Today, another post from Canaan Suitt:
“I don’t believe it!” This was one of my high school classmates’ responses to our teacher’s efforts at convincing us that some poem or other was in iambs. No one else verbalized this disbelief, but I think all of us felt it. The strenuous attempt to read TI-TUM-TI-TUM-TI-TUM, etc. was specious at best. I always wondered about this phenomenon – how poems that are supposed to be iambic, trochaic, or whatever, contain words and even phrases that invalidate that claim. Reading A Prosody Handbook by Karl Shapiro and Robert Beum cleared up this problem, along with many others.
The authors make a point of which I was never explicitly made aware: of the vast variation that rightfully exists within specifically defined patterns. What a liberating fact when reading poetry!
A Prosody Handbook is a phenomenal book. The authors, Karl Shapiro and Robert Beum, know their subject–the mechanics of poetry–so thoroughly that they can communicate what is at times rather complicated material with ease and lucidity. They define terms that tend to run together ambiguously, such as meter and rhythm, and explain a plethora of concepts pertaining to poetry with succinct clarity. Their delightful use of humor makes for a lively read.
The chapters are arranged so that the book first deals with the issues of stress, accent, color, quantity, pitch, feet, lines, and meter (along with an analysis of meter’s uses); then the issue of tempo is considered; next to rhyme and its uses is analyzed; then stanzas in general along with a lengthy but energetic chapter on different types of stanzas from heroic couplets to villanelles; two chapters follow on blank verse and free verse; finally, a delightful chapter on classical prosody, with an overview of prosodic developments throughout history, close out the book.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing – and knowing thoroughly – the mechanics of poetry. Here you’ll get no half-hearted pabulum, but thoughtful, informed explanations to intriguing questions.
As the authors say in the Foreword, “From its conception, A Prosody Handbook was ambitious. The authors wanted to produce a book on prosody that would be at once a practical manual for use in the classroom and of interest to the reader who is neither a teacher nor a student.” For readers of any station, but with an interest and love for poetry, this book is an indispensable read.