Over the last 25 years, I've taught various aspects of prosody in contexts as diverse as the Harvard Divinity School, Duke University, SFSU Poetry Center, Laboratorio Alameda in Mexico City, BRIC Arts Media in Brooklyn, HIAP Gallery Agusta in Helsinki, Deep Listening Institute at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan, New School for Social Research, the Robert Wilson Watermill Center and Hofstra University.
In 2006, I co-founded, with choreographer Daria Faïn, an integrative artscience called The Prosody Body, along with its performative body called The Phoneme Choir (subsequently morphed into The Commons Choir).
In spring of 2018, I taught a 3-month prosody course at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in NYC. The course consisted of 11 sessions and was titled Prosody, Privatization, Performance and Peace. This course established the basis for an ongoing, ever-evolving, expansive prosody curriculum, as well as a committed group of participants and practitioners. The course is currently presented under the title Prosody and the Preciousness of Life, continuing prosody's total implication in the composition of our lives.
A prosody program is also currently being proposed as an interactive, trans-disciplinary field in various educational settings. The program could also be considered a very extensive creative writing course, covering, for example, poetry's basic elements of composition, comparative classical and contemporary poetics, evolutionary linguistics, biosemiotics, psychoacoustics, phonosemantics, mantra, and cosmogony.
Prosody is limitless expression beyond, and encoded within, the lexical limits of language. It's extralinguistic, as well as intrinsic to our impulse to speak.
Prosody is, of course, poetry's basic elements of composition: tempo, tension, intensity, timbre, rising and falling intonation, rhyme, meter (and all its metaplasms), duration, cadence, caesura, pause, pitch, sound and syntactic recurrence, and assorted stresses (comprised of loudness, duration and pitch variables). A whisper is purely prosodic, as is a word withheld. Prosody is the overall measure, the music, the manner of making meaning. Pragmatically, emotion, mood, attitude, implied meaning, and the tonal differences between questioning, explaining, exclaiming and commanding, are also prosodic phenomena. Socially, it is by means of prosodic correlates (timbre, intensity, pitch, loudness, formants, frequency contours, interactional response time and speech rate) that we form snap inferences with regard to each other's qualities, character and condition.
While conscious use of prosodic elements sets poetry apart from speech, these same elements also constitute speech. And in turn, speech can be set to poetry. This song/speech contrariety is one of the oldest stories on earth...
Non-acoustic (retinal/written) transcriptive, typographic devices such as font-choice, boldface, striking-through, overprinting, handwriting, word-spacing, enjambment, line page-placement and use of white space can also be read prosodically, as an extra-lexical score or performance notation. The poem’s stored performance on the page or screen (or in the cloud) might be its only presence, written for no ulterior stage, as pure page or screen prosody untransduced from vocalization, awaiting the metabolic speed of diffusion on paper or speed of light electronic transmission. (And in our soundless reading of writing, prosody is present, perhaps even more boundlessly, in mind.)
As a science, prosody can be defined as suprasegmental phonology, focused on the primary correlates of prosody (intensity, pitch, duration, rhythm) of course not necessarily related to poetry. On the other hand, the science of versification (orally transmitted, prehistorically, then written as treatises on pronunciation, articulatory phonetics, phonotactics and appropriate metrics as applied to poetry, tracing back to the Vedic Pratishākhyas, the Dravidian Tolkāppiyam, Aristoxenus's Ἁρμονικὰ στοιχεῖα, Hephaestion's Enchiridion, to name a few) is as old as versification itself. (I think it's fair to say that linguistics itself was conceived for the purposes of poetry.)
Defined more broadly, the science of prosody includes a rich array of current linguistic research in areas such as biolinguistics, psychoacoustics, cognitive philology, sociolinguistics, phoniatrics, semiochemical ecology, evolutionary linguistics, phonosemantics, kinesics, biosemiotics, affective prosody, comparative poetics, graphemics, corpus linguistics and choreoprosodia. Yet, these sciences are rarely, if ever, referred to within the teaching and practice of poetry, even though tending to the opaque, material qualities of words is basic to verse. Reciprocally, poets' contribution to linguistic science is, I believe, negligible-to-nonexistent. Of course, literary studies and cultural literary theory and criticism (often written by poets themselves) necessarily focus on the language-art object. Still, a vital interchange, a profoundly integrative, non-polar prosody artscience, has not been part of the curriculum.
"I am myself hopeful that linguistic studies will bring to contemporary criticism a vocabulary and method more sensitive to the basic activity of poetry and less dependent upon assumed senses of literary style." Robert Creeley
Prosody and gesture are co-occurrences in the same semiotic system, processed in the same areas (Broca's and Wernicke's) of the brain. Motor gestures conduct/accompany/pantomime prosodic expression. Deictic gestures point things out. Iconic gestures like waving goodbye or throwing a kiss substitute for words. Lexical gestures are like non-verbal, semiotic onomatopoeia. Gesture Theory posits that language evolved from manual gesturing. Gesture enactment helps us select and recall words. In effect, articulation is a highly specific sequence of gestures performed by the tongue within the vocal cavity. Gesture is one way in which performance is a part of prosody's multimodality.
