“There is no more subtly powerful compeller than rhythm.”
– Baron Wormser and David Cappella in Teaching the Art of Poetry
Yes, poetry involves recording details and implying our reactions to them. But that is true of most writing. Poetry grips us differently because it rides so heavily on rhythm. It emits a pulse. The words fall in such a way as to evoke our innate physical response to rhythms.
In Teaching the Art of Poetry, Baron Wormser and David Cappella note the deeply rhythmic nature of our world. The pulse of our mother’s heartbeat surrounds us in the womb. We carry our own heartbeats with us throughout life. They signify vitality in the most literal sense. Day and night, ocean waves, musical beats, train chugs, nursery rhymes, footsteps, dance moves…rhythm animates the stuff of our existence.
How Poems Get in our Guts
Good poems tap into this rhythmic power. We can feel the words move. Poets arrange them in a way that makes the most of the stressed syllables (the ones we emphasize in a word) and the unstressed ones.
Examples of stressed and unstressed syllables:
ba·LOON AF·ter con·tin·EN·tal
(The stressed ones are capitalized. Words with more than two syllables have syllables with smaller stresses, but I’ve only capitalized the main accented syllable here.)
Not All Rhythms are Regular
Poems don’t all follow a regular pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. When they do, we call them metric poems – or verse. The rhythm is the poem’s meter. Robert Frost once said that writing free verse, or unmetered poetry, is like playing tennis with the net down. It’s true that every poet can benefit from writing verse. We’ll play around with verse some time soon, so stay tuned.
So what about free verse – poetry without meter? It does have a rhythm, just an irregular one. Free verse moves like a leaf caught up in gusts of wind. It amplifies the natural rhythms of everyday speech. Creating gripping free verse rhythms takes extra care.
Exercise: Make Your Words Dance Like Fire
This week, listen for the rhythms around you. Choose a moment that you’d like to capture and write a few free verse lines that express the moment’s unique pulse.
If you want to convey a high-energy, fast paced, epic sports struggle, for instance – say your daughter versus the opposing team’s scary bruiser 5th-grader on the soccer field – use words that are short, stressed, with strong vowels and consonants. Rake, flight, zip, soar, crush, pain.
If you want your words to capture a sleepy afternoon on the couch, use softer consonants and longer, drawn-out words. Snore, warm, huddled, wish, breathe.
The words you choose are only part of the equation. (We refer to word choice as diction.) Try to arrange them so that the stresses mimic the innate rhythm of the subject matter or mood you desire. Is it parUMP parUMP or bub UP buh bub UP buh? Or BAM BAM BAM BAM BAMBITTY BAM? Keep in mind that free verse mixes things up from line to line — and even within lines.
You can even play around with combining rhythms. Create a few lines of mellow rhythm that feel like falling asleep on a rainy afternoon, then intersperse the drips, drops, plings, and caws from outside that jolt you from your slumber and hint at the energizing effect of the rain on the natural environment contrasted with the drowsy stillness inside.
Play around with free verse rhythms this week. Perhaps pick a photo and try to give sound to the rhythms the image implies. Feel the pulse of your life and dance to it with words on the page!
As always, you are invited to share in the comments section!