Of late I have been running across a prosodic term with which I am not familiar and that doesn’t appear in The Book of Forms: “heterometric.” I ran across it most recently in Stephen Murabito’s review of my book Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems in the current issue of Italian Americana (Vol. xxvii, No. 1, Winter 2009, p. 124) where he writes, “The restrained poise of love closes ‘My Country Wife,’ from Awaken, Bells Falling (1968), in balanced heterometric syllabics.”
Earlier this year I asked a correspondent what he meant by the term, and he wrote, “I have encountered numerous scannings of [his poem titled “Caravel”] and have made several differing ones myself. The way I read it aloud every line is hexametric. R[ichard]. Wilbur reads it with lines varying between 5 and 7 feet. I understand the term ‘heterometric’ to denote just what it's [sic] two parts suggest[,] ‘differing meters.’ Sometimes it's shortened to ‘het-met.’"
I replied that the reason I don't know what "heterometric" means is that the usual term for what he appeared to be talking about is "variable accentual-syllabics"; that is, a verse poem written in one prosody but containing a varying number of (in this particular case) verse feet in its lines: A classic example, used in The Book of Forms, Third Edition, on pages 42 & 43, is William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality."
Other prosodic possibilities are "variable accentuals" and "variable syllabics." What Mr. Murabito meant to say was not, however, “variable syllabics,” but rather “quantitative syllabics,” because the lines, although syllabic, are not variable but “fixed” from stanza to stanza: all first lines are the same length; all second lines, though they may be a different length from the first or later lines, are the same length, and so on. "Heterometric" would mean something like "a jumble of all sorts and kinds of meters,” not a mixture of line lengths. Here is the poem that Murabito was discussing:
MY COUNTRY WIFE
My country wife bends to rinse. Her skirt is
unwrinkled. Its print of flowers rounds
out her womb like the rug of violets
that mounds or dimples the chapel
burying ground. She would be grotesque where
hydrants irrigate gutters.
Here, she is a sleight of the moon; the sound
a mole makes. She bends and carries. She
cooks and smiles her meals down my throat. I need
no teeth. She has done what the bee
does to clover. The sun moves around. She
stays and stays. She sweeps and cooks.
The term "heterometric" might make sense if one meant "a commingling of (say) accentual prosody and syllabic prosody," on the model of "heterosexual," but there is already a term for a commingling of accentuals and syllabics; it's called "accentual-syllabic prosody," and it may be written in lines each of which contains the same number of “verse feet” (normative accentual-syllabics), or quantitative accentual-syllabics, or variable accentual-syllabics, which is what “Caravel” is written in.
If there were only two verse prosodies available, in order to write a “heterometrical” poem one would have to mingle syllabics, accentuals, accentual-syllabics, and isoverbal (word-count) prosody, a four-way heterometical "system." But it wouldn't be much of a system, would it? Though it might be what one might call, appropriately, "perverse."
Here is the Murabito review in its entirety (to view it properly, click on it):
In your e-mail, did you mean the term "heterometric," which is discussed? The irregular or "false Pindaric" ode, out of Cowley, through Wordsworth, and thence to Frost.
Of COURSE I mean "heterometric," NOT "hypermetric." I'm getting senile already. The term "heterometric" is not listed in the O.E.D., let alone The Book of Forms.
I'm still not sure what a heterometric is, it's not in my American Heritage or OED — I think I'm a homometric, which I guess means I can't marry another homometric.
It means nothing, far as I can make out. I think somebody just wanted to invent a term and see if it would fly. That person should have invented a tern instead.
Molly-the-Wonder-Cat has been occupying the keyboard and making your incisive article rather furry. Fur is welcome this chill day, less so the pawses on the keyboard of each little hoof ... but thanks much for the link, and the insights it leads to. I have your essay printed out for purrusal in an easier spot. It will likely end up as one further addendum to my copy of TBoF, which is already well inset with appropriate items and bookmarks.