Versification: an interdisciplinary journal of literary prosody
Filename: Wessling_697_BODRev.html
6 June 1997, Vol. 1, No. 1
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A Review of The Scissors of Meter: Grammetrics and Reading by Donald Wessling

Brennan O'Donnell
Loyola University

Copyright © Brennan O'Donnell 1997
Received: 5 June 1997; Published: 7 June 1997

KEYWORDS: poetic meter, grammetrics, poetics.

REVIEW OF: The Scissors of Meter: Grammetrics and Reading by Donald Wessling. 1996. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
ISBN 0-472-10715-1 (hb).


The scene: a poetry seminar taught by William Wimsatt (or Monroe Beardsley; the source is not clear). The hero: a student who has been sent to the blackboard to scan a passage of verse. The student dutifully carries out his task, marking stressed and unstressed syllables, identifying the "abstract" pattern of the meter, as he has been taught to do. As he works, however, he becomes increasingly frustrated. "I don't see how to show the interaction between the meter and the sense," he complains, and refuses to continue. His teacher dismisses his consternation as a sign of ignorance:

As if by scanning he could show the interaction. As if anybody expected him to. As if the meter itself could be the interaction between itself and something else. (Wimsatt and Beardsley; quoted Wesling 17)

One of the most attractive aspects of this long anticipated, challenging, and rewarding book is its author's obvious sympathy for this student, a representative of the generations of bright, eager students who have trod, have trod, have trod through "instruction" in prosody, only to be convinced that the whole business is, at best, beside the point. For Donald Wesling, Wimsatt and Beardsley's frustrated student is the proto-grammetrical reader; his impasse is the point at which traditional analysis fails and grammetrical analysis begins. The Scissors of Meter is on one level an ambitious undertaking. It is a bold attempt to negotiate the no-man's land between meter and grammar, prosodic description and interpretation, linguistics and literary criticism. It aims at nothing short of "reinstat[ing] metrical study as a branch of cognition, as a part of literary criticism, an essentially humanistic discipline" (vii). On another level it is a very practical book with an engagingly humble aim: to give the poor student at the blackboard (and his teachers at their word processors) a theoretically coherent set of procedures for showing "the interaction between the meter and the sense."

Wesling takes his term "grammetrics" from Peter Wexler's two studies, "On the Grammetrics of the Classical Alexandrine" (1964) and "Distich and Sentence in Corneille and Racine" (1966). The term suggests, in Wexler's words, "a hybridization of grammar and metrics: the key hypothesis is that the interplay of sentence-structure and line-structure can be accounted for more economically by simultaneous than by successive analysis" (1964; Wesling 57). The chief theoretical difficulty here is that the very attempt to merge these two kinds of analyses works to undermine the categories according to which each kind of study defines itself. "[W]e must rely for our analysis," writes Wexler, "on categories which it is one object of the analysis to change" (57). The grammetrical reader is a reader in the middle. Grammetrics on principle privileges neither grammar nor meter, cognitive nor aesthetic structure, successiveness nor simultaneity, textuality nor reader response. Wesling's attempt to model the grammetrical predicament yields (as one might expect, and as he himself acknowledges) mixed results. The best parts of this book present a reader fruitfully engaged in a pleasurable process of energetic reading; the weaker parts express the self-conscious anxiety of a writer always aware that his language betrays him into dichotomized misrepresentations of the rich experience of reading. The two tendencies in Wesling's presentation are probably necessary to each other, given the current limits of our understanding of prosody, not to mention of reading itself. Their co-presence, however, does make for difficult and sometimes uneasy reading, a curious mixture of exhilaration and frustration.

Part 1 of the book-"Critique of Modern Meter"-is an almost entirely negative undertaking, charting the limits of existing theory as a preliminary step to a provisional description and exemplification of grammetrics itself in Part 2. Wesling casts himself in Part 1 as a "gadfly historian of systems" (30). Much of the story he traces here will be familiar to readers of Versification, and at times the accounts of error and of internecine warfare among prosodists have a tendency to contribute to, rather than dispel, the common view of the field as hopelessly mired in minutiae; nevertheless, there remains a good deal in these first four chapters that is valuable in itself and necessary to understanding why we need the kind of hybrid approach that grammetrics represents.

