Measuring Prosody--Not Music
In the "you kids get off my lawn" Department for Old Fogies,
I offer up a venerable pet peeve:
How often have you heard or read (usually by its enemies), that
metrical poetry is so dull and mechanical in its treatment of
stresses that it sounds like a metronome was used to write it?
I've come across dozens of examples of this complaint through
the years, and have now decided to--finally--do something about it.
In a rock-solid, standard line of iambic pentameter, syllables
fall exactly into the famous pattern of u X / u X / u X / u X / u X .
Notice that the principle involved is simple alternation: short-long,
short-long, etc. Notice, too, that each foot is bound only by
the principle of alternation and nothing else. In other words,
caesuras enter into the way the line is read, as do speed,
relative stress, and so on.
Good. But if you've ever played or composed music, you probably
began, as I did, in order to play the saxophone, by following
your music teacher's tempo . . . set by a metronome. And a metronome,
once set in motion to a certain tempo, is, yes, completely as regular
as iambic pentameter, but only on the principle of alternation.
In other words, a metronome measures ONLY time elapsed: each swing
of the pendulum--one exact slice of time if you will. But if you were
to try to read a good poem that uses iambic pentameter as its basis,
giving every syllable the same exact length of time spoken, it would
sound absurd. Because nobody with any skill writes, hears, or reads
poetry that way. If you don't believe me, try the experiment. And
when you're done, please join me in shoveling the dirt in on the
"meter is so metronomic" canard. You'll feel great in the morning
if you do.