Music and poetry go way back. We’re talking as far back as the 7th century.
When Greek poets such as Pindar and Sappho would recite their lyric poems to the accompaniment of a lyre. At this time, lyric poetry was a novel, exciting development in Grecian poetics. It focused the eye and ear inward, utilizing music to heighten the emotion of a poem.
For as long as there’s been oral storytelling, music and poetry have been woven delicately together.
This history of one influencing the other can be found across time spans and cultures. We hear them in the alliterative folktales shared by women in Somali villages, in the performative Urdu poetry of South Asia, in the Northern bards of Ireland, and in Latin American corridos.
For contemporary examples of the interrelationality between music and poetry, look no further than rap, an acronym for rhythm and poetry. This musical genre originated in the streets of 1970s Bronx, influenced by West African griots. It’s nearly impossible for anyone to listen to the work of Gil Scott-Heron, Janelle Monáe, Kendrick Lamar, and Lauryn Hill and think it isn’t what it is: poetry, plain and simple. For a deep dive into the history of hip hop and poetry, check out this article by Thea Voutiritsas.
Composer John Cage once said all art forms aspire to the condition of music and, within that, the musicality of language. Both can be used to create, manipulate, and/or heighten emotion. Music is one of the few forms of art we respond to physiologically.
On a biochemical level music produces certain effects, conscious and not, within ourselves.
Think of how cathartic it feels to listen to sad songs (Elliot Smith’s discography, anyone?) when you’re going through a breakup or having a hell of a day.
If you are going through a breakup and want to test this, read “In A U-Haul North of Damascus” by David Bottoms. This poem with its subtle, irregular end rhymes reads like a hymn. Try not to cry (or is that just me?). Alternatively, think of the joy produced when the rhythm of a work is felt. The work of Aimee Nezhukumatathil – all joy – and Jamila Woods – all vulnerability – come to mind.
If you are looking to create a mood or read old poems in a new way, here are some – not all – devices you can use to discover poetry’s music.
Meter refers to the type and number of feet in a line of poetry. A foot is a unit of stressed and unstressed syllables grouped together to create the rhythm of a line. Each line contributes to the emotion of a poem.
The most well-known example of poetic meter is iambic pentameter, made famous through the sonnet.
In iambic pentameter, a foot consists of an iamb, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (dun DUN), that is repeated five times (penta) in a line.
Other common types of feet are trochee (DUN dun), spondee (DUN DUN), dactyl (DUN dun dun), and anapest (dun dun DUN).
The number of feet in a line is described with Greek prefixes: mono- for one, di- for two, tri- for three, etc. A line written in trochaic dimeter, for example, has the following rhythm: DUN dun DUN dun.
Meter can heighten the emotion of a poem’s content. Iambic pentameter, for example, isn’t used just because of Shakespeare – it’s the poetic meter that not only comes closest to the natural rhythm of English but mimics the sound of our heartbeat.
Spondees, the metrical foot in which both syllables are stressed, can create a sense of urgency, fury, and power. Trochaic meter is used to create a feeling of melancholy, backsliding or resignation. Anapestic feet are considered to be the easiest foot to master and are recommended when teaching poetry to children and beginners. Whereas dactyls, the official foot of epic poetry, has historically been reserved for formal, grandiose subject matter.
Despite these technical terms, meter is fluid, dependent on how words are pronounced and emphasized. Understanding it, however, allows the poet to utilize meter to not only create rhythm, but add historical and linguistic depth to a poem. Knowing that dactyls have historically been used in epic poetry, how can you employ a metrical structure to subvert the epic? How can alternating iambic with trochaic lines enhance a piece presenting conflicting emotions?
Rhyme is the most direct method of identifying and employing rhythm in a poem. The most common are:
Perfect, or exact, rhyme is when words share the exact rhyme sound (assonance) and number of syllables. Think dove/glove, try/cry. It is easiest to identify, especially when used in end rhyme schemes.
