Tuesday 22 October 2013

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I recently coordinated a five-week literacy course for parents in my school through our local community learning unit. The weekly sessions (still going as I write) are meant to acquaint parents with what their children are learning in school. I have known the tutor for quite some time now and he has always struck me as someone who goes the extra mile in making his lessons fun. Like the other day, for instance, when I happened to walk in on him waxing lyrical about poetry and what characterises it. He was in the middle of defining what poetry was and I lingered in the room for longer than I needed to hear what he had to say. He spoke of stanzas, of verses, of rhyme (and non-rhyme) and rhythm. This last element was what caught my attention. Most people would agree with the tutor that a poem is made of verses, stanzas and the like. But rhythm is so subjective, so hard to define that most people would probably not give it a second thought.

However, to me, this is the difference between a good and a bad poem: rhythm. An under-par poem sounds flat to me whichever way I read it. On the other hand, a poem with its own groove, jumps, skips and hops around. When I was younger I paid a closer attention to rhyme (it took me a while to get into non-rhyming poems) and this, ironically, gave me a sense of rhythm. As a grown-up cadence became more internal and therefore more subjective. No longer did I depend on rhyming verses, whether assonant or not. I searched for authors who could provide the kind of rhythm to which I was getting used.

Dylan Thomas: a good sense of rhythm
An example is Dylan Thomas’s poem “Should Lanterns Shine”, from which the current quote adorning my blog header comes. I love the beginning of the second stanza with its alliterative second verse:

I have been told to reason by the heart,
But heart, like head, leads helplessly

Needless to say, for a Spanish speaker that “heart... head... helplessly” is a linguistic nightmare. But Dylan’s honesty overcomes any pronunciation issues. I first came across this poem through a Spanish translation of the last line in an Argentinean film. I then sought the original in English and I loved it even more. Dylan is on a quest, looking for guidance on how to lead his life. He has tried reason (the “head”) and love (the “heart”) but the ball he threw in the park “has not yet reached the ground”. Isn’t that what life’s about? A constant search despite our adulthood and maturity. This constant search is rammed home by a beautiful combination of syncopated verses.

Closer to home, as in Latin America, an author who has always made me value the importance of rhythm in poetry is Oliverio Girondo. Although long gone, his poems have never gone out of fashion. Oliverio was a master at creating rhythm through repetition. His poems (usually short) are like little melodic explosions where a crescendo is reached very quickly. A good example is “¡Todo Era Amor!” (“All was Love”) and its mid-section:

Amor con una gran M, con una M mayúscula,
chorreado de merengue,
cubierto de flores blancas...
Amor espermatozoico, esperantista.
Amor desinfectado, amor untuoso...”( apologies for the lack of translation)

The repetition of the word “love” (“amor” in Spanish) is not an empty gesture, the result of an out-of-sorts poet. He is merely attempting to describe the different kinds of love there are. I must say that he could have gone on for another twenty or thirty lines and I wouldn’t have bat an eyelid. I love Girondo’s poetry.

My last example is a rarity in that it is a poem by an author who is not a poet. Toni Morrison wrote “The Big Box” in collaboration with her son Slade in 1999. Thought-provoking is too mild a term to describe “The Big Box”. Three children Patty, Mickey and Liza Sue are put in this big brown box that has swings and slides but it also has a door with three big locks that only opens one way. The three children each take turns to tell their stories but the following stanza (with slight variations) is included in all their testimonies:

Even sparrows scream,
And rabbits hop,
And beavers chew trees when they need ‘em.
I don’t mean to be rude: I want to be nice,
But I’d like to hang on to my freedom.

The cadence of the poem reflects the complicated relationship between the adults of the story and the children. It is far from simple and yet beautiful. That beauty is partly brought about by that indispensable element in good poetry: rhythm.

© 2013

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Thursday 24th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Sure shows through, between the two, like to stay a kid and live fancy free, would cause much glee

  2. love it!! Poetry is amazing and opens the minds of kiddos! Lots of poetry books around our house ~ sometimes the funnier the better. I'll agree with you ~ it's the rhythm that makes or breaks the poem! I think I need to go to the bookcase and curl up by the fire and read myself some poetry now :)

  3. Rhythm is an essential for me. Only this week I was given a wonderful book (designed for 8-14 year olds) about poetry writing. HATE THAT CAT - by Sharon Creech. A brilliant book. In it the main protagonist is reading a poem to his deaf mother - and tapping out the rhythm for her. The sense of achievement when she asked for it to be read back - and then tapped out the rhythm herself was a joy.

  4. I'd not thought about it before - but I bet (apart from the linguistic nightmare you mention) Dylan Thomas can sound great in Spanish. No entres generoso dentro de esa buena noche and all that.

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  6. I entirely agree with you. To me, rhythm is the most important aspect of poetry. But the choice of words is bound up so closely with it. I first noticed this interdependence of words and rhythm when studying the poetry of Lewis Carroll.

    He was unusual because although he adored poetry and read lots of it, he produced some terrible clunky poetry himself when he aimed to be serious. Yet, when he tried to amuse his friends, he used rhythm and turns of speech very well to make his comic points, and the whole thing flowed. I don't know if you see it in this stanza, part of a longer poem. It was written to amuse relatives who lived on the coast, and the whole poem consisted of verses in this form, explaining the different reasons why he hated the sea:

    "Pour some salt water over the floor.
    Ugly, I'm sure you'll allow it to be.
    Imagine it stretched for a mile or more;
    THAT'S very like the sea."

  7. Jenny, I loved that stanza. I will look up the poem.

    Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  8. smiles....for my rhythm is less in the standard rhythms set in form but allowing the words to find their own and let the rhythm play with the poem...poetry is a great way to reach kids as well....

  9. I'm reading poetry to my granddaughter and she is really enjoying it.
    She is not yet two.

    I love good rhythm.

    Great post!
    Thank you.

  10. rhythm for me is more important than rhymes... and i prefer rhythms that are not too straight but give the reader some surprises on the way...smiles... happy thursday..

  11. Realmente disfruto tus posts, son interesantes y amenos y tocas muchos temas,and I love poetry and have amazing poets friends like Brian:))

  12. Unfortunately, poetry doesn't do anything for me. No matter the topic, the subject or how its written, to me it's just a nicely constructed, if slightly askewed, short story.

  13. I'm not a fan of rhyming poems either, not even in children's books. It often seems forced and comes at the expense of meaning or rhythm. However, a good poet can do all that and rhyme too.

    Rhythm matters in prose too. I knew I'd picked the right agent when she told me to revise the ending of one my chapters because it seemed to be missing a beat. That's an editorial song true to my heart.

  14. I love poetry...both rhyming and free style.
    I love to read and write it, to play with words and experiment with new concepts.
    There is always something new to be found in words...:)

  15. I so agree, rhythm is key to good poetry, yet it seems to me, sadly that many contemporary poets (at least in English) are forgetting that.

    I don't speak Spanish, but i like listening to it, and can understand some because i speak Italian

  16. love good poetry you may enjoy these interviewers with Poets I listened to one the other day http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2013-10-22/billy-collins-aimless-love-new-and-selected-poems



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