A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part I

by Tina Blue
November 22, 2000


rhythm     meter     scan     scansion     accent    slack syllable     free verse (vers libre)    formal verse     prosody  

    Poetry comes naturally to the human mind. The basic elements of poetry intrigue and delight almost anyone, regardless of age or level of education, and regardless of whether the listener even understands what is being said in the poem. Many people delight in the sounds of poetry in languages they do not comprehend, and even infants will quiet when you begin to read or recite poetry to them, because they really enjoy the way it sounds. It is no accident that so much children's literature is written in verse, or that everyone, young or old, loves Dr. Seuss.

    Poetry is about sound effects at least as much as (probably more than) it is about meaning. One of the ways that sound effects are created in poetry is through rhythm. The rhythmic patterns in poetry are more intense and conspicuous than are the rhythms of prose, although truly effective prose writers are very much aware of the rhythmic effects their sentences produce. In fact, you have probably heard praise of a prose writer couched in terms of poetry--as when an admiring critic says that this or that writer's style is so exquisite that it is more like poetry than like mere prose. (And when we want to criticize someone's work as being pedestrian and dull, we might call it "prosaic.")

    The word rhythm refers to the natural rise and fall of the voice when something is being spoken or read aloud. All poems have rhythm, though some do a better job than others of using rhythm for poetic effect.

    The word meter which comes from the Greek word for "measure," is used to describe a regular rhythmic pattern that operates throughout a given poem. In English poetry that regular pattern is usually defined in terms of the recurrence of stressed and unstressed syllables at regular intervals.

    To scan a poem has a very specific technical meaning. It does not mean to glance over a poem. We use the word scansion for the act of determining the meter of a poem by marking the stressed and unstressed syllables in its lines. Accents (stressed syllables) are marked by a slant line above the syllable (/). Slack syllables
nstressed syllables) are marked in one of two ways--either with an x above the syllable, or with a mark that looks like a somewhat flattened u (which I can't produce here, so I'll stick with x for slack syllables).

    Not all poems are metrical. Free verse (vers libre) is poetry that does not have an identifiable rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. That does not mean that there is no rhythm in free verse, or even that the rhythm is not important and carefully patterned. In a good free verse poem rhythm will be precisely manipulated for effect. But if you were to mark the stressed and unstressed syllables in a free verse poem, you would not be able to ascertain a regular pattern. Similarly, a free verse poem might make heavy use of rhymed or partially rhymed words (as well as alliteration, which is akin to rhyme), but you would not be able to mark a rhyme scheme, and the rhymed words might not even occur at the ends of lines. It is the regularity of the pattern of end-rhymes (rhymes that occur at the ends of lines) that allows us to label a rhyme scheme, and the regularity of the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that allows us to identify a metrical pattern in a poem.

    Free verse must not be confused with blank verse. Although blank verse is not rhymed, it has a very specific metrical pattern--iambic pentameter.* In fact, the definition of blank verse is that it is unrhymed iambic pentameter.

    Formal verse is poetry that makes use of regular metrical patterns and rhyme schemes. The word "formal" refers to the fact that the rules of relevant forms are strictly followed. For example, a poem written in iambic pentametrical quatrains rhyming abab cdcd efef ghgh** will maintain that pattern throughout, or if the pattern changes, the change will be regular, not whimsical or erratic. The word "formal" applied to poetry has nothing to do with the level of seriousness, sophistication or erudition manifested in the poem, but refers only to the poet's strict adherence to the rules of form that he has selected for that particular poem.

    Prosody does not refer to prose, but rather to the analysis of the technical elements of poetry. This article and subsequent articles in this series are intended to help readers and writers of poetry understand the basics of prosody. Many of you already have such knowledge. In fact, many of you probably teach the subject. But it is often the case that people who love poetry have nevertheless had very little instruction in its technical aspects. My purpose in these articles is to strip such instruction down to make it as accessible as possible for the nonspecialists among you, whether you want to write better poetry or just to understand better the poetry you love to read.


*I detail the basic metrical patterns of English poetry in another article in this series, "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part II (Meter)."

**In my article "How Literary Allusion is Used in a Well-Known Poem by Robert Frost," I explain how end-rhymes are labeled to identify a rhyme scheme.

NOTE: I try to make my explanations clear and simple, but I may not always escape the tendency to get too technical. If any of you do find these articles hard to follow, please let me know so that I can make them more useful.

~The other articles in this series are "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part II (Meter)"; "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part III (Blank Verse)"; and "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part IV (Anglo-Saxon Accentual Meter)."

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