Rhythm Benders: The Musicality of American Poetry by Michael Simms

Rhythm Benders: The Musicality of American Poetry by Michael Simms
September 28, 2023 Simms Michael

In this month’s essay, Michael Simms examines the mercurial and wide-ranging subject of American poetry’s musicality, focusing specifically on rhythm, euphony, meter-making, syntax, mnemonics, silence, and forms. In examining the poetic parlance of American speech and expression in an array of American poets and composers that range from John Cage to Robert Frost to Dr. Seuss to Richard Wilbur to Donald Justice to Emily Dickinson to Charles Bernstein to Walt Whitman, he examines a wide idiosyncratic array of what he calls “rhythm benders” with an ear for the ears of his subjects who have effected memorable speech in unique aural expressions whose words have fallen like scores and notes onto the page.

–Chard DeNiord
Rhythm Benders: The Musicality of American Poetry
By Michael Simms


A poem is rooted in the rhythms of pulse, breath and movement.


Why some patterns of sounds are more pleasing than others is a mystery, yet people generally agree on whether a series of sounds has musicality. Awareness of rhythm and melody play a role, but distinguishing music from noise appears to be an intuitive, perhaps even instinctual, ability. For example, everyone can agree, I think, that a song sparrow’s call is musical whereas a crow’s is not, but relatively few of us can explain why this is so. To a certain degree, a pleasing context or personal association may influence our judgement. The sound of ocean waves gently hitting the shore or the sound of the wind in the treetops may be thought to be musical, but the recognition of musicality goes beyond the synesthetic context; rather it is inherent in the pattern of sound itself. Here, I’d like to extend this principle of our innate sense of musicality to include poetry and argue that we have a response to the music of language which is innate, rooted in the rhythms of the human body, and which lies at the heart of the artistic use of language.

In the last hundred years, Americans’ sense of the musicality of language has been muddled by a tug of war between the poets of authenticity, who try to create art out of the day-to-day language of their neighbors, and the poets of experimentation who push at the limits of language and see authenticity as merely a conjuror’s trick that encourages listeners to hold fast to their cultural prejudices. Having inherited these dueling traditions of “Art is an imitation of life” versus “Anything can be art,” contemporary poets need broad definitions of “poetry” and “music” in order to explore the ways the two art forms are similar and in this way determine an aesthetic of the musicality of poetry. These definitions promise to be useful even to those who decide to reject them.



The Boundaries of Musicality


John Cage experimented with the boundaries of musicality by presenting noise in a context where music is expected. For example, he composed pieces for Prepared Piano in which the instrument has had its sounds temporarily altered by placing objects such as iron bolts and rubber erasers between the strings. This experimentation corresponded to what artists in other mediums were doing in the 20th century, such as Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, actually a toilet; Yoko Ono’s 1965 Cut Piece in which audience members were invited to cut a piece off the performer’s clothing; and the work over the last fifty years of the language-centered poets (also known as ‘language poets’) such as Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout and Lyn Hejinian, who emphasize the reader’s role in bringing meaning to a work.

One of the progenitors of language-centered poetry was Gertrude Stein whose collection Tender Buttons (1914) pushes the limits of grammar and logic to challenge the reader’s notions of reality. Stein thought of these prose poems as a type of verbal cubism in which sentences sound as if they might be logical, but actually are distortions of familiar patterns. Here’s the entire text of her poem ‘A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass’:


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.


Stein’s piece creates tension in the first two sentences by placing non-sensical sequences of words in standard grammatical structures, then in the third sentence, releases the tension by making a short emphatic statement which seems to makes sense. Even now over a hundred years since the poem was first published, the contrast between the first two sentences and the third is striking and unusual, and in at least one reader, the pattern of tension and release (also called tension and resolution) in the poem causes a mild stress reaction, a slight catch of breath and a flexing and relaxing of muscles in the body.

Twentieth century experimental artists have also tested boundaries that separate art from other kinds of objects or experiences by calling attention to the arbitrary or illogical nature of these boundaries which are often freighted with racist or sexist assumptions. One result of the breaking down of these boundaries was that outsider art began to enter the mainstream. The traditional women’s work of quilting, for example, has long been considered not art but craft (i.e. something less than art), despite the works’ expressions of individual vision, sublime use of material, and historical and social significance. Calling something ‘art’ carries a value judgement that re-enforces the mores of the culture. For example, a man skillfully whistling a tune is music, but the same man giving an inventive wolf whistle at a passing woman would not be making music, but rather committing sexual harassment. Clearly, context and value judgements play a role in what we judge to be art. Later in this article, we’ll take up the issue of the routine exclusion of rap lyrics from discussions of literary poetry as an example of the struggle between establishment and outsider art.



