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Syntax, Part II
This essay continues the examination of syntax in English-language poetry, begun in "Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song," published in this magazine, Volume XXV,, No. 1, Winter 2003.
Vocal" rhythm (phrasing), which "organizes musical time ... on the large scale," and "instrumental" rhythm (meter), which organizes it on the small scale: this is how musicologist Robert Jourdain describes the two rhythmic systems at work in music.
Meter ... organizes small groups of notes, and sometimes larger ones, and thereby provides a sort of grid upon which music is drawn. On the other hand, phrasing imparts a kind of narrative to music. It is the mechanism by which a composition can play out a grand drama. ... Phrasing is nothing like meter. For one thing, its markers are more subtle. Where meter presents a regular, mostly predictable succession of emphasized notes, phrasing constantly varies. (123-24, 130)
Robert Frost made a remarkably similar distinction when articulating his own prosody. "A sentence," he said,
is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning of words. It must do something more: it must convey a meaning by sound. (Interviews 6)
He called these "sentence sounds" "the sound of sense," out of which "I ... consciously set myself to make music." "Dramatic tones of meaning" come from phrasing, from "vital sentences" (as opposed to "grammatical sentences"), apprehended by the ear, which are "struck across ... a limited meter" to create endless "possibilities for tune." (1)
[I]t's a tune of the blend of those two things [rhythm and meter]. Something rises--it's neither one of these things. It's neither the meter nor the rhythm; it's a tune arising from the stress on these, same as your fingers on the strings, you know. The twang! (Interviews 203)
In other words, "[t]he two kinds of rhythm are not entirely at peace with one another" (Jourdain 124).
For Frost, a fixed grid in poetry was paramount: there was only the "choice of two metres, strict iambic and loose iambic" ("The Constant Symbol," Selected Prose 26). This shows the temperament behind his famous put-down: that free verse is like playing tennis without a net. Less well-known is Charles Wright's rejoinder: that free verse is actually "the high-wire act without the net." Frost worried he would "be lost in the air with just cutting loose"--cutting loose, that is, from iambic "as rigid as two crossed swords in the Sword Dance" (1961 interview). But the high-wire walker, far from "cutting loose," depends entirely, thrillingly, on the thin line along which he inches his slippered feet. One should not infer from Wright's felicitous figure that in open-form, or "free verse" poems, something is missing: instead, the issues of pattern and variation, tension and release, shape and energy--matters of form--remain the same, to be negotiated poet by poet, poem by poem, within the strictures of individual temperament and aesthetic.
Stanley Kunitz and D. H. Lawrence would no doubt agree with Frost that "the living part of a poem is in the intonation entangled somehow in the syntax idiom and meaning of a sentence," even though neither thought strict meter was the only way to create "the other thing--something ... for me to put a strain on." Instead of Frost's rigid "crossed swords," both "King of the River" (Kunitz) and "Song of a Man Who Has Come Through" (Lawrence) rely on a faithful coincidence between the rhythms available in the syntax and the rhythm created by the line--what I call "consonant" lineation. Here are the opening sentences of both poems:
KING OF THE RIVER If the water were clear enough, if the water were still, hut the water is not clear, the water is not still, you would see yourself, slipped out of your skin, nosing upstream, slapping, thrashing, tumbling over the rocks till you paint them with your belly's blood: Finned Ego, yard of muscle that coils, uncoils. (170) SONG OF A MAN WHO HAS COME THROUGH Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me! A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Tune. If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me! If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift! If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted; If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge Driven by invisible blows, The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides. (250)
In the Lawrence poem, the long line, making its own "sound of sense," usually combines ("chunks together," as the linguists would say) pieces of syntax that are often overlapping or synonymous, and then divides the resulting musical phrase from its long sentence. Because the line lengths vary wildly, pattern must derive from syntax--the similarities in sentence structure--and from lexical repetition, both of which are absorbed and managed by chunking, end-stop, and anaphora. As in a Whitman poem, the formal choices emphasize what Jourdain calls the "narrative" of the composition, its "grand drama"--an effect essentially removed from the poem if it is recast into Kunitz's short line:
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me! If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift! If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed by the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world....
Isolated this way, the repetitions become tedious and self-indulgent, the text static and overwritten, struggling within a nonfunctional form.
The short consonant line works well in the Kunitz poem because, as in Frost, large-scale musical phrasing is managed there not by the line but by syntax--the highly complex, highly repetitious syntax, emphasized by stanzas, that structures the poem. While Lawrence's lines drive us past markers and combine distinct grammatical units into sweeping musical phrases, Kunitz uses the line for stability and clarity, parsing out the composite pieces of his long hypotactic sentences and exaggerating the directness of his short …