Recently I had the pleasure of participating in a panel called “Endangered Music: Formal Poetry in the 21st Century,” moderated by Larissa Shmailo, at the AWP (Associated Writing Programs) conference in LA. I spoke to the audience about my journey to writing metrical poetry and the deep and satisfying complexity of my relationship with meter. On returning home, I was surprised to discover I had been criticized in the Kenyon Review online by Derek Mong, who accused me of privileging iambic pentameter. Here is my reply:
I am perturbed to learn that somehow I gave Dr. Mong the idea at the “Endangered Music” panel that I think of iambic pentameter “as a birthright” and want to relegate the world’s other meters to some place “less natural or pure.” What I said was that, as far as I know, lines of poetry the world over, whether based in accentual, syllabic, accentual-syllabic, tonal, or other prosodies, tend to come out about the same length—the length of a breath. There may be exceptions, but I’ve never found one after decades of asking people from a myriad of cultures about poetry in their languages.
A related point is that it takes a human body about 4-5 heartbeats to breathe a breath. The average person typically breathes 12-20 breaths a minute and has an average resting heartbeat of 60-100 heartbeats a minute, a 1:5 ratio. This doesn’t seem to be culturally determined, but the way the bodies of our species work.
Given the wonderful diversity of meters across the world and even within English itself, I could not agree with Dr. Mong more about the crucial importance of making space for a great range of meters on an equal “foot”ing, without privileging any meter as superior or more natural than another. In fact, as others have pointed out in comments responding to his post, metrical diversity has been a central concern of my critical work— I think it is fair to say the central concern—from the scansions of triple meters and other patterns in free verse in The Ghost of Meter (1993) to the discussions of a wide range of meters in An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art (2002); from essays such as “Metrical Diversity: In Defense of the Noniambic Meters” in The Body of Poetry (2005) to A Poet’s Ear (2012), the first form handbook to detail how to vary the rhythm of non-iambic meters; and on up through Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Metrical Poetry (2015), the first anthology based on the concept of metrical diversity.
I have devoted much of my writing and teaching to encouraging the knowledge, practice, and appreciation of a diversity of meters. I focus on teaching what I call “the metrical compass”—trochaic, anapestic, dactylic, and sometimes amphibrachic meter as well as iambic, balancing out the dominance of iambic meter to allow all meters their voice. My own poetry is known for metrical diversity as well, from the goddess sequence in Eve (1997), in which each poem is written in a meter appropriate to the culture of the Goddess being written about, to Calendars (2005), a collection of poems whose Readers Guide includes scansions of 15 metrical patterns, to the epic Among the Goddesses (2010), written entirely in dactyls.
As Dr. Mong points out, some languages have accentual meter, some accentual-syllabic meter, some syllabic meter, some tonal meter, and so on. But if the language does have stresses, there will likely be between 4-6 of them per lines—and the lines (or sometimes pairs of lines, as in ballad stanza) in any kind of culturally traditional poetry will tend to be about the length of a breath. For example, a line of my own current favorite meter in English, dactylic tetrameter, takes about the length of a breath to say and has four accents. A line of iambic pentameter takes about the length of a breath to say and has five. I consider both of these meters equally natural and equally akin to the heart/breath rhythms of the body, as are the other accentual-syllabic English meters (interestingly, one study of heart surgery patients concluded that “the recitation of hexameter verse produced a strong cardiorespiratory synchronization.”)
The point of the pulse exercise I led at the AWP conference panel was not to say that any one meter is biologically determined, but to counter the popular misconception that meter is a strictly mental construct. I was and am not trying to claim any superiority for iambic pentameter, which I have spent much of my career trying to put in its rightful place as just one metrical pattern among a wide range of equally important and “natural” ways of making language memorable, beautiful, and authentic.