For Better For Verse:

Link to U.Va. English Department

Why Scan?

When you learn to scan, you are learning something that major poets from the 14th into the 20th century learned before you. To some extent they learned it by analogy to the classical Latin and Greek versification drilled into them at school; in every wider and finer sense, however, they learned it by osmosis, through a process of total immersion in poetry they loved. The poets absorbed their English metrics right off the page, the way a tap dancer picks up a lick on a street corner or a fiddler fingers a riff at a harvest supper. Because, being poets, they had an extraordinary ear for word music, they learned its unwritten rules fast; having mastered them, they took the art in new directions that blazed trails in literary history.Practicing scansion won’t make you a poet. What it will do, if you’ll let it, is transform your approach to the reading of poems. There is simply no better way for readers to get an inside line on versecraft. While our primary topic here is the interplay of rhythm with meter, listening hard for that will also tone up attention to other aspects of the poetic soundtrack like consonance and anaphora.

Robert Frost framed memorably a paradox underlying our entire project: “The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless.” Limited meter, endless possibilities; the two are entwined.  Like the code behind your computer screen, accentual-syllabic prosody is a binary system that poets have ramified into virtually analog complexity. The sky’s the limit. Better yet, the brain is. On that theme let’s give Dickinson the last word in “The Brain — is wider than the Sky”:

The Brain is just the weight of God —

For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —

And they will differ — if they do —

As Syllable from Sound –