The Prosody Handbook: A Guide to Poetic Form by Robert Beum and Karl Shapiro
(Dover Publications, Mineola, N.Y, 2006)
In 1965, Harper-Collins published what became one of the standards in the field of metrics -- A Prosody Handbook. Robert Beum (Shapiro having passed away in May 2000) has now resurrected this classic, revised it somewhat, and had it released by Dover as The Prosody Handbook.
In his foreword, Beum states the premise of the book “No one who comes to prize it needs to be consciously aware that the verse form is terza rima or that the third foot in the second line is a trochee. Yet the principle holds: metrics influences meaning, interpretation dare not ignore versification.”(x) Even while the book has moved pretentiously from the general to the specific elevating itself from ‘one of’ to ‘the only’ book on metrics, that premise still holds. The opening chapter reiterates and builds on this premise, poetry being defined, on p. 1, as “an art of SOUNDS moving in TIME” or “a situation in which sounds are uttered and perceived consecutively.” This concept is further elaborated on the next page in a manner important not just for metricists but for free versers as well: “A poet’s intention is to shape a prosodic form that is perfectly suited to the point he wants to make -- to the particular quality of human experience he deals with -- in this particular poem.” Whether you are John Milton or Ron Silliman, sound and sense combine to make meaning.
The next chapter begins the discussion of verse, poetry being divided into “metered poetry (verse) and free verse.”(7) Verse, when expressed by itself, is given a rigorous definition: a “metered language; that is, language in which some quality of the syllables, such as stress or quantity, is either strictly or at least relatively regularized.”(6) Consideration of free verse will be left behind for a considerable time -- although it will not entirely be forgotten.
A number of the ensuing chapters fall naturally into units best considered together. Chapters four through six are like that. They build a bottom up approach to poetics and the consideration of words. Chapter four considers an area seemingly forgotten by more recent books, that of the syllable. Considering the syllable from four facets -- Color, Stress, Quantity and Pitch, there is much that the poet will find profitable to explore and adapt to their own poetic outpouring. The syllable is then collected into the foot. Here is where the authors begin their exploration of metrics proper and its corresponding concept of scansion. In responding to the self-imposed question “Is the correct scansion important?”, the authors have this to say, at p. 29: “The answer to it, we feel, is much more often a yes than a no. Once a poet decides to write in a meter, he obliges himself to stay within it, allowing of course for wide variations at particular points -- a traditional liberty of English verse. The poet is more or less bound to stay within a pattern once he adopts it, for a quite simple reason: he has established a pattern, and this means among other things that he has established an expectation in the reader or listener.” The chapter then proceeds to consider the four most common metrical patterns: in relative order of importance, the iambic, the anapest, the trochee and the dactyl. As the authors say, at p. 32: “The very nature of our language, and not simply the caprice of poets, has given these four feet their dominance, and given the iambic foot dominance among them. It is, in fact...all but impossible to use any other combinations of stress and nonstress, except as variations.” Consideration of the most common of those variations, the spondaic (two stressed) and the pyrrhic (two unstressed), which are often found together forming what some have called the ionic foot, completes the chapter walking us into consideration of the line. All concepts are introduced and developed through use of excellent examples from poetic history.
The triad seems to be the holy grail of this work. The next three chapters -- ‘Accentual and Syllabic Verse’, ‘Meter and Rhythm’ and ‘The Uses of Meter’ -- can again be grouped productively as a unit. In the first of these, the authors display their chauvinism by crediting Robert Bridges with the return to syllabic verse which they credit him as “pioneering...in his old age, he did not master the form until his last poem”(55) in 1929, Even when they finally do get around to mentioning Marianne Moore, it is after mentioning Dylan Thomas. If they had done their homework, they would have discovered that there was syllabic verse in Moore’s first book, published in 1921. This is a weak point throughout the book. Fortunately, it doesn’t detract too much given the wealth of merit included -- such as their statement regarding meter and rhythm:
Meter in itself -- although not in its functions -- is a relatively simple matter that we can usually describe with great objectivity. Rhythm is always complex and is often difficult to describe. Meter is a matter of mechanics, rhythm is almost always unanalyzably organic. There are, at least in English, relative few possible meters, whereas every new combination of words really brings about a new rhythm.(60)
Or this statement found in ‘The Uses of Meter’ under the heading ‘The Expression of Feeling’:
Meter is paradoxical. It tends to modify emotion at the same time as it seems to express it. Meter seems appropriate to emotional and imaginative expression not only because it suggests and stimulates feeling, but also because it makes the language in which it appears unlike the language (and experiences) of everyday. Meter introduces a note of the consciously planned, the symmetrical and artful, and thus makes our experience of reading verse an experience greatly different from our direct involvement in ordinary discourse and from our participation in an actual emotional situation. In other words, meter can be a means of obtaining what is often called ‘aesthetic distance’ or ‘psychic distance’.(69)
In the latter chapter, they prescribe several uses of meter, most of which are as well and as poetically described as for emotional modification. Unfortunately, they exhibit poetic chauvinism in denying free verse the same abilities. One can only assume they haven’t read much free verse.
