Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I’ve Got Rhythm or Not

Meters, Feet and Rhythm, written versus the spoken word, music, words and songs oh my! Either I’ve got rhythm or not. This wouldn’t be much of a poetry site without covering meter, feet and rhythm. For the beginner, don’t confuse rhythm with rhyme. One can write poetry with rhythm and no rhyme, or poets can write with rhyme and no rhythm. Rhythm in poetry is like the beat of a drum in music. Rhyme is when the poet uses two words that sound alike such as treat and beat, much and such, cup and up, etc. At one time meter, feet and rhythm were considered the most important parts of being a great poet. I’ll give my personal thoughts on the subject later. For now, I’ll give you the basics.

What is a meter? The easiest way to explain a meter is a beat line. Lay down the beat in each line so it has regular and equal units of rhythm. If you want a hit song in music, the beat is one, two, three, four, and yes that is the cookie cutter don’t deviate from the norm answer. My mind doesn’t work that way. In spoken poetry the beat comes from the pronunciation of syllables made up of consonants and vowels. Every word, even made up sounds, is made up of one or more syllables, and when spoken, these syllables are either stressed (shown here as a / for purposes of discussion shown as a stress mark ' in the dictionary before syllables that are stressed) or unstressed (shown here as a u for purposes of discussion, unstressed syllables are absent any stress mark in the dictionary). The different combinations of stressed / and unstressed u syllables are called feet.

What are the basic feet?  The one most people are familiar with is the iambic style, Iamb (u /). The example would be “and HAM” unstressed followed by stressed, thank you Doctor Seuss. Now that you get the concept, I’ll just show you the rest followed by an example for each: Iambic style, Iamb (u /) and HAM; Trochaic style, Trochee (/ u) ONward; Anapestic style, Anapest (u u /) as aNON; Dactylic style, Dactyl (/ u u) DREAM falling; Amphibrachic style, Amphibrach (u / u) enRAGE a; Spondaic style, Spondee (/ /) WOULD-BE; Pyrrhic style, Pyrrhic (u u) and as. Bored yet? It gets better, not.

Now, you know the basic feet and a meter is, but you still don’t understand what iambic pentameter is when they talk about Shakespeare. The numeric prefix prior to meter defines the number of feet tied together to form the beat line.

In monometer each line of the poem would have only one foot.

Example: by Frank G. Poe, Jr.

Final Crossing
I say
No boat,
No boat,
No boat,   
Man came
Took me

In dimeter each line of the poem would have two feet.

Example: by Frank G. Poe, Jr.

Final Crossing
Ahoy, ahoy,
Ahoy, I say
No boat, no boat,
No boat, today
Ferry Man came
Took me away

I hope that is enough for you to get the picture. In trimeter each line of the poem would have three feet. In tetrameter each line of the poem would have four feet, and in pentameter each line of the poem would have five feet. In William Shakespeare’s case he used five iambic feet per line. You can string together as many feet as you want in your poems because it changes the numerical prefix: hexameter (Six Feet), heptameter (Seven Feet), octameter (Eight Feet), enneameter (Nine Feet) and decameter (Ten Feet). Most poetry falls under five feet or less. Anything above pentameter is rare.

Presently, poetry elitists will argue about the degree of talent it takes to follow the forms, and they will point to poets of the past being gifted enough to write in these forms. They make bold statements about amateur poets not being skilled, and they claim the youth of today write in free verse because they are untalented in a rush to write or too lazy to learn. It makes them feel more important. My thoughts on the subject are I respect the people with an inner ear good enough to believe they hear the stressed and unstressed syllables. They write the best songs.

Ultimately, I like to write in syllable counts with disregard for the stressed and unstressed aspect of it. If it occurs naturally, fine. The problem with the notion of feet and rhythm is every language in the world has a different beat of stressed and unstressed. Some say English lacks any natural rhythm at all. The old joke about this is America speak American really applies in poetry. I would go farther saying what region, state or even city matters. The same English word spoken in New York, New York doesn’t sound the same in Boston, Massachusetts yet alone stressed the same in Fargo, North Dakota, Birmingham, Alabama, San Francisco or Dallas, Texas. If we jump the pond to England, we know it isn’t just an American problem. The same English word spoken in England doesn’t sound the same in India, South Africa, Australia or Canada. Now, add the fact the placement of a word in front, back or between two other words can change whether it is stressed or not, and you’ll see why some poets don’t bother. If it feels too forced then it is.

Decisively, I appreciate the work from poets of the past who put in the work like William Shakespeare, or Sir Walter Raleigh; however, even they seem to be forced after a while. Modern free verse is the evolution of poetry. To claim poets of today write in free verse because they lack skill is like claiming Pablo Picasso rushed into cubism or surrealism because he was an untalented painter or lazy sculptor. Don’t assume new poets, young or mature in years, are lacking. That being said, new poets should realize they need to read plenty of poetry and always strive to improve their own poetry. I like to use the different forms for writing exercises, and if something wonderful appears in the end, I’m delighted.

Finally, there is no real reason to argue whether poetry is supposed to be verbalized or to stand alone on the page. Academics will give valid points for both. Some music instructors will claim adding music and turning poems into songs is the ultimate evolution of poetry. They’ll back that argument up with money as proof. How many multimillionaire rappers, rock stars or country singers are there? Now, name any wealthy poets who became rich from their poetry. Much the same way as I feel about the world, I believe there is room for everyone at the table. We just have to accept each other for who we are. I’ve seen poems that look great on the page, but they don’t read well. I’ve heard songs that I like which are not poetic in the least. If you want to write a poem that looks cool on the page like a tulip, chess piece or cat, but it doesn’t read well, write it! If you like it, you like it.

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