The Journey of a Dunce?

OR: How a mere pith-helmeted end-rhymster is almost lost in a jungled swamp of syl-la-bab-ble

The Journey of a Dunce?

In the chapter Reading Poetry Today in her book 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, published in 2002 by Chatto and Windus, Ruth Padel talks about modern poetry published in Britain that is written in English.  She promises to

show how, technically, the sound supports the sense (p6)

in a partnership;  to show

how a poem hangs together (p13).

Ms Padel gives apparent authority to her discussion and technical analysis by making some generalised references to English poetry since early medieval times when

‘Rhyme’ – [that is true end-rhyme] – was ‘poetry’ (p10),

and says that

the desire to see rhyming ‘rules’ as the main thing bossing poetry about like a  train timetable runs deep.

It is difficult to accept the authority of someone who can state that

‘Rhyme was ‘poetry’.

Ms Padel does say

though English poetry has also always depended on stress and rhythm too,

but she quite fails to properly present the principles of measured versification and alliteration as the other formative elements in early medieval poetry.

However, Ms Padel does also talk about classical Greek and Latin poetry, to show or to suggest how well she understands the techniques of metre in other languages from antiquity.  She is able to tell us that

there is a long and shining history of poetry that does not rhyme.  Homer did not rhyme (p14).

This is, it may be suggested, part of an argument or project to show that end-rhyme is not now, nor ever was, a necessary or defining characteristic of English poetry.  Ms Padel also wishes to persuade us that she has mastered all the intricacies of

the regular patterning of the alternation of long and short, stressed and unstressed syllables (p11)

in ancient Greek and in English poetry.  This leads her to make such curious pronouncements as this:

All poets today have to be aware of their relation to the iambic pentameter.  It is a natural and ancient resource of the language (p15).

Both these statements are false.  Ms Padel’s whole dissertation in that book proceeds by means of such dubious generalisations.  In truth, ‘the iambic pentameter’ is no more than an idea that may be imported into prosodical discussions.

In her essay called The Journey or the Dance? and subtitled On Syllables Belonging to Each Other published in Poetry Review vol 96:2 Summer 2006 Ms Padel takes further her own notions as to how ‘the sound supports the sense’ in poetry.

We must ask what poetry she is talking about and of what era.  Here is her opening paragraph:

Ezra Pound called the process of making a poem “the dance of the intellect among the words”.  Charles Olsen refined that. “The dance of the intellect”,  he said, “is among the syllables”.  The syllable, “the minim and source of speech”, is the “king and pin” of poetry.  Worry, he told poets about “the syllable, that fine creature”.  It is the syllable, not rhyme and metre, that “leads the harmony on”.

This highly metaphorical paragraph ends with a sentence which provides Ms Padel with a text and some sort of categorical statement on prosody and poetics which is predicated on metaphor.  We don’t know who has formulated it, Olsen or Padel or both;  but there it is..  We might take it to refer to all poetry or poetry-like things in all languages at all times, and to infer that rhyme and metre were and are secondary characteristics of all poetry.  We are not told.

In a section of the essay entitled ‘The syllable, that fine creature’ Ms Padel’s thesis continues with paragraphs about the Latin origins of the word syllable, a discussion which, though interesting in itself, is spurious to the technical discussion of English poetry, and which brings her to this apparently analytic and technical statement about poetics that is presumably applicable to all ‘poems’ in all languages in all eras:

“Syllables rule and hold the line”, said Olsen.  “Listening for the syllables is everything”.

Here it might be pointed out that in her 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem she declares that the beat is the essential feature of any line of poetry (p65). This quote from Olsen is a metaphorical statement having little or no practical meaning, or a meaning so generalised as to be useless in a thesis on poetics.  Syllables don’t rule or hold anything.  Olsen’s everything is an absurd intensifier of nothing in particular.

Ms Padel then gives a demonstration of this vague and all-encompassing ‘theory’ of poetics and prosody,  claiming that one particular syllable rules R S Thomas’s poem ‘Blackbird’.  It could be debated as to whether or not this piece of writing, set out in irregular lines without any system of end-rhyme, is a poem at all;  but we are not invited to bring such considerations to bear.  Ms Padel does not choose to discuss this poem in terms of rhyme, Greek ‘feet’, ‘beat’, ‘stress’, ‘metre’ and so forth.  She simply gives a complex and interesting analysis of ‘sound and sense’, shall we say, which is incontrovertible because it is so personal and conjectural.  We are not to be told what is this poet’s or this poem’s relation to the iambic pentameter.

