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The limits of scansion

Lacy Rumsey, École Normale Supérieure Lettres et Sciences Humaines

This paper addresses the place of scansion within poetry criticism.  Noting the disciplinary divisions which see metrists - particularly those following a generativist paradigm - on the one hand, and critics on the other, as working towards very different research goals, the paper argues for the importance of theoretically-informed scansion within criticism as a way to further understanding of both rhythm itself, and of difficult or controversial poetic styles, including those current in contemporary British writing.
    Poetic texts, particularly non-metrical ones, can be unpredictable with regards to details of their oral performance.  The paper argues that this unpredictability can partly be addressed within scansion by attention to the increasingly solid understanding of rhythmic and intonational behaviour that is now available within linguistics, and with reference to likely effects on performance of pragmatic constraints upon different readers.  By virtue of such attention, the scansion of unpredictable styles may, if suitably expressed, be provisional without being arbitrary.   Within this perspective, the tools of beat-offbeat metrics may be supplemented by description of those intonational phenomena often deemed too unpredictable for scansion to deal with; this approach will be particularly valuable if it is accepted that such phenomena may be among those drawn upon by innovative poetic styles.  That the discussion of relatively unpredictable or variable phenomena may involve significant difficulty does not allow criticism to infer (as it sometimes has) that such phenomena are without importance to poets and readers; analysis should be adaptable to the possibilities offered by the most, as well as the least, challenging poetry.

Poems discussed:
J.H. Prynne, "Again in the Black Cloud" and "The Stony Heart of Her".
Both poems are quoted in full in previously published critical discussions, available on the Internet here and here.

Selected works cited:
Attridge, Derek. The Rhythms of English Poetry. London: Longman, 1982.
Duffell, Martin. A New History of English Metre.  Oxford: Legenda, 2008.
Groves, Peter. Strange Music: The Metre of the English Heroic Line. ELS Monograph Series, 74. Victoria: U of Victoria, 1998.
Jarvis, Simon. "The Incommunicable Silhouette." Jacket, 24 (2003).
Trotter, David. The Making of the Reader: Language and Subjectivity in Modern American, English and Irish Poetry. New York: St Martin's, 1984.
Wells, J.C. English Intonation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.

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Mise à jour le 8 novembre 2009
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