Larissa Shmailo: Bob Holman and metre

  Larissa Shmailo

  Metrical Action

  in the Free Verse of Bob Holman

Metrical patterns and metrical narrativities are analyzed in the free verse of oral poet, language conservator, and slam guru Bob Holman using Annie Finch’s theory of the metrical code. The concept of metrical action, or the ways in which meter connotes, builds suspense, creates a narrative, and renders a poem dialogic with other poems, is introduced. Scansions of Holman’s poetry in griot, postmodernist, avant, and performative free verse styles are deconstructed, decoded, and celebrated. Meter, as studied by Finch, and oral poetry, as Holman performs it, is discussed. The metrical mythology of an oral poet in the Twenty-first century is explored.

Key Words: Bob Holman, metrical action, metrical code, iconic theory, proprietary theory, frame theory, Annie Finch, Roland Barthes’s narrative codes, Roland Barthes’s mythologies.

Roland Barthes. Photo 0612 GRD401: Digital Art at
Roland Barthes. Photo 0612 GRD401: Digital Art at


Every critical analysis of a poem is the result of the braiding, in Roland Barthes’s use of the term, of a series of codes by which the reader deconstructs its structure, connotations, and dialogic relation to other poems. [See endnote 1]. In the case of narratives, the five codes delineated by Barthes in S/Z obtain: the divagating, enigmatic hermeneutic code of suspense; the proairectic code of shoot-‘em-up cinematic action; the semantic code, regnant in the poetic world, of interior connotation; the symbolic code, or that associative dialectical clash of two antitheses into a transgression we know of as creativity; and the cultural code which links a work to the ideas, products, and happenings of the world from which it spawned. [See endnote 2] 

For poetry, an additional analytic tool is required, and this has been provided by Annie Finch in the metrical code, described in her work, The Ghost of Meter. In this work, Finch explores the possible meanings of meter in free verse where it appears irregularly, scarcely, or apparently unintentionally. In studies of Dickinson, Whitman, Eliot, and contemporary poets, Finch conducts an analysis of prosody and metric patterns to deconstruct these poets’ relationships to hegemonic canonical forms such as iambic pentameter [See endnote 3]:

US poet Annie Finch
US poet Annie Finch

numerous lines of free verse can be read fruitfully in terms of the metrical code. This phenomenon should not be astonishing. Writers obviously absorb the regular rhythms of their literature. Quotation of metrical patterns are ready tools of heightened expressiveness, intensity of emotion, or closure… the metrical code adds a level of profoundly allusive, yet wordless meaning, to poetry. [Endnote 4]

Finch traces the motion of meter from the strict syllabication of the eighteenth century to the rebellion against meter in the nineteenth heralded by Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and by the use of nonstandard meters such as dactylic feet, whether employed regularly as in Longfellow’s Evangeline, or functioning as variations, as in Dickinson’s hymn stanzas. Such movement opened the door to the metrical experimentation of the twentieth century. As Robert Bly states, many twentieth century poets felt they had ‘no choice but to write in free verse.’[Endnote 5]. Yet in the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first, poets still encounter meter even as they avoid it, surrounded as they are with accentual rap, hip hop, and spoken word and the traditions of formal poetic literature [Endnote 6]:

Meter can take on the lure of the forbidden. Like their predecessors, contemporary poets respond prosodically, embedding emotionally powerful, often positive connotations ranging from reassurance to desire. [Endnote 7]

The use of metrical analysis for avowedly non-metrical poems seems counterintuitive. However, as Finch notes above, much metrically variable free verse includes metrical elements absorbed unconsciously and almost somatically; the beat of words, associated with dance and song, may bear a more powerful message to the brain than their semantic sense. The unacknowledged and unexplored meters of poems may be associated with feelings and ideas deeply held, and thus provide hitherto unused windows for original analytic perspectives.

Finch’s work, inspired by Barthes’s codes, functionally includes and subsumes his, encompassing, as it does, this powerful metrical component containing somatic, intellectual, cultural, and historical information. The metrical code adds vibratory life to the page-bound Barthian codes and is admirably suited to the analysis of oral poetry. Finch’s metrical code is thus a useful tool to analyze an oral poet such as Bob Holman.

