When I was in eighth grade, my Latin teacher pulled in the TV cart with the VHS and asked us to scan book 1 of Virgil's Aeneid while listening to the main theme from The Last of the Mohicans. There were only three of us in the class, which we had to petition him to teach, given the desertion of our other classmates after the tears and triumphs of De bello Gallico the year before. The movie theme is in triplets, rather than triple meter, but I suppose the heavily accented first beat of each triplet was supposed to get us to attend, at least speculatively, to Virgil's dactylic hexameter. There is, of course, no obvious relation between the classical quantitative meter constitutive of the Aeneid and Hollywood's scoring of settler-colonialist fantasy. The ploy was an obvious and effective plea to keep our attention fixed on the units of Virgil's poetry, meter being just one element among many others. But I've never forgotten the generative friction this pedagogical leap of faith exposed between heard rhythm and metrical backbone—nor the way it relied on a soundtrack that found exhilaration in the violent distortions and erasures of US history.
Meter and rhythm are notoriously difficult concepts to teach. Scansion is, at best, a recondite system of notation that fits like a Procrustean bed on the wayward beats of English poetry. I start with an anecdote about my own early instruction in scanning poetry because one of Ben Glaser's subjects in Modernism's Metronome: Meter and Twentieth-Century Poetics (2020) is the institutional training by which readers of poetic form are created. Modernism's Metronome tells the story of how our methods of scansion came to traverse racialized and gendered expectations for the sound of poetry. Ranging from I. A. Richards's Practical Criticism (1929) to James Weldon Johnson's handwritten annotations of Hopkins, Glaser's book explores the “prosodic discourse” that has dwindled into a set of mechanical instructions rarely even taught in classrooms anymore (207). Glaser argues that meter's current status as politically retrograde is a product of its demotion by modernists who wished to present themselves as innovative.
The book's major contribution to twentieth-century poetry scholarship is its rigorous attention to “the cultural status and function of prosody,” as Glaser (2013: 169) puts it elsewhere in an essay on Milton. In Glaser's account, the claim that modernist poets and critics made to break with the past relied on making meter into “acoustical debris clung to by sinking poets and conservative readers,” as he puts it in Modernism's Metronome (1). The urtext for modernism's strategic antipathy toward meter would be Ezra Pound's line from the Cantos: “to break the pentameter, that was the first heave.” Glaser's useful appendix on scansion scans this line, while also noting the many misquotations that have introduced further complications by smoothing out the meter of Pound's line itself (222). Although he begins with subtle readings of canonical modernists, Glaser is most interested in poets for whom “writing in meter is not . . . a conservative gesture but a fundamental questioning of the historical force of the ‘single blow,’ ‘break,’ or ‘heave’ offered peremptorily by free verse and modernist manifesto” (27). Modernism's Metronome explores meter as a ground for invention, a means of critique, and, ultimately, a vehicle for interrupting the circulation of racist claims about folk rhythms and Black vernacular.
Glaser's monograph is a landmark contribution to the new modernist studies in its focus on both canonical and underrecognized writers as well as in its skepticism of a single narrative about aesthetic value, novelty, and political critique. By attending to narrative and poetic styles that were not—on the surface at least—radical, the new modernist studies pushes back effectively against Eurocentric narratives of aesthetic rupture. Modernism's Metronome makes sense as a story about modernism that is not bound to a restrictive canon of white, male writers. But Glaser does more than carry forward a salutary trend or offer scholars one more alternative modernism. Instead, his knowledgeable readings of Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Pound set the stage for—and are almost eclipsed by—his incisive chapters on Sara Teasdale, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Louise Bogan; Jean Toomer and James Weldon Johnson; and Sterling Brown. With this trio of chapters, Glaser's book makes a permanent mark on the field and opens up new possibilities for scholars interested in poetic form, race, and gender.
The Black poets and women poets who undertook metrical experiments are the central protagonists in Glaser's book. These poets lead him to examine a deep archive of pedagogies for teaching poetry and to recover a heterodox set of methods for reading accent and stress in metered verse. What's clever about Glaser's work is that he accomplishes the restoration of meter's significance by showing how those poets themselves understand it as “vestigial,” his key term: that is, they write in metrical forms while self-consciously acknowledging, and making use of, their belatedness. Vestiges are, in Glaser's precise definition, “outdated forms that will not stop echoing and that demand new listening” (23). For Glaser, the vestiges of meter are gendered and racialized: poets like Brown, for instance, are very much aware of the expectations white readers bring to Black poetry for a certain verisimilitude or spectacle of suffering.