The main line of Wesling's critique in Part 1 argues that most kinds of metrical analysis currently in use, whether literary-critical or linguistic, deserve to be neglected in the academy and beyond because they exclude any principled approach to questions of meaning. "No branch of literary scholarship has suffered more from the false emulation of the scientific disciplines" (3):

The attempt of previous prosodic theory to find a form of analysis not merely subjective found instead a false objective system that was, nonetheless, plausible. It did make gestures toward relating form to sense, but its initial formulation starved it of semantic content. (37)

While linguistics-based theory provides a valuable counterweight to the vague impressionism or naive Cratylism of earlier schools of metrical commentary, and while it has sharpened considerably our ability to describe sound patterns, the cost of its "objectivity"-and especially of its theoretical reduction of prosody to meter and meter to an object properly analyzed in isolation from other elements of the poem-has been high. Academic metrical study, still heavily influenced by the linguistics-based readings of the New Critics, remains suspicious of any mingling of the cognitive response of readers ("the experience of the verse") with the objective, identifiable pattern or grid that is the "verse itself" (18). The task of grammetrics is to "resemanticize" meter by considering it not as an abstractable set of objects (like Wimsatt and Beardsley's fence palings or milestones) but as a system of aesthetic relationships that functions only in combination with the other main system of the poem-the cognitive structure, encoded most fully in the grammar. In this task, Wesling sees himself working in concert with the two chief exceptions to the prosodic wrong-headedness he surveys in Part 1: T. V. F. Brogan and Richard D. Cureton. From Brogan, Wesling derives his conviction that a "unified-field theory," whatever else it may or may not include, "must make a place for syntax" (number four of Brogan's nine requirements for a sufficient prosodic theory; see "Prosody" in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics 988-89). Cureton's example, especially his interdisciplinary interest in cognitive processes and in music, is a powerful antidote to the stultifying tendency toward self-isolation in traditional prosodic approaches. His insistence on whole-poem analysis and on the need to understand meter as one element among many which participate in the larger structures of the poem's rhythmic phrasing "turns traditional theory on its head" (31).

One of the most encouraging lines of investigation in Part 1 is Wesling's attempt (in Chapter 4: "Meter and Cognition in Open-Field Theories") to incorporate the best of what he calls "physiological" and "insurgent" prosodic criticism. This "physiological" criticism is the kind of prosodic thinking one finds in the prosodic manifestoes of the avant-garde, in the ubiquitous "poets on their craft" interview, or simply in the example of the teaching poet. (Wesling recalls a 1964 Harvard undergraduate class taught by Robert Lowell in which Lowell worked line by line through a handful of Pound's early poems: "Lowell, lacking the name or coherence of theory, was performing in 1964 a conscious if idiosyncratic version of grammetrics [47].) Whatever may be said about the metaphorical, unscientific, or merely polemical nature of this body of commentary, it does tend to be grounded in an assumption that meter is vital to meaning. Moreover, its practitioners (mostly practicing poets themselves) tend to be excellent writers about reading, capable of giving eloquent testimony to the meaningfulness of the kinetic activity that well-measured language brings into play. Wesling finds in this kind of commentary a "perfect complementarity with the traditional prosody . . . filling vacuums in the received argumentation" (41), and cites Harvey Gross's Sound and Form in Modern Poetry (with its notion of "prosody as rhythmic cognition") as the "landmark text in mediating between traditional and insurgent metrics" (42). Grammetrics, he hopes, may be a way to encourage more sustained and productive encounters between academic metrics and this "insurgent" body of commentary.

