Power to the beats
August 6, 2009 11:04 AM   Subscribe

I have no/little rhythm and I need to find some.

Occasionally, I write. And some times I write poetry (yes you can all run away now, it's fine). Thing is, I've never gotten the hang of how iambic pentameter or its siblings actually work: I generally just scan what I've written and see if it flows, which works to an extent. But more and more I feel like I need to get the basics of rhythm nailed, like how you can see the beats in a line or how to see if a line is lopsided.

So basically it's two questions: how can I recognise the beats in a line and how can I improve my sense of rhythm.

Any suggestions?

(let me put it like this: I played an instrument for a long while and got pretty good at it, but it was always following the tune and mucking around with that rather than having a clear notion of where the beats lay. It works, but leaves you a bit handicapped. Sort of the same thing when I write)
posted by litleozy to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
First, you need to i DENT i fy and ex AGG er ate the number of/loudest syllables of the words you intend to use. They then must fit the stressed/unstressed pattern.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:13 AM on August 6, 2009

Meter is made, essentially, of two things: a defined number of syllables (easy), and a pattern of stress within them (less easy). When I am writing in a particular meter, I usually find examples of poetry in that meter and read it out loud until I have a clear idea of what that meter sounds like. I find that it can help to use nonsense syllables to rehearse meter, as well.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:13 AM on August 6, 2009

Do you equally have trouble in visual patterns? Like:

1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 15, 24, etc?
posted by royalsong at 11:29 AM on August 6, 2009

You're asking about meter, for the most part. Rhythm in music is different, and you develop that by consciously counting out the beats when you play music and purposefully placing an emphasis on the first beat of each measure to divide the phrases of the music up. Totally different from poetry meter.

As ocherdraco and weapons-grade pandemonium said, to recognize meter, you read the poetry out loud with an exaggerated emphasis on accented pronunciation to get the "High-Low" pattern you see in iambic pentameter (10 syllables, alternating high and low "pitches").
posted by Phire at 11:48 AM on August 6, 2009

This might be a stupid question, but are you reading what you're writing out loud? When I was writing songs, actually trying to sing the lyrics I wrote along with the music usually made any awkwardness obvious.
posted by ignignokt at 11:57 AM on August 6, 2009

As odd as it sounds: Practice.

You could get a non-electric metrinome, and have it run as much of the day as possible. Force yourself to interact with it (hence non-ellectric), restart it several times a day - change the tempo, and whatnot.

Now, once you are comfortable with it, start mucking around with it: find the rythm of the music in advertisments, find the rythm of the newscaster's speech pattern, find the rythm of your heart, of the coffee pot, of someone vaccuming, etc...

Next start moving in rythm: 4 beats to cross the floor, 2 to sit down and 2 to rest, 2 beats to reach the remote the remote, a quick triplet for the button mashing, and 8 measures of rest before your show comes on.

Now let it affect your speech, keep your words and sylables in rythm. Try to mimic Masterpiece theatre TV show speak, see if you can find each character's speech pattern...
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:59 AM on August 6, 2009

loudest syllables (weapons-grade pandemonium)

alternating high and low "pitches" (Phire)

I think that these terms are misleading. Stress, or emphasis, is neither volume nor pitch.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:01 PM on August 6, 2009

You could physically mark the stressed syllables in words which are stressed. My favourite example is from the BBC News Style Guide[PDF] below.

You can do the same with unstressed syllables, and it will give you visual feedback until you internalise the process. The example below would be "dumdumDUMdumdumDUMdumdumDUMdumdumDUM"

There were scenes of delight in Port Talbot tonight
As news of the settlement spread

IANAPoet, clearly, but I think you want a feedback loop, and you can apply this method to other people's work as well.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:02 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Know any Latin teachers? If I recall my high school Latin IV class correctly, Latin poetry is based upon meter rather than rhyme. We practiced reading poetry aloud to get the hang of it. If you really want help with this, find a classics scholar or professor to help you.
posted by emd3737 at 12:05 PM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all your replies and Phire you're right I am talking more about meter than rhythm.

But I always end up in a double bind: I don't understand why stresses fall where they fall. In your comment Wrinkled Stumpskin I can see why the stress are where they are now that you've mentioned them, but I could have equally see them elsewhere: I don't yet see where the beats have to fall. So that's why I broaden the question out; yes of course I want to learn meter, but perhaps learning something else more rhythm related would help?

Royal song: interesting question, not as such (I can see the pattern in your comment) and I'm intrigued: why would that be important? I can see how seeing patterns would be useful, but how would visual patterns play into seeing meter?

Any Earth, Wind, Fire album in particular or just the ones where they wear the flashy outfits OH WAIT
posted by litleozy at 12:47 PM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: ocherdraco: imitating other poems is what I try to do, but it does at times feel like I'm stealing that poem's meter/rhythm rather than making my own. More imitation than integration.
posted by litleozy at 12:51 PM on August 6, 2009

The time you won your town the race /
We chaired you through the marketplace. /
Man and boy stood cheering by.
And home we brought you shoulder high.

