The Score for a Voice

14 December 2018 on Poetry, Storystorm  

“Prosody is not much taught or talked about, since it was a form of institutional terrorism in the previous, metrical orthodoxy.” Robert Haas, Listening and Making

Prosody is a spooky word. In my MFA workshop it was, until recently, a specter in the circle—unclear and vaguely threatening. Like icy windshields. It seemed none of us quite understood just what it was, and my professors, despite their obvious understanding, would only make shallow passes at describing it; I have heard David Rivard sigh many times and say something like, ‘I suppose I could always teach the prosody class… It’s just so boring.’

‘Prosody’, I thought, ‘what a bother!’ and also, ‘Anyway, just what is prosody?’

Yes, what is prosody? If you consult the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, you will find under ‘prosody’, ten pages of close, two-column text containing language dense with thousands of years of theory. More immediate, evocative, and fun is the etymology: prosody comes from the Greek for ‘tune’ and the Latin for ‘song added to speech’. Robert Hass, in the same essay quoted above, equates prosody to ‘rhythm’. So, if poetry is understood to be language with internal music, then ‘prosody’ or ‘rhythm’ should be central to any poet’s understanding.

I think that most of us (poets, students of poetry) do this instinctively—we make things that sound good to our ear. Instinct is powerful, but as with other crafts, I think that the more formal knowledge we have about the tools available in poetry, the better we will be able to make.

Poet Alice Notley says in her essay American Poetic Music at the Moment, “it seems…that discussion of poetic music in general has abated among poets.” When she talks about the initial fervor regarding prosody for 20th century poets like Williams and Olson, I am aware that those poets came out of formal traditions (or with a deep understanding of that traditions) to write their free verse poetry (poetry without strict meter or rhyme).

I write in free verse as does most of my cohort, and most of us do not claim any deep knowledge of metrical verse. My professors have said that the difference between writing with and without an awareness meter comes out in the prosody: in arbitrary line breaks that create a “slackness” in the rhythm, or in words that don’t “propel” the language forward. The list goes on.

What has kept me from tumbling into a hopeless, fetal ball is the clear-headed and generous words of the poets who have worked through these issues. These include Haas, Notley, Williams, and others.

The best and simplest construction I’ve heard came from my teacher David Rivard when he said that what is on the page “is a score for a voice.” If prosody is how poets shape the written poem so that its sound makes music that can translate from a page to a voice, then, well, that’s not so scary. Not scary, but not easy.

Anna Ohara is Barnstorm's Poetry Editor. 

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