How Rhythm Carries A Poem, From Head To Heart Poetry has deep roots in music — in fact, in some cultures, poetry and song are the same word. Edward Hirsch, author of A Poet's Glossary, explains how poets use rhythm to reach their readers.
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How Rhythm Carries A Poem, From Head To Heart

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How Rhythm Carries A Poem, From Head To Heart

How Rhythm Carries A Poem, From Head To Heart

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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All this week, we've been exploring the different forms of rhythm in our lives. This morning we'll hear some poetry. Perhaps more than any other form of writing, poetry delves deep into emotions and rhythm plays a big part in invoking those feelings, from the haunting repetitions of Poe's "Annabel Lee," to the taunting questions of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock." Here's NPR's Lynn Neary.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: In the beginning, says Edward Hirsch, the poet was a troubadour. Hirsch, author of the new book "A Poet's Glossary," says poetry has its roots in song.

EDWARD HIRSCH: There are still many tribal cultures where poetry and song, there's just one word for them. There are other cultures where, with literacy, where poetry and song are distinguished. But poetry always remembers that it has its origins in music.

NEARY: That merger of poetry and music never disappeared entirely, says Hirsch, and in recent years made a big comeback, with performance poetry and wrap. Kate Tempest began her artistic life as a rapper. Last year she won Britain's prestigious Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry, for "Brand New Ancients," an hour-long, spoken word piece set to music.


KATE TEMPEST: (Rapping) The Gods are trying to tell the truth but the truth is hard to say. The Gods are born, they live awhile and then they pass away. They're in a crowded street, it's too much, they feel sick. They're sure there must be more to life, but they don't know what it is.

HIRSCH: There's been a tremendous revival of spoken word poetry that brings back that ancient feeling of poetry as performance and poetry as a contest and poetry as spoken, chanted, sung.

NEARY: In spoken poetry and performance poetry, rhythm is extremely important.

HIRSCH: Rhythm is completely driving it in a way. I mean, the strength of this poetry is that it washes over an audience and then it really rhetorically moves you. And the rhythm drives it and the rhythm is - is how it communicates.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) These Gods ain't got no oracles to translate their requests. These Gods have got ahead. They couldn't think about the stress, so that one next door see their kids, y'all go fighting over favorites. They're just getting on with it. They are the brand-new ancients.

NEARY: As powerful as performance poetry can be, Edward Hirsch says, it doesn't always translate as well in written form. Because it's not meant to be read silently, it can lose something on the page. And the role of rhythm in written poetry is different.

HIRSCH: The sense of flowing, which is so crucial to song is also crucial to poetry. But when poetry separates from song, then the words have to carry all the rhythm themselves. They have to do all the work. They can't rely on the singing voice. And one of the things that distinguishes poetry from ordinary speech is that in a very few number of words, poetry captures some kind of deep feeling. And rhythm is the way to get there. Rhythm is the way that poetry carries itself.

NEARY: In poetry, says Hirsch, the words and the rhythm are inseparable. The rhythm of the poem helps connect the reader to the meaning of the words. Listen to one of the greatest English-speaking poets ever, William Butler Yeats, as he reads from his poem "The Lake Isle Of Innisfree."


WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS: (Reading) I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, and a small cabin there, of clay and wattles made. Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, and live alone in the bee-loud glade.

NEARY: The words and the rhythm together create a sense of yearning, and it's not hard to a repetitive pattern in the poem.

HIRSCH: The rhythm of lines and poetry are often like the waves and the sea. Each one comes back in a kind of repetition, but the repetition happens with a difference, each one is slightly different. Each one is not the same, and yet the repetition is crucial.

NEARY: Those rhythmic patterns are described by meter, a poetic term that Hirsch says often intimidates newcomers to poetry. But he says if you think of rhythm as a flow, meter is simply a way of measuring that flow. To explain what he means, Hirsch reads from a poem called my pompous woes by Theodore Roethke.

HIRSCH: This poem of Roethke's is in a three-beat line. And it creates a kind of feeling of a boy dancing with his father. (Reading) The whiskey on your breath could make a small boy dizzy, but I hung on like death, such waltzing was not easy. And the three beats create the feeling of movement and I think the power of this particular poem is the boy's feeling of dancing with his father when his father is drunk. And the dance is a little bit out of control. And the meter delivers the feeling of tenderness, anxiety, fear, affection, all mixed into one.

NEARY: Ultimately, Edward Hirsch says, poetry derives its power from the inner life of the reader.

HIRSCH: When you read a poem, and then you listen to it with your inner ear, or you recite yourself, your own body is the form of that poem. Your own body gives it shape. You are the instrument of that poem, your vocal cords, your voice, your rhythm.

NEARY: We can talk about rhythm and meter, Hirsch says, but it won't entirely explain the way poetry works on our emotions. That will, and probably should, always remain something of a mystery. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) The Gods are all here.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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