How to Teach Prosody
An introduction to versification that melds the classic and the contemporary. Reprinted and adapted from The Pocket Instructor: 101 Exercises for the College Classroom (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2016).
- Genre: poetry
- Course Level: introductory
- Student Difficulty: moderate
- Teacher Preparation: medium
- Class Size: small
- Semester Time: any
- Writing Component: in class
- Close Reading: high
- Estimated Time: 30 to 40 minutes
This exercise teaches the fundamentals of versification to students by first invoking the lyrics of songs and advertisements they already know. Its purpose is to teach students classical meter (foot based scansion) as well as poetry’s sonic properties: rhyme, assonance, alliteration, consonance, and repetition. You need not select poems for discussion in advance; indeed, the success of this introductory exercise depends largely upon letting students provide their own examples.
Begin class with a general conversation: ask students what lines they happen to have memorized—anything from hip-hop songs to advertising jingles. Put four or five of these lines up on the board (or ask the students to do so) and start an open discussion about why they think they have memorized these particular snippets.
As students present their theories, list on the board each sonic concept that, directly or indirectly, enters the conversation. Ask them what they hear first in the song: Are they vowels? Are they consonants? Define appropriate poetic terms as you go and underline any vowels or consonants students comment upon. As they begin to notice things like assonance, alliteration, repetition, internal rhyme, slant rhyme, or other sounds and patterns in the song lyric or jingle, keep expanding your list of basic poetic vocabulary on the board.
When you have generated a handful of sonic terms, slowly start shifting into a discussion of meter: how we might begin to measure the ways these sonic effects add up to a structure one might be able to measure. Begin talking students through emphasis and performance, using the easy example of “How are you?” Ask what it means when you say those three words as “HOW are YOU?” vs. “How ARE you?” or “How are YOU?” Talk about the difference between stress and emphasis, thinking about the subtle ways that performance influences meaning. Here, you might tell students about the history of the word “prosody,” that it means both pronunciation and versification, and that versification is often considered to encompass how we talk about all of these features. It’s good to remind students that it is linked to pronunciation, especially in a class where you may be reading poems in dialect, British vs. American poems, or any older poems where historical sound shifts may change our ability to read the poem’s sonic effects with only contemporary knowledge.
In rap songs, the temporal structure of the verse is often hurried or slowed. For the rap lyrics on the board, ask the students if they can agree on the song’s beat, and put the beat of the song below the lyric. Ask how they would like to mark beat (a “B”? An “X”? It’s up to them). Then, together, come to a consensus on the stressed syllables above. Again, ask how they would like to mark the stress (an “S”?).
Note the way that the stress (and in some cases, even the emphasis) interacts with the beat of the song. Is there another level of rhythm in the line? If there is, see if you can mark the second level of rhythm and, again, make sure that they agree on how this should be marked. (This is a good introduction to the arbitrary nature of most scansion.) Have fun thinking together and talking about what certain rappers might be good at—a certain kind of flow that moves incredibly quickly through syllables that have a lot of alliteration, for instance, or a way of using extreme slant rhyme to make words that don’t seem to rhyme work in a song. The most important thing is to listen to what students already know about meter and rhythm and to steer them toward seeing influence and intertext in contemporary music culture.
Next comes the tricky part. Ask if anyone knows Greek or Latin. If a student does, invite them to describe how Greek or Latin poetry is measured. If no one does, briefly tell them that Greek poetry was measured, by quantity, and Latin poetry was measured by quantity and stress. To explain what “quantity” means, go over long and short vowels. Ask: What do you notice? It feels like it takes longer to say “eeeee” than “eh,” right? In classical meter, the rule was generally that a “long” syllable took twice as long as a short syllable, and that was one of the ways that meter was measured. Remind them that “meter” simply means “measure,” and that in classical prosody the measure was mostly quantity. Teach students what a macron “–” looks like, and a breve “È”, and that “macron” means long and breve (brief!) means “short.” You may flash slides or examples from classical scansion if you want the students to see how meter was and is often taught in the classical classroom.
Ask them why it might be harder to measure by quantity in English, coaxing them to understand how pronunciation is intertwined with emphasis. Ask “what would happen if all English words had measurable quantity?” You can usually demonstrate the pitfalls of this by an impression or two of different English dialects. Tell them how “long” becomes “heavy” and “short” becomes “light” and how these, in turn, become “stressed” and “unstressed” in discussions of English meter so that they understand why English poems are generally only measured by stress and not by quantity. The long to heavy to stress and short to light to unstressed history can be shorter or longer depending on what your students know; for some, the question of translation or mistranslation between Greek, Latin, and English might be interesting. Depending on your class, this discussion could go on a bit or be a very brief jaunt.
