‘Hit me slowly, hit me quick’
Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, Ian Dury & the Blockheads
Poetry may or may not be a branch of music (The Write Life September 17, 2020) but you have to admit it’s got a drum kit. In some ways it’s how this impressive array of tongue, lips, teeth, glottis, larynx, etc is used that sets poetry apart from other literary forms. Yet rhythm in poetry doesn’t get as much attention as subject matter does, or the use of imagery. Of course narrative has rhythm too, and just because verse goes ‘bumpity-bumpity’ doesn’t mean it’s a poem. We also talk about rhythm in visual arts. So perhaps it would be worth establishing what we mean by rhythm before claiming a special place for it in poetry.
Interestingly, dictionary definitions of rhythm often start at the music and verse end of the range of its possible meanings. But at the most fundamental level, it is often defined as any regularly recurring alternation of weak and strong. This broad kind of definition applies to repeated elements in a picture as much as to the steps of a dance or the clicking of a beetle. It also applies in fiction or a speech, where ideas or parallel structures recur, as any practised story-teller or public speaker could tell us. But, surely, whether the metric is formal or free, poetry makes more use of distinctly metrical speech rhythms than any other literary form.
I remember reading WB Yeats saying something to the effect that in a poem behind the poet’s voice there can be heard a folksinger. I take this to mean that in poetry the rhythms of the spoken word (in the air or in our heads) are more fluid or variable than in song but that there is nonetheless an underlying metricality which impinges on our reception of the poem, if not consciously. Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, I suggest, can be used to demonstrate this idea of two different kinds of rhythm happening at the same time. The words in bold in the first two lines below are one way a modern reader of English would place the stresses.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Try them again in strict iambic pentameter by stressing syllable 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10. I’m fairly sure this is not how Shakespeare said them to himself late at night in his lodgings in Silver Street. Look though at the next few lines stressed as I (though not everyone every time) would stress them.
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken
Even allowing for differences in pronunciation and delivery across more than 300 years, it seems to me that the poem is more iambic as it develops and becomes more insistent. The iambics are Yeats’ folksinger, I suggest, and the more naturally fluid stress placement is the poet Shakespeare with us his readers (the whole poem can be found here and at the link below).
I’m not proposing to go exhaustively into the uses of classical metres (though see below for a quick reference to the basics). However I think it’s worth asking why, considering their past importance, contemporary poetry in English largely ignores them. Perhaps it’s partly because they don’t work very naturally with the language. All schemes, of rhyme or metre, taken from other languages are altered in some way by virtue of being rendered into a second language. It is only approximately true, for instance, to say that in Japanese a count of syllables is an important feature of haiku. And in English, metres borrowed from Classical Greek and Latin necessarily become something else because in the original languages stress placement in lines of verse was probably different.
There are held to be three kinds of language with respect to stress placement: stress-timed, syllable-timed, and mora-timed. The distinction between the first two of these refers to the tendency of the rhythms of speech of particular languages to be regularly timed between syllables (e.g. French, Italian, and Spanish) or between major word stresses (e.g. English, Irish, and Arabic). Some languages, such as Japanese, are mora-timed, as perhaps ancient Greek was too. Morae, very broadly, are like syllables but take into account whether a vowel is long or short, and are thus counted differently (see above re haiku). It has to be said that these distinctions between languages are not absolute, but in Italian for example the time between the syllables of a particular utterance is roughly equal. In English it is the time between the major stresses that is roughly equal. So in terms of rhythm, a sonnet in Italian is qualitatively different from one in English.
There is another problem with classical metres, particularly as far as stress-timed languages are concerned. Remove an initial unstressed syllable and put one at the end of the line, as below and you have two different metres. This may well have made a profound difference in Ancient Greek, but it makes much less of a difference in a language like English.
– / – / – / – / – / – / / – / – / – / – / – / –
iambic hexameter trochaic hexameter
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for one, understood this. He was a great experimenter with rhythm and metre – including with the then novel practice in ‘serious’ poetry of making the number of stresses in the line the measure regardless of how many weak syllables there are in between. In so doing he makes the line more natural, and perhaps anticipates free verse.
A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear
A stifled drowsy unimpassioned grief
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief
In word or sigh or tear –
(From Dejection: an Ode, first published 1802, in which Coleridge has as an epigraph four lines from The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence)
Rhythm and metre are of course not the same thing, but choosing any metric, or none, in a poem will have a profound impact on its rhythmic qualities. The metric might be, among other things, a syllable count, a stress count, a length of line, or the fixed metre of a particular verse form. The metric may also be followed strictly or loosely (and indeed consciously or unconsciously to varying degrees), but in any case, as an integral part of a poem, it will carry much of what we might call its music. And, like the structural elements of music, and as rhyme is too, any metric is a restriction.
Restriction of form is limiting in some senses but very freeing and productive in others. As we try to cross the gap of self-imposed difficulty we are often forced to abandon or modify ideas, lexis, and schemes we might have had in mind – to be led somewhere strange and unexpected by the possibilities in the language itself, rather than making language fit our purpose. We become obliged to listen to our language.
Here’s someone who listened hard to her language, as it came at her from the sky or the depths of the earth. She has been derided for only ever writing in one metre. This isn’t true, but those who say it mean this one, ballad metre.
I saw no Way – the Heavens were stitched –
I felt the Columns close –
The Earth reversed her hemispheres –
I touched the Universe –
And back it slid – And I alone –
A speck upon a ball –
Went out beyond Circumference –
Beyond the dip of Bell –
Emily Dickinson c. 1862
Paying attention to rhythm in a poem – as a writer, a reader, and both – is not about learning the rules of ancient systems or studying phonology (though they may be worth a try). It is about being awake to the beat of what we already have from our reading, our histories and cultures, our first learning of language, the pulse of the blood, the impulses of the brain. And if we listen out for them, maybe our folksinger has wilder songs for us than we’ve yet heard.
Shakespeare’s sonnet 116: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45106/sonnet-116-let-me-not-to-the-marriage-of-true-minds
Metre in verse, from the Literary Devices website: https://literarydevices.net/meter/
Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick: https://youtu.be/0WGVgfjnLqc