The essay’s second section is headed ‘Relationships of Syllables’.  It begins with the easy statement that Poetry in English today is wonderfully various.  At least we have some limitation of the field of study.  It may be in this section of the essay that we find Ms Padel’s summation of her manifesto as a practitioner of what she thinks is the craft of English poetry.  Here is her first paragraph in full:

Poetry in English today is wonderfully various, but all good poems, mainstream, modernist, mad or sane, work by harmonising syllables, playing with them, laying them cheek to cheek.  That is how poems get words to feel right together and so produce ~ well, Olsen used the word beauty.  Syllables, he said, let words “juxtapose in beauty”.  We might just as well say, “in meaning” or “in music”.  It is the relationships of syllables that makes music, beauty and meaning.  The music is the meaning.  The meaning is the music.

The paragraph says nothing objective about technique in poetry except perhaps in so far as the formulation harmonising syllables may be a principle of technique which Ms Padel intends to explicate in due course.  The rest of the paragraph is metaphorical ‘blather’, hers and Olsen’s, which we might extend for ourselves by setting down a couple of sentences of our own:  The meaning is the beauty.  The beauty is the music.  And we may ask this question:  if in Ms Padel’s strange world of cheek to cheek syllables, poems somehow get words to feel right together, may not letters and novels and adverts for washing-powders do so in the same way?

Although the word meaning occurs four times in the paragraph we don’t know what Ms Padel means by it.  What can be meant by the statement that It is the relationship of syllables that makes music, beauty and meaning?  It is certainly true that the relationship of the three syllables in the word ‘syllables’ is the basis for our cognition of the word; but this is probably not quite Ms Padel’s meaning of meaning here.  We must read on.  Here is the next paragraph:

This has been true of good poems since Homer.  “Harmony” comes from the Greek word harmottein, “fit together”.  It may have referred originally to how you “made” the string’s pegs “fit” in the lyre.  But harmonia soon came to mean how you tuned your lyre, what “mode” you tuned it to.  Then it became an image of all things working together.  Chorus members in a dance and song.  Citizens in the city, humours in the body.  (Orpheus draws everything and everyone to him, brings them together.)  It was a key Greek image, medically, socially, morally.  In a line of Greek poetry, the “fitting together” of syllables makes the metrics, the meaning and beauty.

Rather suddenly considerations of ancient Greek poetics are put before us.  No reason is given for doing so.  What is the relevance of ancient Greek syllabics to English?  There just seems to be a vague implication and the throwing in of the name Homer for effect.  There is no development of any principle of ‘harmonising syllables’.  There is a vague allusion to musical matters ~ peg, lyre, mode.  There is, however, at the end a clear if general assertion about Greek poetry that might be applied to all of what in English we call poetry.  What is interesting here is that the term music, as used in the previous paragraph, and made identical in some mysterious way with beauty and meaning, has been replaced by metrics.  Perhaps we are coming to something objective and concrete about metre after all, despite the statement in the first paragraph that metre in no way leads the harmony on.  Here is the next paragraph:

The big difference from us is that in rhythms of Greek poetry before the Byzantine period, stress did not matter, whereas in English poems stress is what we listen for.  A  musician recently told me tango is the only dance where the dancers follow the melody not the beat.  If that is true it flies against the habit of the modern Western ear which says Find order, meaning and pattern by the beat.

What a ‘dance’ Ms Padel is leading us indeed.  After we have assimilated the awkward syntax of The big difference from us we may see that she seems to be reintroducing us to the paradox and potential ambiguity spoken of in her essay on the first poem in her book 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem.  For the time being let us put aside the assertion that in rhythms of Greek poetry before the Byzantine period, stress did not matter, where in English poems stress is what we listen for, while we concentrate on avoiding the irrelevant distraction of Ms Padel’s introduction of matters to do with dancing, and on working out that she was not talking about a fruit drink.  Now we may link that last sentence to the first to register some vague connection in Ms Padel’s poetics between rhythm, stress, order, meaning,  pattern and beat which may just have some theoretical, concrete, technical link to the term metrics as used in the previous paragraph.  Ms Padel continues:

The accents on Greek words had nothing to do with the rhythm of a line, which was based on the number of feet and syllable-count:  the patterning of long and short.  In an English line, the beat is the ordering principle.  A poet can gather syllables up like flowers, squash them all into the vase of the foot and it doesn’t matter.  As long as you have five beats in a pentameter, never mind the count.  But Greek poetry was stricter.  You could substitute some syllable patterns for others, but only in some places in the line.  And only in metres where the line is always the same (epic’s dactylic hexameter, the iambic hexameter of tragic dialogue).  Lyrics, where lines kept changing, were much more exacting.