I will use Finch’s theory in conjunction with Barthes’s narrative codes to examine the scansions of Holman’s poems in four of his signature styles — griot, post-modern, avant, and performative — to discover their ‘metrical actions,’ [Endnote 8] the ways in which meter connotes, builds suspense, creates a narrative, and renders a poem dialogic with other poems. I will demonstrate that this code can serve as a vital interpretive tool of free-verse poetry, one that cannot be overlooked in poetic analyses. I will show how the code can reveal the braided codes that, together, create a poem. Using the prosodist’s ‘cups and wands,’ Finch’s charming terminology for the markers of stress and unstressed syllables used in scansion, [Endnote 9], we can decode the metric hieroglyphs of a free-verse poem and its connection to its meaning, literature, and cultures.

A young Bob Holman.
A young Bob Holman.

The Free Verse of Bob Holman
and the Metrical Code

Bob Holman is acknowledged as a leading curator and proponent of oral tradition, with interests in oral poetry and language preservation. He is known as ‘the Dean of the Scene’ [Endnote 10] of performative poetry and as a slam guru who offers this coda at the end of competitions: ‘The best poet always loses.’ [Endnote 11] He is proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club, an international poetry mecca. Holman is also a popular oral poet known for his wit and versatility in performance.

Holman’s meters in performance vary and are influenced by dramatic pauses. Line breaks are elided or respected; drawled vowels alternate with the staccato rapid-fire delivery of alliterations; there is impromptu back-and-forth with musical collaborators. In an interview, Holman states ’When you’re performing poetry, that’s also part of the creative process. It’s not just a presentation of a finished piece… Writing a poem continues as you perform it.’ [see [Endnote 12] 

As a poet, Holman has strong artistic ties to accentual poetry from Africa, urban spoken word, rap, and hip hop [Endnote 13]. Now a professor of literature and writing at Columbia and New York universities, Holman also belongs to the world of the canon and the meter and ‘antimeters’ of academic poetry. This provides a round and thorough test of the breadth of the metrical code.

Bob Holman and David Henderson, Howl.
Bob Holman and David Henderson, Howl.

Scansion and Oral Poetry: The Pin in the Butterfly?

As an oral poet, slam poet, and avant-garde artist, Holman’s work is immediate and theatrical. There is a ‘one-time’ experience of each poem as it is performed. There is also a personal quality to the work as Holman interacts with individual audience members. Scansions of his work may seem like sticking a butterfly on a pin, but, as I will demonstrate, they provide insight into the poem’s content and context in a manner that reveals its orality more than textual analysis alone can do.

Scansions are subjective, varying with pronunciation and isodialects. Finch estimates that prosodists tend to agree on scansions at a rate of only 80–90 percent when analyzing poems in regular meters.[Endnote 14] The subjectivity rises with free verse, and more so with oral form, in which, as Holman above has noted, a poem may change with each performance. However, when analyzed in terms of the metrical code, Holman’s metrical traces and rhythmic tracks reveal literary and cultural affinities. Scansion in its minute attention to every syllable of a poem paradoxically captures some of the immediacy of Holman’s oral poetry.

Holman’s Griot Metrical Action

‘Sing This One Back to Me,’ the title poem of Holman’s recent collection, is ‘a poem about orality.’ [Endnote 15] . Rhythmic and accentual, the poem is abundant with rich natural imagery. The griot encounters oceans and animals and offers advice on silence and singing. As Longfellow’s ‘This is the forest primeval’ in Evangeline, where dactylic meter is powerfully associated with nature,Holman uses dactyls in his title and first line followed by a blast of energizing trochees:

/ = stressed syllable
\ = half-stressed syllable
u = unstressed syllable
(u) = a syllable missing from a metric form
| = divides the feet apart

/ u u | / u u
Sing This One Back to Me
/ u \ | / u \ | / u u | / u \
Honeybee honeybee deep in the honeytree
\ / | / u u \ | / u | / u | / u
Do not tell me to suck dry the tips of whip grass
/ u | / u | / u | / u /
Swan sway swan sway Ganges flows all day
/ u | / u | / u | u u / | u /
Would you send me off then to the blasting seas?

