Conservative Prosody

by James Matthew Wilson on November 1, 2010 · 7 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

Devon, PA. The turning of the plow in the dark fields and the turning of verses on a white field of paper are more than etymologically related; they share in the dignity of craft, and so I invite those with an interest to turn their thoughts hither:

At the Lehrman American Studies Center blog, I launch a short essay beginning . . .

Conservatives are fond enough of lamenting the absence of Shakespeare in the modern college curriculum that one would expect them to take a keen delight in poetry. To the contrary, they often are equally uninterested in that much receded art form as anyone else. I am told that Edwin Arlington Robinson, writing at the turn of the Twentieth Century, estimated that about one percent of the American public read poetry; if the percentage has increased since his day, I should be much surprised. And, I suppose, it would be unfair to poetry and conservatives alike to presume that conservatives should read poetry just because it is a very old art form, spuming an august mustiness through the attic of the mind at its very mention. One might just as readily, and wrongly, hold up the obscure or obsene scattering of words that typifies much of contemporary poetry and presume that all liberals must love it just because, by its very ugliness and emptiness, it evidently was miscarried yesterday (or the day after tomorrow, as the anxious poet gropes for a form still struggling to be born).

I would like to propose two reasons that conservatives ought to take an interest in verse, one historical and the other ethical. Following them, I should like to offer as a teaching resource a guide to verisification (prosody) that the reader may find of interest as a means of understanding this seldom taught craft and that the professor of good will is welcome to use as a booklet to distribute to students.

The Versification: A Brief Introduction, to which this essay provides a link, may be of some interest to those who always meant to get the hang of prosody but live lives too harried to give it attention; the guide is less than twenty-five small pages and can be read through quite quickly.  It can be accessed directly here.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Joshua Lore November 1, 2010 at 6:08 pm

“The turning of the plow in the dark fields and the turning of verses on a white field of paper are more than etymologically related; they share in the dignity of craft…”

Seamus Heaney certainly suggests as much throughout his wonderful work, always reverent of its agrarian kinship:

Vowels ploughed into other: open ground.
The mildest February for twenty years
Is mist bands over furrows, a deep no sound
…Now the good life could be to cross a field
And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe
Of ploughs. My lea is deeply tilled.

…Then I landed in the hedge-school of Glanmore
And from the backs of ditches hoped to raise
A voice caught back off slug-horn and slow chanter
That might continue, hold, dispel, appease:
Vowels ploughed into other, open ground,
Each verse returning like the plough turned round.

avatar David November 2, 2010 at 3:38 pm

You may not be surprised that I consider poetry essential. In fact, I wrote an aphorism on my blog, “All writing is poetry; prose its weakest form” which I have not recanted. Neither my poetry, nor my prose is yet the class of craft worthy of note; though primitive, I am convicted that it is a craft worth practicing the whole of my life.

It is no less important that I participate in the craft-work of others, even others equally undeveloped.
This is why I reject the strong words against the amateur exhibitions on the internet. First, because those accusations come from cosmopolitans more often than master craftsman; and second because the amateur is the essential ingredient of leisure (in the classical sense) and localism cannot abide without the rise of the amateur class.

avatar Anonymous November 2, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Which words are these?: “I reject the strong words against the amateur exhibitions on the internet . . .”

avatar David November 3, 2010 at 3:06 pm

There have been many books, articles, coffee-shop conversations overheard, all lamenting the rise of the amateur and the platform the internet gives the unwashed masses. There are self-appointed cultural elites who have very good reason to dislike the pixelated videos of under-supervised teenagers behaving badly on YouTube. They want refinement of craft and mastery of affect before someone’s allowed to gain such a platform. Not everyone deserves to play Prince Albert Hall, they will say.

While there are certainly things to dislike about the internet’s ease supporting “quick” rather than “mastered” communication and I’m no more a fan of the celebrity of amateurs on the internet than I am any other cultural function, I am relieved that there can be an opportunity to reverse the rise (or at least slow the growth) of American anti-culture. I have decided that I need to pick a few things in life to be optimistic about and this might as well be one of them.

avatar Anonymous November 5, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Until recent times, educated Americans (i.e. a small percentage of European Americans) would have understood English poetry via understanding the various meters and metrical devices of Latin and Greek — and to a lesser extent Anglo-Saxon and German. Until, say, you’ve worked through the meters of Horace it will be difficult to appreciate traditional English poetry which borrowed heavily from its forbearers. TS Eliot once remarked that to understand English poetry, you need to know German, Latin, and French. There’s some truth to this. European Americans would be wise to study their ancestral traditions.

avatar Anonymous November 5, 2010 at 3:27 pm

While I certainly agree with your conclusion, I cannot agree with your argument. Quantitative meter and accentual-syllabic meter operate according to such diverse principles as to be practically unrelated. Perhaps you are a better classicist than I am (which would not be hard to be), however, and can hear quantity in Latin as intuitively as the native English speaker hears accentual-syllabic patterns. Nevertheless, what one needs to understand to appreciate English meter is simply the native tendencies of stress pattern in English speech — it is from these, rather than from classical meter, that iambic pentameter developed as the most natural and normative meter in English.

avatar Anonymous November 5, 2010 at 3:40 pm

I agree that iambic pentameter is natural to English as dactylic hexameter is natural to Greek, and although quantitative meter differs from accented meter, it hasn’t stopped many literate English poets from experimenting with classical meters. Knowledge of other Western languages and their metric traditions (German, Anglo-Saxon, Greek and Latin, Gaelic, and French) will only elucidate one’s understanding of both occidental meters in general and English meter in particular. As I say above, both Europeans and those of the European Diaspora would be wise to study their ancestral traditions.

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