- The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse
Poet, editor, and scholar Annie Finch has written an illuminating new book about the uses of prosody in American poetry focussing on pivotal moments in literary history or what she calls "metrical crises." The title, Finch explains, comes from Eliot's definition of "good free verse as poetry that uses, not meter, but the 'ghost' of meter" in "Reflections on Vers Libre" from the Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot (82). The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse builds on previous examinations of the relationship between meter, subject matter, and poetic effects to introduce the idea of the "metrical code": "The words in such poems comment, on one level, on their own meter, just as meter enriches the meaning of the words" (1).
In Chapter One, "Meter, Meaning, and the Metrical Code," Finch examines earlier theories of prosody: the theory of propriety, the appropriateness of metrical choices in relation to subject matter and genre; the iconic theory, the idea that rhythm creates meaningful sounds and stresses significant words; and the frame theory, which poet John Hollander has championed, "the idea that a meter constitutes a meaningful 'contract' with the reader by evoking prior poems in the same meter" (3).
Finch's chapters include discussions of the metrics of Dickinson, Whitman, Stephen Crane, Eliot; the final brief chapter, "Contemporary Free Verse: A Postscript," glosses prosodic innovations of poets Audre Lorde and Charles Wright. She includes cultural and historical influences as well as literary ones that led to the metrical crises, and persuasive examples of each poet's efforts at resolving the crisis in his or her own work. For example, the [End Page 129] chapters on Whitman and T.S. Eliot present exciting observations about the prosodic originality of these poets. In "T.S. Eliot and the Metrical Crisis of the Early Twentieth Century" Finch discusses critiques of free and formal verse beginning in 1912, played out in the pages of the first issues of Poetry magazine and elsewhere, that presage similar debates today. She explores the tension between Eliot's iambics and dactyls and shows how he resolves it in a fusion of free verse and meter, particularly in his late work, The Four Quartets. In "Iambic and Dactylic Associations in Leaves of Grass" Finch counters conventional criticism by demonstrating in what ways the other nineteenth-century American genius relies on meters.
In "Dickinson and Patriarchal Meter: A Theory of the Metrical Code" the author relies on feminist theory to frame her discussion of Dickinson's relation to canonic prosody. "Because of her unusual historical position and passionate, involved poetic struggle, Dickinson is an ideal subject for the study of how meter encodes information about a poem's relation to contemporaneous influences, traditions, and societal attitudes and to the poetic past and its supporting social structures," states Finch (13).
She uses The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar to introduce the female poet's experience in relation to patriarchal meter. "According to Gilbert and Gubar, women writers have traditionally struggled out from the double bind of the 'anxiety of authorship' by disguising their own messages within the surface forms of male genres, thus managing 'the difficult task of achieving true female literary authority by simultaneously conforming to and subverting patriarchal literary standards'" (Finch 18). Finch speculates that this idea sheds light on Dickinson's choice to "gnaw at iambic pentameter mostly from a strict metrical framework in the mid-nineteenth century, rather than radically loosening meter as did her contemporary, Whitman" (18).
I believe that Alicia Ostriker's description of Dickinson's poetry and her relation to it as "duplicitous" (Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America) is relevant here: "I use the term 'duplicitous' rather than 'ironic' because in irony the unstated meaning cancels the stated one; here, contrary meanings coexist with equal force, because they have [End Page 130] equal force within the poet" (Ostriker 40-41). According...