In these lines, trochees directly oppose hegemonic iambic meter; trochaic meter, according to Finch, is a meter commonly identified with female and nonwhite voices, and suitable for the voice of a nonEuropean, Nuyorican griot. [Endnote 16]  A first paeon and a cretic, variations found in dactylic and trochaic falling meter, appear in the opening of his poem.

Bob Holman, from Wikipedia.
Bob Holman, from Wikipedia.

In a triple rhythm characteristic of a nursery rhyme, the griot like William Blake invokes the honeybee (‘The poison of the Honey Bee Is the Artists Jealousy’) [Endnote 17]  and calls to its deep realm. As in the Blake, the seemingly pacific honeytree and its bees spell a hidden danger. In response, the griot switches to a defensive injunction patter with a five-foot trochaic line that declares he will not be told what to do.

The swaying swans escalate this drama with more trochees as the poet refuses their invitation to ‘the blasting seas’; conflict is shown by the presence of rising meter as the seas rise. The native poet’s chariness of the rising sea reflects the distrust of the rising meter, the canonic dead white male’s meter, the iamb: the griot is in danger, as Finch has pointed out, of ‘drowning in this colonizing meter.’ [Endnote 18] Alliteration and repetition mark the easy seductiveness of the rocking meter of the bees and swans.

The song of the nightingale, companion of the swan and bees and the animal totem of the griot, presents with the reintroduction of the falling triple rhythm:

/ \ u | / u u | / u u | / u u u | / \
Tale singer nightingale crooner carousing on the leaf drip

This is reminiscent of another crooning and carousing ‘griot,’ Walt Whitman, who used dactyls in his free verse as a default. (‘Out of the cradle (u) endlessly rocking’)

Like Whitman and the dactylic poets of the nineteenth century, the established order in poetry is challenged in ‘Sing.’ [Endnote 19] As the poem builds, the poet chides back in trochee:

\ / | \ u | / u | /u | / \ | / \ | / u
Who dares say, Excuse me, quiet please, eat dry leaf clippings

The long seven-foot line with strong half stresses sings out in everyman ballad meter, the four / three lines appearing in one, again challenging the canonical iamb, singing with the voice of the people, not the privileged.

Bob Holman, Sandra Beasley, reg e gaines, Jonathan Clarence, Nikhil Melnechuk, Cienna Leshley on stage at the Bowery Poetry Club after the Poet In New York. (The Brooklyn Rail, Bob Hokman interviews Nikhil Melnechuk.)
Bob Holman, Sandra Beasley, reg e gaines, Jonathan Clarence, Nikhil Melnechuk, Cienna Leshley on stage at the Bowery Poetry Club after the Poet In New York. (The Brooklyn Rail, Bob Hokman interviews Nikhil Melnechuk.)

The griot’s dialogue is conducted in trochaic feet for the narrator’s voice and triple meter for the interlocutor animals. It might be suggested that, according to some propriety theory of meters, Holman’s dactyls, like Whitman’s and Longfellow’s before him, may be eminently and traditionally suited for the province of nature. [Endnote 20] Notably, the pivotal rhymes drip, whip, tip, and clip, are all stressed, heightening this emphasis on nature.

The poem concludes with the poet speaking primarily in falling rhyme, trochee and dactyls, but with iambs and anapests blended in. This may be a note of reconciliation as the griot rocks the robin and the reader to his story’s conclusion, with an occasional caesura or unspoken unstressed syllable to soothe, quiet, and say shh:

u / | u / | u / | / u u | / u | / (u)
This robin-rocking tail lit by the fullest moon
/ u | / u | / u | / u | / (u) | u u / | u u /
Try to redirect to fogbound swirl, see what happens to you
/ u u | / u | / u | / / u | / u
My feet on the lotus? No, my feet are the lotus!
/ / | / u u | / u | / u u | / \
All God? Gosh, I was looking over at you — shh.
(\ ) / u | / u u | / u | /u u | /
No need this talking, this poem so obvious, shh.
The title and the last line of ‘Sing This One Back to Me’ in Bob Holman’s handwriting.
The title and the last line of ‘Sing This One Back to Me’ in Bob Holman’s handwriting.

