W. C. Williams and Variable Foot by Subhra Bhattacharya

Subhra Bhattacharya is providing a blog post this week on William Carlos Williams and his definition of variable foot. Come join us on Saturday March 4 2017 at 11am for an exciting workshop on this topic in Jersey City.

William Carlos Williams elevates the notion of poetic measure to the status of philosophical category. “… what is reality? How do we know reality? The only reality we know is MEASURE” he writes in his essay The poem as a field of action. Though an ardent proponent of free-verse, he disagrees with contemporary wisdom and the false connotation of ‘free’ in free verse, arguing that since measure is an intrinsic feature of poetry, no verse can be truly free, that would indicate lack of measure. Free verse, he says, is synonymous to verse with variable measure, as contrasted with traditional verse having a fixed measure.

Indeed, measuring verse using traditional syllabic-accentual feet is fixed. It disregards the energy and emotion with which speech is uttered by living human beings. The rhythm in everyday speech does not follow the syllables. It is deeply related to the context of the uttered phrase and the underlying emotion and cannot be measured by syllables alone. In order words, the rhythm of real speech occurs in bursts of energies that originate from the thoughts behind such speech, the emotions, and cannot be measured by analyzing syllables in isolation.

Ezra Pound alluded to this earlier as the “musical phrase” and WCW later spent several years in an attempt to formalize and define it as the ‘variable foot’. His insights later inspired linguists into research on intonation and breath of language. The variable foot is variable in terms of syllables, but contains one measure of rhythm as spoken or felt, so, it is fixed in terms of rhythm. This is ironic, since traditional ‘fixed foot’, in it’s attempt to have a fixed number of feet, ends up having a variable number of rhythms in one line.

In our study we will see that WCW’s Variable foot is ‘variable’ only if we consider meter to be composed of syllabic-accentual units. However, if we accept that the fundamental meter of speech is the intonation, i.e., the burst of energy with which one speaks, then the variable foot is naturally one measure. Below is an outline of the session:

What is a poem? Rhyme and Rhythm.

Metrical Verse:

– Scansion : identifying feet in a line

– Patterns inside the foot and repetitions

– Examples : iambic and trochaic verse

– Variations and impurities in meter as enhancements to the poem

Free verse :

– Blank verse vs free verse

– Is free verse truly ‘free’?

Origins of American modernism :

– Whitmanian vs Dickinsonian traditions

– Which tradition did WCW follow?

William Carlos Williams:

– The American Idiom

– Evolution of the poet

– Variable foot & triadic line


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