Tension and Release as Rhythmic Patterns


Traditionally, ordinary conversation is not considered to be poetry unless it has originality and musicality and elicits emotion in the listener. For example, lovers write or quote poetry to evoke feelings of ardor in the loved one. Winston Churchill in his wartime radio broadcasts and Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address include elements of archaic formality to appeal to traditional values and to evoke courage and steadfastness in their respective audiences. The use of formal language creates a slight tension in the listener which is released by the recognition of the call to action. But formal language is not always appropriate or necessary for a poem. Many poets, such as Robert Frost, Jo McDougall and James Wright strive to use the rhythms and turns of speech typical of their native regions to create an authentic voice. For example, note the colloquial quality of these lines from Frost’s A Servant to Servants (1914):


By good rights I ought not to have so much
Put on me, but there seems no other way.
Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.
He says the best way out is always through.


In this monologue, Frost creates dramatic tension by letting the speaker, a rural housewife, describe her dismal life of hard work and mental illness. The brief release of tension occurs in the moments when she indulges in escapist fantasies of living close to nature.

A different method of creating tension and release occurs in these lines from The Wall by the Welsh poet David Jones, another progenitor of language-centered poetry:


It’s not for the likes of you and me to cogitate
high policy or to guess the inscrutable economy of
the pontifex
from the circuit of the agger
from the traverse of the wall.
But you see a thing or two
In our walk of life
Walking the compass of the vallum


Jones creates tension by juxtaposing a colloquial phrase the likes of you and me with the word pontifex, the office of a high priest in ancient Rome. Jones continues the specialized jargon for two lines, and then returns to the colloquial: But you see a thing or two/ in our walk of life. The next line returns to the specialized jargon: walking the compass of the vallum. Jones alternates between levels of diction in a single sentence, an aesthetic use of code switching which keeps the reader slightly off-balance. Like Stein’s poem quoted above, Jones’s lines create tension, then release the tension, but Jones does so by contrasting levels of diction whereas Stein contrasts logic and illogic. Nevertheless, in both examples, tension and release is created by playing with the reader’s expectations of how language is normally used. Just as John Cage’s compositions challenge our assumptions about music, so the language poets push against our pre-conceptions about poetry. If a free verse poet is playing tennis without a net, as Frost claims, then a language poet strums the tennis racket like a guitar, puts the ball in her pocket and walks off the court: game over.



The Origins of Language and Music


The intersections of language and music have long been of interest to scholars and scientists because the two art forms share certain characteristics, including rhythm, timing, and timbre. Also, the two are often collaborative: a great deal of music has a language component in the form of lyrics, and song can be understood as speech set to the rhythmic, tonal and harmonic patterns we recognize as music. Finally and most significantly, both language and music are ubiquitous in human cultures, and they may be intrinsic not only to our humanity, but to life itself.

There’s evidence that humans’ ability to distinguish between similar speech sounds and to prefer one utterance over another is innate. In an experiment carried out in the early 1980s by Anthony J. DeCasper and Melanie J. Spence, pregnant women read out loud The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss every day during the last six weeks of pregnancy. The newborns were then tested to determine whether they preferred the passage they’d heard in the womb or another Dr. Seuss passage read by their mothers. All of the newborns clearly preferred the one they were accustomed to. The researchers concluded that prenatal auditory experiences influence postnatal auditory preferences. At birth humans already have a memory of complicated patterns of sound and they prefer the ones they recognize. This tendency continues through childhood, as anyone who has read the same bedtime story or sang the same song dozens of times to a small child will attest. For poets, the significance of these discoveries lies in the confirmation that the art of shaping the sounds of spoken language appeals to humans on a subliminal level. In other words, in spite of the experiments of language poets, we are not fashioning art primarily out of the concepts inherent in words, but rather through their musical substructure.

Poetry, we might say, is the cousin of music, and the family tree of these two art forms has deep roots that predate humanity. In addition to certain species of birds, many other animals create music. The long deep calls of whales which can echo thousands of miles through the ocean rely on tone and rhythm to inspire other members of their species to respond. Wolves howl at night with the apparent intention to create harmonic rhythmic compositions, and they sometimes coordinate their calls with other wolves far away. Paul Winter has composed remarkably haunting pieces for saxophone accompanied by the voices of dolphin, wren, loon and wolf. More disturbingly, in the documentary Chimpanzee, we see an anthropoid pounding on a hollow log like a drum in order to call his tribe to war against a neighboring tribe. So music is not, as some scientists assert, a gift exclusive to humans, but rather one we share with other species.

Nor is language exclusive to humans. Many animals use vocalizations specific to their species to communicate with each other. Prairie dogs, for example, have a complicated vocal sign system that they use to describe the exact nature of an approaching threat. Moreover, some animals understand human language to an extraordinary degree. My kelpie Josie recognizes a dozen or more individual words, such as no, sit, stay, let’s go, treat, walk, and leave it. When I was a child, my family owned a horse ranch, and it was clear that certain horses responded to specific words, such as home and giddyap. Of course, with both dogs and horses, familiar words are consistently said in certain contexts and with recognizable tones and gestures, but I know from my own experience that the animals often will not respond unless the specific words attached to those gestures are used.

