Lesson Plans: Prosody--Sound & Sense

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Grades: 9-12 > College Level

Objective —
The student will:

  • write a poem based on the identification and utilization of words, relying on the use of prosody. (see definition below)

  • select and use words that will control how the poem is read; thus, making the poem more meaningful.

  • become aware of the importance of specific word placement and the significance of word "sounds" when creating a poem. 

Hint: Keep it simple. Suggest the poem topic be something familiar and one that involves movement or sound. Remind students that the words they use and how they are placed in the poem should control how the poem is read. See Example #1 Below...

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Sound & Sense 

Write a poem which satisfies all of the following criteria:

Read and study below.

find the assignment following the definitions and examples.


"Prosody" can be defined as the rhythmical organization that controls the construction and reading of a poem. Prosody can rely on line-breaks, rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, spacing, stanzas, line-length, internal or end rhyme and repetition.







tasting the air

with its forked-tipped

tongue, a snake


through grass

Read the poem Snake.  


What sensations do you experience when reading the poem?  Do specific words used in the poem help you "see" the snake?  Which words?  Why are these words important in making the poem successful?  Are the words used by the poet controlling how a person reads the poem?  How?  Do you believe that "prosody" is important to the success of this poem?




Young Sycamore

I must tell you
this young tree
whose round and firm trunk
between the wet

pavement and the gutter
(where water
is trickling) rises

into the air with
one undulant
thrust half its height--
and then

dividing and waning
sending out
young branches on
all sides--

hung with cocoons
it thins
till nothing is left of it
but two

eccentric knotted
bending forward
hornlike at the top.

           -- W.C. Williams

Read the poem Young Sycamore two or three times.

Initially, you might think it's just a poem about a tree growing in a gutter, and nothing else.  But, on closer inspection, do you notice "prosody" at work? 

Read the poem again, but this time pay closer attention to the choice of words, their placement, as well as their "sounds" and how they provide a "rhythmical" sense, feel, or movement to the poem that, in this instance, mimics how the reader views the tree.

Stanzas 1 and 2: the poem begins by describing the tree from its base (its sturdy trunk) from the ground up; the words "round and firm" help provide that first image.  Then, after a brief glimpse of water, the tree's source of life, trickling beside it, the reader is presented a view, a sensation of words (rises bodily) that allows us to move our gaze up the tree.  This is prosody at work...the choice of words, line breaks and use of stanzas, already beginning to subtly create rhythmic "sound" of organization.

Stanzas 3 and 4: the third stanza has the reader looking further up in the "air" while using the words "undulant thrust" to seemingly push the reader's gaze higher and higher into the tree -- Until, in stanza four, our attention begins to focus on the smaller, "dividing and waning" branches that make up the fuller upper body of the tree.  Again, the selection and placement of words, line and stanza breaks not only control how the poem sounds but also what the reader is visualizing. 

Stanzas 3 and 4: next, the reader's vision is guided to and beyond the seed pods (defined as "cocoons") hanging in the tree, before finally focusing on the very tiniest "twigs" that make up the tip top of the tree.  Read the last stanza again and listen for the sounds of letters in the words that help create the sense, the prosody created image, of small limbs and twigs. 

The poem, through prosody, mimics the tree itself from bottom to top, start to finish--strong, heavy words at the beginning, quick, tight words at the end--controlling how poem is read and experienced.



A subtle example of a poem in which sound reinforces sense can be observed in Example #2, in which the repeated "They couldn't stop" echoes not only the sound of a machine on the shop floor--part of an assembly line... but suggests the relentless continuation of a "machine" (both literal and figurative) which grinds men up without hesitation.


The other examples, likewise, provide prosody that contributes to their meaning.




The Worker


My father lies black and hushed

Beneath white hospital sheets

He collapsed at work

His iron left him

Slow and quiet he sank

Meeting the wet concrete floor on his way

The wheels were still turning-they couldn't stop.

Red and yellow lights flashing

Gloved hands twisting knobs--they couldn't stop

And as they carried him out

The whirling and buzzing and humming machines

Applauded him

Lapping up his dripping iron

                 They couldn't stop.



The Great Figure


Among the rain

and lights

I saw the figure five

in gold

on a red

fire truck

moving tense


siren howls

and wheels rumbling

through the dark city.


              -- W.C. Williams







Buffalo Bill’s


       who used to

       ride a watersmooth-silver


and  break  onetwothreefourfive   pigionsjustlike that


he was a handsome man

                                    and what I want to know is

how do you like your blueeyed boy

Mister Death.


                                             --E.E. Cummings



I Know a Man


As I sd to my

friend, because I am always talking,--John, I


sd, which was not his

name, the darkness sur

­rounds us, what


can we do against

it, or else, shall we &

why not, buy a goddamn big car,


drive, he sd,

for christ's sake,

look out where yr going.


                               --Robert Greeley



Using whatever prosodic resources that you need —


line-breaks, rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, spacing, stanzas, line-length, internal or end rhyme, repetition


…write a poem in free verse whose prosody, as defined above, conspicuously governs the reading of that poem.


In other words, the poem's “sound” should conspicuously echo its sense, somehow.  So, that if asked, you could convincingly demonstrate how the poem's prosody functions.


The effects which you achieve must, ideally, be reasonably subtle yet not so subtle that you alone can perceive them.


Again, "prosody" can be defined as the rhythmical organization that controls the construction and reading of a poem. Prosody can rely on line-breaks, rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, spacing, stanzas, line-length, internal or end rhyme and repetition. In a rather pedestrian way, Alexander Pope illustrates the definition in the following passage from his Essay On Criticism, where for "rhythmical organization" he uses the term "sound" and for "reading" he uses the word “sense."



True ease in writing comes from art, not chance

As those move easiest who have learned to dance.

'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,

The sound must seem an echo to the sense:

Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,

And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;

But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,

The hoarse rough verse should like the torrent roar;

When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,

The line too labours, and the words move slow;

Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,

Flies o'er the unbending com and skims along the main.

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