We must be careful here.  Ms Padel’s argument, in so far as she is making any coherent argument at all, is obscured by some poor writing.  In the penultimate sentence (which is not a true sentence, having no main verb) the phrase the same has no definite meaning.  We would further observe that, in the fourth sentence, the count has no particular reference.  Then the third sentence is a metaphorical diversion and distraction, and a rather ugly bit of ‘blather’.

Now let us deal with some matters of substance.  Ms Padel’s assertion in her first sentence that The accents on Greek words had nothing to do with the rhythm of the line must be questioned even if we do not pursue it further in this paper.  Ms Padel is here and in subsequent paragraphs in her essay indicating a close acquaintance with and knowledge in the field of ancient Greek verse, though she does not provide us with references or authorities. We may note that in her essay on the first poem in her book 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem she says (p64):

How ancient Greeks felt about their long syllables, we cannot know.  But Greek verse was sung, or accompanied by a musical instrument, and a lot of it by dancing too.  The dancers’ movements mirrored the syllable-patterns very precisely.  So musical time must, in some sense, have played a part in the way they felt, too, about syllable-length.

This begs many questions.  How is it that, if Ms Padel does not know How ancient Greeks felt about their long syllables, she has such apparently certain knowledge about their verse and song and dance?  One can, however, certainly agree with her closing sentence here in which she says that musical time must have had something to do with performance.  The concept of ‘musical time’ necessarily involves the concept of ‘beat’.

Now, in that last quoted paragraph in the essay under consideration here, Ms Padel talks of the accents on Greek words (in lines that may have been sung and danced) having nothing to do with the rhythm of the line, nor, we must infer, with the singing or dancing of the lines, nor with the music to which they were sung and danced.  This is contrary to what we know of music and song and dance and to our understanding of human-nature and psychology in general.  If there were speech-stresses on ancient Greek words when they were sung and danced, how could the ear of performer or musician or audience not perceive them and take them into account?  The stresses or stressed syllables or beats would necessarily stand out in some sort of rhythm or pattern:  this is in the nature of human perception.

If we search this paragraph for concrete technical discourse to further the argument as to what gives order, meaning and pattern to English verse, we find that the word metres is used only of Greek poetry, just as the word metrics is used in the second paragraph.  Then we can consider the second sentence in the paragraph presently under review.  It is simple and categorical:

In an English line, the beat is the ordering principle. 

Let us keep this statement salient while at the same time noting that beat is not yet directly linked to any notion of metre or metrics except through the word ordering.  (Order was linked to meaning in the previous paragraph;  and meaning was linked to metrics in the paragraph before that.)  Let us see how the next paragraph furthers our understanding of metrics, meaning, order, and pattern in poetry in ancient Greek or modern English:

This was such a delicate structure that the art of understanding it waned with the art of composing it.  Later Greek philologists invented line divisions (“colometry”) to explain it;  but they come long after the poets and are not authoritative.  Some lyrics, particularly for solo voices, were astrophic:  complex, wayward, stanza-less, like jazz cadenzas.  Choral lyric was mainly strophic.  Stanzas came in pairs and every syllable of the second, the antistrophe, mirrored those of the first, the strophe, exactly.  This is “responsion”:  the syllables correspond, antistrophe “answers” strophe, which means “turn”.  The antistrophe was a “turn back”.  The patternings of syllable, intricate as the Alhambra, were expressed in melody and dance:  the chorus made responsion clear by singing the strophe to (say) the right, performing gestures meanwhile, then turning to sing the antistrophe at the left, mirroring the gestures exactly.  The poet ordered it all.  Wrote the music, trained the chorus.  Euripides was composer and choreographer (and singer), with a deeply physical musical relationship to the words of which he was the architect.

We must first determine what the words this and it refer to in the first sentence.  They would seem to refer to something in the final sentence of the previous paragraph,

Lyrics where lines kept changing, were much more exacting.

However, there is no singular subject here.  Perhaps Ms Padel has left out a term at the beginning of the sentence.  To compensate for this uncertainty we will supply The writing of … and change were to was.  Then we will change structure to business in the first sentence of the paragraph now under review, and we may proceed.

