METRICS IN VERSE AND POETRY

The Cramping of Free Expression



In a literature course we are told that Poetry is older than Prose, witness the Rg Veda in India and Homer in Greece, beside Herodotus' hesitant manner of writing prose history as something experimental and novel. Over time Poetry acquired the role of container for important human thoughts and subtler associations, while Prose was good for history and documentation, essays and philosophy. But this changed somewhere in the eighteenth century as the novel emerged as a tightly woven fabric of stories in words, first in Sterne's Tristram Shandy in l768 and then the great novelists of the l9th century. This last century has elicited every kind of prose writing imaginable, from the simple story to the highly wrought word-objects of James Joyce, and we can no longer think of prose as common or ordinary language. We should have seen this much earlier, since some of the finest prose every written is found in the Dialogues of Plato which combine rhythm, assonance, cadence, and a real sense of musicality with irregular moments of surprise. There we have the superb model for a highly developed and sensitive prose art.

But look for a moment to music. Until this last century music has been totally dominated by regular measurements of time and rhythm, with up- and down-beats built into every measure. From the time of Scarlatti on, we have a standard formula for a four measure passage in which a phrase is stated, repeated, altered, and then "resolved". This becomes a lock-stepped four part "passage" which can be extended from the simple song to the symphony. This parallels the use in poetry of a classically measured poetic hexameter, but following the pattern of 5th century Latin religious poetry we have a tradition of rhymed couplets in infinitely boring sequence, which dominated English poetry until Milton and the poets of the 17th century restored blank verse by circumcising the rhymed line-ending.

Turn to Music for a moment. Should there not be a free and unfettered musical art which lets cadences flow forth like the words in a well written piece of prose, an art without measured paces, no repeating echoes like those of rhymed poetry, no pre-set structure whether sonata or symphony form filled in with one or two melody lines repeated and recast with variations in pitch ad pace? If I were asking this question in l900, I would have had to say that much poetry had the kind of freedom I was asking for, while music had very little to show at that time.

But soon after the turn of that century things began to change. We find a vein of music which was emerging after l910, stretching from early Stravinsky through Schoenberg and his Serials, past Bartok into mid-century Cage aleatorics, on into Electro-Acoustic music with synthesizers and finally computers with composing algorithms. Here the restrictions of rhythm, cadence, harmony and overall form have been totally revised, with the end result of producing something quite different from the musical tradition which comes down to us from the early Renaissance. What is the final result of all this change? Probably that only one percent of humanity likes or can even tolerate the New Music, and many of will go back in a hurry to what it can comfortably understand in the rich world of Classical harmony.

But there is another musical thread which has immense popular appeal worldwide, with the regular beats and measures of Country music, or the non-experimental style of Rock, or the thin three note Pop style with a mild voice wailing over a bass beat with a few stroke of the guitar. Popular and dance music now has the enrichment of available electronic sounds , a piece can revolve around a melody line to hold together an assemblage of factory preset sounds, with predictable meter to set hands keeping time or feet shuffling on the floor. But if you have been musically educated in the Western tradition, you find this popular music thin, so you can turn back to the world of Classical l9th c. music with its fine timbres, great instrumentation, to enjoy the comfort of measure, repetitions and repeated thematic material, the signposts of familiar musical experience.

I do have something more in mind. I want to hear music which is constructed like a well written art-prose, with fine micro-texture in every phrase, freely unfolding so each moment of sound generates artistically what follows in a perceptible and ineluctable order. Our whole musical background is available to us now for re-forming and re-shaping. We have the whole musical range from the fourteenth century to the present time, which we can mold like musical clay into any form and format we can imagine. We can have rhythm which is infinitely variable, pitch and timbre in unthinkable variety, and an overall form as free as a Fantasia to represent the shape of our musical thinking in unconstricted format. These are the tools of music in the new day.

Going into the future of new sounds takes daring and the risk of creating something which is unpopular, ahead of its time. For such a venture what we need most is openness and a fine sense of subtlety, taking time to watch the processes of thought as ideas configure themselves in an auditory montage within our consciousness. It requires mortar to be put things together firmly, and the mortar of music or of any other art is always the same. There has to be care and detailed workmanship, which can be summed up in one single word: Craftsmanship!

Return to Music index

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris