A Sound Argument

The below is from Benjamin Harshav's "Basic Forms in Modern Yiddish Poetry." Though it only touches on Yiddish and Russian, a lot of what it says (albeit in a heavily modified form, and with meters based on quantitative syllable-weight rather than dynamic stress) could apply to modern Arabic poetry as well. And also, though you wouldn't expect it, in Welsh poetry, despite all Welsh poets being bilingual in English (there a lot of the metrical and sonic attentiveness is actually a way to stand apart from the dominant Anglophone influence, to assert Celtic poetic heritage.)

This is, in a nutshell, why I react the way I do to English-speakers (and French-speakers, and German-speakers) who greet with incomprehension and incredulity my attention to sound-pattern, rhythm, meter and vocalic texture in poetry. Especially in its translation. ("Oh you think my concern with sound means that I just need to get with the modern program, eh? You think concern with prosody and sound-patterning can only be an archaic throwback of some kind? I see. And I'm the limited one here, am I? I see.")

.......Meter and sound orchestration are central to Yiddish verse to more of an extent than a contemporary reader of English poetry might be prepared to encounter. The “magic” of repeated metrical patterns, symmetry and parallelism, puns and deviations, reinforced by sound play and rhythmical variation, does to the simplest words what music does to the elementary words of popular songs. In Russian poetry, the poetic quality of the text is invested in sound patterning no less than in original imagery, metaphor, paradox, complexity of meaning, surprising language, and fictional worlds—aspects that are more crucial to the dominant poetry and criticism in English.
The central poetry-making function of meter and sound in most of Yiddish poetry is the legacy of Russian Modernist poetics, which exerted a major influence on modern Yiddish verse. Like Baudelaire, who combined “Modernist” themes and images with classical verse forms and rhyme patterns, Russian Modernist poets—Mandelshtam, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva—molded their Futurist metaphors and surreal compositions in consciously crafted rhythms, dense sound patterning, and conspicuous rhyme innovations. The language of poetry promoted neologisms and what I call “focusing sound patterns,” such as T. S. Eliot’s “word–Word–world–whirled” (“Ash-Wednesday”), which do not imitate any sounds in nature but focus the reader’s attention on some interrelated words, encased in memorable sound configurations. This was also true for early German Modernist poets, such as Stefan George and R. M. Rilke, at the beginning of the twentieth century. In Yiddish, as in Russian, using such sound patterns remains a strong tendency to this day, as can be seen in the “neoclassical Modernism” of the last great Yiddish poet, A. Sutzkever (1913–2010).
In English poetry, on the other hand, Modernism is identified by and large with free verse. Sound patterning often does play a conspicuous role in the texture of the poetic language but not in predictable, symmetrical molds, such as meter and rhyme. In the history of English poetry, the break between the metrically oriented Romantic and Edwardian verse of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century and what followed was so radical that the very sense of what in the meters and metrical variations so enchanted the poets and readers has been lost. T. S. Eliot’s early poetry, published in his student years in the Harvard Crimson and never collected in a book in his lifetime, was written in agile and precise “Edwardian” meters. 
This difference in emphasis in the cultural perceptions of what is essential to poetry is reflected in the diametrically opposed poetic theories promoted by representatives of both cultures. Roman Jakobson, a Futurist poet and linguist raised in the Russian avant-garde tradition who had a decisive impact on modern Structuralism, derived his concept of “poetic function” mainly from the study of meter and sound patterns. His Anglo-American “meaning”- oriented contemporaries, the New Critics and their followers, on the other hand, indulged in metaphor, ambiguity, and paradox and disregarded versification even while interpreting the well-formed strophic poems of Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth.
Apart from this functional difference between the two poetic cultures, there are more subtle but crucial differences between the English and the Russian traditions. Typically, the most widespread English poetic meter was an iambic pentameter, i.e. an asymmetrical line composed of five iambic feet that are unequally divided into two or more syntactic-rhythmical units (cola). Such asymmetrical groups of feet change their boundaries differently in different lines. The scanning regularity (five iambs per verse line) is further overshadowed by the irregular patterning of syntactical units with their enjambments and long periodical sentences, as in Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the first sentence spreads over sixteen lines. On the other hand, the major metrical form in the Russian tradition is Pushkin’s symmetrical four-iamb line, variations of which contribute great flexibility and rhythmical interest and invite the reader’s involvement in the poetry. Here, tension and variety are achieved by the great variety in the structure of the Russian words and their lengths and places of stress. Yiddish and Hebrew poets in the modern age absorbed their metrical sensibilities largely from this tradition.

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