The Rhythm Method
The Rhythm Method
by Rod Miller
Included in almost any definition of poetry you’re likely to come across is the word “rhythm.” It’s an important characteristic of the form, one in a long list of qualities such as imagery, metaphor, allusion, onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance, metrical form, rhyme, depth, and, of course, the inherently beautiful sounds of words.
Rhythm is a common tool of the careful writer, employed in every style of writing from fiction to history to journalism to essays to love letters. But, as with every other literary device, poetry requires a more thoughtful, refined, deliberate use of rhythm if it is to fulfill its role as representing the highest use of language.
What, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about rhythm in poetry? For me, at least, it’s difficult to define. It’s inextricably tangled, it seems, with a number of other ideas—such as meter, beat, tempo, cadence, pacing, pulse—and since rhythm works in concert with them, it is difficult to discuss in isolation.
But I’ll try.
Please realize that I lack any formal education in poesy or creative writing, and the ideas here are gleaned from personal study and may not concur with the notions of others. So take what you will from what follows.
Rhythm in poetry is related to and works in conjunction with meter, much as it works in conjunction with beat and tempo and time signature in music. While I’m not at all musical and mostly ignorant of the terminology, a composer friend of mine defined rhythm in music as “what happens around the beat.”
That’s why, I suppose, a 3/4 time signature in music can be used in a hymn, a waltz, rock and roll, and so on. Rhythm is, to a large extent, what differentiates a Cajun tune from a classical one, bluegrass from baroque, klezmer from calypso.
But, back to words.
Cats and felines, for example.
Let’s look at a couple of short phrases I conjured up in an attempt to demonstrate rhythm. Both lines were composed using the same meter—trochaic trimeter, a string of three trochees, which is a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. (Not to get bogged down in a discussion of meter, but I think it’s important here in order to show how the same meter can accommodate different rhythms.)
Listen to these few words as you read them:
Angry cats at battle
Now, compare this line:
Lazy felines recline
Do you hear the difference? The use of rhythm makes each line “feel” like its subject. The first phrase falls off the tongue fast and furious, it pokes and jabs, it sounds like cats fighting. The second line, on the other hand, “feels” relaxing, and sounds as sleepy as a pair of purring pusses.
The change occurs mostly because of the rhythm that results from the sounds in those little lines, sounds which create significantly different results despite identical meter:
(Some may quibble that RE-cline should be re-CLINE, but where I come from, when spoken in a phrase like this, the first syllable gets at least equal, if not greater emphasis.) Same number of syllables, same foot, same line length—but altogether different in rhythm.
Why? How does it happen?
One of the best explanations of rhythm as it relates to words that I’ve seen comes from Roy Blount, Jr., in his book Alphabet Juice: “In song [and in poetry, I’ll add], vowels carry the melody, the air. Consonants—separated in time to some extent by the vowels but also taking various amounts of time themselves—are the rhythm section.”
So, according to Blount, it’s the time vowels and consonants spend playing off one another that creates the rhythm in a string of words. I think he’s right.
Seeing, hearing, and feeling rhythm in action.
Here are a few examples of how outstanding poets use rhythm. Note how the rhythm of the language contributes to—in a sense creates—the pictures the poems paint. We’ll start with a stanza from Banjo Paterson’s classic bush poem “Clancy of the Overflow”:
And the bush has friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.
One senses the pastoral life Clancy lives in the long, stretched-out vowel sounds (meet, kindly, greet, breezes, plains, night, wondrous, glory, everlasting, stars) that dominate the lines. The consonants are relatively soft in most of the words, playing second fiddle to the vowels (bush, rivers, splendid, sunlit).
Paterson changes things up in a later stanza to describe the world the poem’s narrator lives in:
And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street;
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting
Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.
Here, the earlier softness is replaced by hard sounds. The stanza is seasoned with short vowels and hard consonants (cattle, rattle, tramways, buses, language, gutter, children, fitfully, tramp), and that gives it an entirely different flavor than the earlier stanza.
From cats and cattle to rabbits.