Thus, the poet weaves a creation myth out of the fogbound swirl. The hint of foreign languages, such as the glottal click of the Khoisan languages of Africa in the unspoken syllables and the isodialects of the poet’s birth in the south and residence in New York, provide universality to this poem’s cultural code. The meter of the magical storytelling of ‘Sing This One Back to Me’ relates it dialogically to other oral, traditional poems; in ‘Sing,’ Holman sings in anti-iambic meters, defying the traditions of privileged, canonical poetry and exploring the powerful rhythms of nonwhite and non-European cultures. [Endnote 21]  Yet the griot ‘redirects’ to the iamb, in an act of shamanic outreach to all people.
Bob Holman, at  his 60th birthday celebrations.
Bob Holman, at his 60th birthday celebrations.

The semantic code of ‘Sing This One Back to Me’ tells us, in a jocular way, that we don’t need to seek the divine in the lotus, that we are the divine; this, the griot tells us, does not even need to be said. In this zen koan move, the griot tells his fable and untells it, unfolding it by negating it. He invites the listener to sing the tale  — and then tells her to shut up! The shh counterpoised with the invitation to sing is an example of the Barthian clash of symbolic antitheses, and a pun on the poet’s own oral art, his Aloud. [Endnote 22] 

Of course, Holman the oral performer now ups the ante and adds spontaneity and new meaning to his verse. In performance, Holman provides a coda to ‘Sing This One Back to Me’ by hand signing the end of the poem with its title, which is also the title of the collection. Adding the title to the end of the poem completes the circle and again invites the listener/reader/audience to sing the poem, perhaps even the whole collection, back to the griot. In the poet’s own words:

I am asking you to continue the infiltration of writing by the oral tradition by asking you to ‘Sing this one back to me.’ It was Papa Susso who taught me that, as generations of griots/jeli have — it’s the essence of orality. Part of my practice is my belief that performing is a continuation of writing/editing, altering it to the audience/circumstance. [Endnote 23] 

Holman continues:

In preparing the print version… I was thinking solely of text, how the repetition of the title wasn’t necessary because the Reader would be holding the title, would refer to it as the poem ended, all these assumptions. Orality proceeds much more linearly and temporally — the moment is gone. You want to bring it back? Echo it, for real. It’s also a rhythmic thing, propels the full poem/experience at the listener. [Endnote 24] 

This chirography parallels the oral art as a thing of the body, as one-time, personal, and nonstandard as compared to text. Meter, also with a strong somatic component, is similarly linear and temporal. A ‘rhythmic thing,’ it ‘propels the full poem/experience at the listener.’ Orality, chirography, the metric beat and action, bring us back to the origins and bardic roots of poetry, in the body as well as the mind.

Holman’s Postmodern Metrical Action

The freedom of accent and meter born in modernism meets antimodernist majesculation and distinct metric patterns in ‘The Collect Call of the Wild.’ As the literary historian Henry Hallam said of Donne, one may think these ‘lines too rugged to seem metre’ [Endnote 25]  but there are distinct metric patterns in the poem: alternating trochaic-dactylic falling meters and headless iambic lines are married to content in a manner that even prosodic traditionalists might approve. Variations pepper these reflective words as in John Donne’s dirty sonnets. Enjambment elides line breaks even as majesculation stops that flow, another Barthian meeting of antitheses in a classic Holman maneuver. The use of the ampersand, revived by the Beats and other more colloquial poets, reminds us that surrounding the poet’s revery is a world of texting and technology.

