Ask Dr. Scansion

September 6, 2010

Q:  Dear Dr. Scansion,

I am new to formal analysis of poetry and am anxiously wondering: what terms do I really need to know? Can you help me navigate this new period in my education?



A: Dear “Sylvia,”

The terms of formal analysis and prosody are numerous, and some people may be comfortable taking on a more complex set, but for the most part you should have a vocabulary that includes the following:

1) basic accentual patterns: iamb, trochee, spondee, pyrrhic, anapest, and dactyl (Note: some people think that the pyrrhic doesn’t exist in English.  You will need to resist peer pressure and decide what seems true to you.  For my part, I believe.)

2) common metrical feet: trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter

3) common stanza names: couplet, triplet, quatrain, sestet, octave

4) useful ways to characterize sound patterns: rhyme, half- or slant-rhyme, assonance, consonance, dissonance, alliteration

5) terms that describe line/sentence formations: end-stopped, caesura, enjambment

You may want to be comfortable with a handful of other terms, for example:  sonnet, sestina, blank verse, free verse.

Sylvia, there are resources for people like you.  This site has a wealth of information about prosody and form, or you can turn to sites like the glossary on  for better for verse, which is less exhaustive but has clear definitions.  In either case, don’t forget that reliable friends and grown-ups you trust can be helpful in working through these tough times.  Eventually you may even come to see formal and prosodic analysis as an important part of how you think.

All best wishes,

Dr. Scansion

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The First of a Series of Completely Emotional Responses

August 30, 2010

I have not yet finished reading Dana Gioia’s essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” and already I have been moved to tears. For many years the facts of this essay have remained dormant in the back of my mind, hiding behind the towers of well-known poets and poems–all from authors long deceased not only in body, but in the minds of the majority of people, world-wide.

I have stopped my first reading to take down some thoughts. My heart has been pinned down by the enormous weight of the subject at hand–the decline of poetry in the world, but specifically America. (Even as I write this, I am reminded of poetry’s lack of place, particularly by the reports from FOX News, which have chosen to cover the trial of Paris Hilton, instead of any number of events occurring in the world of poetry today.)
While reading I have had thoughts of grand upheavals in reaction to this article–storming into the first Aubade meeting (Sept. 2 from 5-6:00 p.m.) and demanding that, not only do we go through the necessary steps to reprint this essay at the start of this Fall’s publication, but to change utterly the content of the letter from the editor at the front of the issue and instate a new policy to include critical or insightful reader-responses to the art. Instead the editor’s shout-outs to friends and praise of the work within the publication, an honest statement that not all of the art included is up to par and an entreaty for the readers to vigorously peruse the magazine and decide for themselves what earns its keep. In my dream, this all goes beautifully. Hundreds of students, teachers and those in the community who seek the Fall issue of Aubade write in to praise, to critique, to condemn, to contradict and most importantly to serve as a testament to reader’s attentive observation and interaction with the text.

All of this, whirling the activist dust of my mind into a terrific tornado, banging against the walls of my skull and begging for an explosive release of phonemic breath. And yet the pressure begins to change and I know also that, even if I burst into that meeting, waving the essay about with my hand and insisting, I most likely be asked to leave. I most likely would.
And still, I cannot help but be disturbed. I cannot help but wonder at a solution. I cannot help but hope Gioia will provide one at the close of this essay, but her title is not promising.

I’d like to talk about possible alternatives to the current method of poetic publishing and ask you all if you have any thoughts on possible solutions.
There are some big problems pointed out by this text, among them the regressive nature of the inner circle of readers, publishers and critics; the neglect of poetry by the world at large, especially the realms of media and politics; the stress on quantitative, not qualitative work by writers throughout academia; and many more, and, honestly, I don’t know what to do about them.


I just finished reading the essay and I must say, I was not disappointed. I am glad to see six tips on how to amend the crisis of poetry in our culture.
So, it is here that I would like to open the floor to other suggestions for how to amend the situation, in a similar vein as Gioia’s. Here are some of my own:

1) Memorize your favorite poems. Maybe take 5-10 of your favorite poems and dedicate the time to memorizing them. I’ve done this with only one poem in its entirety and parts of many more, but I’ve found it has added to my appreciation for the lyric qualities of the poem. Not only does this better your personal appreciation of the poem, the poet and poetry in general, but it’s also a cool thing to do on a whim for a group of people (I usually only do so for my close friends and loved ones) but every time I’ve done so it has incited a reaction at worst and at best an interesting conversation.

2) Talk to friends and family about the state of things in the world of poetry. As simple as it sounds, talking to people as if poetry were politics will, I think, increase awareness of it and, hopefully, get people to hold up higher standards for themselves. Let us not be the “jackals,” but let our “snarling” by a call, a command to the Muse for the well to fill, to be over-filled.

That’s all I can think of for now. I’ll add more if I think of something else.

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