Throughout Part 1, Wesling stresses at every turn the partial, provisional nature of his undertaking; Part 2 begins and ends with still more of such qualification. Grammetrics is not a unified field theory, but only part of an attempt to "foresee what a unified prosodic theory might require" (52). It is a "system of partial explanations" for that "indescribably complex reality" that is reading (53). Future work, says Wesling, will need to integrate the insights about reading that are offered here with questions about ideological pressures and the influence of historical "period styles." Whatever that fully historicized, properly interpretative theory of prosody finally will be, however, it will need to be built upon a foundational understanding of what Wesling calls "elementary reading." Between the massive qualification with which Part 2 begins and ends, however, is a 100-page section of positive assertion about the value of grammetrics. These chapters (6 through 11) form the core of the book and are a major contribution to prosodic studies. In them, Wesling gets down to the business of defining grammetrics and to providing a set of exemplary grammetrical readings of a corpus of fourteen poems, selected to show the adaptability of grammetrics to a wide range of verse, both metrical and free.

At the heart of Wesling's grammetrics is a conception of language as activity, not organism or edifice. The central activity of literary expression is sentencing. Writers are sentence makers; readers are those who perceive sentencing in the making, continually having their "cognitive energies fulfilled or frustrated, or otherwise exercised" (74). In versified language, the activity of reading involves experiencing sentences (and their constituent parts) in the process of their interaction with verse periods (syllable, foot, part-line, line, rhymed pair or stanza, whole poem), a process for which Wesling finds "scissoring" an apt metaphor:

Grammetrics assumes that meter and grammar can be scissored by each other, that the cutting places can be graphed with some precision . . . . One blade of the shears is meter, the other grammar. When they work against each other, they divide the poem. It is their purpose and necessity to work against each other. (67)

Analysis may hold the scissors open, regarding the two blades-one aesthetic, one cognitive-as separable. When a poem does its work, however, the reader experiences the activity of each blade as entirely dependent on the interference of the other. Out of their mutual interference comes the energy of the poem in the form of what Wesling calls "eventfulness." The task of the prosodist becomes precisely what the student in Wimsatt and Beardsley's seminar was trying to do-to identify the most significant scissoring points, the places where the absolutely pervasive interference of grammar and meter produces an especially noticeable "event" in which cognitive and aesthetic energies are experienced as necessary to each other. Whereas traditional metrics holds that such events are beyond the pale of prosodic theory-being the "free and individual and unpredictable" elements of poetic art, as distinct from the constrained predictabilities of meter abstracted from sense-Wesling wants to argue that grammetrics can show "describable regularities" (66) in the relationship of prosodic and semantic systems: "[T]he cutting places can be graphed with some precision" (74).

This is, of course, a very large claim. To advance it, Wesling relies heavily on Jirí Levý's essay "The Meanings of Form and the Forms of Meaning" (Poetics 2 [Warsaw: Polish Scientific Publishers, 1966]: 45-59), which seeks to develop what Levý calls "a parallel morphology" of acoustic and semantic systems, grounded in the shared linearity of artistic utterance and meaning (80). Levý correlates three elementary principles of physical or acoustic arrangement (discontinuity-continuity; hierarchy-equivalence; irregularity-regularity) with three semantic principles (incoherence-coherence; intensity-lack of intensity; unexpectedness-predictability). These relationships are conveniently pictured using two triangles:


        Sound/ Device                           Forms of Meaning
         hierarchy-                                intensity-
        equivalence                            lack of intensity


discontinuity-  irregularity-             incoherence-    unexpectedness-
continuity      regularity                coherence       predictability 


Continuous or discontinuous physical arrangement and semantic coherence and incoherence are formally analogous, as are prominence of one physical segment over another and semantic intensification (or emphasis), and regularity or irregularity and semantic predictability or unexpectedness (80-81).

These congruent systems may be further correlated with prosodic devices, examples of which are shown by Wesling in the following table:

Prosodic devices_Acoustic principles of arrangement_Primary semantic functions__Pauses_Discontinuity_Incoherence__Rhyme Repetition_Hierarchy_Intensity__Rhythm_Irregularity_Unexpectedness__

Wesling sees such "parallel morphology," which places the focus of prosodic analysis on "forms of meaning" shared by the competing systems of organization, as the basis upon which a full scale grammetrical analysis may be constructed.