u / | u / | u u
The Collect Call of the Wild
/ u | / u | / u | / (u)
Here it is, just where you said
/ u | / u | / u | / u
It would be. Your mind is quiet
/ u | / u u | / u u | / u
& your shoes, well, they seem to be going
/ u u | / u u | u u /
Somewhere. The road, the road, as was once
/ u | / u | / u | / u | / (u)
Said, or twice, is where we go on. Where
/ u | / u u | / u u | u / | (u) /
Everything is acceptable, the blame more
u / | / \ | / u u | / u u
Than most. Gray hair, cigarettes, tightening
/ u u | / u | / u | / u | / u | / u
Pants. To be gored by age is not exactly sexy,
u u / | u / | u / | / \ | u /
But it’s not to be denied. Not anymore.

The poem begins with an rising meter iambic title, wildness set at variance with tradition at the outset, followed by trochaic lines. The epic term gored is conveyed by a hexameter of falling rhythm lines in trochee, a foot short of epic dactylic meter. The personal items of ‘pants,’ ‘gray hair,’ ‘shoes’ walk on a contemporary hero’s road to ‘somewhere.’ That age is ‘not to be denied’ is underscored by iambs, the inevitable meter, and a mostly pentameter line length.

\ / u u | / u u u | / (u) | / u u | / (u)
Not any less, either, as the sun earnestly plies
u / | u / | u u u / | u u u / | u / u
The window dressing. A vocabulary, not the secret
(u) / | u / | \ u / | u u / | u
Of life, that’s all. If it taxes your spirit,
/ u u | / u u | / u | / u u | / (u)
Some kind of government must be flowering. Blood
/ u u | / u u u | / u u | / u u | / u u
is one example, the example of constancy, readiness
/ u | / u | u / | u u / | u u / | u /
& effulgence. Another is lit up like Reno, popped
/ u u | / u u | u u / | u / |
Champagne & caviar on a paper plate.

As the poet muses on death and taxes, syllables are taxed, taken from the beginning and ends of lines. [Endnote 26]  The contrast of champagne and caviar and paper plates is underscored by iambs opposing the falling rhythm. The oral poet, never told that he must use only one meter, uses rising and falling words and even paeons in four beats, to tell his story, but to this point, dactyl and trochee predominate.

The concluding motion of the poem shows a shift in tone as well as meter.

/ u | / u | / u | / \ | / u u
Doesn’t last, & what is lost will probably
u / | / u | / u | / u u | / u
Transform even if it’s found. That’s the problem,
/ u | / u | / u | u u / | / u
That the idea of the thing won’t stand still,
u / | u / | u u / | u / | u /
A doggie finding its spot. Which name is Spot.

As we ‘see Spot run,’ the meter turns to iambs. Here the poet mocks the traditional rhythm as playschool, but also turns to it to discuss metaphysics, the idea of a thing in Kantian and literary objectivist terms. These variations here are not a ‘metrical contract’ in John Hollander’s term [Endnote 27], in which a reader may bank on encountering a certain meter in a given poem, but they are certainly not ametric, as with many contemporary poem in which meter is functionally absent.

Bob Holman, left, and friends. Photo courtesy The Village Voice.
Bob Holman, left, and friends. Photo courtesy The Village Voice.

In ‘Collect Call of the Wild,’ Holman seems to want to break out of spoken word into conventional meter as John Donne seems to want to break out of standard meter to the rhythms of spoken word:

u / | u / | u / | u u / | u /
Of course the pay phone rings in the crowded lunch,
u / | u / | u u / | u / | u u / | u /
With no one caring the slightest for its emergency.
/ \ u | / u | u u / u | / u | / u
Too many crackers in the soup, the glass is greasy,
u u / | / u | / u | / u u | u / |
Yet we rest easy. It’s the company, I’d guess.
/ u | / u u | / u | / u | / u u | / u | / u
That we finally have accepted knowing each other this way,
u / | u / | u / | u / | / u u | / u | / u u
& that’s the way we find ourselves, little by little, by & large.

