July 05, 2004

No Professor Left Behind

A few years ago, after a few drinks, a friend I'll call X told me something shocking about English graduate students. I don't mean students from the southeastern portion of the British Isles, I mean students in English Departments in American universities. And the shocking fact that X revealed to me had nothing to do with sex, money, power or even real estate. Believe it or not, it was a secret about poetry.

According to X, English graduate students can't scan. At least, X told me, elite graduate programs don't require students to learn this skill, or test whether or not they have it. "I bet that two thirds of them wouldn't know a line of iambic pentameter if it bit them on the butt", to quote X more exactly.

At the time, I was skeptical. Maybe programs don't teach scansion of metered verse any more, but how could someone get to be a graduate student in English without picking up, somewhere along the way, the ability to tell a couple of heroic couplets from a ballad stanza? Older intellectuals often get to ranting about how today's youth are a bunch of uncultured yahoos, etc., and my instinct is to stick up for the kids. So I ordered another round and changed the subject.

But now I wonder. The eminent critic Marjorie Perloff, in an online review, complains about the Oxford Anthology of Modern Poetry that

a good portion of [its] pages are taken up by texts classifiable as "poetry" only because they are lineated or, in the earlier part of the century, use meter and rhyme. Here, for example is "The Heart of a Woman" by the African-American poet Georgia Douglas Johnson:

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on;
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tires to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks, on the sheltering bars. (1918)

These chug-chug iambic pentameter stanzas rhyming aabb remind one of a Hallmark card...

Hallmark sentimentality, maybe; and aabb rhyme scheme, for sure; but these lines are not iambic pentameter -- they're anapestic tetrameter. The terminological distinction is not crucial for Perloff's argument, but you'd think that one of the stars of the Stanford English Department would get it right.

And apparently my esteemed colleague Charles Bernstein has identified this line as pentameter

Just to view de homeland England, in de streets of London walk

(though I read this in Mike Snider's weblog, and haven't checked his reference to Bernstein's Poetics of the Americas).

So I'm still not sure about the students, but I'll accept this as prima facie evidence that there might be a problem with the professors.

I blame the linguists. We've somehow allowed a generation or two of intellectuals to grow up without elementary skills in the formal analysis of speech and language. Simple phonetic transcription, fundamentals of morphology and syntax, elements of logic, basic verse scansion...

Just in case you don't get it, that's a wry joke. There's been a broader educational trend away from formal analysis and specific skills, in favor of problem-solving and "learning to learn". In that context, blaming linguists for the fact that English professors can't scan is like blaming philosophers or religious leaders for the fact that MBAs are unethical.

Still, who else is going to fix the problem?

So maybe it's time for a new national program: No Professor Left Behind.

[Perloff and Bernstein references via Mike Snider via Jonathan Mayhew].

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 5, 2004 07:26 AM

A long time ago, I realized that students -- even graduate students -- in introductory linguistics courses had no knowledge of the basic concepts of scansion and how to apply them. So I put together the following instructional material for this purpose:

Zwicky, Arnold M. 1982. Word accent, phrase accent, and meter. Innovations in Linguistics Education 2.2.77-98. Reprinted in Sample Undergraduate Linguistics Courses. Linguistic Society of America (1987) 133-54.

Yes, another publication of mine that appeared in a truly obscure place (or, in this case, places). Who else would have published it?

Posted by: Arnold M. Zwicky at July 5, 2004 11:25 AM

Ah, meter. I learned that (though was never able to remember what was what, all the way through to "where's the stress on the iamb again?") -- with a bunch of silly ditties, of which I remember only the anapestic tetrameter one:

I would like to be serious, but lo, I cannot;
Anapestic tetrameter makes the verse trot.

Posted by: wolfangel at July 5, 2004 11:32 AM

I'm an English professor (and Poet in Residence) with a keen interest but zero expertise in linguistics, who has published in the literary field of poetic meter and rhythm. I have 237 things to say about this post. The first few:

1) It's true. (I mean of undergraduates, graduateS, not a few professors.)

2) The solution isn't as simple as it might seem, partly because

3) the traditional *literary* approach to meter (never mind prosody [in the literary sense of the word] more generally) is -- aside from having fallen out of fashion in about 1930 because it provided no intelligent way to talk about free verse -- a "system" not very well agreed to and also inherently not entirely satisfactory,

4) as linguists have been telling us (though we have almost absolutely not been listening) since, I won't say 1968 (SPE) or even 1975 (diss. Liberman), but at least 1977 (Kiparsky, Structure of English Verse) --

5) so what's a poor English prof, feeling conscientious, to do?

