4.2 - Two Roads Diverged in a Rhythmic Wood: A Note on Methods and a Plea for Choosing Both Roads

In the Prosody section of the tutorial you learned the basic rules of generative phonology for understanding rhythmic stress. In moving to meter, I will offer you two approaches, first the beat-offbeat method of Derek Attridge (section 4.3) and second, the generative approach, which develops directly from what you have earlier learned (section 4.5). There are significant conceptual differences between these approaches but learned together, they offer complementary insights. As Sally Gall has noted, Attridge's method is easily learned, makes intuitive sense, and it visually allows you to compare meter and rhythmic stress (Poetry in English 1161 ff.). Further, once you have learned Attridge's method, other forms of scansion, including generative, are easier to learn.

Simply put, the major differences between the two approaches are: 1) Attridge is concerned with the "perceptual experience" (REP 152), generative metrics with metrical competence. Following the tenets of generative linguistics more broadly, generative metrics aims not to describe lines of verse but to discover the ideal rules that operate within these lines such that a reader or poet can distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable, metrical and unmetrical lines. Attridge instead puts his emphasis on "what we actually experience when we speak or listen to speech" (REP 150), hence his metrical rules aim to describe "how certain arrangements of syllable and words give rise" to the perception of rhythmic and / or metrical regularity. This perception, or psychological set, is captured in a set of rules that do not consider the relative and hierarchical nature of stress but look instead at how stressed and unstressed syllables realize or occupy beats and offbeats in the metrical pattern.

Section 4. 5 will show you that generative metrics proceeds by comparing the stress trees you have learned to make with the abstract metrical pattern of a given verse instance. You will then be given rules for determining what makes a given line metrical or unmetrical as well as what makes a given line more or less complex. Attridge also presents his rules in terms of degrees and types of complexity. What the generative approach offers that Attridge does not is a focus on the syntactic basis of stress and consequently, on the phrasal nature of rhythm. Though one has to move even beyond generative metrics to understand the full consequences of phrasal rhythm, especially at higher levels of the poem (i.e., beyond the phonological phrase), generative metrics nonetheless provides a firm basis for beginning to understand the fundamentally phrasal character of rhythm (this will be the focus of section 5).

You may opt for learning either the Attridge or the generative method, i.e., work through either section 4.3 or 4.5. You should do section 4.4 on Elision, Caesura and Enjambment regardless of which approach you choose. But the best outcome, the fullest understanding of meter and rhythm, can be had by learning both and making use of the insights each has to offer. You may traverse either the more or less traveled road, but unlike Frost, I would suggest that it makes all the difference to travel them both.