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Unread 07-16-2022, 02:25 PM
Jonathan James Henderson Jonathan James Henderson is offline
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Default Meter Vs Natural Speech

Spun-off from the discussion starting here: https://www.ablemuse.com/erato/showt...827#post481827

Very interested to hear other thoughts on this, but, first things first:

To Tim:
https://www.ablemuse.com/erato/newre...reply&p=481848

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tim McGrath View Post
Meter displaces natural speech. Meter obliterates natural speech. Like a drummer in a good band, meter provides the beat--the heartbeat--of a good poem. Contemporary critics, fools that they are, like to say, in writing no less, that they admire a certain poem's "conversational rhythms." The problem with this bit of sophistry is that poetry is not conversation, no more than it is prose. If a poet takes the time and trouble to cast his thoughts into rhyme and meter, why in the world would you or anyone want to de-emphasize the music? As they might say in Oklahoma, if you decide to put wings on a horse, you can't just ride around in your backyard.
If you want to state this as a personal preference that's fine, but I can assure you the vast majority of poets now and throughout history have not thought this way. However, I will say that nobody (certainly not me!) is saying one should "de-emphasize the music" of meter; what I'm describing is being alive to the ways in which natural speech and meter/rhythm work with and against each other. This is a complex interaction, and anyone who wants to take absolute, autocratic approaches is going to be missing out on a lot of nuance.

Even a cursory reading of the classics will show that either the great poets of the past (like Shakespeare), who wrote in times when meter was much more of a fixed and studied discipline than it is now, were frequently either inept when using meter to put stress on words that would never be stressed in common speech; or else they utilized metrical substitutions for rhetorical/poetic effect. Since I'm more inclined to think Shakespeare forgot more about poetry than any of us will ever know, I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, this means that there will always be a controversy when any natural speech would conflict with the meter: should those syllables be read as promotions/demotions, or should they be read as substitutions? What you're describing, Tim, would force us to, like a robot, read them all as promotions/demotions, and this just doesn't work, for reasons I said above (I had many examples handy years ago when I was studying this in-depth; they've been sadly lost to time). This doesn't mean, however, that we automatically read everything as natural speech. When such conflicts arise, we have to try it both ways: both metrically and naturally. Often times you will find poetry that works well both ways. Shakespeare was also a model here in that he'd often use meter to put emphasis on atypical words to highlight shades of meaning and nuances (I give examples in the thread linked below); that's a perfectly valid way of approaching meter, certainly. However, there also exists expressive possibilities that are only capable via substitutions: Alexander Pope laid out many such examples in his Essay on Criticism.

You mention "the music of meter," Tim, and while this is something I agree with it's useful to expand the analogy to realize that the time signature and ictus of music is no more all there is to musical rhythm than meter is all there is to poetic rhythm. Metrical substitutions can be musical; can, indeed, add to the music (and effect) of poetry, and this is just as true of natural speech rhythms. It's often said that poetry is the navigation between the poles of natural speech and artful (which can become artificial) writing; and meter/rhythm is no different. In the original thread I posted a link to a very old thread on metrical substitution and my posts there discussing this in a slightly different way, but many of those ideas are relevant here: https://www.ablemuse.com/erato/showt...740#post227740

Last edited by Jonathan James Henderson; 07-16-2022 at 02:27 PM.
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Unread 07-16-2022, 03:05 PM
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A few truths about meter:

• it's made up. it's fake. you can't have firm and fixed opinions about Correct And Proper Scansion without being a crank.

• recognizing the above is crucial to actually using meter well, because it forces you to think about what meter and scansion are for, rather than taking it as some deep truth about a poem

• meter is most useful (I find; ymmv) when it is kept minimal, sharply separated from rhythm. when too much of natural rhythm is stuffed into meter, the flexibility of meter is lost.

• it follows from this that, in reading a poem, one should read its rhythm but not its meter. its meter is a ghost that haunts it.

• corollary #1: any metrical system that recognizes more than two degrees of stress (stressed, unstressed) is baroque and unhelpful.

• corollary #2: relative stress is much more important than absolute stress, because relative stress points to the abstract pattern underlying the line, while absolute stress points to the variation within that pattern.

• corollary #3: with exceedingly rare exceptions, spondees do not exist in English language poetry. relative stress rules nearly always resolve them into either trochees or iambs. one consistent class of exceptions is the {u u / /} pattern, which I prefer to think of as a special two-beat foot, the "double iamb".

• mastery of meter is then the ability to create variation within this consistent abstract pattern. some of this comes from outright substitutions; much of it comes from playing with relative stress. again, precisely this sort of play is lost when the distance between meter and rhythm is shortened.

• friendly reminder: meter is fake. it's made up. it's not real. it's bogus. it's garbage. it's crazytown bananapants. it is metaphysically impossible to talk about it without being a crank. I am a crank for typing this post. I am also 100% Correct.
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Unread 07-16-2022, 06:07 PM
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Allen Tice Allen Tice is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
• corollary #1: any metrical system that recognizes more than two degrees of stress (stressed, unstressed) is baroque and unhelpful.
That corollary I agree with. Corollary #3 I do not, if only because I have spent a lot of effort, and will spend more D. V., making poems with spondees and worse, like three stresses in sequence. Should you want examples, Kelsay Books will sell you a book of mine (Allen Tice) called "Of Course," for $19. I'm disgustingly happy with most of the imitations and changes I have rung on early Greek and Latin metrical patterns, full of spondees and triple stress rows. (I seldom bother with "sapphics".) Music of the spheres for those with 2,000 year-old ears, as satisfying to me in its way as Classical Chinese.

We can both be right in our practice.

PS from the thread linked at the top of the first post:
Quote:
Originally Posted by Allen Tice View Post
Some very eminent scholar of English prose prosody declared that no two adjacent syllables could ever share the same stress. Ergo, no spondees. Well, shut my mouth !

Last edited by Allen Tice; 07-16-2022 at 06:57 PM.
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Unread 07-17-2022, 07:14 AM
David Callin David Callin is offline
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This is all very learned, but it does remind me of what I have been reading about in the book about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, i.e. "the sound of sense".

Turning to SparkNotes, for a neat little summary of it:

"Frost coined the phrase the sound of sense to emphasize the poetic diction, or word choice, used throughout his work. According to letters he wrote in 1913 and 1914, the sound of sense should be positive, as well as proactive, and should resemble everyday speech."

Is that relevant? I thought it might be.
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  #5  
Unread 07-18-2022, 03:26 PM
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Rose Novick Rose Novick is offline
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Originally Posted by Allen Tice View Post
We can both be right in our practice.
Hi Allen! I want to acknowledge our disagreement, and simply note that I hope my bracketing "truths about meter" make clear why I am happy to allow that we are both right in our practice. Meter is a tool for doing things with the sonic properties of language. We are (often) trying to do different things with those properties; naturally we will have a different relation to meter. I would never insist that my way of relating to meter is the right way. (I would, and would often, insist that is a better way than I often see being used for ends similar to mine.)

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jonathan James Henderson View Post
I don't entirely follow here; perhaps some examples would help. It seems perhaps you're saying that meter should be a spice that's thrown in rather than the main dish from which variations or "natural speech" deviates from?
No, sorry for the unclarity. I am fine with poems that are wholly metrical throughout. I'm talking about how to scan them: I think scansion (in the case of regularly metered poems!) should capture the base pattern underlying a line, but not the full details of its realization. Your own example line is a great instance of what I mean:
Bright star, Would I were steadfast as thou art
In its original context, I think there is really only one defensible way to scan this line:
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art
The opening foot could be either an iamb or a trochee; I think it's gotta be the former in this context because the star is being addressed, while "bright" merely modifies it. It's going to take a stronger stress. It's a very heavy iamb, yes—but that's rhythmic, not metrical variation.

The second foot has to be an iamb because of the I/thou contrast; that forces the stress onto "I". The third foot is an obvious iamb.

Then the last two feet combine into a double iamb, again because the I/thou contrast demands a stress on "thou" that dominates the meter's tendency to promote "as". So here we have the spondee that proves the rule as it were: pseudo-spondees in English largely appear as part of double iambs (or double trochees in falling meter).

While I can see the reasoning behind most of your scansion (however strongly I disagree with it), I gotta say that I think pronouncing "steadfast" as a spondee is just deranged. It's a natural trochee (but displaced in the poem across two feet). If the line were as follows:
Bright star, Would I were steadfast as a cart
The "as" would take a noticeably stronger stress than "-fast". I genuinely cannot imagine what you are hearing here. I don't really know how to argue for this (beyond citing the dictionary, which will confirm that 'steadfast' in isolation is a trochee)—I too can only trust my ear. And I cannot rule out that my ear is no superior to yours, which hears differently, however much I might like to. Which is why in the end any strong opinion about meter turns into crankery. But I do so enjoy mucking about in the crankery, so thanks for the opportunity.

In the background of this is again my conception of what makes scansion a useful tool: it's that it shows the base similarity underlying both the Keats line and a line like, I dunno
The cat had sat upon the gnatty mat.
or
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Basically the same base pattern (except the double iamb substitution); highly variable rhythms.

Pope is of course the master at illustrating the range of rhythms you can get within a single consistent meter.
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Unread 07-19-2022, 01:54 PM
Jonathan James Henderson Jonathan James Henderson is offline
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Rose,

I do want to say upfront we agree on the notion of not insisting our way of reading meter is the right way. I've read enough disagreements on the matter to realize that differences arise in large part because people weigh differently the paradigms that give rise to meter: the stress-timing of English, the hierarchy of grammar, and the regularity and conventions of meter. I also think we agree on the idea that, ultimately, rhythm is more important than meter. The old thread I linked to was mostly me arguing for the importance of rhythmic scansion in addition to more typical metrical scansion.

However, I do find this subject fun to debate, if only because, like with all such disagreements, it forces my brain to work to try to drill down the source of the disagreements and diagnose them. So, with that in mind, to our disagreement over the Keats line: it seems we only disagree over "bright star" and "steadfast". Of these, I think steadfast is more ambiguous, and I can see the argument for treating it as a natural trochee. Here are my arguments against that.

1. Steadfast

1.1. Double iambs were very atypical in classical metrical poetry. I won't say they never happened, but I can not, off the top of my head, think of any examples or poems in which they were common. To me, spondees and trochaic inversions are much more common. This is arguing from the "conventions" of meter, like I said above.

1.2. The second argument requires agreement on "Bright star" and "thou art" being spondees, because I think if we accept both then we can argue that there's a strong spondaic pattern in this line.

1.3. Rhythmically, one effect of double iambs is that one tends (again, because of stress-timing paradigms) to rush over the unstressed words. This is something Pope demonstrated in his Essay on Criticism. So we would be forced to read "fast as" quicker than anything else in the line. To me, this really disrupts the overall rhythm, whether or not you want to call that rhythm iambic or spondaic. The paradigm of stress-timing and the overall rhythm of IP wants (if we're not stressing "as") to have stresses bracketing "as."

1.4. In terms of natural speech, I think it would be just as common to say "steadfast" as a spondee, especially to someone with an intuitive flair for rhetoric. The reason is that by saying "steadfast" as a spondee you give the term the same kind of sonic solidity that it's describing. Of course semantically both steadfast as a spondee or trochee means the same thing, but try saying it as a spondee in a phrase like "he was steadfast in his beliefs:" doesn't it give the feeling that by saying it as a spondee it makes him seem more "steadfast" than if you said it as a trochee? To me, this cuts to the heart of the art of meter, the ability to find metaphoric connections in the strong/weak dichotomy of stress and whatever is being described.

1.5. In your rewrite of the line I would agree with you, but that's because your rewrite isn't analogous. The article "a" never takes stress in English, which leaves us with two options: make steadfast a spondee and "as a cart" as a natural anapest (scanned as IP it would make "fast as" a trochee and "a cart" an iamb), which would violate metrical conventions of meter; or, do as you say, and treat steadfast as a natural trochee and stress "as." The latter works here because "as" is not followed by a word like "thou" that wants to take stress, unlike in the original, so we're not violating the stress-timing or grammatical hierarchies paradigm. The original gives us the flexibility of treating steadfast as a spondee. We don't have to, hence the ambiguity, but I think the other arguments above argue why we should.

Those are the arguments for "steadfast" being a spondee. Here are mine for "Bright star," which is similar.

2. Bright star

2.1. First, consider that "bright star" is being used as an address. If you replaced it with a monosyllabic proper name, like Jane Starr, you wouldn't say it as an iamb or a trochee, you would absolutely say it as a spondee. In fact, I would be surprised to hear anyone say this as a clearly discernible iamb or trochee, and I bet any objective vocal analysis would find it's either an actual spondee, or so close as to make calling it an iamb or trochee rather absurd.

2.2. In natural speech, monosyllabic adjectives really want to take stress, and monosyllabic long-vowelled adjectives REALLY want to take stress. You yourself say that it's a "heavy iamb," which acknowledges the fact of different levels of stress in natural speech; but that provokes the question: at what point does a syllable/word become "heavy" enough to consider as a spondee? Yes, we can take the view that meter is relative so that labeling a foot is only concerned with the relationship between the two syllables of that foot; but I think this is a rather myopic view, and however much it may help to clarify meter, it really obscures rhythm, which isn't something I think we should be doing.

***

One way to treat this, that I wouldn't terrible object to, is to say that the spondaic trio reading is more rhythmic than metrical, though that does get into the slippery relationship between the two. However, to me, if we're going to be strict meterbators then we might as well just read the entire line as IP, including stressing "as." This, IMO, treats meter more as the ghost from which the spondaic rhythm (as I hear it) emerges from. Any deviation from that and there will be inevitable debates about conventions and natural speech imperatives and whether either argues for or allows metrical substitutions, and that goes as much for my spondees as your double iamb.

As a conclusion, I'll reiterate that, like you, I don't think there's a definitive answer to this, but I do find discussing the different readings and the things that give rise to it valuable in clarifying my own thoughts on the matter if nothing else.

Last edited by Jonathan James Henderson; 07-19-2022 at 02:10 PM.
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Unread 07-17-2022, 12:02 PM
Jonathan James Henderson Jonathan James Henderson is offline
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Some very good posts so far (as I expected), so thanks everyone for contributing, but I do want to explicitly address Rose's interesting points:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
A few truths about meter:

• it's made up. it's fake. you can't have firm and fixed opinions about Correct And Proper Scansion without being a crank.
Very true. Meter is an attempt to abstract the most common patterns of natural speech and make them into fixed patterns for musical/rhetorical effect. It's artificial by its very nature, but all art is made up of some amount of artifice.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
meter is most useful (I find; ymmv) when it is kept minimal, sharply separated from rhythm. when too much of natural rhythm is stuffed into meter, the flexibility of meter is lost.
I don't entirely follow here; perhaps some examples would help. It seems perhaps you're saying that meter should be a spice that's thrown in rather than the main dish from which variations or "natural speech" deviates from? This is kind of how I think of Whitman. We know Whitman for innovating the use of free verse, but there are many lines in Whitman that scan perfectly and stand out by contrast from the rest. The famous "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" ends on a line of perfect pentameter after a string of Whitman's trademark anaphora.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
it follows from this that, in reading a poem, one should read its rhythm but not its meter. its meter is a ghost that haunts it.
In that old thread I linked to I talked about "the ghost of meter" haunting lines in other rhythms as well, though I'm not sure I would agree that we shouldn't read meter at all. It really depends on the poem. Some poems are meant to be read in meter, other in different rhythms with meter as a background. I've experimented with both and both have different potentialities for expression and poetic effect.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
corollary #1: any metrical system that recognizes more than two degrees of stress (stressed, unstressed) is baroque and unhelpful.
Generally agree, but my one caveat is that multiple degrees are probably more accurate for mapping natural stress patterns, and I think keeping in mind that there's a broader range than two degrees also helps us in thinking about how to categorize those two degrees when there's ambiguity. Perhaps an example later.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
corollary #2: relative stress is much more important than absolute stress, because relative stress points to the abstract pattern underlying the line, while absolute stress points to the variation within that pattern.
Absolutely, but, continuing from the above, relative stress can have more than one relation ranging from the foot it's a part of to what follows it to a more general pattern.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
corollary #3: with exceedingly rare exceptions, spondees do not exist in English language poetry. relative stress rules nearly always resolve them into either trochees or iambs. one consistent class of exceptions is the {u u / /} pattern, which I prefer to think of as a special two-beat foot, the "double iamb".
This I don't agree with. Unless someone can point me to a scientific study that says people never put roughly equal stress on two subsequent syllables I'm going to trust my ears that people do.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Rose Novick View Post
mastery of meter is then the ability to create variation within this consistent abstract pattern. some of this comes from outright substitutions; much of it comes from playing with relative stress. again, precisely this sort of play is lost when the distance between meter and rhythm is shortened.
Agree.

OK, here's the most illustrative example I can think of that I also used in the previous thread, though I'm going to take a slightly different tact here (CAUTION! What follows is a grade-A example of meterbating. Consider this a warning that what follows is pedantic and honestly worth nobody's time including mine):

Bright star, Would I were steadfast as thou art

I honestly don't know of a single line of IP that could be naturally read in a greater variety of ways. Here's just some of them:

Bright star, Would I were steadfast as thou art
Bright star, Would I were steadfast as thou art
Bright star, Would I were steadfast as thou art

I think you mix and match variations on these, such as keeping the opening a spondee, but making reading "steadfast" and "though art" as natural trochees, or keeping the IP reading but not stressing "as". This is one line where I'd love to get 1000 random people to read to study the different ways it would be stressed. It's also the first line of a poem, so we can't even be clued in by any prior context. We could clue ourselves in by reading the rest of the poem, but that kinda feels like cheating; how should we read it on a first reading? Just follow the traditional "rules" of IP? But, as I've said, we know poets used substitutions, even if some were more stricter about when and what kinds, though I think those restrictions loosened up more in the 19th century compared to the 18th and 17th. Further, if we read this in IP, with or without substituting a trochaic inversion of the first/second foot or a spondee for the first foot, I think it reads really awkwardly to stress "as" as opposed to either "fast" or "thou."

This is a good example of how context helps to determine stress because humans naturally want to stress more important words in sentences. In grammatical hierarchy, nouns and verbs are usually first, with adjectives and adverbs second, then prepositions, then articles and conjunctions. However, this hierarchy runs up against English being a stress-timed language in which stresses should be (roughly) equal distance from each other. Often times those two paradigms conflict or present ambiguities, and this is a great example. Here, "as" is an adverb, which might take stress after following an unstressed syllable (like "fast" could potentially be), but given that it's followed by a pronoun it almost never would when spoken naturally. But if we speak it naturally that leads to a metrical problem as it was never acceptable to end a line of IP on a trochaic inversion, which would mean that last foot would be a spondee.