The need for individuals to communicate with their own kind seems to be an essential part of biology. Even plants share information with each other. Whether they respond to human language and music is an interesting question as well — although outside the scope of this article. I’ll note that I read my poems and played a recording of Mozart to a marijuana plant when I was in college, and the plant thrived more than its peers, but whether it was my poetry, Mozart’s music or something else that made the difference, I can’t say. Putting aside my unscientific undergraduate experiment proving nothing except that I’ve been fascinated for a long time in the ways that music and poetry affect biology, it is safe to say that there’s overwhelming evidence that both music and language are structured expressions that go beyond human cultures and are part of a mammalian, or perhaps Gaian, super-culture.



The Musicality of Language


Beyond the obvious distinction that language references the world in a way that music doesn’t, it’s clear that there are abundant similarities between the two. Both are patterns of sound to which humans have an instinctive response starting in the womb. These instincts are far older than our species, and they may be shared by both plants and animals. Philosophers and linguists have created an extensive body of work concerning the relationship between these two means of communication. In her brilliant article The Musicality of Language, Runa Fanany summarizes the work of a number of researchers who’ve explored the similarities and differences between music and language. In particular, treating a poem as music has wide applications in the fields of language acquisition, comparative anthropology, speech pathology, brain trauma, child development, and preschool pedagogy.

One area of inquiry has centered on the extent to which language might influence the nature of instrumental music in a culture, and the evidence points toward rhythm as the key factor. Researchers such as Kenneth Lee Pike have focused on the issue of stress-timing versus syllable-timing in describing the rhythm of language. English, German and Arabic are stress-timed languages, while French, Spanish and Turkish are syllable-timed. Stress-timing refers to the recurrence of stressed syllables in a regular pattern, which may also require expansion or contraction of individual syllables to maintain the pattern. In a syllable-timed language, syllables tend to be of regular duration and maintain regular time intervals. Lexical stress and pitch and amplitude variations for emphasis tend to be absent, giving the impression that languages of this type are very regular in rate. Rhythm in language depends upon isochrony, the tendency of a speech item to be repeated at regular intervals, but as it turns out, isochrony is largely perceptual and, hence, subjective, relying upon the tendency of the human brain to seek rhythm in events occurring in a near regular manner. Isochrony is only one of the elements of speech rhythm which also includes intonation, stress and tempo.

Rhythm, as it turns out, is a much more complicated phenomenon than we might have imagined, varying greatly from one language to another, and even from one speaker to another. Shakespearean actors and other effective performers of poetry carefully craft the rhythm of each line, using pitch, volume, pause, tempo and intonation to create an expressive soundscape specific to that performance. Judith Anderson and Judi Dench created two very different-sounding Lady MacBeths, and both actors would have said, I’m sure, that each evening was a unique performance, never to be repeated.



Recognizing Poetry


As noted, besides its musical qualities, an important function of language is to structure the world, that is, to represent a shared reality. But it’s important to note that expressive language, such as poetry and fiction, create the shared reality in a different way than referential language, such as dictionaries and technical manuals, whose purpose is to convey information. Consider this passage from a website created by the Alabama state government:


Child deaths are often regarded
as indicators of the health of a community.
Alabama’s greatest resource is its children.
The Alabama Child Death Review System (ACDRS)
was created on September 11, 1997,
in order to review, evaluate, and prevent cases
of unexpected and unexplained child death.
ACDRS’s mission is to understand
how and why children die in Alabama,
in order to prevent other child deaths.


Although the death of children is an inherently moving subject and I’ve broken the sentences into lines and arranged them on the page to resemble a poem, few people would confuse this passage with poetry. Now listen to the opening lines of On Teaching My Son How to Mourn by Khaty Xiong, which is also about the death of a child:

I tell him to touch his toes. He reaches for them in a squat.
He stabs them with his little fingers. One toe. Two toes.
Then we say our letters, spell out all the sounds we will deliver
because the death of a child is no small death.


We recognize the first example as prose because it is informational rather than experiential. Little attention is paid to the rhythm of the language, and there are no images that evoke the sense of being present in a specific dramatic situation. On the other hand, we know almost immediately that the second passage is poetry. The alliteration of the first sentence; the image of the small boy squatting to touch his toes; the metaphor of the verb stab implying violence from his little fingers; the indirect quotations indicated by the phrases I tell him and We say; and the repetitions of the word death in the fourth line to create the antonymic contrast of large death/small child combine holistically to create the opening of a poem, rather than a piece of information.

Just as we know immediately that some patterns of sound are music and others are not, so we know immediately whether some patterns of words are poetry and others are not. This pre-cognitive recognition of quality as the philosopher Robert Pirsig calls it, is a pleasant experience that can heal us in ways that have been well-documented although they are not well understood. Furthermore, we recognize an utterance as a poem not because of a single device, such as rhyme, meter, or imagery, but rather as a result of ontological holism; that is, all the parts work together to create the experience of the poem. In this way, a poem is greater than the sum of its parts. The music works with the meaning to create a pleasing experience that carries significance that goes far beyond a paraphrase of the poem. It is, in fact, a mortal injury to a poem to reduce it to a ‘message.’



