• Rhythm

    Poems, unlike most prose, depend on having an internal beat. Use accented syllables, silence, line breaks, meter, and traditional and original rhythmic patterns to get your audience's heads nodding. 

    Accented Syllables
    Miss Lucy had a baby.
    His name was tiny Tim.
    She put him in the bathtub
    to see if he could swim. 
    He ate up all the water,
    he drank up all the soap. 
    He tried to eat the bathtub, but it
    wouldn't go down his throat.
    Words have syllables that get accented and syllables that don’t. When you put them together, you can think of them like morse code: deetDAH, deetdeetDAH, etc. Or you can think of them like eighth and quarter notes, hit on a drum.

    Either way, you get rhythm. Notice this. People have been into it for a long, long time. Now that rappers are too, it’s cool for you to hop on the bandwagon.


    That night your great guns, unawares,
    Shook all our coffins as we lay…

    --Thomas Hardy


    Repeated Words and Lines

    Miss Lucy called the doctor, 
    Miss Lucy called the nurse. 
    Miss Lucy called the lady with the alligator purse.   
    The second way to control rhythm is through repetition. You can repeat a sound, a word, a phrase, a line, or more. You can create what’s called a refrain, like a short song chorus. This builds rhythm into the structure of a poem. Also, you can begin to repeat something – reference a previous line – but add a twist.

    Horses, black horses:
    Midnight, Five Minutes to Midnight.
    Rider up, the sparks from their hooves like stars, like spiked stars.
    This is a metaphor for failure,
    This is the Rest of It, the beautiful horse, black horse.
    Midnight. Dark horse, dark rider.

    --from "Littlefoot, 14" by Charles Wright

    Caesura (Pauses) and Enjambment (Flow)

    Commas, periods, dashes and natural pauses are a part of rhythm. (Note the effect of them in the Wright poem excerpt above.)

    If the pause comes at the end of a line, it’s called an “end stop.” Too many end stops makes a poem feel sing-song and repetitive; it makes a rhyme scheme too obvious. Instead, use "enjambment": have the end of the line have no natural pause. This makes what are called “run on lines,” with the ends of phrases or sentences coming anywhere but the end of the actual lines. 

    Here is an example of
    the use of enjambment across
    line breaks. 
    The use of run-on lines, or enjambment, when the lines still end with rhymes, is considered skillful. Another way to say this is that you should make your pauses come at the end of a sense unit, not a metrical unit. But still rhyme at least sometimes....

    I like your
    hat. What store
    carries more
    green ones? For
    I so adore
    it. I want more


    Rhythm + Rhyme = Meter

    There are rhythm and rhyme patterns people follow. A few might be called important, like the traditional sonnet (three different ten syllable a-b-a-b sets, then a rhyming couplet), and iambic bam-de-bam pentameter (ten syllable lines that hit every other syllable).

    More important is that you are consistent within whatever poem you have. Don’t set up a pattern, then break it. Your poem must make mathematical sense: either it’s random (“free verse”) or it’s a conscious pattern.

    The Tyger

    Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
    In the forests of the night;
    What immortal hand or eye,
    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

    In what distant deeps or skies,
    Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
    On what wings dare he aspire?
    What the hand, dare sieze the fire?

    And what shoulder, & what art,
    Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
    And when thy heart began to beat,
    What dread hand? & what dread feet?

    What the hammer? what the chain,
    In what furnace was thy brain?
    What the anvil? what dread grasp,
    Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

    When the stars threw down their spears,
    And water'd heaven with their tears:
    Did he smile his work to see?
    Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

    Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
    In the forests of the night:
    What immortal hand or eye,
    Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

    --William Blake, 1794

    A Renewal

    Having used every subterfuge
    To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
    Now I see no way but a clean break.
    I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.

    You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
    A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.
    We sit, watching. When I next speak
    Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.

    --James Merrill (1926-1995)


    From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

    Let us go then, you and I
    When the evening is spread out against the sky
    Like a patient etherized upon a table;
    Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
    The muttering retreats
    Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
    And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
    Streets that follow like a tedious argument
    With insidious intent
    To lead you to an overwhelming question…
    Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
    Let us go and make our visit.

    …In the room the women come and go
    talking of Michelangelo.

    --T.S.Eliot (1888-1965)

    “Hope” is the thing with feathers

    “Hope” is the thing with feathers—
    that perches in the soul—
    and sings the tune without the words—
    and never stops—at all—

    And sweetest—in the Gale is heard—
    And sore must be the storm—
    That could abash the little Bird
    That kept so many warm—

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land
    And on the strangest Sea—
    Yet never, in Extremity,
    It asked a crumb—of Me.

    --Emily Dickenson (1830-1886)



    From Paid in Full

    Thinkin’ of a master plan
    ‘ Cause ain't nuthin’ but sweat inside my hand
    So I dig into my pocket, all my money’s spent
    So I dig deeper, but still comin’ up with lint
    So I start my mission -- leave my residence
    Thinkin’ how could I get some dead presidents
    I need money. I used to be a stick-up kid
    So I think of all the devious things I did
    I used to roll up: “This is a hold up, ain't nuthin funny
    Stop smiling, be still, don't nuthin’ move but the money.”
    But now I learned to earn, ‘cause I'm righteous
    I feel great, so maybe I might just
    Search for a 9 to 5. If I strive
    Then maybe I'll stay alive
    So I walk up the street whistlin’ this
    Feelin’ out of place, ‘cause man, do I miss
    A pen and a paper, a stereo, a tape of
    Me and Eric B, and a nice big plate of
    Fish, which is my favorite dish
    But without no money it's still a wish
    Cos I don't like to dream about gettin paid
    So I dig into the books of the rhymes that I made
    To now test to see if I got pull
    Hit the studio, ‘cause I'm paid in full.

