1 - The Purposes of this Tutorial

Traditionally, rhythmic analysis, or SCANSION as it is often called, has been taught, when considered at all, as a dusty science of accents, Greek names and abstruse principles of metrical variation. The relevance of scansion to the reading and understanding of poetry has often seemed arbitrary or irrelevant, especially as formalist criticism was eclipsed in the 1980s and 90s by various forms of post-structuralist criticism that are more interested in the historical and cultural situatedness of authors and texts than in the representation and weightedness of syllables. While literary critics, in small numbers, have continued to apply older forms of metrical analysis to texts, the most exciting work on rhythm has been done by scholars interested in understanding rhythm in the broadest ways possible, including its temporal, cognitive and hermeneutical significance. While this tutorial cannot explain these developments fully (this is Poetry and Poetics, not Rhythm 101), they nonetheless underlie the approach taken here.

Many traditional approaches tend to see rhythm simply as an aspect of poetry that, like imagery or symbolism, is simply one more element of the poem that the interpreter enlists to give a reading of the poem's themes and speaker. Behind this kind of reading of poetry in general and rhythm in particular is the notion that poems aim to present us with a referential world created through a fictionalized speaker. In such a world, rhythm is usually taken as a means of underlining, supporting, framing, elaborating and shaping what we know about the speaker through other means (DM 2). Hence, rhythm is a subsidiary aspect of language, commandeered to show what the reader has already determined that the poem is "about." In contrast, this tutorial aims to equip you with some of the tools necessary to come to a different understanding of rhythm and of poetry. Following the work of Richard Cureton, I will assume that "rhythm creates times" (DM 3) and that what the poem is about is less the externalized content proferred by the fictional speaker and more about verse form. Rather than looking at rhythm only as a kind of semantic reinforcement, we will attempt to see rhythm as a means of creating time and thus as mapping human interiority and cognition.