The Importance of Rhythm in Poetry

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  • 0:00 The Importance of Rhythm
  • 0:44 Rhythmic Patterns
  • 2:00 Rhythm Affects Meaning
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Poets have a variety of tools at their disposal. One of those tools is rhythm. In this lesson, you'll learn about why rhythm is important and how it can influence the overall effect of a poem.

The Importance of Rhythm

Think about the last conversation you had with your friends. You expressed your thoughts with speech that probably came to mind as you said the words. Will you remember those words in a year or ten years? Will those words profoundly influence your thoughts and emotions? Normal speech isn't meant to do all those things, but poetry can because it's an art form in which each word is weighed and chosen for maximum effect. While skilled speakers can have an engaging flow to their words, poets utilize rhythm purposefully to set a tone, spur emotions, and get across their ideas.

Rhythmic Patterns

Words are made of syllables, and some syllables are louder than others. We call the loud syllables stressed and the soft syllables unstressed. Consider the word 'destroy.' The second syllable is louder than the first, so you could say that the word follows a pattern of unstressed, stressed. Poets have names for these patterns. A pair of syllables that follow the pattern unstressed, stressed is called an iamb. Figuring out patterns in poetry is called scansion. Skilled poets have a finely tuned ear to the sounds of syllables, and by stacking together stressed and unstressed syllables, they can create rhythmic patterns. If the lines of the poem follow a regular pattern, that's called poetic meter. Traditional poetry usually employs meter, and this quickly sets a poem apart from regular speech. Meter can also establish the mood or tone of a poem. Depending on the type of meter that's being used, a poem can be formal or playful, romantic or aggressive. Think of how drummers can set the mood for a song by varying their speed and volume. Poets do the same thing with meter.

Rhythm Affects Meaning

Rhythm can be a tool to get across ideas. Let's look at two lines from the John Masefield poem 'Sea Fever.'

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

Read the lines out loud; it'll help you hear the rhythm. Masefield is using two types of patterns in these lines. One pattern is unstressed, stressed. The other pattern is unstressed, unstressed, stressed (as in 'to the seas' and 'for the call'). This second pattern is a special one called an anapest, and it creates a rolling, rocking feel. Masefield uses choppy and rolling patterns in his poem to give the reader the feeling of being on a ship. The whole poem is about the call of the sea, and Masefield uses the rhythm to help the reader feel that call.

Here's another example. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a poem titled 'The Courage That My Mother Had.' The mother of the speaker in the poem has died and has left behind several valuable items, but what the speaker really wants is her mother's courage. In the last line, the speaker starts falling apart, wishing that she could be brave. The final four lines read:

Oh, if instead she'd left to me
The thing she took into the grave!
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

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