Rhymes and Rhythms

I am thinking that there is a way to think about poetry as a creation made of different kinds of rhymes and rhythms. These two concepts from the basis of what has been considered “traditional verse” or “formal verse.” As you know, this semester, I have steered you away from formal verse and toward what is called “free verse.” T.S Eliot said that no free verse is really free, and I would agree with that. I agree with it because the free verse poet has substituted different kinds of rhymes and rhythms into his or her poems. The free verse poem is usually not successful if it is totally free, because it seems that success depends upon some Form in the poem, as opposed to mere shape in the poem.

Maybe we can think of it this way—in the twentieth century painting many old forms and traditions were abandoned. Abstract painting and Abstract Expressionism threw out landscape, people, objects, and all those things that we associate with the history of painting. But those paintings that are Abstract that still grab the interest of much of the art viewing public—such as Pollack’s drip paintings—have a sense of movement and repetition that the unsuccessful ones don’t.

So in free verse where do we get these rhymes and rhythms? The late twentieth century poet Robert Duncan wrote a long series of poems in several books that he called “The Structure of Rime.” A gross simplification of his ideas is that a rime is not just two words that sound alike, but two or more concepts, ideas, myths, visualizations, archetypes. A rhyme could be flowers. So in one part of the poem, you say “rose,” then in a later part you say “lilly,” and in another part you say “daisy.” A rhyme could be square or cube structures (as in the Volkswagon commercial). So in a poem, you may have a bedroom, then a packing box, then a children’s block, then an office building, then a window. The repetition of these images keeps “rhyming” in the mind of the attentive reader. All of this then would call to the mind of the reader the various connotations of the square. Gary Snyder has a poem where he looks at different kinds of waves. I bet you see the point.

So the question of rhythm then becomes one of the pace of the repetition of these rhymes. For instance, think of pop music. How often is the snare drum hit with the loud sharp hit? There are all these other drum sounds, but there is this one bass or snare hit that establishes the down beat. Certainly this rhythm is also established in a poem with the metrical rhythm, but on top of that metrical rhythm is all the rhythm of ideas. (Especially, in free verse, where the metrical rhythm is more free.) But notice how in the best poems the main ideas are stated on the beats of the metrical rhythm: unimportant words and ideas are placed in the unaccented beats.

Then, as with all rhythms, the most important part is the varying of the rhythm. If the rhythm stays the same throughout the full song or poem, then the song or poem becomes predictable and boring. So there is the continuing tension between the foundation structure of the main rhythm and the variation upon that rhythm. (If you have studied composition and the writing of prose, you know that in any textbook there is a chapter on sentence variety and a chapter on repetition.)

Now there is no golden rule—like, be regular this much and do variations at this point. It is a matter of feel—what feels right as you say it aloud—and a matter of sense—does the meaning you are conveying fit into a pattern or a variation. In a short poem, you might see the conceptual rhyme in line one, line three, line five, and then line ten. Or it might be line two, line five, line nine and line ten. In these two examples, you can see two different kinds of rhythm. The first is a slowing down of the rhythm, and the second is a speeding up of the rhythm. Which you choose will depend on the meaning of the poem and the effect you want on the reader.

You can also have a rhythm that features separate stanzas, each stanza being a rhythmical unit. Paul Simon does this in songs—stanza one is about one person who is lonely, stanza two is about different person who is lonely, and stanza three is about a third person. In a pop song the separation of these stanzas is linked through the bridge or through the chorus. In free verse poem, you might find yourself using the first lines of the first stanza to set up the theme, and the last lines of the last stanza to repeat the theme (or add a twist to it).

In a narrative poem the stanzas/strophes may be build upon different steps in the narrative. In a love poem this may be meeting the person, dating the person, getting settled with the person, having a fight with the person, separating from the person, being lonely without the person, getting back with the person. In writing this, it seems to me that if this is the separation of stanzas in a poem, it gets a little too mechanical and predictable. There needs to be a sub theme or secondary rhythm of rhymes going on also. Maybe some stanzas need to be connected with enjambment for the last lines of stanza.

[Obviously, in this post I have changed the meanings of Rhythm and Rhyme from what we usually expect in a educational institutions.  For the usual list of rhythmical units called feet and meter, see this post.  For a discussion of Rhyme, begin here.]

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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.