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Prosody in England and Elsewhere: A Comparative Approach Paperback – April 5, 2006
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Malcovati is an Italian engineer who works as a journalist for an English magazine. He has studied comparative literature (poetry) extensively and is apparantly an authority on medieval troubadour and Provençal poetry.
He comes across as a curmudgeon who has next to nothing good to say about anyone or anything, but he does so in a funny manner which one reviewer has called "irreverant and amusing." For example, here is what he has to say about closed verse forms and the sonnet in particular:
"We shall divide verse forms into two groups; the first one we shall treat, closed forms, includes those that have a fixed number of stanzas and lines, or one that varies within a very narrow range. Some of these forms, such as the sonnet, were fashionable once and a few, such as the haiku, still are but, given the general difficulty in using them, and the general incompetence of modern poets, most of these schemes are thorougly obsolete...
Absolutely the most common and abused form of all, the sonnet has been plaguing Italian poetry since the thirteenth century, and has rapidly invaded, with little variations, all Europe. The sonnet uniquely fits corny themes, as its fourteen lines allow the writer to be bombastic, but fall just short of letting him realise he's making a fool of himself. In spite of that, the form has been so popular that thousands of good sonnets exist, and several great ones as well. None of them, of course, deals with love."
He subtitles his book "A Comparative Approach" and it is; therein lies its strength. He discusses in particular detail the various forms of syllabic versification: the Italian endecasillabo, Gallic decasyllable, and the Alexandrine in both its French and Spanish incarnations. He introduces the very important concept of the "metrical syllable," which is the sine qua non for understanding syllablic versification.
The particular strengths of the book are the discussion of syllabic versification, types of rhyme and its classification scheme of the various verse and stanza forms. Classifying the open forms by the way the rhymes cross from one stanza to the next is particularly interesting and he introduces stanza theory in a very approachable and systematic way. I now understand several concepts I didn't even know existed and can classify forms into coblas continuadas, coblas capcaudatas, coblas unissonantis (all technical terms derived from Provençal and used by stanza theorists) and rime en kyrielle.
There is a brief chapter on Old Norse versification followed by one on Old English accentual verse. These are fairly detailed, despite their brevity.
The book finishes with a discussion of phonetic rhetoric and other advanced poetic devices and discusses iteratio, homoeoprophon, paragram and lipogram.
The book's strength is in its systematic arrangement and classification (which is more logical than Turco's) of the various forms and its use of English, French, Provençal, Italian, Old Norse and Spanish examples to illustrate each. These are accompanied by unmetered, unrhyming translations into modern English.
The book's weakness is in its discussion of the various English metrical feet and of English accentual-syllabic verse in general, but particularly the iambic pentameter line. His dismissal of the concepts of metrical promotion and even of the existance of verse feet is--I think--tongue-in-cheek and marked by a distinct chauvinism toward syllabic versification. Someone who is very versed in metrics and in the different theories of scansion will find his comparison of certain iambic pentameter lines to endecasillabo a maiore and endecasillabo a minore to be thought provoking. Someone well versed in metrics and familiar with the prosodies of Romance languages will simply laugh off what he's saying about English prosodic systems as the tongue-in-cheek ranting of an Italian curmudgeon with an axe to grind. But a beginner won't.
The beginner is strongly advised to disregard everything Malcovati says about iambic pentameter and to read Timothy Steele's "All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing" instead.
I recommend this book to a poet or poetry reader who has a good grounding in English accentual-syllabic prosody but desires to learn of other European prosodic systems, the various forms, stanza theory and advanced phonetic techniques in more depth.
I actually enjoyed the book immensely. It reads well and, though it contains technical terminology, it isn't bogged down by academic discussion or excessive use of jargon. It truly was a quick read and one I'll reread in the future as the need or desire arises.
I came to this thin book through the superlative author's <website> which is useful to get a handle on the troubadour and troubadress of the twelfth century. But that's another story. Good portions of the book are online, tempting you to get your hands on this bardswit of writing. It is mercifully narrow as you will appreciate.
And he brings in structures of many languages - a boon's bargain in this Internet area of prosaic devices, where Google translate gives a world of meanings to every thing. Also a good thing for the brave traveler of song (of the twelfth century) who banters to sing for various Germanic, Frank, Anglo, Italic, and Spanish suppers. Being ever confounded by innumerable translators, and compounding one's state of mind with the historically lost, I found myself delightfully lost in translation.
Being a coder, aware of structures of the long lost, succinctly interpreted, algorithms of poetry has proven useful; as it will be for experienced hackers of code who live in the present, a richer era of content hacking. So long past were prosaic words made for us to feel things. There's programming and then there is programming. Malcovati writes in the erudite manner that makes rereading a pleasure. And like all good rereading material it is mercifully thin.
Mark Richard Beaulieu
With every best wish.
There's also the show-off effect: when I got this book, I didn't even know what prosody meant, now I even know what a villanelle or a virtual rhyme is. I you want to know prosody and poetry, do yourself a favour, and buy this book