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Palaeonymics and Teichoscopics: Of meter, that it perhaps does not exist

February 7, 2014

Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἔγω δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται·

πάγχυ δ’ εὔμαρες σύνετον πόησαι
πάντι τοῦτ’, ἀ γἀρ πόλυ περσκέθοισα
κάλλος ἀνθρώπων Ἐλένα τὸν ἄνδρα
τὸν [   αρ]ιστον

καλλίποισ’ ἔβα Τροίαν πλέοισα . . .

Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot
and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
on the black earth.  But I say it is
what you love.

Easy to make this understood by all.
For she who overcame everyone
in beauty (Helen)
left her fine husband

behind and went sailing for Troy. (Sappho 16.1-9)(1)

It is, I admit, by recourse to a certain palaeonymics that I have for so long preferred to proffer meter, rather than rhythm, as my interest: for who can deny (even if we restrict ourselves, for the moment, to literature) that meter is merely a species of rhythm? And how shall we not enumerate the flexibility of the latter, its participation in the full life of natural language, as opposed to the rigid artifice of the former? Have we not, as it were, been going about things all wrong when we speak of meter, painstakingly measuring out our syllables in the service of an arid abstraction, always and everywhere the same?  Would we not do better to take into account the full richness of the rhythmic utterence, rather than only its success or failure at corresponding to the so-called meter, if there ever was such a thing?

If there ever was (εἴ ποτ’ ἔην γε, Hom. Il. 3.180)  — let us join Helen for a moment in her nostalgia, as she gazes out over the assembled ranks of the Achaeans.  I have heard it too often said, too often have I seen it written: “it is not meter, but rhythm that interests me” — “from here on out I will speak of rhythm rather than meter” — or any of a thousand variations on the same disavowal.  Often in works that make no further concessions, works whose primary focus seems to be what most people would be perfectly comfortable calling meter: that is, the specific patterns of long and short, stressed and unstressed that govern certain corpora of traditional poetry.  It is as if by this one substitution they might relieve the anxieties that are almost invariably provoked when we invoke the m-word.

I am uninterested in soothing these anxieties: to do so would be to acknowledge the validity of the opposition rhythm/meter, which always and necessarily privileges the former over the latter. It is for this reason, perhaps, that I am wont to extend the word “meter” well outside its traditional boundaries to include the entire regulatory mechanism of a body of poetry. We might occasionally need to differentiate meter and rhyme in our poetry, but ultimately I take the rhyme scheme to be a meter.  I hope it is not particularly controversial that I include syllabic systems of versification under this rubric, although some authors — narrowly defining meter as necessarily involving a binary opposition (long/short, unaccented/accented) have sought to exclude them.  But I even include the characteristic Semitic parallelism, which differs to such an extent that it is frequently asserted that such poetry “does not have meter.”

Thus far I have tended to respect traditional boundaries to the extent that I speak of “prose rhythm” rather than “prose meter.”  But perhaps I shouldn’t. Because the opposition between rhythm and meter is not simply a neutral relationship, for example, of genus to species: we would be neglecting much were we to say, for example, that literary rhythm is of two types, metrical, and whatever it is that prose has, which (to adopt Aristotle’s phrase, which concerned a different distinction, albeit in a highly relevant context) “happens to be anonymous at the moment” (ἀνώνυμοι τυγχάνουσι μέχρι τοῦ νῦν Arist. Poet. 1447b). To the contrary, this distinction has become a highly charged one — or in fact, it always was, at least since it was possible to oppose the two words to one another.  Meter is the corruption of rhythm, its abuse: it diverts the Pierian stream into unnatural channels.  We cannot correct this situation by hastily reinscribing said meter as “rhythm.” This gesture, which attempts to maintain the opposition while emptying its negatively marked term, only reinforces this valuation by reinterpreting the difference between meter and rhythm as the difference between truth and illusion: what we thought was meter turns out in reality to be rhythm.

I should instead adopt a certain Derridean tactic, which he employed most spectacularly in his discussion of speech and writing: to the contrary (I might say) meter is in an important sense prior to rhythm; rhythm is merely one of its effects.  I will not attempt this here — the claim would have to proceed from a reading of some important text that sought to differentiate the two: I would need to show that rhythm is always already marked by the very things the author claims distinguish meter.  And perhaps my intuition that this would be the case is a mistaken one.  And of course, by the end of such a reading, I would be using the word “meter” in a way that would be practically unrecognizable.

This is why I spoke of a palaeonymics: it is as necessary for me as for Derrida to “retain, provisionally and strategically, the old name.” (2)  He has spoken at length and repeatedly about the necessity for such a tactic.  In brief: the mere addition of yet another technical term does not constitute an intervention in the system, cannot disrupt its functioning.  I hold no illusions that I am somehow separate from the system, that I can hold myself aloof from its anxieties, that I am not myself beholden to its determinations.  I cannot produce a new metrics ex nihilo.

All I have is a certain nostalgia, a certain ache arising from a sense of displacement: I long for another time, another place, another metrics.  I would like to answer the rhetorical questions which I posed in my first paragraph with something other than the expected “yes,” but I grow irritable and exhausted, worn out by too much “no.”  (One of these days, I need to read some more Nietzsche.)

Just ask me: I can name for you a whole host of meters, an army of verse-forms, I can recount their genealogy and character just as Helen once described the assembled Achaean chiefs to Priam from the walls of Troy.  I can tell you all about meter, if there ever was such a thing.  “Writing, if there is any, perhaps communicates, but certainly does not exist.” (3)  Meter, if there is any, does not (have we not established as much?) even communicate: what, then, remains?

This is the crux of the matter. Of meter.  If there is any. If there ever was (εἴ ποτ’ ἔην γε).

And why is it the sight of an army that provokes this moment of reality-shattering nostalgia in Helen, for whom, if we can believe Sappho (and surely her argument is compelling), an army’s beauty pales in comparison to her beloved’s?

Unless the exemplarity is not working as I have always assumed: after all, it is Helen “who overcame everyone / in beauty” (πόλυ περσκέθοισα / κάλλος ἀνθρώπων).

Notes:

1. The translation is Anne Carson’s, from If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, 2002.

2. Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Limited Inc, 1988, p. 21.

3. Ibid.

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