by Gillian Clarke
Walk, run, use a hammer, a pen, a shovel, a pair of oars, a garden fork. Heartbeat, breathing, being alive. That’s where rhythm comes from. The language that poets use takes its rhythm from the way we live and move. Poets today are also influenced by three main English language sources. Here is a brief summary of these main influences on poetry, as well as the way we speak and write.
1. The BALLAD, or working song is the oldest. Ballads usually rhyme. Often they use a stressed 4/3 beat, with 4 thumps in the first line, 3 in the second, like this:
‘I married a man from County Roscommon
And I live at the back of beyond
With a field of cows and a yard of hens
And six white geese on the pond.’
(‘Overheard in County Sligo’. GC)
2. SHAKESPEARE didn’t invent the 5 beats of iambic pentameter that he used in his poems and plays: ‘It was the nightingale and not the lark’. (Romeo and Juliet). It was probably the way people spoke. No doubt Shakespeare heard it and spoke it. Even today we still often use this speech rhythm: ‘Come on, a cup of tea will do you good.’ ‘Get out of bed and do a bit of work!’ (See the page on Iambic Pentameter for more on this.)
3. NATURAL SPEECH. Then came the way we think and speak now. The rhythms of our speech today are as natural to us as breathing and are the drums that beat in the poetry of today. These, and something unique in each one of us, create that special thing, the poet’s voice.
Seamus Heaney‘s rhythms come from all the above original sources. 4 of the 8 poems follow the iambics of Shakespeare that we all still use, whether we know it or not. To this he adds accents and words common in the North of Ireland. You could say he hears two drums beating, the drums of educated, literary English, and of Catholic Ireland. A ‘townland’ is a rural place of a few houses, too scattered to be a village. The rhythm uses one-syllable words like ‘grunts’, ’slub’, ‘sod’, ‘pluck’, mixed with Latin words like ‘libation’, from his Catholic background. .In Mid-Term Break neighbours say they are ‘sorry for your trouble’, the Irish way to express condolences to the bereaved. In Digging he says:
‘My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.’
which sound like lines from a ballad. Once you’ve heard him read, you never read his poetry any other way.
My poem (Gillian Clarke) On the Train uses, more or less, iambic pentameter until the moment when the automatic Vodafone voice speaks, the trains have crashed at Paddington, and everything breaks down. Iambic pentameter is a dignified rhythm, and expresses the tragedy. As the poem moves from setting the scene to the catastrophe, the rhythm breaks. The poem gradually enter the mind of a traveller involved in the event, or a grieving person waiting at home. The broken rhythms suggest chaos. The rhythm of Cold Knap Lake also expresses a transition from the story I remembered as a five-year old witness, to the rhythm of a myth or nursery rhyme in the final two lines.
Carol Ann Duffy‘s rhythms always suit the subject. Each one is different. Elvis’s Twin Sister uses the short lines of an Elvis song, quoting the songs and mixing them with words and phrases of a convent. Anne Hathaway is written in iambic pentameter. Salome cleverly slips in asides, extra remarks like ‘sooner or later’, and ‘what did it matter’, between the rhythm of iambic pentameter in the first few lines. This rhythm comes and goes throughout the poem. Before You Were Mine is an example of the special Carol Ann Duffy style. It’s a speaking voice, but it’s as rhythmic to read aloud as the ballrooms, the dance bands, the cha cha of her mother’s youth. We Remember Your Childhood Well and Education for Leisure are both told through another voice, not the poet’s own. Both take their rhythm from natural speech, the way we speak now, the way we tell a story.
Simon Armitage loves popular music, and knows a lot about it. His poetry reflects this. The tune and language of his native Yorkshire is strong in every poem, and his 8 poems in the anthology have fewer lines of iambic pentameter than the other poets mentioned here. In ‘Mother, any distance greater than a single span/ requires a second pair of hands’, the rhyme may be traditional, but the short and long lines sing to his own tune. His use of the things people say, ‘requires a second pair of hands’, for example, and the whole first verse of the next poem, contribute to this natural sound, this conversational beat.
My father thought it bloody queer,
the day I rolled home with a ring of silver in my ear
half hidden by a mop of hair. ‘You’ve lost your head.
If that’s how easily you’re led
you should’ve had it through your nose instead.’
It’s not only the quoted voice of his father, but the whole poem that uses phrases and therefore rhythms that come from real people speaking. All Simon Armitage’s poems do that.