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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rhyme, rhythm, reality: traditional English verse

As holidays make the rounds again, most of us reach toward the familiar ring of tradition before that circle passes by for another year. Somewhere in the rounds, poetry holds a special place of honor with holiday patterns of rhyme and rhythm, for example, in hymn lyrics, carols, Christmas bedtime stories, and those favorite nursery rhymes that go over the rivers and into the woods to find Grandma’s idyllic house among the oaks and pines. But stop! Grandma not only lives in a condo near the strip mall where she works, she will seriously chastise you if you call her Granny.

Despite such deterrents, some of us just want to go back. Some of us still want poetry that chimes each line’s end with the regular beat of our own hearts. Some of us cling to old traditions, but more likely, we simply do not want to throw out the customs, practices, or convictions of many, many hundreds of years of traditional English verse. Maybe we like repetition and meter. Maybe we hold sentiments even though we do not want our poems to be sentimental. Maybe we don’t want our writing to be ritualized but want it to be real.

So how do we keep old patterns yet adapt them realistically to contemporary poetry? First we need to hear the rhythm that pulsed within our ancient English predecessors. Usually this could be counted as regular thumps of four beats per line with a slight pause or caesura mid-way. On either side of that mini-break stretched vowels with fairly equal waves of sound. In addition, alliteration echoed the consonants from line to line, turning up the volume and making each poem more memorable – a particularly important technique since pen and paper had not yet confined poems to silence on the written page.

Those patterns of Old English verse still provide a fun form for practicing poetry writing. But language developed, and so did sophisticated, sometimes highly intricate, patterns of end-line rhyme. The rhythmic rap changed somewhat, too, as iambic pentameter became the popular choice of poets and readers. Why? Practicalities! Each line of approximately ten syllables nicely fit the width of the page and also the natural breath of the reader.

To break down that line-break even more: Pentameter = the Latin word penta (meaning five) + meter (measure) of iambic feet. These feet do not make a yardstick, but they’re just as basic. i.e., An iamb is two syllables with emphasis placed on the second syllable, which makes the iambic foot upbeat. The next most popular foot, a trochee, also has two syllables but with the accent first, and it’s downhill from there. So a trochee is downbeat. Poems can be written in trochees, of course, but usually a trochaic foot steps into a line of iambic pentameter to bring a little jazz step – a variation that does not lose the beat.

Once you know this basic two-step dance of poetry, it’s as though you’ve learned a new language or discovered how to fly, and you feel like your poems can do anything! You can rhyme or not. You can devise a mid-line rhyme scheme or begin lines with rhyme or substitute slant rhyme in a Shakespearean sonnet pattern. Yes, your poems might draw from another time, but absorbed by sound and beauty, you’ll find lively ways to adapt old traditions to your renewed voice and perhaps step into a unique place in poetic history.

(c) 2010, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.


  1. I have a site on Writer's Digest where I try to teach the art of writing poetry. It is sad when I see people put lines of prose in a form that looks like poetry but isn't. I am just teaching the basics, but the poets can go on from there and study more detailed lessons. Sandy

  2. Yes, many free verse poems have no rhythm, sound echoes, imagery, or other technique to distinguish them from prose. My book Poetry: Taking Its Course (based on the poetry home study course I wrote and used for years in working with students) also discusses the poetic characteristics of free verse and traditional forms, but too often, new poets just want to do their own thing then sulk when editors or readers don't relate to what they've written. In music and other arts, people seem to understand the need to study and practice, so I’m a firm believer that poets do well to find out all they can about the tools of their trade too.