Rhythm is our business (or: how to make your poems dance)


What did I tell you last week? ‘I’m going to tell you stuff’. I’m also going to have a small wager with myself. Will I tell you what it is? No. So, pens and pencils all ready, and a nice clean bran-new page in your notebooks. You can copy the title from the blackboard. Here we go:

A couple of months ago a poetry friend of mine asked me for some advice about ‘rhythm’. Reading between the lines, he was bothered, I think, that what he was writing sounded like prose. He asked me how he could ‘get more rhythm’ into his writing. I spent a lot of time thinking about what the question meant, and I’m still not sure that what I came up with answers the question. But, for what it’s worth, I’ll share the thinking with you. And if you have more ideas, and better ones, then I’ll be delighted if you share them back. It wasn’t an orderly process, my ‘lot of time thinking’…more a collage of bits and pieces that all seem relevant but don’t jigsaw and dovetail neatly together.

Still. We need to start somewhere, and where better than with the wonderful Clive James. Here’s two things I jotted down.

‘you hear the force of real poetry at a glance’……

in a nutshell! Poetry is about its shape on the page, and the sound the shape makes.

and something he writes about a passage in Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’

‘a stanza held together by its rhythmic drive…and the assiduity with which it didn’t rhyme’.

Just hold those two things in mind. Let them wash around and colour your mood.

Let’s add something to the mix, that, on the face of it, has nothing to do with poetry and poems. I used to be, amongst other things, an OFSTED inspector, and also  a Lecturer in Primary Education, telling students, inter alia, how to beat the OFSTED system. OFSTED inspectors were strictly enjoined, when assessing observed lessons, to take particular note of ‘pace’. I know that this was was frequently understood to mean that children should ideally be taught at a remorseless speed. But pace in a lesson has nothing to do with speed. It’s actually about rhythm. That was my argument. If the rhythm is unrelenting and unvarying the result is brain-death. We need time to think. We need variation of light and shade, of tempo. We need spaces and silences to surround the word and the action.  And they have to come at the right point. And the same’s surely true of a poem.

So: three things to hold in your mind. Just one more. For now.

Rhythm’s not the same as metric regularity. It’s dancing rather than foxtrot. You want to feel it intuitively, in the blood. And why ? This was my argument in a post over a year ago.

I’m just saying, without any originality, that poetry is older than prose because it’s older than reading and writing. Its heart and soul is rhythm, and the point about rhythm is that it’s patterned and repetitive. Children teach us this, but I wonder if we listen hard enough.What did rhythm help people to do for thousands of years before writing? It helped them, through songs and chants, to work collaboratively, to move huge loads, raise sails, keep straight lines in planting and harvesting fields. It helped them to celebrate with continuity the important things like birth and death and marriage. It gave them communal memories through the stories of victories and defeats, floods, fires, famines, and myths and legends. If these couldn’t be written down, then they had to be memorised. Stories had to be memorisable as well as memorable. Which is why we needed rhythm and repetition (just like times tables) and then the clever invention of rhyme that underscored rhythm and also helped the storyteller to remember the next line. The Odyssey, and Beowulf, had to be memorised. As did the parts of the Miracle Plays performed by artisans, not scholars.
Poetry was a creation of voice and sound and performance, social, collaborative, and democratic.


Once we could write poetry, we weren’t nailed down to the need to be memorisable. On the other hand, the responsiblity to write memorably became even more central and critical. As James says of the ‘real poem’ ..’it somehow seems to be memorizing itself for you’. Which I translate as: it makes itself memorable as you read and listen to it.

All of this, I think, lies behind my friend’s asking for help. How DO I write with rhythm? How do I find a rhythm? I know exactly what it’s like when you do find it…that feeling of being in the zone, where the rhythm is carrying the writing, where the words know where they’re going, where everything seems inevitable. It happens less than we’d like, but maybe there are things we can do that make it more likely. I think of this in the way that I think of practising with a musical instrument. There are things that have to be repeated in order to become automatic, and appear intuitive.If you have to think about the how rather than the what, there’ll be no rhythm, no fluency.

So, here’s where I start. Oral poetry will tend to be regular, and sometimes clunky. The Anglo-Saxon line can feel remorseless, the metre of the Finnish Kalevala, even more..

Voice the best of all our legends
For the hearing of our loved ones,
Those who want to learn them from us,
Those among the rising young ones
Of the growing generation.

