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Wheeler English

Lines & Rhymes: Rhythm

from The teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett.
and your text, Elements of Literature, Second Course (Holt, Rinehart)

Rhythm is a musical quality produced by the repetition of stressed and unstressed syllables. Rhythm occurs in all forms of language, both written and spoken, but is particularly important in poetry

The most obvious king of rhythm is the regular repetition of stressed and unstessed syllables found in some poetry.

Writers also create rhythm by repeating words and phrases or even by repeating whole lines and sentences, as Walt Whitman does in "Song of Myself":

I hear the sound I love, the soung of the hyman voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused, or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of work-people at their meals...

People often use a combination of two words to describe regular rhythm or meter. For example, you might refer to the meter of a sonnet as iambic pentameter The first word, such as iambic, refers to the beat pattern, in this case an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable (the most common in English). The second refers to the length of the line. In the case of pentameter we mean five feet (or ten syllables, long.

Below are some commonly used words to describe the meter of regular poetry.


The most common units ("feet") of rhythm in English are:

The iamb, consisting of two syllables, only the second accented (as in "good-bye")

The trochee, two syllables, only the first accented (as in "awful")

The anapest, three syllables, with only the third stressed (as in "Halloween")

The dactyl, one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed (as in "wonderful")

The spondee, two consecutive syllables that are both stressed (as in "big deal")

Many American poets in the past thirty years have written poetry using everyday language, and because much American speech is iambic in pattern, the poetry shows a lot of iambic rhythm.

Rhythm (or "measure") in writing is like the beat in music. In poetry, rhythm implies that certain words are produced more force- fully than others, and may be held for longer duration. The repetition of a pattern of such emphasis is what produces a "rhythmic effect." The word rhythm comes from the Greek, meaning "measured motion."

In speech, we use rhythm without consciously creating recognizable patterns. For example, almost every telephone conversation ends rhythmically, with the conversants understanding as much by rhythm as by the meaning of the words, that it is time to hang up. Frequently such conversations end with Conversant A uttering a five- or six-syllable line, followed by Conversant B's five to six syllables, followed by A's two- to four-syllable line, followed by B's two to four syllables, and so on until the receivers are cradled.

Well I gotta go now.
Okay, see you later.
Sure, pal. So long.
See you. Take care.
Bye bye.
Bye bye.

In poems, as in songs, a rhythm may be obvious or muted. A poem like Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" consciously recreates the rhythms of a tribal dance:

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able
Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.

On the other hand, some "free verse" has underlying rhythmical patterns that, while variable and not "regular" like Vachel Lindsay's, do nonetheless give a feeling of unity to the work. For example, read aloud the following lines a few times:

A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can't see
making a bit of pink
I can't quite see in the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five P.M. on the day before March first.
                                 -From "February" by James Schuyler

figures of speech