We know the complaint about the use of prosody, figure and form, and the counter-complaints. After a time, complaining becomes an end in itself. Poets on either side of the dispute become like the couple in Dance of Death, in love with our conflicts and misery, indeed depending on them. Fact is, one either uses the poetic palette developed over centuries, whether of prosody, figure, or form, or one does not. If you use that palette, this "freeware" prosody may have some value, or at least point you toward more developed resources.
History rears its head. One of the things visible in English prosody is that it was not derived from one place. Disciples of W.C. Williams who hold structure, stanza, meter and foot as attributes of empirial British prosody are ignorant of its history. English prosody is a multicultural artifact, growing out of a variety of sources. While it is not certain where the Greeks in 600 BC got theirs (Indo-European standard meters, say linguists with a confidence bolder than the evidence), the route is known from Greece to classical Rome (200BC to 400AD) to Constantinople (350-1100 AD) to the Islamic world (800-1500AD), to the Italian city states in the Renaissance (1200-1600 AD) to Spain and France (1300-1700) to northern Europe and on to England and the rest of the English-speaking world (1500-present). On the way, the meanings of terms shifted, notably as feet and syllables were defined, going from pitch and duration in Greek, Latin and the Romance languages to the stress/less-stressed beat of English (with vestiges of pitch and duration still evident). Much of what we describe as classical form in rhyme was derived from Islamic poets (there is little rhyme in poetry of Greek and Roman antiquity). The sonnet, the canzone, the ballade, in fact, most repetitive, stanzaic forms in English were derived from forms created in Arabic, whose meters were drawn from Latin and Greek. Many "newer" forms in English, such as the pantoum and haiku, arrived from Japan or southeast Asia. The blues form used by many contemporary poets is traceable to the Mississippi delta in the late 19th century. Most of the figures of speech were codified by Roman rhetoricians before the second century AD, and recapitulated and expanded by rhetoricians from the Middle Ages through the English renaissance.
While some maintain that particular forms embrace specific content, exemplary literature suggests that content is a slippery issue in formal verse. For instance, the Petrarchan sonnet form is still used, but few sonneteers write the florid love lyrics favored by Petrarch and his disciples, not least because such content was exhausted for that form. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie, compatriots (and friends) in the first half of the last century, wrote Petrarchan sonnets, but you'd hardly compare theirs with his. The edginess, anger and bitterness in Millay's had no precedent in Petrarch, though you might find one in Shakespeare's "sonnets to the dark mistress." The ballade form, often used now, as by Alfred Dorn and R.S. Gwynn, for irony, humor and satire was employed in France a thousand years ago as a memorizable form for storytelling about the Crusades. Blank verse, the principal verse form in Elizabethan drama (and for plays by Christopher Fry and Maxwell Anderson last century), is used today in a mix of narrative and meditative poems, whether short lyrics by the late Edgar Bowers or longer poems by Frederick Turner, Dick Allen and David Mason. Rhyming couplets, characteristic of most French high classical drama and comedy (Racine, Corneille, Moliere), have had such wide use in English, from Pope's essays to innummerable lyrics past and present, that they appear to be as useful and available to poets in English as blank verse. Villanelles, invented by the French many centuries back, went out of style as affected for decades, but have re-emerged in poets like Bruce Bennett, in whose hands a form treacherous for tempting writers into preciousness is employed with contemporary diction, modern subject matter and humor rarely noted before in villanelles. Rime royal, even in the last hundred years, has been used as variously as W.H. Auden's amusing Letter to Lord Byron, John Masefield's somewhat creaky book length narratives, and Michael Lind's recent historic epic Alamo. As for the political persuasions of poets who use formal prosody, take your pick. It depends on who the author is.