Prosody conducts conversation, syncs work, organizes play, frees emotion, regulates bioprocesses and modulates mood. "... it’s that I experience myself inside these constantly swerving, intensely physical processes of semiosis. Biochemistry and language just don’t feel that different to me." (Donna Haraway).
In terms of evolutionary development, in my approach, prosody is the precursor of both language and music. And ontogenically, prosody (beginning with embryoprosodia and even conception and preconceptive impulses to nurture and parent) is the precious proto-linguistic motherese (Infant Directed Speech). Through tone and touch, we're basically made to be infinitely attentive, receptive, nuanced and loving.
Although prosody is conventionally considered a suprasegmental phenomenon, I include the segments (the phonemes) as part of prosody — these few dozen fundamental sounds specific to human phonation, as potencies in themselves.
In terms of both physics and metaphysics (say, vibration, invisibility, indivisibility) the elements of composition of poetry — the forces that pattern matter — can be directly experienced as cosmogenic, as background silence, un-caused sound, relic rhythm, the beginning's pre-condition, formative phonemic energy, initial arising re-enacted as the impulse to speak. Prosody includes cosmos as part of nature. Nature makes 'our' nature part of the cosmos.
Immateriality of language is also part of prosody. Here, I'm not referring to 'transparency' in contradistinction to 'opacity.' The term 'transparency' is often used to disparage poetry unaware of the physicality of its medium; see-through poetry. Prosody is partnered with the immateriality of mind and the inscrutable arising, presence, disappearance of language. Prosody is formative rhythm, if you prefer. It solves and dissolves the hard problem of the division of energy and matter. Spiritual Prosody, if you will. Perhaps Subtle Prosody. Here, Samuel Beckett's statement is perfectly apt: "All poetry, as discriminated from the various paradigms of prosody, is prayer.”
Prosody is that which makes language poetry. Which words? Entheogenic words. Logos is human perception of language by means of prosody. Because language exists at all, words are realization no matter what we say. Prosody inscribes spirituality in language. Vocal, vibrational patterns resume materialization. We speak seed sounds. Sequences of phonemes make mantras and orisons. The sequences, as speech, make interrelationship. (We formed around the phones, once upon a time.) Prosodic Listening picks up total interconnectivity: cross-species call and response and rhythmic entrainment. The unstruck word, anahata-śabda, the deepest listening practice. Patanjali's vāg-yoga, union with words as original. Word after word — grammar — the force for breaking through the doubled door of ignorance and ego. The meters each assigned a divinity. Meaning, however changeable (because contingent) is meant to last forever.
For the Vedic rishis and rishikas, it was an initial act of ascesis that brought the world about; an operation dimensionlessness performed on itself; a fervor, if you prefer, embodied by the poets; disciplines and anti-disciplines; basic skills and somatic/energetic practices indispensable to the creation of poetry: nature-of-mind meditation, chant, fasting, withdrawal of the senses, pranayama, kumbhaka, dark retreat, medical practice, ritual, nonconformity, total attunement, lunacy, channel opening, becoming luminous.
When appropriate, I've integrated ascetic practices in my teaching. I've always presented prosody as experiential, not as a study or topic per se. Prosody is what is most human about us; conscious, attuned conduct; the totally transformative power of tone of voice and potency of words emanating from insight and heart; the pleasure of rhythmic reciprocity. The role of the poet: the responsibility in picking up the pith elements of composition as the means for realizing one's life in being of benefit to others. The writing of the poem is both a small part of the practice of poetry and all there is to it. I've called this capacious approach 'integrative' or 'implicate' prosody.
Conscious Prosody, for balancing; Vestibular Prosody, for forthrightness, for conflict resolution, for bioregulation, for being conscious and caring for each other. Prosody Diagnostics. Dead Giveaway Prosody. It's written all over us.
I have been variously practicing, researching, presenting, performing, propagating and publishing prosodic works for over 30 years. In 2006, with choreographer Daria Faïn, I co-founded an experiential art-science named The Prosodic Body. In 2008, in order to put into practice and perform our research, Faïn and I then formed a theater group known as The Phoneme Choir, commingling movement and language as choreoprosodia. In 2010, to apply our practice more directly to social, systemic, civilizational and karmic suffering and wellbeing, the choir morphed into The Commons Choir. In March of 2018 I began teaching a prosody course (through the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church, grâce à Simone White) titled Prosody Privatization Performance and Peace — a poetry and creative writing course with voice, movement, somatic, medical, meditation, mantra and spiritual practices integral to the teaching. This ongoing course is now called Prosody and the Preciousness of Life. And there will be further iterations and subtitles. Although the course is conceived in series, the individual sessions are also stand-alone presentation/discussions, complete in themselves. While the sessions do, for the most part, follow and fulfill a predetermined sequence, the energetics is also experiential and improvisatory; the sessions react to themselves; they may be out of sequence or in sync with breaking news or participant needs.
Although the course is whole at every point, at the same time, the elucidation of prosody is exhausting and inexhaustible. It's prosody's ever-present and impossible wholeness that impels me forward, backward, outward, inward, everywhere, anywhere.
'This' story of prosody, told through the cosmogenic stich that brought the world about (and has continually been updated by poets to this day) with a special focus on contemporary poetry, poetics and the current plethora of prosodic innovations.