The next trilogy takes us through ‘Tempo’ and ‘Rhyme’ to ‘The Uses of Rhyme’. ‘Tempo’ collects a number of comments spread throughout the earlier discussions into a readily accessible catalogue of devices on how to speed up or slow down a line. The first thing ‘Rhyme’ does is define itself: “when we speak of rhyme, we usually have in mind only two types of agreement: different initial sounds and identical following sounds,...or polysyllables which correspond at every point except one...”(86) This definition is somewhat broadened on the next page: “It is convenient to distinguish four types: (1) full rhyme (or simply rhyme), (2) slant rhyme (sometimes called half rhyme or off rhyme), (3) alliteration, and (4) assonance.” All this comes with a caveat: “when we speak of rhyme as agreement or partial agreement in sound, we imply that this agreement is being used as a conscious device, that it is intended to be conspicuous.” Note that the axiomatic extension of this is that sometimes these ‘effects’ creep unconsciously into our writing -- something of which we must be very conscious. ‘The Uses of Rhyme’ sets out, guess what, the uses of rhyme. An interesting one is that rhyme may afford the aesthetic distance necessary to write about difficult emotional subjects.
We now enter into the final trilogy -- ‘The Stanza’, ‘Stanza Forms’ and ‘The Sonnet’. The authors very effectively introduce the concept of a stanza by comparing it to the paragraph:
A stanza is the verse equivalent of a paragraph. Like each paragraph in a story or essay, a stanza advances the composition; again like the paragraph, an individual stanza may represent a complete change in tone and idea or only a very slight one.(107)
Well chosen examples then elucidate this statement demonstrating how the stanza either carries forward or completely radicalizes the idea. This sets the stage for a listing of stanzaic forms moving from the couplet, through the tercet to finally arriving at the ode and unusual forms such as the sequidilla and the haiku, etc. Although by the time of publication the ghazal and the pantoum had already been used and would become much more so in later years particularly as a result of the influence of Ashbery regarding the latter, there is no mention of these forms. The sonnet, the only one-stanza form to have attracted a name, is well explored even in the concision of six pages.
Leaving behind the triumvirate, we enter into the duple meter of blank and, then, free verse. The section on common metrical variation in blank verse is well worth reading. That setting out the limitations of free verse is as well. The free verse poet should pay particular attention to the first two of these: “(1) Without the guideline of meter, one is sometimes unable to tell exactly how a certain word or syllable is to be stressed...(2) Free verse lacks the melodic and mnemonic qualities of rhymed verse. It is such a spare medium that it must compensate by showing extreme deftness of rhythm, or vivid imagery, or expression that is in some other way especially engaging.”(151)
The final duple arrangement is ‘Classical Prosody’ and ‘Prosody and Period’ -- the latter worth the price of admission by itself. However, an added bonus is that, even while dismissing Classical, or quantitative, prosody “English verse is so powerfully accentual and our ears are so habituated to its accents that quantitative prosody seems quite foreign to us.”(156), they are able to support its study:
There are, however, a number of sound reasons why an English speaking poet should study classical prosody and try his hand at imitations: by substituting his native stress principles for the quantitative principle he may find one or more of the classical forms congenial; and he may be led to pay more attention to the lengths of his syllables, to tempo, and indeed to acoustic qualities in general.(156-7)
These are all valuable reasons to explore and experiment using not just classical prosody but even, if a free verser, the stanzaic forms set out earlier. The one reason which is not mentioned and is probably the most important of all to a free verser is that exploring these prosodic forms teaches discipline.
The final chapter, ‘Scansions and Comments’, discusses what today is a lost art -- scansion. Merely because we poets today have for the most part abandoned the time-honoured poetic forms in favour of free verse does not mean that we should not have to worry about scanning our poems. Scanning assists us in the development of rhythm which, as the authors pointed out earlier, is an essential aspect of free verse in order to distinguish that verse. There is another art employed here that is on its way to being lost -- close reading- particularly as employed by the New Critics. We are taken on a tour of plosives and sibilants and the sounds of poetry and how these sounds make the poem come alive. This combined with discussions of the techniques already discussed throughout the text as they are applied to some excellent examples of excellent verse makes this chapter a gem. It is unfortunate that the authors use the term ‘scansion’ in place of close reading as it may tend to confuse the novice.
Should the reader be under the impression that all good things must end, particularly when the last chapter has been discussed, they would, in this instance, be incorrect. For perhaps the best feature of this excellent book is the Glossary which is all encompassing. This book belongs on every poet’s bookshelf.
John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.