free verse, Holder has decided that prosody's job is exhaustively to describe individual lines of poems, with no outside point of common reference between them. This is a valuable approach—indeed, arguably the most appropriate approach—for free verse. To read metered verse in these terms, however, is like looking at a perspective drawing without any consciousness of the conventions of perspective. It does no justice to the art, and while it may provide interesting insights on a case-by-case basis, as a widespread practice it becomes willfully ignorant. Without full awareness of the nuances of our rich, complicated, flexible prosodic system, Holder feels justified in dismissing it out of hand, inventing a new one, and expecting everyone to learn it. Personally, I am weary of the energy expended in constantly trying to reinvent the metrical wheel, but prosody will no doubt continue to attract such machinations. Perhaps it's because the field of prosody seems arcane enough nowadays that few will notice or care what you do with it. Perhaps it's because scansion is at once exhilaratingly, infuriatingly subjective and lusciously, reassuringly objective. Perhaps it's because, since we all speak words daily, we are likely to feel entitled to our own particular "ear" for their rhythms. At any rate, we are currently in the midst of a revival of works on prosody, and Holder's book is not likely to be the last—nor by any means the crankiest.

ISSN 1546-0401