DW Groethe does the same thing (in reverse order) in his hilarious verse “The Bunny Poem.” Here are two disconnected stanzas from the middle of the poem. Note how the choppy, staccato rhythm created by all the short vowels and hard consonants drives the poem along in a violent frenzy at a tempo bordering on frantic:
There was bunnies in the ditches,
’Neath the sagebrush, in the air,
There was millions there was billions
There was bunnies everywhere.
They was wrapped around the axles,
They was gummed up on the tires,
Parts was flipped up on the engine
On the manifolds an’ wires!
But the nightriders in the poem survive the attack, and the final stanza reflects a sense of relief—not only in what it says, but in how it uses the rhythm of a different kind of words (softer consonants, long vowels) to say it:
I breathed an everlastin’ sigh
A-knowin’ that from here
All’s we had to worry ’bout
Was open range an’ deer.
Again, in both examples, the meter in the poems is fairly consistent. The change in cadence, in pace, in feeling, in imagery, is largely the result of effective use of rhythm created from the interplay of vowels and consonants.
No meter in sight.
While plenty of cowboy poets scoff at the notion of poetry that isn’t metrical—in other words, free verse—our final poem uses that form for a couple of reasons.
First, it shows that rhythm and meter, while related, are different. Here, Laurie Wagner Buyer (www.lauriewagnerbuyer.com) uses rhythm in the same way as Paterson and Groethe to contribute to the desired feeling, but does it without meter.
Second, it’s one of my favorite poems, in large part because of the poet’s effective use of rhythm. This, from the book Glass Eyed Paint in the Rain (High Plains Press, 1996), is from the opening stanza of “Madge”:
They say she whacked off her hair
and crammed on a hat,
dressed like a man,
cussed and chewed,
married her hired hands
so she wouldn’t have to
pay ’em any wages,
told ’em if they wanted
smokes and booze
to get off their butts
and trap for cash.
Every time I read those lines, I am amazed at the picture of Madge the words create. Again, not just what the words say, but how they are used in a rhythmic pattern that says as much (or more) as the words themselves. All those short vowels, single-syllable words, and hard consonants sketch a tough, hard-bitten, no-nonsense woman of the Wild West.
But the poem subtly shifts gears along the way, then abruptly, with a bloom of flowers. The first time I read the poem, that change practically knocked me off my chair. And it still affects me scores, if not hundreds, of readings later. Note, in this later stanza, how the change in rhythm—softer consonants and longer vowels stretching the syllables, relaxing the cadence, reining in the tempo, muting the noise—shows us a gentler side of Madge:
At night her old homestead
house creaked and groaned,
keeping company with the wild
roar of the wide glacial river.
Every spring her crocus
and narcissus bloomed bright
below the south-face windows.
Have you got rhythm?
While the interplay of vowels and consonants is important—probably paramount—in creating rhythm in poetry, other tools contribute. Punctuation, of course. Enjambment (breaking a thought or phrase onto a different line or stanza) and caesura (putting a pause inside a line rather than at the end) have a say. Dropping a syllable at the beginning or end of a line can create a helpful metrical pause. Line endings and line length play a role. Even varying the lengths of sentences.
Pay attention to them all as you write, and feel your way into the poem’s proper rhythm. A poem knows where it wants to go and will get there if you give it its head and give it what it wants—needs—to make the journey.
Rhythm is, in summary, an important tool for the poet. Like other literary devices it can raise language to a higher level, strengthen other aspects of the poem, treat the reader (or listener) to more vivid pictures, and tell the story better than words alone can. Deliberately shifting and changing the rhythm to alter the pace of a poem will keep metered verse from becoming monotonous and sing-songy. And it can, as demonstrated in the examples shown here, contribute to—even create—moods and feelings, images and ideas.
Rhythm is available to any poet who cares to put it to work; to spend the extra time it takes to struggle with every syllable, every sound, to create a superior piece of poetry. Writing a poem that says what you want it to say is relatively easy in the scheme of things. The hard work of writing a superior poem is in making it sound like what it says. Creating effective (and affective) rhythm is a big part of that.
So, listen to what you write. Listen as you rewrite. And when you can feel the poem, as well as hear it, it’s got rhythm.
When you reach that point, your poem might—might—be finished.
© 2009, Rod Miller, All rights reserved
See our separate feature about Rod Miller here, which includes some of his poetry.
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