But memorisable..which makes the popularity of the boy who stood on the burning deck and Longfellow’s Hiawatha explicable

By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
At the doorway of his wigwam,
In the pleasant Summer morning,
Hiawatha stood and waited.

and on it goes. And on. But every now again there’s a surprise that just brings you up short.   Every tree-top had its shadow, / Motionless beneath the water. I really like the way I stop at ‘motionless’. Because if you know the rules well enough, you know how to bend them. I remember Tony Harrison telling my students that they need to remember that the iambic pentameter is the default rhythm of English speech..I think he argued that it was even truer of Northern speech, but I’m sceptical about that. Maybe someone will put me right. Sit on trains and buses, he said, and you’ll hear sentences like : ‘his brother works at Bisons outside Leeds’. You’ll hear them all the time.
So don’t let anyone tell you that a di-dum-di-dum metre is bad for you. Just that  remorseless and unvarying will kill anything stone dead. Once you know the rules you can break them. Marlowe’s usually said to be less fluent and flexible with his blank verse than Shakespeare, but boy, could he listen to the moment and break the ‘rules’.

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.
O, I’ll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?—
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!—

I reckon that every syllable in bold is stressed. Because the emotion of the moment insists on it. And it’s the rulebreaking that makes it memorable. As it is in this lovely moment from Wordsworth’s Prelude.

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the Water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy Steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head.—I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim Shape
Towered up between me and the stars,

The bits in bold are where I think the unexpected stresses go, where they’re unexpected but absolutely right, because he knows  the rhythm of the panicked rowing, and the exponentially growing physical menace of the ‘craggy steep’. I remember being 16, and seeing, for the first time, how a piece of writing worked, how it dramatised what was happening, how it explained to me how I should hear and understand it . But I had to be tuned in to the expected before I could hear the unexpected. It took me a lot longer to realise that it was OK to feel comfortable with my own iambic rhythms. The only thing that matters is whether a recognisable rhythm, or the deliberate avoidance of a recognisable rhythm (which can only come from repetition) is doing a proper job. The four-stressed Anglo-Saxon line does a wonderful rhetorical job for one of my favourite contemporary poets: Steve Ely

as in this extract from Hours of the Dead

Under the golf course,  the dead of England lie;
beneath the steel mill, their vernacular graves.
Rolling and turning in tectonic earth

So: bearing in mind what Clive James says about ‘poets who want to keep technique out of it because they haven’t got any’ here’s a more considered version of what I wrote to my mate who worried about the rhythm (or lack of it) in his writing.

“I thought it might be something to do with sentences with lots of dependent clauses. I thought it might be something about adjectival clotting.
It seems to me that if you try to push it, it’ll die in the water. So, what to do?
The main thing is to know what it is you want to be saying; what’s it about?
For instance, at the moment, I’ve got a head full of the year’s ending accompanied by myth and legend, which is jostling for space with the language of landscape and topography
At other times it’s been about a particular landscape, or about my parents, or about mortality. I don’t ask for these things. They are what preoccupy me at any given moment. So how to make a start on any of them in ways that put pressure on the words to do more than they ordinarily will.

*Try clearing your head of what you think you want to write about by doing something else. Try this.  You shouldn’t try to copy anyone BUT you can do some very useful work in ‘copying’ exercises. For instance: Choose a poem you wish you’d written, and copy it out by hand. Do it again. See how much you can write before you need to refer to the one you’re copying.

*Take a sonnet, or a ballad….something with a particular rhyme scheme. Take the last words of each line only.Then write a piece of your own which uses that set of rhyming words in that order. And use the same number of syllables as the original lines. It’s irksome. But so is learning the fingering of  guitar chords. Depends whether you want to play or not.

*If you have an idea for a poem then try playing ‘Starters’.. good starters are : arriving somewhere, meeting someone- real or fictional or historical- , leaving somewhere, a portrait of someone you love who must be in a place that is ‘theirs’, doing something that is ‘them’…
These are all about memory and visualisation; write fast and without thinking in continuous prose and without worrying about punctuation or anything. Give it 4 minutes. Then underline the most important bits. Then rewrite in lines of 6-8 syllables. Short lines will create a sort of rhythm of their own. See what happens. Remember, it’s an exercise, but you never know what you may stumble upon. Do not wonder what anyone else might think. It’s nothing to do with them.

*Write sequences of say 8-10 lines, 6-10 syllables to the line;
Start each line with the same word. These are good ones: AND, BECAUSE, ALTHOUGH, WHEN  ( but not the last line)
This is something I’ve noticed more and more, and something I’ve learned about from poets like these:  Gaia Holmes starts her poem ‘Inland’ like this

And it comes to me
as we drive through moors
clotted with burnt, black heather

It’s got immediacy and drama and energy does that ‘And’, despite what your Primary school teachers hammered into you about what not to start and end sentences with. Kim Moore shows you what happens when you repeat the trick…you set up a rhythm

And if you saw her hiding in the air ducts of Parliament
it was only to listen to the speeches.
And if she set fire to post boxes and burnt letters,
it was only certain envelopes she put pepper in.

It’s the rhythm of psalms and blessing and curses which is also the language of lists and repetitions. Julia Deakin can show you another take on it in her poem about the kind of dubious advice offered to would-be-published poets, or in bad workshops (or posts like this). This time you can think of starting every line of a list-poem with ‘No’. (well, not just every line…..)