For Glaser, meter is a tool that some twentieth-century poets use to overturn inherited associations between patterns of sound and patriarchal or racist traditions. Glaser amplifies and extends John Hollander's argument, in Melodious Guile (1988), that the patterning elements of poetry situate poets in contentious and productive relationships with earlier poets. Meter is thus a deliberate choice, often a radical or political one, and not a symptom of outdatedness or quietism. In his reading of Georgia Douglas Johnson—for me, the high point of the book, along with the chapter on Brown—Glaser argues that regular meters allow her “to build confidently on the heritage of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's iambic pentameter (blank verse and sonnets) and to thus escape the nineteenth-century association of iambic pentameter with a ‘patriarchal poetic tradition’; the reconception of meter as a ‘metronome’ destroys the ground of that literary-historical renaissance” (110). This snapshot of Glaser's method illuminates his deep investment in poetic precedent, not for its own sake but rather for the many literary-historical renaissances that we may have missed by trusting modernist interpreters a little too much. Against reductive readings of Douglas Johnson as a Black “poetess” or sentimental “lady poet,” Glaser's extended treatment of her poetry underscores the way her poems make self-conscious use of “the symbolic and cultural value of meter” (118). Glaser highlights “Black Woman,” a poem addressed to an unborn child, which begins:
Comparing “Black Woman” to Gwendolyn Brooks's “The Mother” and situating both alongside Barbara Johnson's essay on apostrophe, Glaser argues that Douglas Johnson's deliberate retention of formal meter testifies to her poetic entrapment in a “sentimental tradition” by her male readers and critics (122).
The power and the importance of Glaser's work comes from his attention to poets who do not figure prominently on reading lists today; to poets who have been read reductively or through sexist and racist lenses; and to poetic genres that have been simplified or deformed by their institutional reception. In these respects, Glaser's book both extends and complicates the claims made by a broad cross section of literary scholars over the last fifteen years. For Glaser, as for the historical poetics group, recovering the microhistories of US verse genres and prosodic elements helps us to defamiliarize the present and to avoid generalizing about the past. Typically, the term “historical” when used in this context refers to the reconstruction of specific reception histories and literary-institutional histories, rather than to political or economic history as an interpretive horizon for poetry. The new lyric studies, inaugurated by Yopie Prins's Victorian Sappho (1999) and Virginia Jackson's Dickinson's Misery (2005), and consolidated by The Lyric Studies Reader (2014), emerged alongside the institutional turn in studies of the novel, from Mark McGurl's The Program Era (2009) to Sarah Brouillette's UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary (2019). The new lyric studies argues that the lyric poem is constructed as a genre and elevated to prominence by readers who are taught to abstract poetry from its material history (“lyricization”; “lyric reading”). In a homologous argument, Glaser posits that prosody has been received by twenty-first-century readers in ways shaped by modernists who wished to elevate their own “break” with the pentameter. So while Jackson, Prins, and other members of the historical poetics group focus primarily on the nineteenth century, Glaser's study of modernism and prosody is an extension of their methods into the study of twentieth-century prosody.
Admittedly, I'm an ideal reader for Glaser's book, which challenged me to think about how and why I learned to deploy a “one size fits all” notation onto poets who themselves devised critical apparatuses for reading poetry. To put it differently, Glaser's book made me reflect on the contingency of my reading practices. The members of the historical poetics group and the scholars working within the new lyric studies are rightly understood as exposing genealogies of lyric reading in the past. Less often acknowledged—and to my mind, equally important—is their effect on our perception of the vital future lives that genres might have. Glaser's book points toward a generous hearted, open-ended, and pluralist future for poetry studies. In that future, the object of study might not yet be fully articulated, the genres of poetry will endlessly renew and reinvent themselves as they call for our attention, and the contours of the poetry syllabus will change as scholarly curiosity and self-scrutiny continue to grow in equal measure.