If we scan the first three feet we run into similar-but-different issues. If we make "Bright star" a trochee, especially after the caesura of the comma, it's difficult to argue that the verb "would" wouldn't take stress; but then we begin the poem with two trochees, which makes us want to completely ruin the IP by using a weird trochee/dactylic hybrid meter (second reading above). That works for "natural speech," but not for meter. It would seem on metrical principles we could rule that out. The grammatical hierarchy doesn't help either because we have an adjective/noun/verb/noun/verb. The only one of these that one would naturally demote would be the adjective, but it's at the beginning, and I defy anyone to say "bright star" and tell me with a straight face they don't sound silly. Further, it would seem "stead(fast)" has to be stressed. So, what do we have for sure? That "bright" and "stead" must be stressed; that leaves "star, would I were." If we stress "would" there we run into the problem of ruining the meter completely, as I said above, so it seems "would" shouldn't be stressed. However, if "would" shouldn't be stressed it would seem "star" should be just due to stress-timing paradigm; and when you put a caesura after "star" and the meter tells us we shouldn't stress "would" that leaves putting the stress on "star" and then "I" since there's nothing left.

The above is a long justification for why my preferred reading here is actually the one with the three spondees. Besides the above, there's an artistic/poetic reason that I analyzed in the old thread, so to pretentiously quote myself:
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jonathan James Henderson View Post

The major thing I--and I think most--would notice here are the three pairs of consecutive stressed syllables: "Bright Star," "stedfast," "thou art." Once one picks those out I think you also notice a strong semantic correlation between them; it's almost the poem in little right there. In fact, inverse it and you have "Thou art stedfast Bright Star." So what's left over? Well, you have "would I were" between the 1st and 3rd spondee and "as" stuck between the 3rd and 4th. I think it makes sense to group these together to form an amphimacer and catalectic unstressed foot.

What's the use of this? Well, besides pointing out the semantic relation between the spondee set, I think it contrasts well with the two "leftovers:" "would I were" places the stressed "I" between an "island" of unstressed syllables while poor "as" is left out on its own. The differing rhythms of these two groupings contrasts wonderfully with the strong, consistent spondee pairs, seeming to enact the very thing it's describing: the speaker, like the words associated with him, are not as 'stedfast' as the 'bright star / thou art' subject.
My condolences to anyone who actually read all that. Have a smile:
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Unread 07-17-2022, 01:43 PM
John Riley John Riley is offline
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I’ve given up wondering why people are so silly when it comes to meter. Is it really difficult to understand why poetry and fiction and all art changed into the 20th century. There used to someone here who said Larkin had killed modernism. So silly. As the world speeded up and became fragmented—think stoplights, for example—poetry with uniform lines that all ended at the same place no longer fit. You can call it prose or chopped prose or whatever but it isn’t going away. Write what you want but why spend so much energy lashing out at the last 150 years? The only indispensable thing is rhythm, as in all art, and rhythm is much deeper than meter.
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Unread 07-17-2022, 03:08 PM
Jonathan James Henderson Jonathan James Henderson is offline
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John,

I'm not sure to whom or what your post is directed at. I don't think anyone here is lashing out at free verse or the last 150 years of poetry. My only qualm about free verse is that much was sacrificed for that freedom, and not always for the better. Meter (and rhyme) satisfy fundamental human desires for patterns, both for meaning and for the sheer pleasure. Free verse kind still utilize other patterns, but most will not be as intuitively discernible as meter and rhyme. I don't think any poet "killed" anything; poetry just evolved/changed as all art forms do, and we can sit around and debate whether that change was for the better or not, but I'd rather just appreciate what's out there and ignore the rest. This thread was mostly concerned about the relationship between meter and natural speech; it wasn't intended as any kind of commentary (positive or negative) on the the evolution of poetry in the last 150 years.
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Unread 07-17-2022, 03:36 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jonathan James Henderson View Post
John,

I don't think anyone here is lashing out at free verse or the last 150 years of poetry.
You started your first post with a quote from another member decrying contemporary critics as "fools" and "sophists". This might be what John's responding to.

Matt

Last edited by Matt Q; 07-17-2022 at 03:39 PM.
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