Emily Dickinson’s Musicality


Of the traits we associate with poetry – imagery, metaphor, rhyme, tone, story, argument, theme, pathos, humor, word play, sentiment  – the most powerful is rhythm, an experience which is rooted in the body and the only quality of language which we can recognize in the womb. Consider, for example, these two similar statements:


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It was the best of times, it was not so good a time.


The first line, despite being the opening sentence of a novel, is clearly poetry. The second line means virtually the same thing, and yet it is clearly not poetry. The difference lies in the rhythm created by the antonymic mirroring of the two clauses in the first example that is lacking in the second.

Before the 20th century, rhythm in poetry referred primarily to meter, and the poet writing in English was expected to sustain a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Although many poets, including Shakespeare and Milton, took liberties with these traditions, nevertheless, meter was the standard that listeners applied, and the judicious breaking of these patterns was often a source of surprise and delight created by tension and release. As Runa Fanany puts it:


[…] meter is the key factor, and punctuation, sentences, and grammar are the equivalent of the groupings of notes, rests, and phrases in musical notation. The importance of meter comes in shaping our perceptions of what we are hearing and our subsequent reactions to it, and, in fact, music and language are parallel, not only in notation, but in the importance of meter to structure and phrasing, as well as determining our understanding of what we hear. When we hear something appealing, we remember it, but, more importantly, the ease with which a phrase can be repeated, the balance of its structure, and the presence of patterns that are relatively simple within the overall structure creates sounds that are “catchy.”


A large part of the appeal of Emily Dickinson’s poems is the musical quality of her verse which is often associated with common meter, alternating lines of eight syllables and six syllables. Common meter is often used in sung music, especially in hymns such as Amazing Grace and in contemporary rap music which I’ll discuss below. However, Dickinson experimented with a variety of metrical and stanzaic forms, including short meter and the ballad stanza, which depends more on stresses per line (usually four alternating with three) than on syllable counts. The ballad stanza is usually a quatrain with the first and third lines in iambic tetrameter and the second and fourth lines in iambic trimeter with a rhyme scheme of ABCB. As with meter, Dickinson’s employment of rhyme is experimental, often using ABAB and making use of slant rhyme, considered a daring innovation in the 19th century.

 In college I learned that my friends and I could sing many poems by Dickinson to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas” as well as to the Gilligan’s Island” theme song, but Dickinson’s use of meter is more subtle and sublime than this undergraduate comedy routine would lead us to believe. In fact, the poet often employs stanzaic patterns, including rhyme and half rhyme, in surprising ways to create tension and release. For example, notice in A Bird, came down the Walk (359), how she crafts a variation on the ballad stanza by consistently employing a meter of iambic trimeter in lines 1, 3, and 4, and breaking this pattern in the third line of iambic tetrameter. This innovation in the ballad stanza creates tension when we come to the extra stress in line 3 which is released with the return to the trimeter of the fourth line as if the listener’s heart speeds up in the third line, then slows down in the fourth. Dickinson skillfully repeats this innovative pattern in every stanza, except the fourth one where she surprises us by keeping a steady iambic trimeter. (Throughout this essay, instead of traditional diacritical marks, I’ve simply put stressed syllables in boldfaced type):

A Bird, came down the Walk
He did not know I saw
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,


And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –


He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. –


Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer Home –


Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.



Hypotaxis and Parataxis


What about free verse? If rhythm is the defining quality of poetry, then how can language without a regular pattern of stresses be poetry? The answer, of course, is that rhythm is larger than meter. Rhythm is a complex pattern of sounds that may not be easily described, but which can be felt in the body. Walking over uneven ground, my footsteps are rhythmic although they vary in length. As I exert myself, my breath and pulse quicken and establish two more evolving rhythms. These three overlapping repetitions are variable and complementary. So it is with a poem: the rhythms of syllables, syntax, word-repetition, line-length and emphasis work together to create a pattern of sound, the meta-rhythm of the poem which we experience in our bodies as tension and release.

Other than Dr. Seuss and nursery rhymes, my first experience with poetry was in my family’s evangelical church where the King James version of The Bible was often quoted, sometimes quite beautifully. Note the way the phrases of the sentence build toward a climax in Ecclesiastes 9:11:


I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding,
nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.


The reader may recognize the passage as an example of the skillful use of a periodic sentence featuring syntactical subordination in service to a single main idea not complete until the very end of the sentence. The reader may also notice the use of parallelism in which the subject and predicate at the beginning of the sentence are modified by a series of subordinate clauses, then after a semi-colon the second coordinate clause reveals the main point. This grammatical sequence creates suspense and resolution, that is, tension and release. Though this rhetorical device creates a rhythm less subtle than the metrical patterns of Dickinson, it achieves a similar effect that the listener can feel in his breath. In fact, one might understand the rhythm of tension and release as being similar, perhaps even identical to the rhythm of breathing: inhaling takes longer than exhaling, just as the build-up of tension takes longer than the release of tension. In short, we experience the skillful use of rhetoric as a physical sensation; the words have been arranged for musical effect that helps us to feel the meaning of the words in a pre-cognitive way. In rhetorical terms, this style depends on hypotaxis, that is, complex sentence structures, as opposed to parataxis, the technique often associated with Japanese verse in which images or statements are placed next to each other without subordination.