Slant or imperfect rhyme is when words are sisters, not twins. This rhyme is more subtle and uses the musicality of words to create a rhythm that pushes the poem forward. As a reader, seeing, then hearing a slant rhyme is always a heck yeah! moment.
Eye rhyme appeals to the visual nature of poetry and is when words look alike on the page, but sound different to the ear. Alone/gone, blood/rood are examples. This type of rhyme is exciting because it ignites an unconscious interaction between eye and ear. The next time you come across one, consider how what we see affects our experience with it – how we say it and how we feel when it’s said.
These rhymes can be used at the end of lines, adhering to a rhyme scheme such as ABAB/AABB/AAAB, or in the middle of a line in what is called an internal, or middle, rhyme.
With so much experimentation in form and the freedom of free verse, coming across a hard rhyme scheme or too-perfect rhyme can make a piece seem dated or stodgy. If this is your intention, great.
If you’re hesitant to use rhyme because of this, know there are many ways to benefit from its rhythm without sacrificing your piece.
Try playing with internal slant rhymes, or choose a rhyme scheme and break it up throughout your poem noting how that affects its tone and voice.
Line Breaks and Literary Devices
Line breaks are one of the most important things a poet can learn to do. Seriously. Without the right line break, rhyme and meter become the window dressing to an empty warehouse.
Line breaks are inherently musical and lend not only to the poem’s rhythm, but its entire experience. Where you choose to break your line influences how it’s read and spoken.
To try this for yourself, take a poem you love and play with its line breaks. Once you’ve rearranged the poem, read it out loud. Do this at least twice more, ending lines at different points, and feel how that affects the sound and, in turn, experience of the poem.
In metered verse, unlike in free verse, what happens in the line is dictated by its predefined boundaries. This makes the endeavor to write the near-perfect line exciting and pushes you as a poet to reach out for new words, discover different rhythms, and experiment with syntax and meaning.
Other literary devices that contribute to a poem’s music are alliteration, consonance, repetition (refrain falling within that), and onomatopoeia.
If you want to experiment with rhyme, meter, or musicality, try playing with one of these musical forms: corrido, landay, or sonnet.
The corrido is a Latin American ballad and has many variations but one you can try is this:
36 lines: 9 stanzas with 4 lines each or 6 stanzas with 6 lines each
7-10 syllables per line
Couplet rhyme scheme: ABCB if writing 4-line stanzas, ABCBDB if writing 6-line stanzas
The landay is a form of Afghani folk poetry and is a 22-syllable couplet. Here is its structure:
First line has 9 syllables
Second line has 13 syllables
Each line ends on a “ma” or “na” sound
Themes include homeland, grief, love, and separation
Last but not least is the sonnet in which there are many forms. The two shared below are the American and English (Shakespearean) structures.
For American sonnets (inspired by Terrance Hayes’ eponymous collection):
No rhyme or structure necessary
Volta (a turn of thought, dramatic change, rhetorical shift) near the end of the poem
For an English or Shakespearean sonnet:
Divide the 14 lines into one stanza of three quatrains and a concluding couplet
Each line is usually in iambic pentameter, with 10 syllables per line
The couplet signals the volta, or turn, of the poem and either amplifies or refutes what preceded it.
Follow the ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme.
For more poetic forms, visit the Poetry Foundation’s glossary here.
1. Scansion is the act of scanning a line to determine its rhythm. Revisit 3-5 of your favorite poems and scan each line to see if there is a rhythmic structure to it. You may be surprised to discover the poems you read as free verse were deftly adhering to a predetermined rhythm. Now try this with 3-5 of your favorite songs.
2. Choose the rhythmic structure of any song (above) and write a poem to it. How does this rhythm affect the content and tone of your poem?
3. Our definition of what is rhythmic is influenced by so many factors – our bodies, personal experiences, external environments. Write a poem about what rhythm means to you. How does your definition of rhythm influence your work?