    --Rakim, 1987


    Speech to the Young

    Say to them,
    say to the down-keepers,
    the sun-slappers,
    the self-soilers,
    the harmony-hushers,
    “ Even if you are not ready for day
    it cannot always be night.”
    You will be right.
    For that is the hard home-run.
    Live not for battles won.
    Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
    Live in the along.

    --Gwendolyn Brooks (b.1917)

    from Recuerdo

    We were very tired, we were very merry--
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry
    And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear
    From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere
    And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
    And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

    --Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)



    Types of Meter

    Let’s get technical. Here are 4 types of meter and their building blocks.

    1. Syllabic meter: the amount of syllables per line is crucial.
    2. Accentual-syllabic: the amount of syllables per line and where the
    accents fall is crucial.
    3. Accentual meter: only the amount of accented syllables per
    line is crucial.
    4. Free verse (or meter): any invented pattern, or random. (whatever, dude)


    Now the Real Rhyme Science (the truly technical details):

    Syllablic verse, therefore, is pretty simple. Haiku are syllabic: 5-7-5 syllables. French poems are often, say, ten syllables per line, with no real rhythm.

    verse is based on:
    a. units of rhythm
    b. amount of those units per line

    There are labels for all of these that get pretty darn scientific. Units of rhythm:
    Iamb: one unaccented followed by an accented syllable (away)
    Anapest: two unaccented syllables then an accented syllable (intervene)
    Trochee: an accented followed by an unaccented syllable (only)
    Dactyl: an accented syllable then two unaccented syllables (happily)
    Spondee: two accented syllables (cars crash!)

    “foot”: one of the above; a 2- or 3-syllable unit of rhythm
    momometer: one foot per line
    dimeter: two feet per line
    trimeter: three feet per line
    tetrameter: four feet per line
    pentameter: five feet per line
    hexameter: six feet per line
    heptameter: seven feet (line usually breaks up after this long)

    Therefore, iambic pentameter is lines of five pairs of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable: “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”
    Quiz-type questions: What is anapestic trimeter? Dactylic tetrameter?


    Accentual or “Stress” Meter: this is what rap and other music lyrics usually use, as well as lots of poetry. As long as you hit beats at the right times, you can have any number of unaccented syllables between them.

    To grasp accentual verse, or stress meter, or whatever you want to call it, you have to understand primary (totally stressed) and secondary (kind of stressed) accents. For the following, the primary stresses are in bold italics and the secondary are in just italics.

    Sing a song of sixpence, pocketful of rye
    Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie

    Notice: the top line is eleven syllables, the bottom line ten, but each have four big beats, or primary stresses. The secondary stresses don’t count.

    Peas porridge hot,
    Peas porridge cold,
    Peas porridge in the pot
    Nine… days… old.

    The above lines accent three syllables each, even though they range from 3-6 syllables.

    Traditional ballads alternate lines of four and three accents.

    The king sits in Dumferling toune
    Drinking the blood-red wine
    Oh where will I find a skillful sailor
    To sail this ship of mine?”

    Rhyme Scheme (Meter) Shorthand, e.g. a-b-b-a

    Letters (beginning with a) are used as shorthand to describe rhyme schemes. An a-a-a poem is a three line poem with every line ending with the same sound: “The cat/sat/on the hat.” An a-b-a-b stanza alternates rhymes: “the boys/were nice/to Joy’s/head lice.” An a-b-b-a rhyme: ‘the boys/were nice/to the head lice/of Joy’s.” Introducing letters like c and d means lines end with new sounds.


    A Few Stanza forms:

    Traditional sonnet: 14 lines, iambic pentameter, ababcdcdefefgg
    Italian sonnet: 14 lines, iambic pentameter; abbaabbacdcdcd.
    Villanelle: 5 aba stanzas, and a final 4-line (usually abaa) stanza, all on 2 rhymes. The first and third lines alternate as the last lines of the other stanzas; and they are both the last lines of the final quatrain.
    Rondeau: 15 lines, usually 8 syllables each; opening words of poem become the refrain, rhymed aabba, aabc, aabbac.
    Sestina: 6 stanzas, 6 lines each, then 3 lines. Same six words rotate oddly as line enders.


    Your Assignment: 

    Rhythm and Meter Elements Poem            Name: ____________________________

    Demonstrate your understanding of key rhythm and meter elements by writing a 3-stanza, 12-line poem and labeling it with rhyme scheme shorthand. It needs to include 4 things:

    (1)   4 lines (over 8 syllables each) that end with rhyming with enjambment. This means that the lines END with a rhyme, but NOT a natural pause such as a comma or period.
    For example:

    Every summer, my family and I take
    a trip to New Hampshire. The lake
    we go to is beautiful. My dad loves to bake
    cookies there, while my mom will make

    us chop lumber…

    (2)   4 lines of iambic pentameter. In other words, each line needs to be 10 syllables. Ideally, the accents should fall every other syllable (that’s the iambic part), but don’t worry too much about that. The lines need not rhyme in this stanza.

    (3)   4 or more lines in which repetition (of words, lines or syntax; you can repeat stuff from the first 8 lines) is used to create a rhythm. Don’t overthink this, just do it.

    (4)   Then don’t forget: in the left or right margin of the poem, label the rhyme scheme. Your four first lines should be A-A-A-A. Your next 4 might be B-C-D-E. Etc. If a line ends with a rhyme, it’s going to share a letter with another.



Last Modified on March 11, 2019