History of Poetry – 5 (Accentual and Quantitative Measure)

Allen Ginsberg’s History of Poetry continues

AG:Does anybody know the difference between accentual prosody and quantitative prosody? Is that something that ever came through? Does anybody know what quantitative prosody (is)? – as distinct from accentual? One, two, three (and some of the poets (here) maybe? (W.S.Merwin, Lewis MacAdams, Anne Waldman). Could you [to Student] explain it?, or, what’s your version?

Student: Quantitative is the number of consonants and vowels, and accentual is the number of accents in a particular line.

AG [to second Student]: And what was your understanding?

Student: (mumbles)

AG: Louder?

Student: I got the one out of Allen Verbatim

AG: I put together a book on spontaneous poetics (which I’ll put in the library, on the reference shelf), of my own sort of general pastiche of ideas of about 1968. My understanding (mainly from (Ezra) Pound) is that, in Greek and Latin prosody, the measure of the line, involved a count of the length of the vowels. In Greek also, the pitch – high and low – and that there were fixed lengths for vowels, like “fixed lenngth” – well, the “fixed” is shorter than the “length” – the vowel “ih” is shorter than “eh”, I think, to my ear, at the moment. “With love” – the “ih” is shorter than the “ov”, so, if it were possible to measure them in English, the “with” would be a half-length and “love” would be a full-length vowel, and you could compose your lines of three full-length vowels (consisting of six half-length, or three full-length, or two half-length and two full-length vowels). In other words, you’d measure the line by the length of the vowel. You wouldn’t be measuring it by the accent. You wouldn’t try to measure the line by counting the accents neat.Do you understand the difference? Real simple in English – “THIS is the FORest primEVal the MURmuring PINES and the HEMlock” (that’s the standard war-horse that’s taught, or was taught, twenty, thirty years ago in high-schools). That’s counting of an accent. Dah-duh-duh, dah-duh-duh.. The accent, meaning the emphasis on the syllable, how much emphasis you put on it, rather than the length of the syllable. So (Ezra) Pound, realizing that people were no longer singing, points out, first of all, that, when the English figured out their accentual measure of the line, they were trained in classical poetics, and so they took over the terminology of the Greek and Latin measures, and shifted it over, however, from length of vowel and pitch (that’s the tone or the pitch), they took it over and just used the same nomenclature for accent. So in a Greek line, which would be in iambic..what? – duh-Dah (short-long), yeah, in a Greek line (which was called iambic – and the foot, the foot part of the line which was called iambic), it would have been a short and a long vowel. “I go…”, say, for that sound. “I go” (short “I”, longer “go”). The English counted the accent instead of the length of the vowel (“i GO”). So they’re counting the accent. Using the divisions and measures of classical quantity. They made a kind of patchwork system. And it was alright, I guess, while they were still singing, because there were a lot of variation(s) because of the singing and the elasticity of the singing and the kind of body that it had and the variableness of the actual singing-the-thing-aloud. But then, Pound complains, as song was no longer practiced so much that it became a literary exercise for speaking the poetry, and it was no longer, later in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, no longer even for speaking aloud, but just to read on the page, the muscular-ness and the organic sense of these kind of measures were lost, and it became mechanical and repetitive and dulled down and even lost all meaning, was, in the famous line: “Thou too sail on, O ship of state” – “Thou TOO” (unaccented, accented), “sail ON” (unaccented , accented), “oh SHIP” (unaccented, accented), “of STATE” (unaccented, accented). Did you know that? Do you understand what I am saying? No? I’ll write it out on the board. I just want to make this one point clear and then we get off it. This was one of the most famous lines in the English language at one time in the 20th Century. It’s usually measured, in the books, in the prefaces to books of prosody written in the ’20’s, when, as Pound pointed out, our prosody was most degenerated, mechanical, hand-me-down, they were used to the short or light/heavy – “Thou TOO Sail ON o SHIP of STATE”. Right. You did that in grammar school or high school. How many did not do that ever? How many never did that at all? And how many did that? So you know what I’m talking about there, right?

(tape ends and then continues) “…used to show what iambic is. But, if you notice, you have the word “O” over here. Now “O” is unaccented, but what is “O” except an exclamation? So how can an exclamation “O” be unaccented ? Something went wrong, because it got squeezed mechanically so that finally it’s violating the very organic sounds of spoken English. If you were trying to squeeze an exclamation..

Student: Yeah, but if anybody read that, other than this as an example, you’d elongate the “too” and the “O”.

AG: No, there used to be a “Thou TOO sail ON o SHIP of STATE.”. Yeah. In high-school, that’s the way they read it to me.

Student: “Thou TOO sail on O ship of STATE”

AG: Well, it should be, obviously, “THOU TOO…”. So I would read it actually as “THOU TOO SAIL ON O SHIP of STATE”. So, in other words, this is not an accurate way of measuring the actual accents of spoken verse any longer. It’s gotten so scewed up that an exclamation is measured as a non-accented syllable. So, in a way, it’s no longer a workable shot, no longer a workable measure, which is the problem that (Ezra) Pound had to face at the beginning of the century and solved in his own way. He thought, ultimately, that some new American prosody or some new measure of American verse would ultimately be an approximation of classical quantity, of Latin/Greek quantity, that people would have to start looking for vowels and measure by vowels and that was his practice basically. (And, later on in the term, I’ll bring in some recordings of Pound voweling his own quantitative Cantos, so you hear how he does it and what his ear is like. William Carlos Williams said that Pound had a “mystical ear” – it was so accurate to the length of the vowel. Williams solved the problem a different way – just listening and hearing the organic sounds of the speech around him.

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