on prosody

In linguisticsprosody (pronounced /ˈprɒsədi/pross-ə-dee) is the rhythmstress, 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 sarcasmemphasis,contrast, and focus; or other elements of language that may not be encoded by grammar or choice of vocabulary.

— Wikipedia entry on “Prosody

Ok, so that’s the linguistical definition rather than the poetic one that I’m more familiar with, but it works. A presentation yesterday at AMF kind of reminded me of my interest in prosody and what I see as sort of an intersection of music and literature — with prosody, you’re also looking at (I think) the inherent musicality in speech and language (along with other things). It’s something that’s extremely apparent in poetry, of course, since a poets really try to strategically exploit things like rhythm and the sounds of words (vowel sounds that are similar or slightly different, or consonant sounds). It’s not just about what the words themselves say, but about how they sound, and what meaning the sound adds. I didn’t have much experience in that kind of analysis until my first semester of third year in college, where I (legitimately) took my first English class.

It’s kind of an interesting art. You don’t want something that sounds metronomic (i.e., a clunky pattern of words that sounds da DUM da DUM da DUM), but something which sounds lyrical and has a sense of phrasing, somewhat like music. But even in more regular meters, you can get a natural sense of phrasing just by the way certain words are placed in a certain sequence.

It’s also something apparent in really good prose, nonfiction or fiction. Last semester, I took a class on American novels, and one of them, Mao II by Don Delillo, was great at that sort of thing. I’ve heard that this book isn’t as tight as, say, White Noise, which I haven’t read yet, but something interesting he does in this book is the attention he gives to individual sentences. Each sentence is crafted extremely poetically, and he composes with an ear for the sound of words, as well as for how they look on the page. You get the sense of the sentence as it stands as well as for the whole book and paragraph or whatever as a thematic whole.

In terms of sound effects, the rhythm and rhymes and alliteration in G.M. Hopkins’s poetry just comes together in a way that is absolutely stunning. The way things sound was very important to him, and he developed something called “sprung rhythm,” which consists of a more or less irregular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.

But it’s not just the rhythm itself. Notice how the consonants just ring out: “rim” “roundy,” or “stone” “string.” Or the vowel sounds: “tells, bell’s.” Or even the word choice: the word “ring” RINGS out, “tucked” (an unusual word to use even then) plucks, etc. The way the stresses fell was also so important to him that he made it very clear through accent marks what should be stressed.

It feels good rolling off the tongue. What can I say? Reading this poem out loud requires a lot of rehearsal.

(Also, now the kingfisher picture makes sense.)

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


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