Ezra Pound’s Imagist poem ‘In the Station of the Metro’ is an example of parataxis:


The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.


Pound’s two lines are distinctly different from one another in their metrical rhythm: the first line scans as iambic hexameter while the second line concludes emphatically with three stressed syllables, an extended spondee. The contrasting rhythms correspond to the contrasting descriptions: the literal image of the first line against the figurative image of the second. The slant end-rhyme crowd/bough effectively holds the two contrasting lines together in asymmetrical balance.

In contrast, notice the rhythm in this example of hypotaxis from Longfellow’s poem Snowflakes:


Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garment shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent and soft, and slow,
Descends the snow.


Longfellow’s first five lines of this stanza are a succession of parallel adverbial phrases leaving the sentence grammatically incomplete until the inverted subject and verb appear in the sixth line. Delaying the subject and verb until the end of the sentence causes a complex feeling in the listener of anticipation and completion. In these six lines, we see repetition, end-rhyme, syntactical parallelism and word-order inversion combining to create tension and release.



Walt Whitman’s Musicality


When I read Leaves of Grass for the first time in high school, the poems immediately appealed to me. Whitman, having been influenced by the rolling cadences of the King James Bible, created a rhythmic poetry of syntactic repetition and variation. Whitman’s lines are end-stopped, and parallel clauses or phrases constitute lines. For instance, consider the opening lines of the 1855 edition of “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


While the first line can be scanned as iambic pentameter and the second and third lines as a mix of iambic, anapestic, and dactylic, we could scan most prose in a similar way. Rhythmic cohesion in this passage depends, not on meter, but rather on the repetition of individual words (myself/myself, assume/assume, belonging/belongs) within the varied accentual patterns.

Here is a stanza from section five of “Song of Myself” that shows the complexity and variety of Whitman’s repetitions and variations:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells be- neath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.


The repetition of “And” at the beginning of these lines sets a rhythmic frame within which the poet varies line length and syntactic structure to weave a texture of sound and meaning. Or, to put the analysis in more technical terms, the musicality of the catalog is built through diverse parallelism of clause and phrase, as well as repetition of key words and phrases within the framework of symploce.


The Sieve of Memory


One possible definition of poetry is “memorable language.” Although my memory has faded in recent years, I can still recite some of my favorite poems by James Wright and Emily Dickinson, as well as a few of my own poems. As a teacher and mentor, I encourage young poets to memorize their poems, and they usually find that in the retelling of the poems welcome revisions occur. (I also warn them that when they perform in public, they should always have a copy of the poem in front of them because poets often have momentary lapses in memory.) Also, I believe that the best poems are sticky, i.e. easy to remember. I know an established poet who often challenges young people when they claim that a contemporary poet is “great” by asking them to recite a few lines. If they demur, claiming their memory is not reliable, then he remarks, as if surprised, “So what we have is a great poet whose poetry is entirely forgettable.” Although I’ve never embarrassed anyone in this way, I often privately test poems for their stickiness. After hearing a poem, if a line or a few phrases stay with me, then I’m impressed and want to hear the poem again, but if I can’t accurately recall any of the language, then I dismiss the poem — whatever the reputation of the poet.

In my experience, it is the rhythm of the poem that triggers memory, rather than an image or figure of speech. As Runa Fanany explains:


Musically speaking, while harmony gives a piece affective power, the rhythm and meter make a melody memorable. Rhythms create patterns that a listener can use as markers to identify structures which, in turn, create the distinctive qualities of a melody, while the meter suggests the pulse which adds a sense of order and regularity; even when very complex rhythmic structures seem to obscure the meter, the underlying pulse is still subconsciously discernible, thereby allowing a listener to follow a melody, or melodies, without perceiving a feeling of randomness. These two elements contribute to the potential of a melody to stand out while creating a lasting impression that allows for later recall of the melody again and again; the sense of organization provided by the meter creates a context for the rhythmic components of the melody, allowing the rhythmic structures to take on a comprehensible form which can be reproduced. In short, these two qualities are what allow us to hum a theme from a symphony, even if we can never remember its development…



