From long experience with teaching undergraduates, I infer that high-school English teachers are instructing their poetry students to count syllables. I don’t know when this started; perhaps with the haiku. Haiku in English (as opposed to the Japanese hokku, which goes back hundreds of years) was popularized by the Imagists in the early 20th century and was already becoming a handy little form for high-school creative-writing classes when I was an adolescent scribbler. One five-syllable line, one seven-syllable, one five-syllable, and somewhere in there an image from nature. So easy to write! So easy to assess!
Of course, a genuine haiku is neither of those things, and translating a form from Japanese (a language that relies on pitch) into English (an accentual/syllabic language) requires more subtlety and flexibility than counting syllables on one’s fingers. Still, perhaps the popularity of so-called haiku caused this syllable-counting epidemic; or perhaps a textbook by some misguided student of Anglo-Saxon verse pointed teachers in the wrong direction. Either way, by the time I inherit these students, they are fixed in their course, and getting them to hear the music of their own language is a devilish task.
Another reason for syllable-counting may be our collective horror at anything that smacks of “form.” Meter, we gather, is part of form, and form means formal poetry, and formal poetry is either old-fashioned or hopelessly strained in its effects. In trying to unwind the syllabic vortex in which my students are caught, I sometimes play hip-hop for them, or we click our fingers in skip-rope fashion while we recite together William Carlos Williams’s “The Dance,” followed by a Shakespeare sonnet. Slowly — too slowly, really — it dawns on them that by speaking English, they have been engaging with meter almost all their lives. There’s no point to their counting the syllables of a word like interesting when an individual might give it three or four syllables depending on accent and context, e.g.:
It was an interesting case he brought that day before the judge.
Interesting people do interesting things.
To review: the music of English has everything to do with
- the interplay among the stresses that inhere in most multisyllable words (my French tennis coach always sounds as if he’s saying for Hen when he means forehand, because he can’t get the stress);
- the stresses given to monosyllabic words within the context of the phrase or sentence; and
- the unstressed or “swallowed” syllables.
No one needs to slap a formal structure onto the language for this music to exist. But if, despite being a native speaker, you are tone-deaf to the music, you cannot discover its beauty or meaning, or put it to its most effective use.
I’m not the only one who’s grown curious about a certain deafness to the rhythms of English in an age of highly rhythmic forms like rap. The poet Reginald Gibbons gives a lovely overview not only of rhythm and meter but also of the ways in which they matter to all poetry in English, not just so-called formal poetry. But he also notes, “I can’t help feeling that the workings of language at this level of rhythm have not been added to the toolkits of a lot of poets.”
Writing a few years ago in English, the British professor Bill Overton reported on a widespread survey that led him to the conclusion that
Reading poetry aloud is now so unfamiliar to most students that they simply do not know how to do it. A native speaker will be able to pronounce an English sentence correctly, but the same speaker without an awareness of metre is likely to mispronounce, and misread, a line of verse. … Restoring skills that are beginning to be lost has to begin at tertiary level, because it is only there that there are sufficient numbers of suitably qualified staff to teach them. … The alternative is the dismaying prospect that fewer and fewer people will be able, as two of the respondents put it, to ‘hear the music’ or even ‘their own language.’
Overton’s survey relies on responses from teachers. But as I work to undo the damage of formative years spent syllable-counting, I wonder if there isn’t something else going on. When I read aloud a line of poetry that a student has proudly told me is iambic pentameter because there are 10 syllables in the line, we both end up laughing at the absurdity of saying, for instance, His LEAN finGERS twist AND are AmaZING. But when that same student tries to scan a line, even something markedly anapestic, like Dr. Seuss, he can’t find the stresses. He can’t hear how he actually speaks. I wonder if the gulf between written and oral English has grown so great that students have trouble bridging the gap. Their “fingered speech,” as John McWhorter calls texting, is largely in code. We don’t practice reading aloud, as students do here in France. Popular music remains very rhythmic, but not always with attention to the interplay or tension between natural word stress and the beats imposed by musical meter. My students are astonished to learn that the iambic foot is often thought of as echoing the human heartbeat, or that “Marlowe’s mighty line” was meant to make poetry more natural, not less, by matching the length of our exhalation.
Whatever the issue, I tell my students, let’s stop counting syllables. Let’s listen. Let’s nod our heads along with the pulse. Let’s let the poetry in.