My own solution for now is to go on teaching the post-Saintsbury, Brooks-and-Warrenish conventions, with the pedagogical subtext, Do it my way whether it makes sense to you or not, and keep the meaning of "amphibrach" in mind until the next quiz. Later, naturally, I intend to perform the equivalent of constructing a Unified Field Theory.

I know Perloff a little, and I can't believe her gaffe (which has been circulating on the net) is other than a moment of inattention. Bernstein too . . . I think . . .

Posted by: Charles Hartman at July 5, 2004 01:58 PM

There once was a graduate student
Who was lazy and rather im-pude-ent.
"My verse doesn't scan,
But I do what I can.
And perfect rhyme is just a tool of the establishment."

Posted by: HP at July 5, 2004 02:45 PM

ABD English grad student here. I came into grad school with a decided interest in poetry and poetics and found that I was viewed by my peers and by a portion of the faculty as politically suspect because I had interests in form. Sociological and historical method were the vogue; to most interested in the fashionable methods, poems were not easy enough to analyze ideologically, historically, etc. Therefore poems were not given much attention. I also had some gruesome experiences where smart people tried to do political analysis of poems and novels but couldn't handle literary form well enough not to do violence to what the texts might be saying. This is just the short version. There was a real horror story that I can't tell here on the web. In all fairness, my advisor, as well as a good number of other professors in the department, have been supportive my unfashionable literary interests. Still the only reason I know any kind of scansion is because my college professors taught it to me. It was *never* taught in *any* of my grad seminars, even the ones on poets and poetry.

If you check my blog, you'll learn that, contrary to the red flags that went up whenever I uttered the phrase "formal analysis," I am actually a red diaper baby, who is not as reactionary as my colleagues wanted to think.

Posted by: Ben G. at July 5, 2004 03:13 PM

I'm a product of the Stanford graduate program, and I'm here to say, It's twoo, it's twoo. To be specific, those who worked on novels or modern poetry couldn't tell the difference between iambic pentameter and terza rima. Those who worked on earlier poetry knew scansion but thought it irrelevant.

You're right to focus on the move away from form. It is also a move away from linguistics: I am regularly horripilated by the ignorance of younger scholars (students and colleagues alike) when it comes to what-I-consider-basic linguistic foundations.

Left behind in the wake of this schism (or shall I say drowned by this parting sea) are the medievalists, among whom I count myself. We still have a real need for metrics (and other arcane jiggery-pokery), which marginalizes us in our own departments.

I don't blame scansion, per se, but the overarching trend is most regrettable.

Posted by: meg at July 5, 2004 03:18 PM

Reason #1542 I'm glad I got out of academia -- having to confront this sort of ignorance on a daily basis might drive me completely around the bend and would certainly make me dyspeptic.

By the way, apropos of a Geoff Pullum post that doesn't allow comments, Ray Charles's "God done shed His grace on thee" could be taken as a proud affirmation that the blessing called for by the chorus ([may] God shed his grace on thee) has indeed been granted. You asked for it, you got it!

Posted by: language hat at July 5, 2004 03:38 PM

Dyspepsia is served up like napkins in restaurants, it's true. But there's the satisfaction gained from every neuron one saves from ignorance.

But that's an old argument. I wanted to join in LH's efforts to coopt this entry to comment on GP's Ray Charles post (Mark, I hope this doesn't discourage you from permitting comments). I agree completely that Charles's preterization and de-subjectification of "shed" need not be accidental.

In fact, I think it's quite purposeful, an intensification of the inherent patriotism of the ditty. For one thing, as a Suuuthanah, I can't think of a single place where the -ed would be dropped from "crowned." Also, Terry Gross's re-broadcast interview with Charles reminds me that he gave enormous thought to patriotic songs particularly. Regardless of his upbringing, he was extremely articulate as an adult, and that sort of basic linguistic misunderstanding just doesn't ring true. Besides, in the South of my childhood (sometime between Charles's and Britney Spears'), we preserved the hortatory subjunctive better than those weirdo yankees.

Posted by: meg at July 5, 2004 05:01 PM

This is silly, I'm sorry -- but for fun, what's the sequence of "feet" in Larkin's line (l. 6 of "Church Going," a clearly pentameter poem),

Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;

("[O]rgan" turns out to rhyme with "on" and "stone.")