Rhythm Benders


In the twentieth century, the language poets were not the only ones challenging readers’ assumptions about musicality. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), one of the progenitors of rhythm bending as we might call these experiments, was a Catholic priest whose work was so radically different than his contemporaries that his poems were largely ignored until after World War I. Hopkins’s consistent theme was the revelation of God’s glory through nature, especially through ecstatic images of birds, trees, flowers, ocean and weather. In many of his poems, Hopkins employed what he called sprung rhythm based on a fixed number of stressed syllables and an indeterminate number of unstressed syllables. Hopkins claimed that this meter was the basis for spoken English, of many nursery rhymes, and of medieval poems such as Piers Plowman. An example of Hopkins’s use of sprung rhythm can be seen in his poem ‘God’s Grandeur.’ Each line has five or six stresses and the sprung rhythm is made emphatic through rhyme and alliteration. Notice in this first stanza how line 1 scans as trochaic pentameter with a truncated last syllable, and line 2 scans as iambic hexameter, then in line 3 the meter starts to break down and in subsequent lines a more emphatic rhythm takes over with stressed syllables clashing against each other. Hopkins makes clear that this clashing of syllables is intentional by putting accent marks over the phrase all trades :


Glory be to God for dappled things
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rosemoles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and piecedfold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.


The idea that the music of poetry does not have to rely on the tension between the rhythm of speech and conventional meter, but rather can be shaped to fit the unique intent of the poet was revolutionary. Moreover, poets discovered that rhythm does not necessarily depend on patterns of stressed syllables, but can be forged out of the interplay of syntax and word choice. Much like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, the poems of ee cummings create a tension between logic and grammatical structure. Notice in the stanza below how the first two lines make the reader’s mind do somersaults, then the third line lists the seasons in normal order, relaxing the reader, then the strange syntax is continued in the fourth line, heightening tension again:


anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.



William Carlos Williams, trying to find a rhythm that captured American speech, invented the phrase variable foot to explain how his triadic stanzas use line-endings, white space and movement across and down the page. Later, Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets attempted to establish a poetics based on the mind observing itself while observing the world. Line-breaks, rhyme and white space call attention to individual words and phrases. Rhythm is a function of the mind as it leaps and connects. The opening of Robert Creeley’s poem “The Rhythm” can be interpreted as an explanation of his prosody:


It is all a rhythm,
From the shutting
door, to the window

the seasons, the sun’s
light, the moon,
the growing of things…


In the absence of fixed meter, modern poets looked for models on which to base the rhythms of their poetry. Jack Kerouac modeled the free-flowing movement of his poems on jazz improvisation, often performing to piano or saxophone accompaniment. Allen Ginsberg chanted to the rhythm of his own breath. Denise Levertov showed one interviewer how a poem is actually a dance expressing feeling through movement. Galway Kinnell claimed that the free-verse prosody of his long poem The Book of Nightmares was based on the rhythm of walking down stairs-the body’s carefully measured movement, exact and purposeful but not uniform.

Although some poets, such as Richard Wilbur and Donald Justice, continued writing within the tradition of rhyme and meter through the second half of the 20th century, other poets, such as John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, re-purposed traditional forms to create ironic counterpoint to disturbing content. Consider, for example, Sexton’s The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator’ which begins:


The end of the affair is always death.
She’s my workshop. Slippery eye,
out of the tribe of myself my breath
finds you gone. I horrify
those who stand by. I am fed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.


Since English is a relatively rhyme-poor language compared to French or Italian, many contemporary poets have adopted exotic forms that depend on repetition rather than rhyme. The sestina, for example, consists of six stanzas of six lines each, usually followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern. The pantoum, an exotic form originally from Malaysia, is composed of four stanzas of the same four lines repeated in rotating order. The ghazal, an Arabic form, is made up of five or more couplets each ending with the same word. These repetitive forms have a song-like quality, much like a musical round.



The Musicality of James Wright, W.S. Merwin and Edna St. Vincent Millay


James Wright, like many American poets born in the 1920s and 30s, began as a formalist employing fixed rhyme and meter; then in his middle age he loosened his style to accommodate the rhythms of his Ohio Valley dialect, but he continued paying strict attention to the music of his verse. Consider these opening lines of his iconic poem From a Blossoming Pear Tree:


Beautiful natural blossoms,
How could you possibly
Worry or bother or care


The first line is anapestic trimeter with a truncated final syllable. The second line is anapestic dimeter. And the third line is anapestic trimeter with two truncated final syllables, echoing the first line. The next three lines continue the three-stress pattern, but substitute iambs and trochees for the anapests, so the lines have a less regular rhythm. This variation gives the language a more conversational feel, without losing the sense of measured speech:


About the ashamed, hopeless
Old man? He was so near death


What we can learn from Wright’s masterly craft is that free verse does not mean without rhythm, but rather that the rhythm is more varied than regular meter. Consider, for example, the opening lines of  W.S. Merwins Sun and Rain:


Opening the book    at a bright window
above a wide pasture     after five years
I find I am still standing    on a stone bridge

Notice the repetition of rhythmic patterns, the emphatic ending of the lines; (bright window, five years, stone bridge) contrasted with the more relaxed rhythms of the first half of the lines (Opening the book, above a wide pasture, I find I am still standing). The caesura divides the relaxed rhythm of the first half of each line with the more emphatic second half of the line which ends with a spondee (two stressed syllables). The effect is that each line rises in rhythmic intensity while alliteration helps to hold the passage together: book/bright/above; five/find; standing/stone.

