Rhyme and Rhythm

Rhyme and Rhythm – two of the more commonly misspelled words in the English language. But also (doubtless alongside Reason) the foundation for much of its poetry. Whether you are a literature student or a budding writer, chances are you could do with getting to know both rhyme and rhythm a little better.

So here goes.

Consider this short poem:

Da da da da da da da da da da da da DA!
Da da da da da da da da da da da da DA!
Da da da da da da Da da DA da DA da DA!

Sorry, I should have said – you need to read it aloud. In fact, the first step to understanding and mastering rhythm is reading aloud (or, reading aloud in your head, if you’re in an exam). So go back and read it aloud now.

Did you enjoy that?

You can read it aloud in different ways, but it remains powerful rhythmic however you do it. Admittedly, it has few attractions beyond that rhythm, but we will fix that in a moment. Let’s move on to putting some words in. For the exercise, it doesn’t really matter what the words are about, as long as they create the same rhythm.

Jenkin Jenkins, Jenkin Jenkins, Jenkin is my man!
Jenkin Jenkins, Jenkin Jenkins, Jenkin is my man!
Jenkin Jenkins, Jenkin JENkins, Jenkin IS my MAN!

Naturally, you would baulk at writing poetry which simply repeated itself in this way (intellectually, we would like to know more about Jenkin Jenkins, and in one exact sense he is ones man), but, as the chorus of a song, it would do very nicely. Clearly, poetry and song are very different. A song can be very catchy and seem very profound, even when the words, if looked at on a page, say rather little – All you need is love, love, love, Love is all you need – for example. However, the peculiar character of poetry is that it inherits from song a degree of contrived rhythm which prose does not have. Read a stanzaic poem aloud (but not a free verse poem) and you will find it’s fairly easy to put a tune to it.

One of the most important differences, though, is the level of originality which we require from poetry: at the very least, we require the words to be different, line by line. This is where rhyme comes into play. Rhyme allows us to retain the satisfaction that a repeated word or line brings us, but without the repetition itself.

Jenkin Jenkins, went in ten bins, came out as my man.
Buskin’ Ruskin, came out, went in, ran back for the can.
Flutin’ Bluetin, fell out, jumped in, NEVer beat my PLAN.

All very silly stuff, although intellectually more satisfying than the original Da da verses. But note: already the rhythm is beginning to slow as the words make more demands on it. On the other hand, there’s a nice thump at the end (which would be nicer if there was some context to stick these rather random lines together). Rhyme is beginning to do its work.

Most people who start to write, and intend to rhyme, struggle to make the words fit the way they want them. Reading beginners’ poetry is a rather disappointing affair, as it’s usually painfully obvious that one line was contrived to fit the rhyme at the end of the previous line. You can disguise this somewhat by swapping the lines around, so that the line with the slightly contrived rhyme is first, and the one with the obvious word which just fits comes second. But that is just disguising it, no more. A far better approach – which, interestingly, is also how they teach song-writers to write – is to get the rhythm of the entire stanza in your mind first. Go back and read the Da da Da da lines. Now, with that in your mind, write something down.

You should be writing now, not looking ahead to see what I got.

Oh well, suit yourself:

Every time I hear you talking I just want to die
You’re so good at twisting my spine, you don’t need to try
I close my eyes and turn away so you don’t see me cry

No, it’s not high art – it’s what sprang into my mind going over the Da da Da da’s again. You can read it with the thumping Da da rhythm if you like, but you would more naturally let the words carry you along, and get a rhythm which is more complex, but which shares the fundamental shape (and therefore completeness) of the original. And, notice, starting with the original rhythm, I’m not left grasping for the endlessly unsatisfying ‘ie’ rhymes — sky, die, my, pry, pie, spy, and so on.

Once you have a strongly rhythmic shape to the stanza, you can start being selective about the rhymes. Very few poems have three lines rhyming straight after each other. This is partly because it’s hard to sustain it, unless you really do want to write about sky, spy and pie, but more importantly because it’s just too obvious and insistent. Far from vainly hunting around to find words which will make sense and also rhyme to give the lines the quality of verse, we now have something which is so obviously verse that it could do with softening and loosening. This is a good place to be.

Have you ever considered what a limerick would be like without rhyme? Read (aloud) this one, which I personally think is hilarious:

There was a young man from Dundee
Who was stung on the nose by a WASP
When I asked “Did it hurt?”
He said “No, it didn’t”
It can do it again if it likes.

Almost anyone can write a limerick, because they rhythm is embedded in most our minds, and because there is no particular expectation of sophisticated subject matter or delicate rhyme. But if you can embed the same sense of rhythm for more generally useful forms of verse, then you are on the way to being a poet.

Essentially, the shorter the line-length, the more you stick to the basic rhythm, the closer the rhyming lines are to each other, and the more syllables you rhyme, the more obvious and even comic the verse becomes. A limerick is this:

Da Dun da Dun da Grump,
Da Dun da Dun da Bump
Da Dun da Slouch
Da Dun da Ouch
Da Dun da Dun da Thump.

You can make it more comic by rhyming two or even three syllables — muddle, huddle and befuddle, perhaps. Limericks often begin with a place name, as it’s fairly easy to think of a place name which rhymes with two rhyming words you already have.

On the other hand, if you keep the rhymes further apart, and slow the rhythm by extending the line, and work around the rhythm rather than sticking slavishly to it, and rhyme words together which assonate (ie, they don’t rhyme completely), then the underlying rhythm becomes less obvious, and, for that reason, more powerful. The rhythm can be further disguised by punctuating the stanza differently from the end of the line:

My love is like a turquoise sea, becalmed
Under a sweltering sky, with schools of fish
Which gently dart from shoal to shore and draw
The eye from weed to wave, and wave to wish.

Again, this is offered as an example, not as poetry.

The most ubiquitous form of verse in English is what is known as Blank Verse — unrhymed, five stress verse, whose base rhythm is:
Da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum
Da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum.
Most of Shakespeare is blank verse, with a rhyming couplet marking the end of a scene. The unstress-stress pattern (known as an Iamb, for what it’s worth) is a fairly natural one in English, so there is no real difficulty about keeping to it, and therefore no great risk in breaking away from it, either to keep the poetry varied, or to give it a more natural sound, or for some particular poetic effect.

As a young would-be poet, I spent many hours compressing text into ten syllable, untress-stress lines. The result was turgid nonsense: I faced exactly the same problem as people vainly trying to make verse fit the demands of sky, pie, spy and cry. The secret is fixing the sound of the rhythm in your head. Alas, nobody had told me that the secret was reading aloud!

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