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  • A Prosody of Space / Non-Linear Time
  • Jim Rosenberg

Part I: Background: Linear Prosody1

Dimensions of Inequality Among Syllables

Prosody in the English language proceeds from the axiom that not all syllables are created equal; many effects in prosody derive from the time-plot of these inequalities along various dimensions. The most well known of these is the familiar stress-degree, but I will quickly review others.


The usual approach to pitch in prosody is to consider it a “curve”: the intonation curve. However, there is a manner of recitation at work in many American communities, most notably in a style of reading in the black community, in which tight-knit patterns of time of various pitches are articulated, in much the same way that stress occurs in more traditional prosodies. This is a very rich prosody that deserves to be studied in its own right. A predominantly pitch-degree prosody will have very different characteristics than a predominantly stress-degree prosody. Pitch is a purely acoustical property, as opposed to stress, which is a linguistic property that is quite difficult to define acoustically. Thus a pitch-degree prosody is much closer to music (in the literal sense of the term); a pitch-degree prosody is freer to use an absolute musical sense of time, whereas a stress-degree prosody is more likely to be based on “linguistic time,” which works differently (see footnote 8 below). Not all phonemes carry pitch; a pitch-degree prosody may thus change the sound structure balance for how phonemes relate to one another. Where both pitch degree and stress-degree prosodies occur simultaneously, incredibly subtle effects are possible.

Vowel Position Degrees

In explaining the meaning of the term “Tone Leading Vowels” as it pertained to the prosody of Ezra Pound, Robert Duncan explained the term as meaning two things: (1) Where a diphthong (a glide between one “pure vowel” and another) occurs, the leading pure vowel of the glide plays a special role. (2) A sound is reinforced when you hear it again, but can also be reinforced when you don’t hear it again. A similar concept to this second point is the idea that vowels form clusters according to the position of the mouth when they are articulated; the tight-knit pattern in time that delineates which of these clusters is active can form a prosody, much like the stress-degree or pitch-degree prosody.

Stress-Degrees: Classical Prosody

The most familiar basis for metrics in English is the tight-knit pattern in time formed by stress-degrees. Stress has been extensively studied in linguistics (see for example Chomsky and Halle). Before introducing an alternate methodology for how metrical studies of contemporary poetry might be conducted, I will review briefly the traditional account of how the stress-degree metric is supposed to operate. This account has become a significant obstacle in pursuing prosody of contemporary poetry, so it would be well to understand it before considering a different approach. Classical prosody starts with an a priori inventory of templates of stress-degree patterns (e.g. iamb, trochee, anapest, etc.). “Scanning” is the process of matching these templates to the poem; where repeated instances of a single template match, end-to-end, the line or poem is said to “scan.” It is important to note that the word “foot” is profoundly ambiguous in this process, having at least the following two meanings: (1) We speak of a foot as meaning one of the templates. In this usage, “foot” is an abstract concept which exists in advance of any particular poem. (2) We may refer to the actual syllables in a poem matched by a template as being a foot. In this usage, “foot” is a part of a living, breathing poem—and as such is a unit of rhythm intermediate between the syllable and the metric line. Much of the poetics that has been influential since the fifties and sixties has focused away from the a priori (Olson, Ginsberg) and many contemporary poets are uncomfortable with the idea of a template-based metrics. Most poets and many theorists have turned away from the study of metrics, rather than explore the...

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