Although Edna St. Vincent Millay continued using fixed forms throughout her career, we can see how she also incorporated many of the rhythmic devices we’ve looked at here. Note, for example, the opening lines of her best-known Petrarchan sonnet:



What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply


The poet sets the pattern of iambic pentameter in the first line, varies it in the second and third lines, then returns to the strict meter in the fourth and fifth lines. Within this formal structure she uses repetition, alliteration, assonance, elision and syntactical inversion. As a result of these rhythmic layers, the music resonates.



The Musicality of Rap Lyrics


A young contemporary poet whose lines are memorable is J.D. Debris. ‘Beach Rose,’ a poem from his first collection The Scorpion’s Question Mark, employs alliteration, assonance and rhyme, as well as a throbbing pulse of single syllable words, to create a love poem that’s full of menace and meaning. Here’s the entire poem:



Beach Rose
after Montale & Tupac


Bring her the beach rose, so she knows
by heart the harsh & jagged places mercy grows
so she hears its song of salt & dismal odds
burst out in thorngreen from between the rocks.


Soft things spring from hardness, symmetry from chaos,
so through broken bones of driftwood & a shroud
of bees it shows, cling to bent & rusted bolts,
lacing thin, spiked limbs through bottle shards.


Bring her the pink, interlocking infinity that survives
where no vine should, on tidewrack & defiance
alone. Let a blossom meet your pocketknife—
bring her the beach rose unlikely as life.


Debris acknowledges the influence of both the Italian poet Eugenio Montale and the American rap artist Tupac Shakur. The rich imagery echoes the sensuousness of Montale’s style, but more relevant to our current discussion, the rhythm of Debris’s poem is similar to Tupac’s lyrics. For example, here are the first four lines of Tupac’s ‘Changes’:


I see no changes, all I see is racist faces
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races
We under, I wonder what it takes to make this
One better place, let’s erase the wasted


In both poems, the emphatic rhythm created by end rhyme, internal rhyme and assonance creates a drumbeat that echoes the unforgiving themes. In Debris’s poem, love grows in ‘harsh & jagged places’ while Tupac raps of the disgrace of racism and hatred. Notice that both passages scan in a fairly traditional way. Debris’s lines are a loose iambic pentameter although he breaks the first line early to bring out the internal rhyme of heart/harsh while Tupac’s four lines are a variation on a traditional ballad stanza, rhyming AABB with five-stress lines followed by four-stress lines. In both poems, the loose meter is emphasized by repetition of words, phrases and phonemes.

This brief analysis suggests that the musicality of rap lyrics can be sophisticated, and literary poets may want to look at the popular art form, particularly that of Tupac Shakur, for what we can learn about experimentation with form and rhythm.  



Walking, Running, Skipping and Hip-Hopping


Of course, poets are aware of the music of their poems, and they shape their rhythms to achieve unique expressions. Consider, for example, these two ten-word quotations, the first from Barbara Hamby’s O Deceitful Tongue and the second from Jane Kenyon’s After an Illness, Walking the Dog:


Drunk tongue, warling,

malt-mad forger in the bone orchard



the top of the logging road stands open

and light


Hamby’s compact poetry compels our hearts to race by piling up stressed syllables while Kenyon’s gentle measure alternates stressed and unstressed syllables to calm and soothe us with a regular meditative pace. Hamby pounds the listener with an insistent rhythm while Kenyon gently invites us to walk beside her, and these distinctly different cadences complement the subjects of their two poems: “O Deceitful Tongue” is about the frightening power of language and “After an Illness, Walking the Dog” is about the healing quality of nature.

Compare the  rhythms of Hamby and Kenyon with that of a jump rope verse heard on playgrounds throughout the English-speaking world:


Cinderella, dressed in yella
Went upstairs to kiss her fella
Made a mistake and kissed a snake
How many doctors did it take?
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8


The verse is made up of two trochaic tetrameter rhymed couplets with a final line of spondaic tetrameter slant-rhyming with the second couplet: AABBB. The first and third lines also feature internal rhyme. Chanting the heavily rhythmic verse helps the child regulate her breath and time the movement of her body as she jumps rope. As she comes to the last line, another girl steps into the orbital space created by the swinging rope, and the two girls synchronize their movements as they count off. Then the first girl hops out of the space until her turn comes around again. In our neighborhood park, I’ve seen a group of girls continue this demanding dance for half an hour or more, each girl keeping perfect time with the help of the verse. Their faces reflect the intense concentration of maintaining the hypnotic rhythm, and they appear, at least to me, to have entered an ecstatic state, an autonomic response, in which they are aware only of the poem and the movement which it inspires. The girls have, in a sense, become the rhythm.