Write, on the board, the traditional sign for stress, the ictus “ ´ ” and explain how the names for patterns of stress (“feet”) are leftover from the Greek. What are these foreign words doing here? Again, depending on the level of the class, you could tell them about the various attempts to rename this arbitrary “foot-based” system or to get rid of it altogether.
But for this exercise, since familiarizing them with the historical, and yet inaccurate, foot-based method is the goal, go ahead and name the divisions of feet in a line, being certain that they know that the classical meters have a far larger variety of complicated names for feet and that these are, in English, entirely arbitrary. Iamb, Trochee, Dactyl, Anapest, to whatever level of detail you like. Here I like to ask them to see if they can identify what “foot” someone might consider their name to be. Meredith is a dactyl. Trochees are common.
Return to the lines on the board and invite students to scan them using the ictus for accented syllables, and slash marks for dividing the feet. Or consider ending with an actual short poem or couplet that you happen to have memorized (“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”). Write the lines on the board and invite students to apply everything they have learned so far to this single poetic example. If you’d like them to practice more traditional scansion, starting with short lines and moving up is often a good way to do it (so moving through dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter).
You can also have them compile their own list, asking them to search through the PPA for these terms and copy out the examples to make an anthology “lesson” that they then use to make their own “accentual-syllabic” handbook. Invite them to add a section at the end of this “handbook” that reflects on how ill-equipped this method is when applied to verses we have memorized. The goal, here, is to direct them toward meter as cultural criticism rather than aid to expressive function in a poem.
This exercise, or series of exercises, is designed to teach students how much they already know about poetic rhythm and sonic effects. It demonstrates that meter is an unstable measure, and that understanding a poem’s context (when was it written? how did it circulate? was it memorized or read silently? what is its intended audience?) can help us understand how the rhythm and meter of a poem are working on multiple levels that are at once formal and cultural. Students learn the terms of traditional accentual-syllabic scansion, but they also learn that this is not the only way to hear the rhythm of a poem and to talk about it. This exercise allows students to hear and recognize poetic effects of meter on their own terms first, before learning how poets manipulate meter for particular technical ends. I have found that beginning with what the students already know not only engages them but also helps them see how poetic communities are formed, and how poetry has often been addressed to certain audiences but not to others.
Students have a lot of fun working through their own and one another’s lines, whether the line they offer up for group analysis is a complicated rap lyric or a simple advertising jingle. The shorter the line, I have noticed, the more quickly students rise to the challenge. One of my students offered the advertising jingle for a jewelry store, “Every kiss begins with Kay.” Everyone caught immediately the repetition of the hard “k” sound in “kiss” and “Kay” (I wrote consonance on the board) but the internal rhyme in “kiss begins with” took longer to notice.
For this same phrase I asked students where they thought the emphasis should go, and why. We marked the possibilities on the board and talked a bit about stress: should the stress fall on “kiss” and “Kay” or on “kiss” and “beGINS” and “Kay”? “Every” generated the greatest debate among the students: is it three syllables? Two? Can it be both? When would we say it as three syllables? How do we know, looking at this and hearing it, that it should be two? I ended our discussion of this particular student example by rewriting the phrase on the board in segments (Every kiss / begins / with Kay), inviting students to think about the way the line works temporally, hurrying a bit through “every” and dwelling a little on “kiss,” in effect slant rhyming “kiss” with “begins” before elongating on the “Kay.”
This exercise is ideal for teaching students about “rhythmic communities.” Folks who listen to a lot of opera, or a lot of pop music, or a lot of rap music will have ears that are better tuned to hear certain rhythmic patterns in the songs. And it can show them as well the importance of “metrical communities”: why poets who would have had a classical education might have used more classical meters, and why professional readers have to practice in order to hear and see certain effects in poems of the past that most contemporary audiences miss.
Meter, which has many varieties, is one way that poets communicate with one another and with an audience. It is also a way we can learn about the past. In courses that deal with mostly metered poetry, I believe it is important not just to practice scansion with students but to show them what historical role meter might play in a poem’s meaning. It is perfectly understandable that students today cannot easily identify the metrical structure of a poem written hundreds of years ago. Indeed, we should not take for granted that the classical system is the only system at work. Students should know that figuring out how to talk about the technologies of a poem has been as much a part of poetry as the technologies themselves.