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If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Henry David Thoreau.

The word “beat” is so much a part of modern times, we hardly think about it any more. It is used everywhere regarding life, theater, music, art, and especially poetry. Life is a series of beats – heart beats, breaths, our natural biological rhythms, and our unity with the rhythms of nature, the planet, and the cosmos.


When a musician begins to compose, he usually establishes his rhythm first or at the very least has an idea what he wants the rhythm in the piece to do. In these days of composing electronically, one has to build from the bass up to the treble. The bass historically sets the “beat” and the treble (primarily) carries the melody. Even if one gets the tune first by noodling, one has to compose by establishing rhythm in the time signature and building the bass under that melody.

“In acoustics, a beat is an interference between two sounds of slightly different frequencies, perceived as periodic variations in volume whose rate is the difference between the two frequencies.

With tuning instruments that can produce sustained tones, beats can readily be recognized. Tuning two tones to a unison will present a peculiar effect: when the two tones are close in pitch but not identical, the difference in frequency generates the beating. The volume varies like in a tremolo as the sounds alternately interfere constructively and destructively. As the two tones gradually approach unison, the beating slows down and may become so slow as to be inperceptible.

Binaural beats are heard when the right ear listens to a slightly different tone than the left ear. Here, the tones do not interfere physically, but are summed by the brain in the olivary nucleus. This effect is related to the brain’s ability to locate sounds in three dimensions.”
(Wikipedia – Beat)


Because we as poets create a melody with the sounds of words, we depend on our rhythms to emphasize them, to give them flow, urgency, excitement, liquidity, effortlessness. Because we are each unique, it is probable we have unique rhythms that show up unconsciously in our work. When we write form, the rhythm is prescribed.

Virginia Woolf said, “What rhythm is goes far deeper than words, it is very profound. A sight, an emotion, creates a wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”

In Rosa Alchemica, Yeats said, “Michael Robartes returned and told me that I would have to learn the steps of an exceedingly antique dance, because before my initiation could be perfected I had to join three times in a magical dance, for rhythm was the wheel of Eternity, on which alone the transient and accidental could be broken, and the spirit set free.”

Our voice may form from language but it merges into music and therefore into poetry when it takes up a natural rhythm, it seems to me. It may be in that marriage where the magic takes place.

The beats are equal to the stresses in the words we choose. When we choose a three syllable word, we may have one stressed syllable and two unstressed syllables, or two unstressed and one stressed syllable. Most two syllable words have one unstressed and one stressed syllable but a few like “football” may have two stressed syllables.  If you’re unsure about your stresses, check your dictionary.

There are times when we want a silence, an interruption, a break in the line — somewhere around the middle usually,  and we want a reader to know that a silence takes a beat or several beats.  This insertion of silence into a piece is called a caesura.  It may be marked by a space or spaces or by a line break.  This is a very effective way of saying, “listen to the thought“.

I offer one more quote from Grigoris Deoudis: “Let us liberate ourselves from any form of control. Let us focus at the inner drum, where the rhythm aligns with that of our heart. The measure of responsibility, equals to the need for evolution. Just listen to the inner child, let it whisper in your ear.”

Today, I want you to choose a poem you have already written that you think most clearly represents your personal voice. If you have a caesura, just put brackets or parentheses around the blank space. Mark the beats as you hear them in bold or italics so that as we read your work, we hear your own rhythms and appreciate your own inner music.