Poetry can inhabit our bodies if we allow it to. Hamby’s clashing syllables excite; Kenyon’s staid lines calm, and the jump rope verse keeps time. The feeling we have when a poem is living inside us can be described only as ecstasy. Herein lies the power of poetry.

Putting this principle to use, many classroom teachers have found that encouraging young people to respond to the rhythm of poetry, rather than focusing on metaphor, story or theme, is an effective way to foster a love of language and an interest in literature. For example, in a 9-12 lesson at The Kennedy Center, students compare the rhythm, form, diction, and sound of hip-hop and Shakespearean sonnets in order to create an original poem and performance. However, teaching the rhythm of poetry doesn’t necessarily need to be part of a formal assignment. A teacher might simply lay down a beat on her i-phone and then rap a sonnet in order to demonstrate the power of meter. University of South Carolina Professor of Education Toby Jenkins argues that hip-hop culture, including rap music, should be more prominent in educational programs because it teaches diversity, poetry, and politics. She fondly remembers the day in elementary school when her gym teacher tossed the planned activities, turned on some hip-hop music and let the kids jump around wild, crazy, happy and free.



The Healing Power of Poetry


There’s no doubt that art can heal people and even entire communities. In his seminal 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score, Harvard psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk recalls an incident that occurred years before in his South African medical practice in which a room of rape survivors spontaneously began singing and swaying as a communal strategy to help them heal from their trauma. In his practice, Dr. Van Der Kolk has discovered that teaching war veterans to tap their hands rhythmically against their bodies has a calming effect more efficacious than Prozac in treating PTSD. This phenomenon is similar to the way that people on the autism spectrum, like myself, rhythmically rock back and forth, flap our arms, flutter our fingers, or repeat certain words or phrases when we feel stress. Rhythmic motion or verbalization is an effective self-help strategy to calm oneself. On an anatomical level, how does this work? Dr. Van Der Kolk puts forward strong evidence that communal rhythms and stories, including dance, song and theater, help to “rewire” the brain in ways that enable people to heal from trauma. On a personal level, when I tell people that poetry saved my life, they think I’m exaggerating, but in fact, writing and reciting poetry have gotten me through a number of rough patches, including depression and suicidal thoughts. In my novel Bicycles of the Gods, Jesus visits a pandemonium of parrots traumatized by captivity and teaches them to sing and play music together as a way to heal themselves and their community. To put it simply, as the body—or the body politic—absorbs the song, mind and spirit are healed.

Almost everyone has an intuitive sense of rhythm sufficient to speak their native tongue although the ability to create what others would perceive as poetry is more rare, and in most cultures deeply revered. I find it ironic that in a time when society places so much emphasis on popular culture in the form of television and film, mediums that rely heavily on “good” writing and there is significant societal consensus on what programs and movies have effective scripts, there is so little regard for literary poetry, an art that demonstrates a pure form of this quality. Whether the gap between what society wants and what poets offer is a failure on the part of society or of poets themselves is a discussion for another time. It may be that people’s need for poetry is being fully met by the lyrics of popular songs, including rap, and thus literary poetry has been crowded out of the marketplace much as classical music has been.

Putting aside the issues of building an audience for literary poetry, we can see that the effectiveness of a poem relies on certain musical principles such as balance, tension/release, and repetition of phonemes and phrases; and the combination of these principles creates the overlapping structures that constitute rhythm. On a more fundamental level, poetic rhythm has its roots in the way our bodies experience time, that is, pulse, breath and motion; and thus, as the ancient Greeks understood, poetry closely resembles dance and music. In the pantheon, Euterpe, the muse who presides over music and lyric poetry, is the sister of Terpsichore, the muse of dance.

Adopting a method of analysis in which rhythm is understood as complex layers of sound rather than simple accentual stress patterns might provide a means of explaining how a poem can heal us on a subliminal level. In classrooms and literary journals, we often reduce a poem to a narrative about the poet’s life or a message about social justice, but these approaches fail to acknowledge the essential nature of poetry. A poem is not primarily a story or a political argument; although since language references the world, these rhetorical modes can be appreciated in poetry. Rather a poem is, first and foremost, music created from language.




‘Beach Rose’ by J.D. Debris copyright 2023. From The Scorpion’s Question Mark by J.D. Debris, selected by Cornelius Eady as the winner of the 2022 Donald Justice Prize. Included here by permission of Autumn House Press.


Essay and compilation copyright 2023 Michael Simms




Michael Simms is the founding editor of Autumn House Press (1998-2016) and Vox Populi (2014-present). He is the co-author of The Longman Handbook and Dictionary of Poetry (Addison Wesley, 1985). His recent books include the poetry collections American Ash, Nightjar and Strange Meadowlark (Ragged Sky, 2020, 2021, 2023) and the novels Bicycles of the Gods: A Divine Comedy and The Green Mage: Volume One of the Talon Trilogy (Madville, 2022, 2023). In 2011, the State Legislature of Pennsylvania awarded Simms a Certificate of Recognition for service to the arts.