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Craft Talk 1: Quincy Troupe’s Rhythm

I’ve been read­ing The Archi­tec­ture of Lan­guage, by Quin­cy Troupe, and I have been fas­ci­nat­ed by how rhythm and syn­tax inter­act in the way he builds his lines. Struc­tural­ly, the poems remind me of noth­ing so much as jazz impro­vi­sa­tion, and I have thought often while read­ing this book of some­thing Hay­den Car­ruth wrote in an essay from 1981 called “Notes on Meter,” which you can find in Select­ed Essays & Reviews:

I always revert to Pound, and to his ear­ly sug­ges­tion that poets ‘com­pose in the sequence of the musi­cal phrase.’ How sim­ple. How bril­liant. Which per­haps explains why no one has suc­cess­ful­ly elab­o­rat­ed it, as far as I know. It’s a pity because it means that Pound’s state­ment (more exact­ly his restate­ment of ancient prin­ci­ple) has turned into a catch-phrase—people speak it and repeat it with­out both­er­ing to ask what it means. To most it con­veys mere­ly a license to com­pose any way they want—feelingly, lilt­ing­ly, that’s the com­mon­est mean­ing. But Pound was a fair musician…he knew what he was talk­ing about when he spoke of the ‘sequence of the musi­cal phrase.’ A mea­sure in music, a bar, is a fixed quan­ti­ty. If the time sig­na­ture is 4/4, you have four beats to the measure…But with­in the fixed mea­sure you may have any melod­ic or phrasal com­bi­na­tion you wish, any dis­tri­b­u­tion of accents, any num­ber and vari­ety of notes; you my empha­size the beat or you may syn­co­pate it; you may play around; you may even sub­sti­tute rests…Hence there is no ques­tion of tying the beat to an inflex­i­ble pat­tern of accen­tu­al or phrasal units, such as an end­less suc­ces­sion of eighth notes.

This is a theme that Car­ruth returns to again and again in his writ­ing on poet­ic form, the idea that for a poem to suc­ceed as a poem, as a work of art, it needs to have been built around some iden­ti­fi­able sense of mea­sure, some reg­u­lar pattern—of beats, syl­la­bles, sounds, it doesn’t mat­ter as long it’s some­thing against which the poet can play with the phras­ing of her or his lan­guage to cre­ate not just a for­mal inter­ac­tion of some sort between sound and mean­ing, but also the play of pure sound that is where so much of the sen­su­al plea­sure of poet­ry lies.

To see what I can learn about how Troupe cre­ates this plea­sure for me—and his poems do that; I often find myself read­ing them aloud—I have opened up The Archi­tec­ture of Lan­guage at ran­dom to “A Con­ven­tion of Lit­tle Dogs.” Here are the first six lines:

in manhattan’s cen­tral park, on a cold bright day
in novem­ber, a con­ven­tion of lit­tle dogs swirl,
dart around sparse grass in clear­ing, pick their way
through tan­gled heaps of fall­en bone-branch­es
felled by fierce onslaughts of howl­ing alaskan winds
that sliced through cloth­ing like razors the night before

First, let’s look at the syn­tac­tic struc­ture of these lines, which make up a sin­gle, com­pound-com­plex sen­tence:

  1. Line 1 is made up of two prepo­si­tion­al phras­es, sit­u­at­ing the read­er in place and time
  2. Line 2 begins with a third prepo­si­tion­al phrase, fur­ther spec­i­fy­ing the time in which the poems occurs, and ends with the sub­ject and first verb of the sen­tence
  3. Line 3 con­tains a sec­ond verb phrase in its entire­ly, ands with the begin­ning of the third verb phrase, which takes up the next three lines and com­pletes the sen­tence
  4. Lines 4–6 are con­struct­ed such that they each one mod­i­fies the last word in the pre­vi­ous line: through in line 4 mod­i­fies way at the end of line 3; felled in line 5 mod­i­fies branch­es at the end of line 4; that in line 6 intro­duces a rel­a­tive clause that mod­i­fies winds at the end of line 5

Fun­da­men­tal­ly what this very delib­er­ate­ly craft­ed sen­tence does is set the scene for the explo­ration that fol­lows of the pol­i­tics and pow­er strug­gles at work with­in the con­ven­tion of lit­tle dogs (who of course stand in for the “con­ven­tion of lit­tle humans” that occu­pies the world), but what I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in here is how Troupe gets these lines to hang togeth­er rhyth­mi­cal­ly, so that they become more than a prose sen­tence chopped up into six more or less self-con­tained syn­tac­tic units. As I read them, the lines would scan as I indi­cate below. I have put the stressed syl­la­bles in red bold face, and I have put in ital­ics those syl­la­bles that might or might not be read as stressed:

in manhattan’s central park, on a cold bright day
in november, a convention of little dogs swirl,
dart around sparse grass in a clearing, pick their way
through tangled heaps of fallen bone-branches
felled by fierce onslaughts of howling alaskan winds
that sliced through clothing like razors the night before

