Hello and welcome, poets everywhere. My name is Tony Maude and it’s my pleasure to host this edition of Meeting the Bar.
A little under a year ago I began working as a volunteer at the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh, where my role is to lead a weekly creative writing group. Pretty soon after I started, one of the group members asked a question to which I still don’t have an adequate answer. The question was this; What makes writing into poetry?
I’m fairly sure that at the time I will have mumbled something about the way that poetry is laid out on the page, particularly with regard to the deliberate emphasis placed on line endings. I definitely said that a piece of writing does not have to rhyme to be poetry. However, almost all of what I said would have been about the way a poem looks on the printed page.
More recently I have had cause to consider the question of what makes a piece of writing poetry again. This has been in the context of working with a mentor – Scott Hastie – who has been helping me to secure my poetic voice. As part of this process Scott read through a number of my poems and identified a worryingly small number of them – 5 to be exact – which he believed contained the essence of my voice, rather than my attempts to mimic other poets’ voices. He then set me the task of reading these 5 poems until I began to feel ‘the voice’. So I did …
over and over and over, but somehow I just wasn’t seeing what Scott meant. Then I read the poems out loud, listening carefully to them while trying to forget that they had come, via pencil, paper and then keyboard, from my mind. And it was only when I began to listen to these poems that I heard what Scott had hoped that I would see.
What I heard was a particular way that I have of using rhyme, alliteration, assonance and a number of other poetic devices as I seek to express my thoughts … and all of these combined are significant parts of my unique poetic voice. But there was something underlying all of these, present even when none of these poetic devices was in play. That something was rhythm – or rather a range of rhythms that appear in work that is identifiably mine and mark it out from other people’s poetry. What makes my poetry mine is not how it looks on the page, but how it sounds …
and that is ultimately what makes a piece of writing poetry and not prose. It is not simply a matter of how a piece looks on the page; it is about how it sounds … and, as it is in music, the basis of how a poem sounds is found in its rhythm(s).
Back to Basics
In a world in which huge amounts of information are communicated in printed form, it is easy to forget that, long before the invention of writing, history, religion, culture etc were passed from one person to another, from one generation to the next by word of mouth. The earliest literature was oral literature, which only much later came to be recorded in written form.
Now, if your literature is entirely oral, to succeed it must fulfill two requirements; first, it should be as easy as possible to memorize, and, second, it should hold the attention of the listener. As poets, we should not be at all surprised, therefore, to learn that the earliest literature was composed in rhythmic verse form, and it is in the oral cultures of our preliterate ancestors that the roots of our poetic craft are to be found. For the ancient bards whose role was to maintain a community’s identity by transmitting history and belief, and to supplement that history by recording contemporary events – both triumph and tragedy – for posterity, attention had to be paid not only to the meaning of the words used, but also to the way they sound together, particularly to their rhythm.
This begs a question of us as poets working in a literate culture: When we are choosing words to express our ideas, how much attention do we pay to how those words sound together, to the way the sounds of our words play off each other, and to the rhythms that our words create when they are heard?
Rhythm is simply the Greek word for flow, so when we are considering the rhythm of a poem, what we are concerned with is the way the words flow as they lead the hearer/reader through the poet’s thought. We all know what rhythm is; we can clap our hands or tap our feet in time to it in music. If we choose to, we can do the same with poetry.
The most widely used rhythm in poetry is the five-beat line of our old friend (or foe) the iambic pentameter. It goes like this:
and One and Two and Three and Four and Five
or, more beautifully, like this:
“He jests at scars that never felt a wound.
But, soft! What light at yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.”
(Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene II)
If you are alone – or not too embarrassed about others hearing you … smiles – you might try reading that out loud. Can you feel how the rhythm almost tells you how to deliver the lines? Did you spot the change of tempo between Romeo’s complaint against Benvolio in the first line and the slower, gentler delivery of his words of admiration for Juliet’s incomparable beauty? (That word soft works really hard!) And all from the same meter, which can also be used to great comic or tragic effect too!
If we exchange feet, swapping the ternary anapest for the binary iamb we get this rhythm:
and a One and a Two and a Three and a Four …
or, less prosaically;
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen on their spears was like the stars on the sea,
And the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
(from The Destruction of Sennacherib, by Byron).
Again, you might like to read this aloud. Can you feel how it has a more energetic, faster paced rhythm or flow, almost dragging you along in its wake? (That third line has an extra syllable in it, but that doesn’t upset the flow at all – at least for me. I just read “was like” more quickly to compensate.)
And then, of course, you could mix your feet up, to give other rhythms, for example,
and a One and a Two and Three and Four …
which you’ll need to write your own example for … smiles
To enable us to focus on rhythm, today’s prompt is for blank verse, that is verse which does not rhyme. Blank verse has a long and noble history – much of Shakespeare is written in blank verse, (see above for an example) – and it predates the “troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming” that Milton complained of in his preface to Paradise Lost (published in 1667 and all written in blank verse), calling it “the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter [sic]“.
So you don’t need to worry about rhyme; if your poems don’t rhyme you are following an ancient tradition … smiles. And you don’t have to concern yourself too much with meter either; free verse in which the line lengths vary still has a flow or rhythm to it that marks it out as poetry. Of the 5 poems that were the beginning my work with Scott, only 1 is not in free verse.
Today, I’d like to invite you to write blank verse, focussing on the rhythm or flow of your piece. Try to match your poem’s rhythm to your subject matter; smooth rhythms suit love poetry and more reflective pieces; more staccato rhythms might suit those of you writing about the darker, more dangerous sides of life. You might try varying your rhythm to change the mood between different parts of the same poem, imitating the way that composers vary the rhythm and tempo in a film’s musical score to complement the action on the screen… it’s up to you.
Here’s what to do now:
• Write your poem and post it to your blog.
• Add a link to your poem via the ‘Mr Linky’ below.
• This opens a new screen where you’ll enter your information, and where you also choose links to read. Once you have pasted your poem’s blog URL and entered your name, click Submit. Don’t worry if you don’t see your name right away.
• If you write more than one poem, it’s OK to link them separately … smiles.
• Read and comment on other people’s work to let them know it’s being read.
• Share your work and that of your fellow poets via your favourite social media platforms.
• Above all – have fun!