The use of figurative language, from the simplest word play to the most complex metaphor, was described 2500 years ago by Aristotle as the principal marker of a poet. While this has occasionally been suppressed by claims for the language of the common folk, whether by Crabbe or by McDowell, the claim itself borders on the bogus, as you are as likely to hear metaphor, analogy and other figures of speech from a cocktail waitress as from a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. Most often, in the opinion of this writer, claims by poets to act on behalf of the common folk are patronizing and oppressive, rather like de-emphasizing the teaching of mathematics to female students because they just don't get it. Tell that to the ghosts of Rosalind Franklin or Ada Byron. Artful language and metaphor of a high order have been expected by poetry audiences because ordinary usage and casual metaphor are used by almost everyone else. Most often, the absence of metaphor as a way of appealing to or characterizing the innocence of the plebes is an arrogant fool's propaganda for the superiority of his own position in life. Good poets avoid such intellectual plagues.
Storytelling in poetry, critically trashed during the Modernist era and since, began in the oral tradition of every culture on earth. There are more possible narratives in the world than there are people. And, in order for each of us to live, the narrative we follow has to make some sort of sense. It follows that poetic narrative should follow the same expectation if its author wants the piece to make sense to a reader or listener. From the simplest movie prescription of beginning, middle and end to the most complex, multi-layered through-line of a novel by Asturias, a play by Calderon or a dramatic poem by Goethe, authors have had no choice but to accept the notion that a story line needs to be comprehensible to the audience it is intended for. That the Modernist prescription for poetic narrative, the sequence, has so often failed to get beyond a coterie of an author's admirers should not be surprising, as, intended or not, it allows the worst kind of cheat: the presumption that only audiences in the know of the author's private game will understand. But the fairest assumption about a readership is that the only thing you know about them is what they've responded to in the past; as such it shouldn't be embarrassing or declasse to stoop to conventions that work. What critics of this approach fail to acknowledge is that convention and artistic technique have almost nothing to do with contents except to deliver it in a way that conveys something to someone other than the artist. Marquez, Asturias, Allende, all Marxist novelists in the Magical Realism school of Mexico and South America, use many of the same conventions developed by Austen, the Brontes, Fielding, Melville, Dickens, Conrad and Faulkner, few of whom shared their political persuasions. The list of narrative poets who share technique is far longer and even harder to put together in any political reduction.
In short, what wine goes in what glass depends on who's pouring (and who's drinking). But who would doubt the value of a glass for holding the wine? For those who prefer to lap theirs off the floor, a glass might be considered affected or British. But prosody assumes the glass; in fact, it describes the glass collection. The wine and which glass to put it in is up to the author (and whether or not a hearer or reader will accept the choice).
What will follow for the next dozen or so issues is a "freeware" prosody. It will assume sound as the basis of prosody, and thus an inherent part of poetry, performance just secondary to that (performance in a reader's mind as important, if not far more so, as what's heard in a poetry reading), and typography last. It will cover stanza, line and foot, rhyme, and methods of varying the beat in more regular meters such as those employing iambs, trochees, dactyls and anapests. It will discuss the vestiges of classical prosodies in such as duration and pitch. It will explore the value of structure, narrative through-line, and coherent development of figures of speech. And it will probably take a year or more to get it all written and online. As with any prosody worth reading, the work will be thick with examples.
EP&M Online and the authors of this prosody offer it to anyone who wants to use it provided the authors's names and the titles are preserved on each section, or on the whole work if it's to be used. It is strictly forbidden by the authors and by EP&M Online and Somers Rocks Press for any individual, corporation, or company, profit or nonprofit, to publish this for sale in any form. Cash contributions from users are welcome, but will be used solely to propagate this work, particularly in electronic or recorded electronic form. Prosody is not the property of a publishing house nor of a culture. Possessing its knowledge does not require membership in a club or memorization of political opinions. Prosody belongs to anyone who writes or wants to write or enjoy poetry.
An outline is connected to the links below. Each section, as it's completed, will simply be substituted for the outline entry.
I: Line and measure
II. Meter and foot
III. Line and Rhyme
V: Unusual meters
VI: Figurative Language
IX: Performance, aloud or in reading
XI: The Matter of Language
XIII: Thoughts from readers (Not yet started!)
As sections are completed, an e-mail link to the Webmaster or to the specific author will be added.
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