Rhythm in Poetry – The Basics

When you read rhyming poetry, one of the things you might notice is how the words often have a nice rhythmical quality. That is, there is a pattern to the rhythm of the words that makes them fun to say and easy to remember. Sometimes the rhythm is a simple one, and sometimes it’s more complex, but it’s not there by accident. Poets arrange their words in such a way as to create those rhythmical patterns.

When rhyming poems also have a rhythm in the words, they are much more fun to read. By contrast, rhyming poems that do not have a rhythm are usually not as enjoyable to read.

Over the next several lessons, I’m going to show you how to identify the rhythms in poems and how to write rhythmical poems of your own so that others will enjoy reading them.

Rhythm in Words

You probably know that, in music, the rhythm of a song is the “beat,” often created by instruments such as drums, bass guitars, etc. In fact, in popular music the drummer and bass guitarist in a band are often referred to as the “rhythm section” because they establish the rhythm for the rest of the musicians to follow.

Unlike a song, poems don’t have a rhythm section. There is no drummer or conductor establishing the rhythm. Instead, the rhythm is set by the “stresses” or “accents” in the words themselves. Allow me to explain.

In most words that have more than one syllable, one of the syllables is pronounced more strongly than the others. We say that this syllable is “stressed” or “accented.” For example, the word “apple” has two syllables – ap-ple – and the first syllable is pronounced more strongly than the second. That’s why the word is pronounced “AP-pull” and not “ap-PULL.”

If a word has just a single syllable, that syllable might be stressed, or it might not be. Generally, short words like “a” and “I” and “the” are not stressed. Nouns and verbs (things and action words), on the other hand are often stressed, even when they are just one syllable long. So, for example, words like “cat” and “jump” are stressed syllables.

The easiest way to tell if a word is stressed or not is to put it in a sentence and then read it aloud. Listen carefully to how you pronounce it to see if you can tell which words or syllables are stressed and which ones aren’t.

Let’s take a look at an example. Read the following line and see if you can hear the stressed syllables.

My mother ate an apple and my father ate a pear.

Could you hear that every other syllable was stressed? One way to write this to make it more obvious is to capitalize the stressed syllables and write the unstressed syllables in lowercase letters, like this:

my MOTH-er ATE an AP-ple AND my FATH-er ATE a PEAR.

Now can you hear it? I hope you can see that, by writing your words in such a way that they form repeating patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, you can add rhythm to your poems.

This Thing Called “Meter”

In music, we refer to the beat of a song as its rhythm. In a poem, however, the rhythm created by stressed and unstressed syllables is called its “meter.” The dictionary defines meter as “arrangement of words in regularly measured, patterned, or rhythmic lines or verses.”

In other words, “meter” is just another word for “rhythm in poetry.” In these lessons, I will use the words “meter” and “rhythm” to mean basically the same thing. In general, though, I will use “meter” to refer to the actual patterns of the stressed and unstressed syllables, but I will use “rhythm” to refer to the feeling created by the meter.

Syllables and Feet

The last thing I want you to know about in this lesson is “feet.”

In certain types of poems, such as haiku, the writer counts the number of syllables in each line. In rhythmical poetry, however, poets don’t count the number of syllables in each line; they count the number of “feet.”

A “foot” is the group of stresses and non-stresses that define the meter of a poem. In our example line, above, each foot is two syllables long. That is, each foot is made up of one unstressed syllable and one stressed syllable. If I were to draw a line between each foot in the line, it would look like this:

my MOTH | er ATE | an AP | ple AND | my FATH | er ATE | a PEAR.

This makes it easy to see that the line has seven feet. That is to say, the pattern of one unstressed syllable and one stressed syllable has been repeated seven times.

(Of course, when you write poems, you don’t want to write them in UPPER and lower case letters with lines between the feet; that would make your poems pretty hard for people to read. I just do it here so that you can see the stresses and the feet.)

Oh, and one more thing: Poems can have any number of feet in their lines. The important thing is to pick a pattern and stick with it. When you write poems, your lines can have as few or as many feet as you like. For example, here’s a very short poem I wrote in which each line has just two feet:

My cat is nice.
My cat is fat.
My cat is cute.
I like my cat.

If I were to write it to show you the stresses and the feet, it would look like this:

my CAT | is NICE.
my CAT | is FAT.
my CAT | is CUTE.
i LIKE | my CAT.

Saying Things Rhythmically

One of the biggest challenges for new poets is learning to say things rhythmically. You might write a line, only to discover that it doesn’t have a rhythm, or it doesn’t have the same rhythm as the other lines in your poem. When this happens, you should see if you can say the same thing in a different way, in order to create the rhythm you are looking for.

For example, let’s say I wrote the following line:

My mother said I should go to the store

(my MOTH-er SAID i should GO to the STORE)

If we look at which syllables are stressed and which ones aren’t, we’ll see that the rhythm doesn’t stay the same for the entire line.

However, we can easily rewrite the line like this:

My mother sent me to the store

(my MOTH-er SENT me TO  the STORE)

In upcoming lessons I will show you how you can use different kinds of feet to make different kinds of rhythms in your poems. In the meantime, I hope you’ll start thinking about how you can use what you know now to write your words rhythmically.

Next lesson: You Can Scan, Man

Kenn Nesbitt
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