Have to type quickly today, as there are things that need some doing around town. This week has just been interminable, and I worry that the next will be even worse. But here’s to keeping a stiff upper lip and hoping that it all works out, and that I can make it through to the other side (vacation!) intact. Got such a headache, though…
This week: “i’ve got rhythm“
After talking about punctuation and line breaks, and different ways to use sound repetition, I want to wrap up this little three-part series with some talk about meter, vocabulary, and the broader level of sound structure. The usual caveat: this is all my own opinion. The secondary caveat: I have this habit of spelling meter as metre sometimes, à la the Brits, I suppose. Please pardon me in advance if I weave between the two spellings.
It can be easy to throw meter out the window, especially when doing free verse: with all the delicately crafted images and carefully placed sound devices, attention to grammar and punctuation (or breaking them apart), and other structural tricks, who has time to worry about the stressed syllables? Leave it for the sonneteers. But the truth is that meter can serve you well in any poem, whether it’s in a particular form or not. The basic types are as follows, described by each “foot”:
iambic – unstressed syllable followed by stressed (the caffeinated beverage…)
trochaic – stressed syllable followed by unstressed (anybody want a peanut?)
spondaic – two stressed syllables in a row (stand back!)
dactylic - stressed syllable followed by two unstressed (come to the carnival Saturday)
anapestic - two unstressed syllables followed by stressed (in the silence, a cry…)
amphibrach – unstressed, stressed, unstressed (the moon is the coin that bought nighttime)
There are others, but you’re most likely to run across entire lines of feet in one of these meters, or a few types mixed together. Pretty much everyone knows iambic pentameter from the sonnets; but what about amphibrach trimeter/dimeter? (That would be the limerick.) Or dactylic dimeter? (See the aptly-named “double dactyl”.) See what each line summons up in you and how they feel: try to give a name to the rhythm, whether it’s gallop, plod, trudge, sprint, flitter, crash, parade, etc. When you’re writing formal verse, you don’t often have a choice, but in free verse, you can mix and match these freely. If you want a particular section of the poem to move more swiftly, a lot of unstressed syllables often helps; similarly, if you want to stop the reader dead in their tracks, a spondee can be very effective, especially when combined with a subtle rhyme, a period, and a line break.
Even in formal verse, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could mess around with metre. Try doing a trochaic sonnet, or even a dactylic one. Is the sonnet more than just the sum of its parts? If you change the rhythm, you still have the rhyme scheme to follow, and the all important octet-sestet combination, with that important turn in the middle. (And if you don’t know what the turn is, please review the definition of the sonnet.) We are often told to use iambic rhythm in English because the language normally falls into that pattern; but part of the joy of poetry is to explore how far outside that pattern you can flex language.
So now let’s talk about choosing vocabulary. Again, free verse has a bit more liberty with this one, as there are normally a couple different options for the pacing of your lines, and therefore more options for the word selection. In a sonnet, the rhyme and the iambs keep you fairly set; you may have to say absurd instead of cockamimie, ridiculous, ludicrous, etc. even if you’re feeling wordy. But I want to draw your attention to word length, which is a different aspect that isn’t considered as often. In Japanese poetry, we hear about how haiku are not counted in syllables, but rather in “morae”, a nebulous linguistic concept. The short-and-sweet version, though, is that it’s about the number of sounds you’re cramming into one syllable. Think about be and strengths; they are both one syllable, but which takes longer to say? The latter has more morae, and would take up several “syllables” in an authentic Japanese-style haiku.
Use this perception to your advantage. Remember to change the flow of the poem. If you want to keep your reader moving at a clipped pace, you could write:
the river is serpentine, lapis lazuli singing its song
But if you want to slow that line down a bit, you might choose deeper vowels, syllables heavy with more consonants, and a metre with more stressed syllables:
wide-flowing water streams and falls; oxbow lake meets mire and sighs
Lots of monosyllables mixed in there, and “bow” is the only syllable that has less than three sounds in it. Rather than worrying about which words you can dig up that have the most syllables or the proper ones that fit the rhythm, try to find words which have the right balance. Try this: I can’t believe I’m about to suggest this, but open a thesaurus. Pick a word like “water” or “river”, and just make a list of everything in that entry. For each word, pick apart the stressed syllables; what meter could this fit into? Rate it from 1 to 10 on how heavy and slow (or light and quick) it is. Does it convey a particular tone? Sometimes, making a list like this can be very well-suited to replacing a word that you know is wrong for its location in your poem, but you can’t figure out why.
And a side note: you’ll want to stay away from the rarefied words, of course. And you don’t want to force a word into place. The cardinal rules of choosing language in poetry – get specific, but comprehensible, and don’t break the word too much – are paramount. But when you have your specific, comprehensible, flexible words, sometimes there are still several options, and the one whose sound matches your mood in that place in the poem will be the best one.
Lastly, sound structure in general is an important consideration. To develop what I said above, different metres, vowels and consonants will have a different effect. (And the rub is that different people will have myriad reactions to the same sounds.) You may craft a line perfectly, and then discover that the next one you want to write is completely different in rhythm. But instead of seeing this as a problem, use this to your advantage: what changes in the poem’s tone do you come across as a result? If you’re writing a poem about snowfall that starts out light and airy, and suddenly you want to insert an image full of deep, wide sounds:
…while thin-fingered flakes gathering between the twigs
make a bored yawn whose snobbery crumbles to the touch…
Roll with it! Here, the lines go from an almost childish glee at the snow to a disinterested unfriendliness, and the sound reflects that. (Note: “bored yawn” = spondee.) And look at the lines: they keep stopping and starting (like snow, perhaps?) with iambs rubbing against trochees, fading into a nice little pair of iambs at the end. Allow your lines to echo each other with their pace, but contrast in sound quality, or perhaps vice versa. Most importantly, allow yourself to discover things about the poem by reading it, over and over, as you write it, and tweak it to allow the sonic devices you love to come through.
There are poets for whom the overarching sound structure is the primary concern, but if you’re not one of them, then I urge you to keep it in mind. It might come after finding those perfect images and getting the rhymes just right, and writing in your particular voice, but it’s just one more component of the puzzle in a memorable poem. Formal verse takes advantage of this fact by forcing you into one pattern or another; it makes finding an enchanting skeleton to your poem easier, but can get stale real fast, or prevent some of what you want coming through. Write what you want to write, but then go back and write it again to see how it talks and sings. You will surprise yourself when you think about how lines rub against one another, how metres match within a poem, how the weights of different syllables will pull the poem in one direction or another.
A bit of reading, again:
- Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill” (again, I know!)
- Langston Hughes, “Harlem“
- Rafael Campo, “Love Song for Love Songs“
These are more or less chosen at random (okay, Fern Hill was not), but try reading these paying attention only to the sound. Look specifically for any change/shift/regularity in meter, any repetition of sound structure (not just rhymes!), and words that seem curious at first glance, but upon closer inspection bring the feel of the poem to life. (Relating back to the last Reverie, all three of these do also do interesting things with rhyme.) Free-write a bit: what ideas do these three poems generate in you?
And then once you’ve gotten those juices flowing, try either revising and old poem to pay more attention to meter and sound — change some of the words around! — or craft an entirely new one where you do make it your primary concern. Happy writing!