Tuesday, December 16, 2008


The Enchanted Forest. Painting by Ruth Zachary

Music and Rhythm in Poetry.

Speech uses unique rhythms and patterns. Speakers who consciously and unconsciously use these rhythms and patterns well are easier to listen to. In the written form of language, the longer the phrase and sentence stucture, the harder it is to translate it into spoken form.

Poetry often breaks up these phrases and structures into shorter sections, separated by line breaks, whereas prose uses punctuation to indicate pauses, stops, intonations, etc.

The goal is to create rhythms by structuring the lines so that they follow the familiar patterns of speech, and yet cause the reader to hear them internally.

Many of the formal forms of poetry from the past were based on these structures, which were often strictly observed, right down to the number of syllables, and words with the accent on a particular order in the wording. These structures can exhaust a beginner, or they can limit creativity with language because the structure is given more importance than what is being said, in that the beauty and music of the language is subjugated.

My belief is that although these traditional forms can be mastered so that language retains its beauty, it is still better to begin with the simple idea of the poem, and to adjust toward the classic form, rather than the other way around.

Beginners can write exquisite poetry by beginning with a subject that stimulates emotion, and expressing it by using sensate impressions (sight, sound, sense, taste, smell, etc) The next enrichment might be inclusion of metaphor and figures of speech.

It is important to read the poem aloud, again and again, revising until it flows naturally.

The writer might next pay attention to the rhythm of the words, changing line breaks, and resorting to different words which enhance the rhythm, and create sounds with a more musical quality.

Often vowel sounds will be repeated within a phrase, or repeating consonants may be used. If the sounds are gutteral, the effect can project a harsh feeling. If they are soft, the effect may enhance the imagery in the writing. These can be used purposely to convey a particular tone around the subject. At time, these words also may contain their own music and their own reason for writing them down:

“Children like the wildflowers come,
each in their own season.”

Rhymes help create music, but end rhymes can quickly sound sing-song or contrived.
Internal rhymes not used within a rigid rhythm can contribute to the musical quality of the writing, or a piece of poetry, as an alternative to the traditional approach to rhyming.

There are technical terms for these devices, but the best way to become aware of them is simply to write, and to read aloud, and then to be willing to shift the order of words, the exact uses of words, or to substitute shorter or longer words, and so on.

A refrain is a phrase which is repeated two or three and sometimes more times for emphasis… to stress an idea, or to create the magic of music in a poem. Sometimes the words are presented in a different order each time. The Bells, by Edgar Allen Poe is a well known example of a repeating refrain.

First Love

Early One Evening
in late summer,
we held hands.

Your arm went around
my shoulders, lightly
embracing my back.

That late summer
Evening, in the back seat
of your cousin’s car.

We were thirteen.
The movie flickered
in black and white,

a background refrain
for our timid first kiss,
late one summer night.

Have fun with words. Don’t plan on a great poem at the end.
Create a series of phrases using the dictionary or a thesaurus, which
begin with the same sounds of the alphabet, like snake, slither, shuffle, shiver.

Write down several more phrases which use the same internal sounds such as moon, soothing, toothless, ruse, choose, raccoon, tomb.

Come up with some words which rhyme. They don’t have to have the same spelling, only the same sounds, for instance, right, fight, bright, height, sight, etc.
Add associated words to make rhyming phrases.

Reorder some of the words in the rhyming phrases, and then in your previously created phrases.

You may be pleasantly surprised. Consider keeping several reordered versions of these phrases, and using them in one poem. When repeated in a reordered fashion, they can become an intriguing refrain.

Take the best rhythmic or musical lines and phrases and string them together.
It is not necessary to use all of them. You might find you love what results from this process.

Writing and Art Images by Ruth Zachary are Copyrighted, and require permission to reproduce any portion.

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