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  • Modernism's Metronome: Meter and Twentieth-Century Poetics by Ben Glaser
  • Sarah Berry
Modernism's Metronome: Meter and Twentieth-Century Poetics. Ben Glaser. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. Pp. 304. $94.95 (hardcover); $34.95 (paperback); $34.95 (eBook).

Nowadays, after the so-called "free verse revolution," it can be difficult to access the way poets and readers thought about poetry before it was disentangled from meter. To do so, we must reverse a century of literary history that redefined poetry and forget the distinction we have been taught between meter and verse. In Modernism's Metronome, Ben Glaser does precisely this. In fact, his study reveals the importance of counted meter—iambic pentameter, no less—even for those writers, such as Ezra Pound, who most vociferously denounced it as fusty and artificial. Glaser returns to the moment when this reconceptualization took place and examines the way that meter persisted, and continues to persist, as a vestige, playing a crucial role in the poetic practice of a wide range of modernists, from Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot to Jean Toomer and James Weldon Johnson. This book, then, can be seen as a continuation of the project begun by Yopie Prins, Virginia Jackson, and Meredith Martin as it brings methods and insights from historical poetics to bear on American modernism. The "metrical vestige," as Glaser calls it, turns out to be a potent heuristic for the kind of conceptual reentanglement that is necessary for the postmetrical reader to recognize the various roles that meter plays in modern poetry (25).

He begins with Frost, arguing that Frost uses meter—whether the iambic pentameter of "Home Burial" or the hendecasyllabic lines of "For Once, Then, Something"—to undercut the hermeneutic usefulness of metrical scansion. In other words, Frost uses counted meter to hinder rather than help the reader interpret the meaning of the lines. Glaser takes this communicative failure to be the metapoetic teaching of all of Frost's work: the problem is not that prosody is an inauthentic medium for communication, as suggested in antimetrical manifestos, but instead that the kind of communication these writers want is actually impossible, even in free verse.

Glaser turns next to Eliot, and sets out to solve a mystery: why does Eliot mock meter as effeminate and decadent early on only to embrace it later in his career? Glaser posits The Waste Land as a key turning point. Although Eliot does associate bad iambic verse with women in his early poems, by the time he is revising The Waste Land he realizes that this [End Page 673] kind of misogynist satire is not enough to reinvigorate modern literature. Glaser's careful attention to the drafts of The Waste Land makes his account compelling, but the chronological argument strikes me as incomplete without any discussion of his use of meter in later poems and plays.

Pound, too, associates women with metricality, but his depictions of female figures are more flattering. In the third chapter, Glaser examines Pound's use of female muse figures to infuse the poem with a new sense of vitality while distancing himself from counted meter. Glaser is careful, however, to register the tension between these poetic depictions of female figures and the way Pound treated the women in his life, especially those whose work he edited and reviewed. And so, he finishes the chapter with a reading of H.D.'s autobiographical novel, HERmione, focusing on her send-up of Pound and his gendering of meter.

The next chapter considers three other women poets who use meter to respond to gendered literary history. Like their male contemporaries, women poets are ambivalent about counted meter, but they face an additional complication: the widespread belief that women's poetry is sentimental, conservative, and metronomic. Glaser mentions H.D. and Mina Loy briefly, before turning his attention to the different ways that Sara Teasdale, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Louise Bogan negotiate this bind using the metrical vestige. Teasdale, Glaser reveals, frequently revised her poems to downplay the polymetricality present in early drafts, which he takes as a sign that she understood meter "as a kind of unpublishable handiwork rather than a...