Thank you for thinking of us
no shards, no lozenges, no litanies
no seagulls, no patinas
no abstract nouns, no adjectives or very few                                                                                                          no haiku

They can be blessings as well as curses, as with this lovely poem from Gordon Hodgeon, written for his new granddaughter.

cradle song
earth be your cradle
earth be my bed
sky be your morning light
sky my old head

You can see how you might take that small formula and push it as far as it will go. You could stick with ‘earth’ and ‘sky’; you could ‘fire’ and ocean’, ‘sun’ and ‘ice’. But only give yourself 8 syllables per line, max. Or 6. Just see what happens. There will be a rhythm . Seek out Jane Clarke’s The River; read  ‘Broken’….unrhymed couplets of 5 and 6 syllables. That’ll give you a clear notion of how much can be done in a short space. Another poet who plays with big ideas in a short and tightly structured space is Christy Ducker in her Grace Darling sequence from Skipper…4 eight(ish)-syllabled lines for each letter of the alphabet…(it could be for the first ten years of your life, for eight school subjects, seven neighbours down your street, six places you went on holiday. You get the idea).

is a hook that hangs by a thread
in the vault of the north sea
where it inkles, bright as her faith
the fish will come. Parabolic.

*play with lists of all kinds ….things you’ll leave behind, things that are unamanageable, places you’ll never go to, places you wish you’d never been, lives you might have lived…The Poetry Business writing days will often include one of these exercises, and they always, always result in something with its own recognisable rhythm, that comes from a structural repetition. One of my own started like that, as place names in a particular journey

A Kind of History

MacIan of MacDonald of Glencoe
comes to Inverary, three bitter days
of blizzard at the year’s ending;
three days from the Fords of Ballachulish,
the Narrows of Creran by Benderloch,
the Pass of Brander in the lee of Bheinn Cruachan;
by Loch Fyne and Glen Aray to river’s mouth;
in sodden plaid, and blind with snow;

It’s the kind of thing that happens in the bits of filler in Anglo-Saxon poetry where the scop recites line after line of a king’s battles, or gifts, or attributes, as he tries to remember the next bit of the narrative.

And I reckon that’s enough to be going on with on a snowy Sunday. Games with repetition, and with short lines. Here are some starters for ten, all of which come from the Poetry Business Saturdays over the years, and all of which will get me moving. Stick to the rules. Repeated first words. and.  because. although. when. but. Short lines.

*It snowed/rained/never rained for twenty years
*That winter
*We thought the rain would never stop
*Years later we went back
*We thought it wouldn’t matter,
*When the clocks stopped
*After it was all over

Before this all peters out, as such things can do, with more admonitions, and thereby loses its point and focus, let’s just add one thing. Read aloud poets who are comfortable with their rhythms and structures and who make it sound easy even as they’re breaking their own rules. Learn some by heart. Feel the rhythm in the blood. These are my current readaloud favourites: Tony Harrison, Steve Ely, Kim Moore, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Vernon Scannell, Charles Causley, Robin Robertson, and Clare Shaw …but you know who’ll work for you. Remember how many poems have started by reading Carl Sandburg’s ‘Psalm for those who go forth before daylight’.  And if you like, you could write a poem in praise of lists.Or alternatively, write a will. That’s an interesting list to tackle.

After I’m gone

who will oil the letter press,
know to use clean boards,
the way the big drill sticks, or throws out bits;
who’ll keep the lengths of flex,
the spare plugs, the oil stone,
the basket of broken bits of blue/white crock,
a plastic box of scavenged seashore rope,
a bag of driftwood pieces all with interesting holes, or knots or nails,
the small wood box of printers’ plates,
acrylics in half-litre tubes: a good sized crate,
a basket of assorted woodstains including antique walnut, mahogany, pitch pine,
a black binbag of pine cones brought from Gironde and Charente,
a case of modellers’ enamels in small tins,
a box of packs of steel wool in different grades,
a cabinet of jumbled screws, and nuts and bolts, and washers, cotterpins,
a tin of blunted bits that only want a bit of work,
a pack of mirror glass pulled from a skip,
a fox’s skull, bits of vertebrae, a chunk of Coruisk gabbro,
some bundled withies,
a bag of batik wax?



Answers on a postcard. See you all next week, when we’ll be thinking aloud about poetry competitions.

ps. It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing



4 thoughts on “Rhythm is our business (or: how to make your poems dance)

  1. If the rhythm is unrelenting and unvarying the result is brain-death, is a truism I encounter a lot in writing my own poems. And is the reason why I have begun to develop my own. Thanks John for your interesting post.


      1. And again, does it work is another answer John. I read mine aloud as well as read again weeks later and often find baggy syntax.

        It’s a pleasure to read your blog. I wish more developing poets did. They would most certainly benefit.


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