Rhythm and rhyme
You can’t really have language without rhythm unless it is a string of gibberish but even that, I suggest, would probably have its own rhythm. I’ve always reckoned we are born with a sense of rhythm and certainly the Hungarian based research into new-born babies suggests that we do have a sense of rhythm from birth.
And as they say, if we don’t use it, we will probably lose it. The same may be true of perfect pitch. (see Oliver Sachs Musicophilia ) Pitch is obviously less important for poets but they do need a sense of rhythm and maybe that goes for prose-writers too and certainly for script writers. I always suggest to students that they should read their work out loud to hear how it sounds. Language does not consist solely of signs on a page, its effect depends on what happens when those signs are turned into speech sounds.
I’m always amazed when students who have probably mostly grown up with the rhythms of pop music in their ears, say they can’t detect strict rhythms in the poems they read, or reproduce those rhythms in the poems they write. But perhaps if we don’t get used to rhythms through hearing and reciting a lot of nursery rhymes from day one, then it’s harder to recognise and reproduce strict metre when we come to write metric poetry later in life. Without continuous practice from birth onwards we may well lose our sense of perfect pitch and our sense of rhythm.
Some writers and linguists have suggested that the English language falls naturally into iambic pentameters. It’s the blank verse line that Shakespeare used in his plays and the rhyming line he used in his sonnets.
“The quality of mercy is not strained
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
(Portia in the Merchant of Venice Act 1V Scene1)
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” (Sonnet 18)
(For those who are not sure about iambs and pentameters:
pentameter refers to a line with five stressed beats or feet: an iamb is a beat or foot with one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, often represented by ti–tum.) There are five ti–tums in each of those lines by Shakespeare.
Everyday English speech often has the same rhythm as Shakespeare’s blank verse:
“She dresses really nice, does Lady Di.” – overheard at a bus stop when Princess Diana was still alive.
Some poets like counting syllables and one of the projects in the OCA Level 2 Poetry Form and Experience asks students to write syllabic verse. No reason why you shouldn’t but I see or rather hear English as a language with rhythmic beats, regardless of syllables, unlike Japanese, for example, where all syllables have more or less equal weight. Which is why it makes sense to write Haiku in Japanese but I can never quite see the point of syllable counts in English. But I expect a lot of poets would argue with me over that.
My recommendation to writers who are exploring how to write poetry for the first time or after a long gap of not writing, is to go for free verse. That allows you to choose words for their meaning rather than for achieving strict rhythms or rhymes. Poetry doesn’t have much effect on a reader/listener unless you have, as Coleridge suggested, “the best words in the best order.” Relying on filler phrases, inversions and archaic expressions to generate the desired rhythm or rhyme is not a good idea. Here’s an interesting blog from the Guardian website.
In the end it is the idea of the best order that defines a poem and the best order relies on rhythm which of course is helped by line lengths and line endings even when there is no regular metre. (See my OCA blog on Lines for August 2015)
You can get away with words that aren’t always the best words in the best order when you are writing song lyrics because the music carries the less effective words along. Even Schubert who wrote some wonderful songs setting German poetry didn’t always choose the best poets but his melodies and dramatic accompaniments make up for the rather banal words.
I suppose rap is another form of poetry where the best words often aren’t used and that is because rhythm and rhyme and the performance of that rhythm and rhyme are paramount. It could also be because often rap has a political or social message to get across and so the best words are an indulgence or luxury that rappers don’t have time for. (See the comment forwarded from the South African poet Phillippa de Villiers who claims that South African poets can’t afford to put images before explanations.
I reckon there might be rappers who say they can’t afford to put best words before rhythm.