The lack of emergency and the ignored phone are conveyed by iambic feet. The final seven-foot lines compress the ballad stanza of three and four stresses. Rising and falling rhythms reconcile in the final lines of the poem. The rhythms become regular and soothing as the poet comes to terms with now-small disturbances in the light of love for the other. Even the ampersand, once ancient but now revived by modern American poets, is low-key, unstressed.

In ‘Collect Call,’ Holman uses iambic as proponents of the proprietary theory of meter describe its usage — for intimacy, reflection, relation, insight. Thus the oral poet adheres to the traditional intention of the iambic line within his trochaic-dactylic personal epic.

Holman’s Avant Metrical Action

Barthes’s codes are intended for deconstructing realism on the model of Balzac. Holman’s avant poems, with vivid images of beer and fires and clowns, sport a short-hand hyperrealism. The avant poems are familiar, with a narrator and narrative, and a distinct denouement. Their avant nature is in their unexpected linguistic juxtapositions. However, the disjoint words are held together by meter, often close to regular. The result is a secret formalism hiding in avant-garde pants.

/ / /
One Red Eye
/ u | / u | / u u
Blink a room of bad paintings
/ u | / u | / u | / u
Turn a circle out of prison
/ u | / u | u / u | / u
Air raid! Fata Morgana! Winter!
/ u | / u | / u | / (u)
No escape — a little flame

‘Fata Morgana’ is both a witch and a mirage here in this narrative with a compressed and evasive hermeneutic code. ‘Air raid’ suggests mirage; circle and prison suggest the witch; flame suggests both. The mirage and magic are held together by female trochees which knit and knot the room, the paintings, circle, prison, air raid, winter, and sad little flame. The poem blinks and turns in stressed syllables as the narrative blinks and turns.

‘One Clown to Another’ matches, per the iconic theory, changes in motion to changes in meter. It moves around the ring with a loping iambic tetrameter, tangos in trochaic lines, and ends on amphibrach to talk of secrets, as Russian verse does.

(u) / | / u | u / u
One Clown to Another
u / | u / | u /
Around the ring it’s fun —
u / | u / | u / u
A freshly furnished garden
/ u | / u | / u | / u
Harmless germoids watch ’em tango dance
u / \ | u / u
You call that a secret?

Disparate associations are held together by their pairings, metric code working hand in glove with the poem’s semantic code of connotation. As an interesting side-note, the poet encodes ‘a secret’ in amphibrach here and in ‘The Collect Call of the Wild’:

Holman’s Performative Metric Action

As a performance artist in the 1970s, Bob Holman subtended the arc between conceptualism,experimentalism, and performance. At his noted reading at the Museum of Modern Art in 1979, he embodied the cover of his first major book, Tear to Open (This This This This This) (Power Mad Press 1979), wearing a paper bag, torn and tearful, on his head. [Endnote 28]

On the back of this book is a typewritten four-line poem, ‘Dream.’

/ u u | / u | / (u)
this is to let you know
u / u u | u / | u /
that somebody is chasing you
u / | u /
that it is me
u / | u / | u /
& there are two of me

Bob Holman explains: ‘After the second line, and continuing on down, is the poem, handwritten. Reading between the lines is simply an echo of the lines. That’s still how I think of spoken vs. oral, and yes, handwritten vs. typed (as we called it then), is, I believe, analogous, to a certain extent. My typed name is ‘Bob Holman’ but I signed it with my signature, a very morphed version of which I still use today; it’s my full name with middle initial: ‘Robert C Holman.’ (The ‘C’ stands for ‘Chad.’)

