The Music of Poetry: Prosody

OK, soapbox time. Maxed out. Had my fill of the effulgence of tone deaf poetry lately.

Most poetry written today exhibits a tin ear on the part of the poet and dooms it from the get go.

The problem with much poetry today as practiced by contemporary “poets” is that it has divorced itself from its traditional “tools,” tools reinvented and modified in every age to suit the times and zeitgeist, essential tools which make poetry have an actual impact on the reader, which make a lasting impression on the reader. Yes, which allows the poems to survive and become part of our cultural heritage.

Somewhere along the line in the 20’s and 30’s wannabe poets got the idea that “free verse” was a license to slap down any psychological eructations that occurred to them in short stubby lines–or interminably long lines– and call it poetry.  Most of it is DOA today, but hordes keep trying to make a lasting impression without taking the time to listen, time to hear the inherent music necessary in the birthing of real poetry.

No, it doesn’t have to rhyme or follow a strict stanza scheme, but language has musical qualities when managed by a talented poetic mind. And these rare types listen to the sound of the words in their head and get them down on paper in a way that make their thoughts “sing.”

Prosody. It’s what make poetry pleasurable. It’s what makes a poem memorable. It’s the verbal “music,” the appropriate sounds and pacing to the subject the poem is dealing with.

The rhythm, the beat, the pace, sounds soft or hard.  Fancy terms have been invented for its elements: meter, stanza, rhyme schemes, assonance, dissonance, enjambment, run on lines, alliteration, fricactives, plosives … ad nauseum.

Every great age of poetry from Homer onward has had it favored “forms,” forms involving all of these elements, but which the talented poet doesn’t have to think twice about because it comes naturally to him or her. It’s in the bones and psyche. When he or she writes the right melodic combinations just happen.

It helps though to know the terms, elements and why they matter.

The term lyric (as in lyric verse and the lyrics of a musical piece) dates from the ancient Greeks when poems used to be sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. Today in poetry lyric refers to any short poem whatever the rhyme scheme (if any, usually not), meter (beats and stresses in a line) or stanza form.

Most “poets” today write easily dismissed lyrics, whether they know it or not. Most haven’t a clue about the tools of their trade, known in aggregate as prosody:

In linguistics, prosody (pronounced /ˈprɒsədi/ PROSS-ə-dee, from Greek προσῳδία, prosōidía, [prosɔːdía], “song sung to music; pronunciation of syllable”) is the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech. Prosody may reflect various features of the speaker or the utterance: the emotional state of the speaker; the form of the utterance (statement, question, or command); the presence of irony or sarcasm; emphasis, contrast, and focus; or other elements of language that may not be encoded by grammar or by choice of vocabulary.

I have volumes of examples to prove my points here but this is enough for now.

I will close with a Seamus Heaney ditty that masterfully uses all the musical tools without any conscious thought or obvious stanza scheme:


By Seamus Heaney

for Philip Hobsbaum

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Source: Death of a Naturalist (1966

More to come 🙂

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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6 Responses to The Music of Poetry: Prosody

  1. AshiAkira says:

    So instructive for me. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jef says:

    This is another terrific post from Margaret, and a warming shawl of scholarship for those who want to be reminded of the accidental glory and permanence of certain works of art. I think, though, this sort of exaltation can smother. As a painfully inept poet myself, I want to remind us all of the ‘rank expressionism’ aspect of art. Not all of it is necessarily intended to be chiseled into marble. Some of us cling to the homely notion that our ugly paintings and deliriously awful writings, our booze-informed scribbles on cocktail napkins in the wee hours, our laughably tuneless attempts at tunesmithing and the endless dimwit sculpture from which one averts the eyes in order not to burst out laughing in the presence of the sculptor, are an outcry from fleetingly gifted animals trapped on a plain rock in an enormous and otherwise utterly empty room. Any attempt to shout through the killing murk, however clumsy, is inherently priceless, Rod McKuen and Susan Polis Schutz excepted. We’re here and gone, as has been said to death. Make some noise that punches through the slack-jawed scramble for daily bread and don’t be sold on the idea that one artistic contribution outdelivers the next. It’s the fact of art and not the particulars of its delivery that provide the necessary gravity. We have nothing else of value, so let’s drink in all of it we can. Our collective prosody is whatever color we can fling into the ether.while we have the earthbound means to do so, however lumpen the product. See again the Rod McKuen and Susan Polis Schutz caveat..

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you, Jeff. This post was not intended to be proscriptive or inhibit/smother the poetic impulse in anyone, only to provide some tools of the trade (as a reminder) to those few intent on improving the “sound and sense” of their verse, for whatever reason. The “music” of poetry has largely been neglected or wholly ignored by many who seem to aspire to gain a wider recognition and readership. For those with such ambitions, some attention to prosody and how it works, can bring huge rewards. To be fully effective, the “sound” of a poem should be wedded to its “sense.” Right now I think of Arnold’s “On Dover Beach” as a perfect example of how this can be pulled off. Also Heany’s essay posted here a few months ago, “Feeling into Words,” is instructive about how one great contemporary poet found the rhythms, melodies and harmonies natural to him and his chosen subject. A gifted poet comes to this naturally without any laborious study of prosody. Prosody is in a sense simply a codification–after the fact–of how this happens in poetry without undue attention to the mechanical details by the individual poet.


      • jef says:

        Thx, Margaret. I’ll go back and find your Heaney essay. I do enjoy reading artist’s descriptions of the revelatory moment and practices/discoveries thereafter. You remain a beacon, Margaret. Your overweening adoration of Mr. McKuen nothwithstanding!


        • You nut! McKuen is not on my top ten list of great poets and you know that! As for being a beacon, I would have to ask for WHAT? I just try with great effort to put one foot in front of the other to get through every day. True, I’ve spent many years studying the literary greats. This is no great distinction in my mind 😉


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