Ms Padel first tells us that the arts of writing and of understanding the writing of ancient Greek lyrics waned.  She then says that later Greek philologists provided explanations of the lyric art which lacked authority.  She then proceeds in the rest of the paragraph to give us her own apparently authoritative guide.  Has she written a book or articles on these matters?  How did she research it?  What were her authorities?  We may give Ms Padel the benefit of the doubt here;  but we must still ask to what argument this paragraph is meant to contribute.  In previous paragraphs we had some talk about metrics, metres, stresses and beats.  This is the next paragraph:

In our poetry, it is still syllables that make words feel right together, but we use the speech-stress of syllables in a word to feel the order of a line.  The ear listens for a beat among the syllables.  Syllables say hello over the stanzas and lines and so relate significantly the words they inhabit.

This is a superb piece of Padelian obfuscation.  In our poetry could refer to the whole 1,300 year history and tradition of English poetry, or simply to modern poetry; but I think that she means in modern English poetry.  The concept of syllables making words feel right together is a quite useless technical or critical one.  To this concept is linked another, that of feeling the order of a line.  How is this feeling done?  Why are speech-stress and word singular nouns?  Now we are told that The ear listens for a singular beat among the syllables.  The Syllables start to say hello to each other from the words that they inhabit, before somehow getting cheek to cheek.  This ‘blathering’ discourse is utterly useless for prosodic purposes.  It is a distraction and a diversion from Ms Padel’s true intellectual purpose.  Further, how is this series of metaphorical statements meant to link to the previous paragraph in the argument?

What Ms Padel is up to, we suggest, is this:  she is as it were performing a conjuring trick.  We should still have in memory her one clear, categorical prosodic statement:

In an English line, the beat is the ordering principle.

By using the word beat in the paragraph under discussion she may hope that we think she is herself bearing this principle in mind.  But in fact she is going to make it disappear in a welter of what might be called ‘syllababble’.   Objective notions of metrics and measure are disappearing and never were a serious part of her argument.  She has actually presented us in this paragraph with a version of the previously-stated principle:

In our poetry…we use the speech-stress[es] in [the] word[s] to feel the order of the line.

However, what we actually see and hear most saliently in the paragraph is the word syllables four times.  Now, we were prepared for this in Ms Padel’s subtle way by the occurrence in the previous paragraph of every syllable, the syllables correspond and the patterning of syllable (a strange locution) in a sort of ‘subliminal advertising’ campaign; but what is becoming of metres or metrics?  This is how she continues:

They may do this by repeating rhythmic patterns (say, a combination of dactyls), but it is above all vowel sounds that hold a poem together and establish its harmony.  You can’t sing a consonant:  you sing vowel sounds.  (Consonants divide them).  Vowel sounds generate most types of rhyme (except for consonant rhyme), and rhyme is one of the central things by which words get to belong together.  Rhyme satisfies the ear.  (Our ear:  ancient Greeks would have none of it).  That is the point of rhyme.  It ties a bow on things, musically and emotionally, by making a relationship between two words which then feels right and significant.

See how at first Ms Padel makes a feint as it were towards metrical and prosodic matters:  rhythmic patterns…dactyls. Then, however, we are presented with a new categorical statement of principle:

It is above all vowel sounds that hold a poem together and establish its harmony.

This is a replacement for

In an English line, the beat is the ordering principle.

Ordering has been more or less replaced by hold…together and harmony.

Ms Padel’s argument has relied much on the use of the terms music and harmony which have not been analysed or given any specific meaning or usage in the context of a discussion of prosody and poetics.  Principles of metre or ‘measure’ were never examined in relation to those terms music and harmony.  They were thus minimised and removed from the argument.  This was to be expected after the statement in the first paragraph in the essay, that:

It is the syllable, not rhyme and metre that “leads the harmony on”.

The concept or principle of rhyme is to be dealt with somewhat differently.  Ms Padel’s next paragraph reads:

We all get fed up with people asking “Do you use rhyme?”  Poets use rhyme all the time:  half-rhyme, consonant rhyme, vowel rhyme, internal rhymes, random rhymes, words which echo each other from inside one line and across to another, even across stanzas. Oh and there’s end-rhyme too.  Rhyme is a fundamental way of making words greet each other.  It is one way, but not the only way of getting syllables to make relationships between words.

We may set aside the first sentence as perhaps somewhat vain and ill-tempered.  We have been prepared for the muddle that we encounter here by the statement in previous paragraph, Vowel sounds generate most types of rhyme (except for consonant rhyme), together with the technically useless metaphorical statements involving bows and feelings which follow it.

English dictionaries generally agree in telling us that in its primary usage the noun ‘rhyme’ means ‘identity of terminal sounds in lines of verse or in words’.  (This particular statement of usage is from a Collins dictionary).  Ms Padel now as it were takes the stage as a juggler tossing up different and multi-coloured balls..  We have here an extraordinary mixture of terms which may or may not be accepted usages.  We might try to work out a scheme of proposed logical relationships between them; but we don’t even know if Ms Padel’s use of end-rhyme accords with the usage above.  The use of the anthropomorphic term greet suggests that she does not have a logical system worked out.  Let us make some examination of the terms with which we are presented.

