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