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Missing Measures


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The quaint study of poetic rhythm and meter, called prosody, seldom attracts much light. The province of scholars and bewildered grad students, prosody has its few classics texts‘by Lord Saintsbury, Paul Fussel, Harvey Gross, Annie Finch‘and its own rarefied nomenclature, much of it still carrying signs of its Greek origins: iambs, trochees, anapests; pentameters etc. But judging by this book, it seems there is something afoot in the study of meter. Editor Baker (After the Reunion) circulated an essay by poet and teacher Robert Wallace to 14 poets, an essay that put forth 10 points for clarifying and simplifying the study of English meter. Wallace's points mostly derive from his single observation that all English meter is iambic‘that is, in a rising rhythm‘and that anything noniambic is built from substitutions over an iambic beat. He also tosses out two of the four traditional kinds of meter‘syllabic (counting syllables, à la Marianne Moore) and quantitative (a peculiar holdover from Greek poetry, where long and short vowels were counted). There are varying degrees of dissent and consent among the 14 respondents, with Eavan Boland, Annie Finch and Dana Gioia mostly dissenting, Charles O. Hartman and Robert Hass mostly consenting. The other contributors are Rachel Hadas, Margaret Holley, John Frederick Nims, David J. Rothman, Timothy Steele, Lewis Turco, Barry Weller, Richard Wilbur and Susanne Woods. The essays without exception are lively and entertaining; the jousting atmosphere carries the day. Altogether, one can't help but be impressed by the level of engagement the poets have with such technical issues, and the passion with which they argue their points. A provocative read and a fine resource for all working and would-be poets. (Dec.)

"Timothy Steele's excellent book is not a formalist manifesto but an even-handed scholarly account of the whole background of 'free verse' poetics." --Richard Wilbur

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