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Iambic Pentameter Has Nothing to Do with Your Heart  

It is time that all poets, critics, and readers dispense with the following metaphor: the iamb is a heartbeat. Let us refrain from settling arguments (or starting them) by asking readers to reach for their pulse. Let us strike all cardiological puns from our critical studies. Let us put our hearts back under our metrical sleeves. And let us certainly refrain from repeating the exercise I saw at this year’s AWP: a room full writers take a deep breath, clasp their wrists, and count. The presenter at the time, Annie Finch, asked how many heartbeats everyone felt in the span of one breath? Most people, she claimed, answered five. This exercise was meant to prove that there’s a biological imperative, a “birthright” Finch said, for metrical poetry. The five beats are evidence that iambic pentameter comes, quite literally, from the heart. If you can’t scan a poem, Finch said, you’ve been denied your poetic birthright. This is a romantic little notion that’s almost certainly not true.

Here’s why: all human beings have a heartbeat. Some hearts beat fast and some slow—Ian Hamilton reports that by 1975 Robert Lowell’s resting pulse was “constantly at 100 [beats] per minute”—but all carry that same tiresome rhythm. This is a biological certainty that remains constant across continents and centuries. What varies, however, is language. At current there are roughly 6,500 languages spoken on earth. Each of those languages has—or has the potential for—its own unique meters. Some work in iambs, but many do not. And therein lies the rub. To argue that iambic pentameter is biologically determined is to imply that the world’s other, non-iambic meters aren’t. Chinese pitch, French syllabics, Latin’s long and short vowels (quantitative meter): the theory of the iambic heartbeat renders these units of measure unnatural or artificial.

Take, for example, the Japanese haiku. (Full disclosure here: I don’t speak Japanese.) Japanese is a language without stress accents. Haiku poets measure moras—a component part of a syllable—until they’ve reached eight per line. (In English we convert these moras into syllables.) Why eight moras and not the numbers we remember from elementary school: five, seven, five? Because, as the linguists Deborah Cole and Mizuki Miyashita have discovered, the haiku has silence built in. A native Japanese speakers will pause for three moras at the end of a haiku’s first and third lines; they pause for one mora at the end of its second. The haiku, they argue, has an octomoraic template: silence was the part we’d not previously heard. This is a fine bit of linguistic detective work, but it also wreaks havoc on the theory of the iambic heartbeat. Where is the pulse in a meter without stress? Where is that lub DUB in a poetry of duration and uneven pause?

A reader who speaks Japanese must then accept one of three conclusions: 1) there is another Japanese meter that does resemble the heartbeat; 2) the haiku has some yet-to-be-discovered heart-based explanation; or 3) Japanese meters aren’t as natural, biologically determined, or heart-based as English iambics. None of these conclusions sounds very compelling.

Here’s another language I don’t speak: Chinese. So I wrote to Eleanor Goodman, the winner of the 2015 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for Wang Xiaoni’s Something Crosses My Mind, and asked her if there was anything iambic about Chinese. “By no stretch of the imagination,” she replied, noting that Chinese poetry is “utterly different” from what we consider metrical in English. So take French, a language closer to English. Its prosody, according to the new Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetic (2012) is mostly “syllabic, based on a fixed number of syllables in each line that need not have the same duration or pitch.” It too lacks an iambic prosody. Who among us would tell a Frenchman that the iamb is more natural and heart-based than his own alexandrine? The conclusion we ought to draw then is this: the iamb resembles the heartbeat, but it is no more innate or biologically justified than free verse or another of the world’s many meters. The theory of the iambic heartbeat is an example of coincidence masquerading as causation.

My opinion here is not a radical one, even as the heart continues to play an oversized role in metrical discussions. Alfred Corn’s The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody (2008) makes an obvious play for meter’s cardiological raison d’etre. John Frederick Nims quotes the Scientific American to show that the “first sound we hear is the basis of our sense of rhythm” (Western Wind, 1974). Thankfully, there are metrists who resist this universalizing impulse. Here, for instance, is a passage from Timothy Steele’s All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification (1999):

Indeed, some metrists have theorized that iambic is a sort of universal meter. The brain itself, according to this theory, relishes binary patterns and finds iambic rhythm congenial. Though I lack the competence in neurology to evaluate such speculations, they should be, I believe, approached with caution.

Substitute “heart” and “cardiology” for “brain” and “neurology” in this passage, and you’ve got my objection. It’s worth noting too that Steele is a strong advocate for the primacy of iambic meters in English. But he refrains from basing his claim on human biology. The same goes for Paul Kiparsky, the preeminent Stanford linguist and teacher to both Annie Finch and myself. On more than one occasion I remember him saying the following in his Metrics class: leave the heartbeat out of meter.

I find it a bit perplexing then that Finch—a smart, metrically savvy poet and critic—would perpetuate the fallacy of the iambic heartbeat. In Meter in English: A Critical Engagement (1996), an essay collection edited by Kenyon Review’s own David Baker, she writes convincingly in defense of triple meters: dactyls (/ U U), anapests (U U /), and even amphibrachs (U / U). I would second her other theses from “Endangered Music: Formal Poetry in the 21st Century,” the AWP panel where she asked her audience to count their pulse. Finch is right: young poets today do suffer from a high-rate of metrical illiteracy. (She might note, however, that they’re exceedingly well versed in verse forms.) I buy this argument too: neither meter nor form nor free verse has an inherent political valence. Ezra Pound writes anti-Semitic rants in free verse (see Canto XLV); Marilyn Hacker composes lusty, LGBT love poems in sapphics and sonnets. Like Finch, I believe that a poem’s content—not its shape—lodges it somewhere on the spectrum between left and right.

But it’s this last point about politics that makes the theory of the iambic heartbeat so problematic. For years, meter has carried the stink of conservatism. It is patriarchal, a “dangerous nostalgia,” in Ira Sadoff’s well-known essay from 1990, or somehow backwards looking. Most of my peers, I imagine, would take a different line today: meter is one tool among many, capable of beauty if used well. The tool itself isn’t conservative, just the craftsman. But if we advocate for the iamb based on biology, we cede ground to those critics who would dismiss meter as right-wing. Why? Because the iambic heartbeat forgets—for the pleasure of a parlor trick—that the world is full of diverse languages and meters. Because it implies one meter is more pure than another. And because it hears the heart, an organ we all share, through an Anglophone ear.

I doubt, of course, that this was Annie Finch’s intention at AWP. She is smarter than that and seems more interested in saving meter from the preponderance of free verse. Fair enough. Although the Form Wars of the 1980s are over, they did not end with equal gain by both sides. Readers can revel in the intricate syllabics of H. L. Hix or the anagrams of Kevin McFadden, but very few poets today pursue the metrical rigor of Richard Wilbur or J.V. Cunningham. The Tweet or sestina is more popular than iambic pentameter. And Finch makes a good case that teaching is partially to blame. Prosody doesn’t get a lot of airtime in either the English department or the creative writing workshop. Like Finch, I learned most of what I know about meter from a foray into Linguistics.

But we must remain ever conscious of this fact: no meter—or lack of meter—is more biologically valid than another. All are cultural expressions, malleable and relevant so long as poets and readers deem them so. We may need a heartbeat to love poetry, but we don’t need one to count.