Writing Sound: Poetry, Media, and the Matter of Prosody, 1845-1961

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-3039-4990
Miller, Peter, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ramazani, Jahan, AS-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

Prosody has often been seen as one of the chief casualties of modernism’s rejection of meter in the early twentieth century. When poems are no longer structured around regular rhythmic units, the logic runs, would-be prosodists are left with little to scan. This dissertation seeks to revise the narrative of prosody’s obsolescence by expanding our sense of what prosody might take as its object. In this study, prosody refers not only to such traditional considerations as meter and rhythm but to the broader range of media that both supported and rivaled prosodic analysis between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries. During this period, an efflorescence of new technologies revolutionized the way sound was preserved, analyzed, and reproduced and thereby, I contend, revolutionized the possibilities for prosodic thought. The most iconic of these devices, Thomas Edison’s phonograph, announced in its name an ambition to “write sound” that paralleled prosody’s—and, more specifically, scansion’s—ambition to parse and notate the phonetic components of language. As this and other tools entered the cultural mainstream, poets turned to them to reimagine the nature of prosodic form. Thus Edgar Allan Poe figures his famous raven as a proto-modern sound reproduction device that disrupts book-based modes of interpretation. The modernist Ezra Pound lambasts the commercial gramophone yet betrays a fascination with its acoustic principles. And Langston Hughes, though often praised for presenting unmediated records of African-American speech and music, produces a highly mediated last book of poems complete with multicolored paper and ink, musical scoring, and vinyl record-like “liner notes.” Through close readings of these poets, my dissertation develops a theory of prosody not as a neutral, self-coherent system of measurement but as a collective, performative, and media-conscious act.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Poetry, Prosody, Media, Sound recording, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes
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