On the Differences Between Poetry and Prose Recitation

Nila Friedberg, University of California, Los Angeles

What are the differences between poetry and prose recitation? If the same sentence occurred in the context of prose and poetry, would it be read in two different ways? While one may expect that poetry and prose are not recited in the same way, it is not exactly clear in what way they differ. Moreover, previous phonetic studies focused on the recitation of verse (Hayes and Kaun 1996, Cole and Miyashita 1999, Tsur 1977, 2002) without considering how the same poetic line would be read in the prose context.

This paper presents the results of a phonetic study involving seven speakers of Russian (3 males and 5 females), ranging from ages 30 to 56. Speakers were asked to read a prose sample followed by a poetry sample. Both samples contained the same sentence shown in (1).

(1)        Dozhd’ stjagivajet prosvet                                  Brodsky, New stanzas to Augusta: 7

The poetry sample was an iambic stanza of Joseph Brodsky’s poem New stanzas to Augusta. The prose sample was an artificial construct based on Brodsky’s respective stanza, whereby the word order had been changed and the rhymes eliminated.

The iambic scansion of (1) is shown in (2). Stressed syllables are capitalized, and metrical positions in iambic verse are marked as W (weak) and S (strong), respectively:




g(i)-      va-











First, two hypotheses were tested: (a) In poetry, readers are likely to prolong the final words of the line (Hayes and Kaun 1996, Hayes and MacEachern 1998) in order to make poetry reading similar to chanting; (b) In poetry, readers are likely to prolong all stressed vowels in order to emphasize the meter. Both hypotheses turned out false, since there were no significant differences across speakers between the duration of SVET and STJA- in poetry versus prose.

However, the duration of DOZHD' turned out to be significantly (p=o.o3) longer in prose than in poetry across speakers. This suggests that in prose speakers prolong DOZHD' in order to emphasize the topic of the sentence, or what the sentence is about (Brown and Yule 1983). On the other hand, in poetry, DOZHD' occurs in a metrically Weak position, i.e., the odd position expected to be unstressed in iambic meter. Thus, in poetry the demands of the meter are more important than emphasizing the topic of the sentence, hence DOZHD' is pronounced shorter in order to make the weak position less prominent.

This study shows that the distinction between poetry and prose recitation is not encoded in vowel length per se, but rather in the length of the sentence topic. In addition, it shows the importance of investigating native speakers' intuitions (cf. Hayes and MacEachern 1998) about reciting literary verse. Most studies in this area (Tsur 1977, 2002, Zlatoustova 2001, Janecek 2002) focused on recitations by actors or poets. I show that naïve speakers of the language are surprisingly uniform in making the distinction between verse and prose.