Terry Brogan has written that grammetrics will be "the direction of prosodic inquiry in the future" (English Versification 659; commenting on Wexler 1964). Wesling's chapters 9 and 10 provide the best evidence this book has to offer that Brogan's confidence is not misplaced. In these chapters, Wesling, armed with his metaphoric scissors and with Levý's notion of parallel "forms of meaning," reads poems. His chapter on Shakespeare's Sonnet 129 is a brilliant example of what grammetrics can do. It supports in rich and convincing detail its initially startling claim that Shakespeare's poem is "great by virtue of its greatly deviant sentencing-the way the discourse is driven across the divisions of the meter" (87). Under the close watch of grammetrical analysis, Sonnet 129 is shown to "scissor" "expansive, propulsive sentencing" against its "regular metering" (89). This interference of systems reveals at the heart of the poem a shared rhetorical genre and "grammetrical dominant": "frustrated definition" (89; Wesling's emphasis). An extraordinary degree of semantic "incoherence, unexpectedness, and intensity" shares the same cognitive space with the "coolly regular system of the iambic pentameter" (88) in a poem that tries desperately to define, and thus in some measure to control, the immeasurable and uncontrollable power of lust.

Chapter 10 provides readings of the thirteen remaining poems in Wesling's "array." Four of the texts are non-metrical: Charles Tomlinson, "Oppositions: Debate with Mallarmé"; William Carlos Williams, "Portrait of a Lady"; George Oppen, "Anniversary Poem"; Cid Corman, "The Tortoise"; Edward Dorn, "The Rick of Green Wood." Eight are metrical: Ezra Pound, "The Return"; Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805; I. 452-89; the skating episode); Robert Lowell, "Man and Wife"; Emily Dickinson, "The Soul Selects Her Own Society"; John Peck, "Fog Burning Off at Cape May"; Jonathan Swift, "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General"; Tennyson, In Memoriam, section 7; John Berryman, Sonnet 13. By beginning with non-metrical examples, Wesling reminds his reader of one of the most important elements of his theory-that it is equally adaptable to traditionally metrical verse and to verse measured by other means. (Indeed, Wesling's own work on grammetrics began with a study of free verse; only later did he consider applying grammetrics to metered verse.) The readings in Chapter 10 are necessarily much less detailed than is the reading of Sonnet 129. There is in this chapter, nonetheless, a number of stunning insights. These demonstrate once again the power of grammetrical analysis to shed light on what Wesling calls in a fine phrase "the infinitely difficult obvious"-the cognitive processes involved in reading itself (104).

At the end of the book, Wesling's argument fans out once again into more theoretical and methodological issues. These chapters have a number of important things to say about the uses of grammetrics as a mid-range theory capable of mediating between exclusively text-based theories and reader-response theories, between the drive toward determinacy of the "New Criticism" and the apotheosis of indeterminacy ensconced in some manifestations of deconstruction. They also make suggestive comments about the possibilities for a fully historicized grammetrics that would enable literary historians to make much more precise distinctions among period styles by attending to what Wesling calls "style[s] of sentencing." Finally, they offer much useful speculation on the uses and limitations of computer assisted analysis. (Wesling conducted such analysis on his array of fourteen poems, then decided not to include his results in the finished book.) These chapters lay out in suggestive ways a host of exciting and ambitious research plans that demand the serious attention of anyone interested in advancing the claims of literary prosody. Let us hope that Wesling's book finds the disciples it richly deserves.

_ Wexler's 1964 article appeared in Cahiers de Lexicologie 4 (1964): 61-74; the 1966 piece is in Essays on Style and Language, ed. Roger Fowler (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966): 100-117.

_ Wesling notes this provenance as "important for this theory" (174n7). His 1971 article on free verse appeared in slightly revised form in Wesling's The New Poetries: Poetic Form since Coleridge and Wordsworth (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1985).