I’m not claim­ing that my scan­sion is some­how author­i­ta­tive and that there are no oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties. I can, for exam­ple, imag­ine some­one stress­ing the in at the begin­ning of line 1 and not stress­ing the their in “pick their way” at the end of line 3; but what I have shown above illus­trates what I hear when I read the lines. The first thing I notice is that the num­ber of stress­es per line fall into a reg­u­lar pat­tern: 667667. I don’t know if that pat­tern holds over the course of the entire poem, but I’d be will­ing to bet that a more in-depth analy­sis would reveal that it sets the met­ri­cal frame­work around which every oth­er line is built.

A clos­er exam­i­na­tion of the six lines I’ve quot­ed reveals a rhyth­mic pat­tern­ing that I think illus­trates quite nice­ly what it means to “com­pose in the sequence of the musi­cal phrase.” First some descrip­tion:

  1. At the end of line three, a cold bright day, one unstressed syl­la­ble fol­lowed by three stressed syllables—or, to be tech­ni­cal about it, an iamb fol­lowed by a spondee, or, to get even more tech­ni­cal (at least accord­ing to Wikipedia) a “first epitrite.”
  2. This pat­tern is then picked up in the last three syl­la­bles of line 2 plus the first syl­la­ble of line three: …tle dogs swirl/dart. (This is a good exam­ple of what I think com­pos­ing in “the sequence of the musi­cal phrase” means. If you imag­ine the end of the line is the end of the mea­sure, then this rhyth­mic phrase actu­al­ly occu­pies two dif­fer­ent mea­sures.)
  3. You find the same pat­tern again in line six, that sliced through cloth.
  4. In lines 3–6 you find a relat­ed pat­tern, unstressed-stressed-stressed-unstressed (an iamb fol­lowed by a trochee, also known as an anti­spast), at a dif­fer­ent point in the line each time—which also speaks to the ques­tion of phras­ing. I have ital­i­cized the unstressed syl­la­bles in the pat­tern:

dart around sparse grass in clear­ing, pick their way
through tan­gled heaps of fallen bone-branches
felled by fierce onslaughts of howl­ing alaskan winds
that sliced through clothing like razors the night before

This is what the rhyth­mic pat­tern­ing of the entire six lines looks like in the abstract, using dash­es for unstressed and slash­es for stressed syl­la­bles. I’ve left the punc­tu­a­tion marks in, and I’ve marked the two pat­terns in dif­fer­ent col­ors. (Ignore the fact that the dash­es are of dif­fer­ent lengths; that’s a func­tion of one of my Word­Press plu­g­ins and I don’t know how to change it.)

- — / — / — /, — - / / /
— - / -, / — / — - / - / /,
- - / / - — / -, / - /
/ / 
- / — / - / / -
- / / - - / — - / — /
- / / / - / / - - / — /

These aren’t the only pat­terns that one can find in these lines, of course, but they do seem to me the dom­i­nant ones, and I do not think you can explain their occur­rence as mere acci­dent. At the same, how­ev­er, I do not think that Quin­cy Troupe said to him­self as he was writ­ing, “Aha! That’s a real­ly nice place to put an anti­spast, and I think that’s the met­ri­cal foot I am going to use to cre­ate rhyth­mic inter­est in this part of my poem.” Rather, I am guess­ing that Troupe has worked long and hard to train his ear and his body to feel such things “nat­u­ral­ly,” the way a pianists will prac­tice scales over and over and over and over again until doing them feels almost as nat­ur­al as breath­ing. I won’t pre­sume to imag­ine the pre­cise form that train­ing took, but I’d wager it involved at some point lis­ten­ing very care­ful­ly to how jazz drum­mers build their solos.

I don’t real­ly have much more to say about this right now. To go more deeply into a prosod­ic analy­sis of the poem would take time I don’t have, as would try­ing to say any­thing sub­stan­tive about the inter­ac­tion between form and mean­ing in The Archi­tec­ture of Lan­guage—an essay which deserves to be writ­ten. For now, I am glad to have sat for these 1500 words or so at the feet of some­one from whose craft I feel like I have some­thing to learn.

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