Text of ‘Dream’ from back cover of Tear to Open (This This This This This ), 1979
Text of ‘Dream’ from back cover of Tear to Open (This This This This This ), 1979

The two main meters of the poem are the dactyl and the iamb, triple falling and double rising. The dactyl announces the poet’s intent, this is to let you know. The double message by the doppelgänger authors, the celebrity Bob Holman and the private citizen Robert Chad, is encoded in double meter. The poet describes these double meter personages as ‘the me who wrote it (and I write by ear;)… and the now me who is performing this to / for you.’ [Endnote 29] 

Giant and Bob Holman: saving old languages
Giant and Bob Holman: saving old languages

These antitheses of double meter and triple meter, rising and falling in opposite action, are an example of Barthes’s symbolic code, the action of opposed transgressions become creativity. The iambic meter is nonstandard in line length and, with a paeon, surprising; like the oral performance of a poem, it chases the reader. As Holman describes this: ‘Then when I have them, I reverse field and they chase me and then I lay a few snares and then, surprise: “there are two of me.”’ Barthes also speaks of ‘snares’ in such creation of suspense and interest by the hermeneutic code.

The Meaning of Metrical Action
in Bob Holman’s Poetry

The scansions of Holman’s poems, signature works such as ‘Sing This One Back to Me,’ ‘The Collect Call of the Wild,’ and ‘Dream,’ along with representative poems in his avant genre, demonstrate strong trochaic and dactylic involvement: per Finch, nonwhite, nonprivileged, nonhgemonic. The combination of trochaic and iambic lines in his work create complex and syncopated rhythms, as in Blake and Donne, and thus interactions with the canon, ‘academic poetry’ They are a collect call to hegemony, inviting it to see how the other half lives.

Bob Holman gives readers a tour of his 'poetic New York,' starting with The Poetry Project and ending up at Strivers' Row between 138th and 139th Streets, for the New York Post.
Bob Holman gives readers a tour of his ‘poetic New York,’ starting with The Poetry Project and ending up at Strivers’ Row between 138th and 139th Streets, for the New York Post.

As in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where the three witches bubble, toil, and trouble in trochee amidst a sea of iambic pentameter, the magical world outside canonical white male reason is conjured up by trochees with variations in ‘Sing This One Back to Me.’Yet true to proprietary theory, Holman employs iambs when he wishes to reflect upon ideas and love, as in ‘The Collect Call of the Wild.’

The surprise of an oral performance is captured by paeons, amphibrach, spondees, and other feet interspersed in the alternating trochaic / dactylic and iambic / anapestic environment. By interesting contrast, Holman’s avant poems studied here follow regular meter, at least within each line; this meter functions as a holding pattern, a framework for edgy linguistic experimentation.

As has been noted previously, many contemporary free verse poets are ametrical and not susceptible to analysis by the metrical code. Holman’s work, born of the beats of orality, is exceptionally suited to such analysis. The relationship of meter to oral tradition has existed since Homer; it is here demonstrated in the work of oral poetry’s well known champion.

Conclusion: The Metric Mythology
of a Modern Oral Poet

In the digital Twenty-first century, or even the post-Gutenberg sixteenth, an oral poet may seem anachronistic. And he or she is, as a rock concert is, or a live performance of theater. Modern existence is media-driven and much of modern poetry is meterless, written for the head, but not the body or heart. Thus it can be read on a screen and not heard. But such reading bypasses much that needs to be understood and felt in a poem, including its metrical sinews.

It is no surprise that there are fewer readers of poetry in the United States than ever before, whereas people still willingly go to prison for listening to poems in Russia. Is the fact that most of these poems are rhymed and metered part of the reason for this passionate attachment to poetry there, and throughout Europe, and not here?

However, the spoken word — of which Bob Holman is a champion — is alive and thriving along with its cousins rap and hip hop and rock and roll. Metrical action is not the province of a professor with cups and wands, at least, not solely. Metrical action is a call to poetic action, to wake up to the body and soul of poetry. It is an invitation to the dance and to the scene of vibrant accentual verse deaned by Bob Holman for decades to the benefit of us all.


This paper is dedicated to the memory of Roland Barthes: Dear Roland, I am sorry I lambasted Le Plaisir du Texte ; I was drunk. Thank you for writing back and telling me ‘j’écris pour être aimé de loin’  — I do, too. And no, in my case that was not ‘raté.’ I wanted to write to you and tell you that I loved you, but you got hit by the laundry truck before I could. Merde.