-AE Housman, To an athlete dying young, 1896

Say that aloud, a few times, til you can read it smoothly. Can you say it *without* it sounding all sing-songy? Because I can't say those words in that order without it making it all fit the meter. So it sounds like this:

the TIME you WON your TOWN the RACE

(Though I don't recommend this particular meter for your poetry.)

posted by bluedaisy at 12:58 PM on August 6, 2009

at times feel like I'm stealing that poem's meter/rhythm rather than making my own. (litleozy)

But that's the beautiful thing about meters like iambic pentameter (and trochaic tetrameter and anapestic tetrameter and any other kind of meter you can think of): the meter does not change. You are not stealing the other poet's meter, you are using the same meter. It's a tool, not something proprietary.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:28 PM on August 6, 2009

You probably already know where the word stress falls, if you're a native English speaker. You just need to make the implicit knowledge explicit.

You can test it for any given word by stressing different syllables.

Example: An epicure dining at Crewe

"AN epiCURE diNING AT crewe" hopefully sounds completely wrong to you - if you're not sure on word stress, try stressing different syllables.

"PretenTIOUS" or "preTENtious"? Clearly the second when you say them out loud.

Sentence stress is a bit more difficult - it depends on what words convey interesting and new information. In the example above, "an" and "at" aren't particularly informative words. Try saying lines while gesturing with your hands: hands go down->word is stressed.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:49 PM on August 6, 2009

Get this book. It includes descriptions of the most common meters in English, and what's even better is that each description is written in the meter it describes. If you're having trouble hearing the meter, you need hundreds of examples to read, listen to, or say aloud. Even if you never want to write in traditional meters (and it sounds like you may even want to), this stuff is useful to know.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 2:01 PM on August 6, 2009

royalsong: 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 15, 24, etc?

I can not for the life of me see the pattern here... it's almost a Fibonacci sequence, but not quite. It's a "visual" pattern?

Also, one thing that helped me with rhythm was Rock Band! Seriously, the drums are so fun, and it grades you on how well you keep the rhythm. Eventually I started getting the hang of it.
posted by losvedir at 5:21 PM on August 6, 2009

Try listening to rap music. Say what you want about the genre, but to be a good rapper, you have to be a master at writing rhythmic poetry. As you listen to it, listen to the flow of the words.

After a while, these flows will stick in your head and you can memorize some of them and use their structure to write your own poetry. Eventually, you'll move past memorization and regurgitation and on to being able to imagine your own meter.

If you appreciate poetry, you might even enjoy a few of the songs.
posted by swellingitchingbrain at 7:56 PM on August 6, 2009

The military successfully marry meter, music and movement in marching cadences, for tens of thousands of clueless recruits, every week. There is method in their madness, as an ability to act in concert, for a large number of men, depends, in close quarters, upon an ability to conform themselves to an external rhythm or count. Not only marching, but timed light arms fire, artillery barrage, close order drill, and other military skills all build on march chanting and the sense of rhythm learned there. So, march it, and sing/say it, like they do. Learn your change steps, your half-steps, your flank steps, and about faces. Learn mark time, and how to count off.

You'll have rhythm in your mouth, your feet and your ear, indelibly, all your life.

Fall in!
posted by paulsc at 9:06 PM on August 6, 2009

royalsong: 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 15, 24, etc?

I can not for the life of me see the pattern here... it's almost a Fibonacci sequence, but not quite. It's a "visual" pattern?

I think it was supposed to be Fibonacci but when adding two and three together, royalsong got six and continued from there, kind of like a mental typo.
posted by soelo at 9:26 AM on August 7, 2009

litleozy: But I always end up in a double bind: I don't understand why stresses fall where they fall. In your comment Wrinkled Stumpskin I can see why the stress are where they are now that you've mentioned them, but I could have equally see them elsewhere: I don't yet see where the beats have to fall.

I think you need to understand the way stress works in individual words, putting the line aside for a minute. Think about the word 'parade.' We never say PArade, we always say paRADE. Most words are like this. You can try it with any word, or any combination of words: move the stress to another syllable in the word and you'll hear how it sounds wrong.

Once you have a good feel for how that works, read my next comment.
posted by sleevener at 8:44 AM on August 19, 2009

I see now that Wrinkled Stumpksin already offered a similar explanation. Here's the rest of mine:

The metrical line used by poets is nothing but a template. It provides a guide and shows you where the stressed syllables in the words you use should go. Here's an example:

buh BUH, buh BUH, buh BUH, buh BUH

This is the template for iambic quadrameter. Iambic means it consists of iambs, which go "buh BUH," and quadrameter means it has four of them. It's a very common line in English poetry because it's comfortable and easy, among other reasons.

Now look at these lines of Byron, say them out loud, and listen for how they line up with the template above:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

The rest of the Byron is here. Keep practicing saying lines out loud, and maybe find recordings of poets or actors reading poems. The words and the cadence should always sound natural, more or less. If you find yourself saying PArade or something like that, try it again the right way. I hope that helps!
posted by sleevener at 9:03 AM on August 19, 2009

« Older Do you know any good voice control software?   |   What music to listen to on a High Performance Car... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.