It would seem from Ms Padel’s provision of terms that in a ‘poem’ rhyme may occur between words (or parts of words) anywhere inside one line and across to another such line, or even across stanzas.  There may, of course, be end-rhyme between any two or more lines in a ‘poem’.  (It is amusing to see how end-rhyme is the last of Ms Padel’s ‘types of rhymes’ to be mentioned: it was, we recall, the old rules for its use that were responsible, in her opinion, for bossing poetry about like a train timetable.

Now we may consider the term consonant rhyme.  This suggests that between all occurrences of any particular consonant or group of consonants in a ‘poem’ there will be rhyme.  Further, the term vowel rhyme suggests that the same may be said of any particular vowel-sound in a ‘poem’.

It is difficult to know how this may relate easily to the matter of syllables with which the essay begins.  Though the Ts in the words ‘tut’ and ‘tat’ may all be thought by Ms Padel to rhyme, they do not constitute syllables.  Nor do the ‘rhyming’ As in ‘tat’ and ‘pap’.  Nevertheless, it would seem that, in her scheme of things, these pairs of words would, as well as having rhyme between the repeated consonants, each inevitably cause or carry a half-rhyme if they occurred anywhere in a ‘poem’ ~ or indeed perhaps in any other sort of literature.

How, one wonders, could such a scheme be systematised?  The long-practised technique of systematic end-rhyme has been ‘demonstrated’ by Ms Padel to be one of no particular or especial use.

In the rest of the piece Ms Padel uses four more poems on which to exercise her craft of assessing what may be patterns of corresponding or like sounds which may or may not in some way support the words as statements about real or imaginary situations.  One of the poems employs some true ‘end-rhyme’; but this fact is not noted by Ms Padel in her analysis of the meaning and aesthetic qualities of this piece.

Nor are matters of metre or ‘measure’ dealt with in any of them.  The original dictum,

In an English line, the beat is the ordering principle,

is not one that informs Ms Padel’s working practices.

This raises again the question:  What English ‘poetry’ is Ms Padel talking about?  She discourses upon ancient Greek poetry, and on ‘the iambic pentameter’; but later she abandons such formal considerations.  As we have seen, she began the second part of the piece with the words:

Poetry in English today is wonderfully varied.

However, Ms Padel’s prosodical methods, as evidenced in the examination that she makes of five poems ‘in English today’, would seem to lack a proper foundation.  It would appear that she is trying to redefine English poetry to suit her own partial predilections.  She concentrates all her attention on what are and have been, for the 1,300 years that English poetry has been written, secondary and not defining characteristics.

Ms Padel talks a lot about Greek verse, but she has nothing to say about centuries of Old and Middle English verse.  For hundreds of years poetry was written in English in predominantly four-beat lines by makers in no direct way guided by theories of ancient Greek prosody.  The making was done according to some other simply rhythmic and metrical principles of which Ms Padel appears to have no grasp.  How then can she be trusted to tell us how much of the poetry in English today with which she deals is truly ‘poetry’ at all?  Her theories and defining principles should apply to all English poetry.


I am not saying that Ms Padel’s attention to the ‘harmonisation of syllables’ ~ or whatever we might call it ~ in modern ‘poetry’ is necessarily wrong or unfruitful: she does draw attention to interesting patterns and links.  However, such verbal techniques have always been used in other forms or modes of literature as well as poetry and are thus, I would again assert, secondary and not defining characteristics of poetry.  Their judicious use may make a poem into a better one; but they will not make something into a poem if it does not have the primary characteristics of one.

I would thus conclude that Ms Padel’s essay does not deal truly with poetry, and that I could not dance to her ‘tune’ on the journey.

Or am I just being a dunce?

However, I must add that this business worries me.

Ms Padel, as you know, has been Chair of the Poetry Society.  The Society is in part publicly funded.  It organises the so-called National Poetry Competition and is closely involved in the organisation of the so-called National Poetry Day.  Some of its members, particularly its Trustees (as members of its committee are called), go out to enlighten the nation, ‘to advance public education in the study and use of poetry’.

The question is:  what ‘poetry’ is referred to?

This Society, which cannot provide me, as a member, despite repeated requests, with any useful definition of the terms ‘poetry’ or ‘poem’, is seriously in need of scrutiny.

Permission to reprint material from ‘Poetry Review’ has not been granted.