Tuesday, February 05, 2008


On the drive in, this thought: since today is Super Tuesday, why not have the students practice scansion and writing in meter by working with the candidates' names? They know the names and how they should be pronounced, and if we use the names to fill in parts of metrical lines, the rest of the line might fall into place more easily.

Possible complication: I'll need to explain that three syllable words w/ the accent on the first syllable (i.e. "HI-lla-ry") can also take an accent on the final syllable, if the meter demands it (i.e., "I think that I shall never see / A candidate like Hi-lla-ry").

Is there a handy list of rules-of-thumb about prosody anywhere on line?

A quick search turns up these, from the remarkable Interactive Tutorial on Rhythm Analysis at Reed:
  • Syntactically speaking, words are either content words or function words. "Content words are words which operate with a certain degree of independence, conveying a full meaning by themselves. They are nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Most of the words in the dictionary are content words. Function words are words that depend on other words for their meaning, usually indicating some kind of relation. They include prepositions, articles, demonstratives, conjunctions, pronouns, and auxiliaries" (PR 27-28).

  • Most monosyllabic content words have a stress (e.g., clock, red, run).

  • Simple polysyllabic words may have only one stress, e.g., rabbit, but more complicated words may have more than one stress.
    1. This is particularly the case when they have four or more syllables, like "polysyllabic," or when the meter of the poem "promotes" the final syllable of a three-syllable word whose usual accent comes at the beginning of the word: yesterday can also be yesterday, if the meter demands it. ("I don't know why you pout that way. / I said 'I love you' yesterday!"

  • Monosyllabic function words like "a," "the," "but" or "and" are generally unstressed.

  • Polysyllabic function words have relatively stronger and weaker stresses within them, for instance in such prepositions as "before," "after," and "against."
The site also offers this advice about scanning phrases and lines:
  • In English, there is a strong preference for alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. We tend to avoid both too many unstressed syllables in a row and consecutively stressed syllables. We are more likely, for example, to say "a free and easy manner" rather than "an easy and free manner" or "bright and shining eyes" rather than "shining and bright eyes" (Attridge, REP 71). In both of the preferred forms of these phrases, stressed and unstressed syllables alternate. In the non-standard forms, the double unstressed syllables followed by double stressed syllables feels awkward to our mouths and ears.
  • Indeed, as we say whole phrases we will often unconsciously shift how we accent words in order to produce this alternation.
  • For instance, "Tennessee" normally has its strongest stress on the last syllable. But in the phrase, "Tennessee walking horse," the strongest stress in "Tennessee" retracts to the front of the word to produce an alternating pattern.

  • Other examples of this pattern can be seen by comparing the differences between "thirteen" and "thirteen blackbirds" or "unknown" and "unknown soldier" (Attridge, PR 39).
Now, how can we put those to use? Hmmm...

I think I'll have them write some lines in the meters of poems we read--just couplets, rhyming, to start. First we'll scan the candidates' names--some first and last, some just last) and then have them available to plug in to our lines.

Hillary Clinton (dactyl, trochee)

Barrack Obama (iamb, amphibrach--although the BBC insists on calling him "BA-rrack," a trochee, instead)

McCain (iamb)

Romney (trochee)

Huckabee (dactyl)

Ron Paul (spondee)

In the right metrical context, Hillary and Huckabee could have their final syllables "promoted": "Both Hillary and Huckabee despise / The pundits who repeat their pretty lies." (Sorry--not much of a heroic couplet, but you get the idea.)

I'll let you know how it goes!


RfP said...

Excellent. Teach them the lost art of the comic couplet and the sly limerick. That's exactly what election season needs.

I wonder if they'll find it addictive. My family love to limerick, if I may "verb" it thus. I suspect that's why our Thanksgiving guests rarely return....

RfP said...

More politics and prosody: Presidents' names are usually trochaic.

shinji said...

you are a very good teacher! the kids will not forget you for what you teach them! keep it up...