This paper would not have been possible without the generous guidance of Annie Finch. I am indebted to Annie for her consultation on the metrical code, her insights into the metrical actions of Bob Holman’s poetry, and her kind review of the scansions presented in this paper.


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[1] ‘The grouping of codes, as they enter into the work, into the movement of the reading,  — constitute a braid (text, fabric, braid, same thing); each thread, each code, is a voice; these braided — or braiding — voices form the writing…’. —Barthes, S / Z, page 160.

[2] Modules on Barthes — The Five Codes

[3] See Wright for a discussion of the history of iambic pentameter in Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton.

[4] Finch, The Ghost of Meter, page 30.

[5] Quote in Finch, The Ghost of Meter, page 129.

[6] Cf. Morris, ‘Hip-Hop Rhyme Formations: Open Your Ears’ and Holman, ‘Performance Poetry’ in An Exaltation of Forms

[7] Finch, The Ghost of Meter, page 129

[8] I owe the coinage of the terms metrical action and metrical narrativity to Annie Finch, although I am responsible for their definitions as used in this paper.

[9] Private conversation with Annie Finch.

[10] Holman was so dubbed at the height of the spoken word scene in the 1990’s by Seventeen Magazine.

[11] A line from the poet’s ‘DisClaimer,’ familiar to all who attended Friday night slams at The Nuyorican.

[12] website, accessed August 10, 2015.

[13] Algarin and Holman, Aloud. Introduction.

[14] Finch, A Poet’s Craft, page 325.

[15] E-mail to the author from Bob Holman, July 26, 2015.

[16] I am indebted to Finch and her work on metric diversity in The Body of Poetry, A Poet’s Craft, and The Ghost of Meter and for discussions regarding the historical and cultural roles of iambic and trochaic meters.

[17] William Blake, Auguries of Innocence,, accessed August 10, 2015.

[18] Discussion with Annie Finch.

[19] Walt Whitman, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,, accessed August 10, 2015.

[20] Finch, ‘Iambic and Dactylic Associations in Leaves of Grass,The Ghost of Meter.

[21] See Note 16.

[22] Algarin and Holman, Aloud.

[23] E-mail to the author from Bob Holman, July 26, 2015.

[24] E-mail to the author from Bob Holman, July 26, 2015.

[25] Hallam, Henry, quoted in Perry, page 646.

[26] I am indebted to Annie Finch for this clever idea of taxed syllables.

[27] In Hollander, ‘Romantic Verse Form and the Metrical Contract,’ in Bloom p. 183.

[28] E-mail from Bob Holman, August 9, 2015.

[29] E-mail from Bob Holman, August 9, 2015.

  Works Cited

Algarin, Miguel and Bob Holman, eds. Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café. Henry Holt: New York, 1994.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. University of Texas Press Slavic Series, 1982

Barthes, Roland, Mythologies. Hill and Wang: New York, 1972.

———. Pleasure of the Text. Hill and Wang, New York, 1975.

———. S / Z: An Essay. Hill and Wang, New York, 1974.

Blake, William. ‘Auguries of Innocence.’ accessed August 31, 2015.

Donne, John. The Major Works. Oxford University Press: New York, 1990.

Finch, Annie, A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. University of Michigan Press, 2012.

———. The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

———. The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1993.

Finch, Annie and Katherine Varnes. An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Hollander, John, ‘Romantic Verse Form and the Metrical Contract’ in Romanticism and Consciousness: Essays in Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Norton, 1970.

Holman, Bob. Bob Holman’s The Collect Call of the Wild. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.

———. Sing This One Back to Me. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2013.

———. Tear to Open: This this this this this this. New York: Power Mad Press, 1979.

Holman, Bob, executive producer. Language Matters PBS series. Premiered January 19, 2015.

Perry, George Gresley. The History of the Church of England, from the Death of Elizabeth to the Present Time: Volume 1.

Accessed on Google Books August 8, 2015.

Purdue Modules on Barthes — The Five Codes Accessed July 9, 2015.

Whitman, Walt. The Complete Poems. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Wright, George T. Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. Oakland: University of California Press, 1991.


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