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Chapter #2 - Reading and Writing Poetry
The Structure of Poetry (Rhythm)

i. Poetry Starts in Childhood

Poetry Starts in Childhood We are usually familiar with the form of poetry known as song lyrics. Similarities exist between memorizing songs and memorizing poetry. A child who grows up singing songs around the piano will likely develop skills in rhyme and rhythm. Read your favorite poems with emphasis on the rhythm. Feel the poem the way a child does at his first exposure to such rhythm. Then read it as prose, without such emphasis. Notice how the rhythm loss helps or hurts the poem. Try to recall some of the childhood chants you learned.


This is done with a taunting, high-pitched, child's sing-song voice. It ends with a falling inflection. Remember the jodys you have heard chanted by marching soldiers in training. They have four two- syllable feet per line, with the emphasis on the first syllable. This is done with a feel of bravado similar to the child's chant in its expression of an age group. Jodys are chanted with bravado by young voices at a different stage of life.

I don't KNOW but I'VE been TOLD

This sets up a military feel suitable for marching and bold posturing. It may assist soldiers in acquiring a psychological advantage, in battle, over soldiers who don't do such things.

ii. Have You Heard the Drone?

Compare jodys to prose poetry in which the poems are written in sentence form from margin to margin. How do you feel hearing the obvious prescribed rhythm compared to the conversational words? As you hear poets read you will notice that many poets have a poetic whine to their voices that you never hear in conversation. It is a perceived drone found only in the reading of poetry. This contemporary drone also has unusual inflections that urge you to feel that there is something different about poetry that makes reading poetry unique. It is a memory of the way Dylan Thomas read his poems. Here is an example as I hear the poetic drone in my own mind:

while I, WASHING DISHES, LOSST in my own
at remnants of SUDS. She sits licking herr

There is a common practice by poetry readers to emphasize words in a way that is only found at poetry readings. The technique has been in practice so long that it is now common and is almost assumed to be the way to read poetry. This droning style is much more common in use at readings than conversational style. It seems to endow words with greater significance.

The struggle with placing special emphasis on some words is a common problem for poets. Metaphor is a greater symbolic meaning of some ordinary item or act. When poets struggle with these greater meanings they often try to emphasize words by putting them in ALL CAPITALS. This is considered amateurish by more experienced poets. Poets come to terms with the realization that meanings cannot be put across by any device as simple as this; and emphasizing one aspect detracts from others. Prior to reading their poems, poets often discuss the poem's inspiration and intent. Although such explanatory talk is sometimes necessary to relieve the intensity of the poetry readings, it should not be carried to excess. The poems must speak for themselves.

Attempting to avoid cliches is not completely successful. The poet's preferences and peculiarities are the material of new cliches. All poets have certain themes they follow as their poetry develops.

iii. Web and Print Resources Can Improve Your Form

A glossary will help explain the common forms of poetry. Look up Poetry Forms, Poetry Terms, and Poetry Glossary on the web. Bookmark this glossary link: Glossary of Poetic Terms or Shadow Poetry's Poetry Handbook.

Sound and Sense An Introduction to Poetry A good college textbook such as Sound and Sense An Introduction to Poetry by Laurence Perrine will define many terms, as well as teaching a lot of related material. The copy I have is Seventh Edition 1987. You may find it in later editions. Another good poetry textbook in any of its many editions is An Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy and coauthored by Dana Gioia in the 1994 Eighth Edition.

iv. What is an ABBA and an ABAB?

The elements of poetry are letters or other written characters arranged in accented or unaccented feet which make up words. The words are arranged in lines, and the next larger element beyond the line is the stanza or verse. Stanzas typically come in two, three, or four lines with a regular rhyming pattern. A two-line stanza is a couplet. The ends of the two lines usually rhyme. In a triplet, or three-line stanza, the three lines may rhyme, or the first and last line may rhyme. In a four-line stanza or quatrain, the rhyme pattern may become more complex with the first and third line rhyming and the second and fourth lines ending with a different rhyme as abab. The first and last line rhyming and the middle two lines in an alternate rhyme is the abba pattern. A represents the first line- ending in a stanza and b, c and d represent successive different endings that do not rhyme with a preceding line in the stanza. For example, if a stanza had four lines in which none rhymed with others, the pattern would be abcd. Other patterns are abac and aabb. Here is a sample of an abab rhyme pattern by Alexander Pope. The stanza is from a poem called Solitude.

Happy the man whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air
In his own ground.

In Solitude, the first line has an accented first syllable in the first foot but follows with accented second syllables in all other feet except the last line in which three consecutive words are accented:

HAPpy the MAN whose WISH and CARE
a FEW paTERnal A-cres FOUND
conTENT to BREATHE his NAtive AIR

vi. Listen Too! Don't Just Read Silently.

Listen! We have been looking at accents as though they were heavily emphasized. This is the way a child may look at poetry. As adults we learn to read with greater subtlety; and the accents are hardly noticed as emphasis but seem to be felt as emotional expression rather than anything as heavy as galloping. Such de-emphasis on the heavy beats of poetry is likely responsible for the trend that has led to open forms of poetry where rhythm is much less regular, and more conversational. The rhymes are also much more subtle and surprising instead of predictable and expected. Just as there is symmetry and asymmetry in nature, mankind has learned to produce some art forms that are regular and others that are random.

If you haven't explored poetry much, find some recordings of classical poetry read by recognized skillful readers. Also click on some of the readings by web poets. Try searching on Poetry Reading Audio Classics or Poetry Audio. There are poets who read softly and poets who scream out their words. Hearing various poets read is as informative as reading the different styles.

Article written by Don J. Carlson. All Rights Reserved

For more information, please contact: Don J. Carlson

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