-- Yet it isn't entirely silly, since a line like this (in a poem like this) poses itself as a test case for traditional scansion. And can a system based in generative phonology systems do better with it, or tell us more about it? I'm not at all clear about the answer, though I'd sure like to be sure.

Posted by: Charles Hartman at July 5, 2004 10:06 PM

Hi Charles,

Is that a trick question?

The iambic pentameter pattern is
. # . # . # . # . #
(if you'll excuse the non-standard typography)
so that the (metrically simple) 48th line of the same poem is
48 .Through #sub.urb #scrub .be#cause .it #held .un#spilt
(again sorry for the typography -- the default html filter in MT doesn't seem to allow anything helpful like the "pre" tag, which would make it possible to line the line up with the pattern without the ugly interspersing of characters...)

Some lines have an extrametrical weak syllable at the end (as often in English iambics):
33 .In #games, .in #rid.dles, #seem.ing#ly .at #random;
The cited line is one of them:
.Up #at .the #ho.ly #end; .the #small .neat #organ;

If you count phrasal as opposed to lexical stress, the start of the line has an inversion ("up at"), as is common in English iambs. Otherwise it seems unsurprising. What have I missed? is it the fact that "organ" rhymes with "and stone" and "going on"?

For those who want to keep score at home, the whole poem is here:

Posted by: Mark Liberman at July 5, 2004 11:47 PM

Of course you're right (of course). My silly point was that under a traditional, thoroughly foot-based regime, one has to call the last three syllables ("neat organ") a palimbacchius. At that point, no matter how in-the-wool one is dyed, there's a feeling of vertigo. Within this system, in so far as it's a system, an extrametrical syllable at the end of the line -- isn't "extrametrical" troubling? -- is generally expected to participate in a two-syllable rhyme, but as you say, here it doesn't. We can talk about the ultima in "dinner / beginner / win her" sequences as "extrametrical" (rather than insisting on calling the foot an amphibrach) without feeling too uncomfortable, because the extra-ness is made less arbitrary by the syllable's participation in the rhyme.

The traditional system is full of small but obstreperous holes like this, no doubt because the foundation is shaky. Where would a firm foundation come from? Linguistics. But few of us lit types know much about linguistics, think like linguists, or can read the average paper in linguistics. (What's the difference betweeen a # boundary and a ## boundary? Why doesn't "prosody" mean what I always thought it meant?) Obviously we should learn. But from the outside, it's unclear *what* linguistics one should learn:

1) If I can follow Kiparsky, or Kiparsky and Hanson, should I believe them when they disagree with Hayes? Disagree pretty profoundly, as far as I can tell, about what counts and what doesn't.

2) If I want to ignore the in-house arguments and just learn the basics that will be relevant to the literary study of meter . . . well, what are they? Kiparsky (1977) eventually sent me back to SPE, which is kind of a tough read for a non-linguist, but until then I couldn't follow his argument in detail. I can't find any source, or manageable set of sources, that distinguishes and sets forth the relevant facts in (I don't say simple language but) language that does not presuppose far more technical study than a lit type is likely to have done or to do.

Sorry, this lamentation is slopping over the rim of the original topic. I'll stop whingeing.

Posted by: Charles Hartman at July 6, 2004 10:44 AM

Hi Charles,

OK, I get it now. Your points are well taken.

I think there's a fairly simple answer -- or at least a simple perspective that avoids the whole "palimbacchius" kind of nonsense, without prejudging (m)any of the other questions that come under the heading of what you call "holes".

And I think that this perspective comes more from music theory than from linguistics, though it's compatible with both.

However, this comments system is really a bad fit for the discussion, starting with the inability to line up characters on successive lines. So what I'll do is to start a new post quoting the back-and-forth so far, and going forward from there. It'll probably be later this evening before I get to it, though.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to add any more comments here, or send them to me via email -- or post them somewhere else and let me know the link -- I'll try to incorporate them.

[...and someday I'll try to fix things so sensible html tags are allowed in comments...]

Posted by: Mark Liberman at July 6, 2004 11:14 AM

The Bernstein example is actually worse, because he is making an argument that depends on the lines quoted being in iambic pentameter, the "meter of the empire." Perloff, who wrote her dissertation on rhyme in Yeats, was probably suffering from a moment of inattention, a momentary lapse such as could occur to any of us. She has many competent scansions in her critical works and is one of the contemporary critics who pays most attention to form.

Posted by: Jonathan at July 6, 2004 11:37 AM