Previous poetry writing tips have looked at rhyme and alliteration. Another fundamental aspect of poetic language is its rhythm. This post is the first of two that will look at this topic and the related notion of metre (or, if you prefer, meter).
In the English language, rhythm is created by a series of stressed and unstressed syllables. This is something we all do quite naturally when we speak, often without even realizing we are doing it. In the word “poetry”, for example, most readers would naturally stress the first syllable and not the second or third. Using capitalization to indicate the stressed syllable you could spell the word out like this : PO-e-try. Saying it with different stresses – po-E-try or po-e-TRY – will probably sound completely wrong.
The poet has always to have an ear for how her or his words will sound when read out aloud. As with rhyme, the reader will automatically pick out any repeated patterns in the words of a poem and react to them. The words will start to sound more musical, more significant. More attention will be paid to stressed syllables and this, perhaps in combination with rhyme or another device, will lend weight to certain words and ideas.
To illustrate the use of rhythmic language in poetry, take for example the opening lines from Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
Chances are, most readers would read those lines with these stressed syllables :
The CURfew TOLLS the KNELL of PARting DAY,
The LOWing HERD winds SLOWly O’er the LEA,
As you can see, the pattern is very regular. The lines consist of a repeated pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Gray has chosen each word with great care, to ensure that they fit into this rhythm. The rhythm is not arbitrary; rather it reflects the meaning of the words. Its slow regularity chimes well with the sound of the ringing bell (the “curfew”) and also with the plodding steps of the cattle as they trudge home.
Where there is a clear pattern like this throughout a poem, this is referred to as the poem’s metre. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a poem has to slavishly follow that pattern. Some poetry dispenses with metre completely – for example Anglo-Saxon verse (such as Beowulf) or more modern free verse. But, even where there is a metre, poets will often depart from it to a degree, for example dropping or adding syllables here and there, perhaps to make the language sound more naturalistic. The metre may be considered the primary rhythm of a poem, but variations to it can still be introduced. You’ll find the ear can still pick out an overall rhythmic effect even when there is quite a lot of variation from it.
This can be a fine balance to strike for the poet. Poetry that follows its metre too slavishly can start to sound sing-song and comic. Too little adherence to the metre and the musical effect of the rhythm is lost.
Consider, for example, the following lines from the opening of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 :
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
If you read this out aloud you should able to hear an overall metre similar to that of Gray. At the same time, there is considerable variation and a strictly metrical reading would sound very odd. Shakespeare was well aware of his metre but allowed himself to deviate from it.
There are, in fact, numerous standard metres often employed by poets, and some useful terms to get to grips with to discuss them. These will be looked at in a subsequent post.