How To Put Music In Your Poetry

How to Use Your Feet

In poetry, “feet” are units of rhythm that are used to construct what is called a “meter,” a term that has pretty much the same meaning in both poetry and music. It refers to the number of beats per group – in poetry this group would usually be a line, while in music the group of beats is called a measure.

I am not going to discuss the names of the feet here. There is a Wikipedia article that covers that topic very nicely. In this article I will simply discuss how to use rhythm to make your poetry flow better, musically.

Click here to hear an audio version of this poetry lesson.  

Let’s think about rhythm as variations in the beat. Rhythms like a simple waltz are consistent:

  • 1-2-3
  • 1-2-3
  • 1-2-3

.. or in a walking or dance beat …

  • 1-2-3-4
  • 1-2-3-4

Then you have the off-beats, as in rock ‘n’ roll:

  • 1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&

or a jazz waltz:

  • 1-2&3
  • 1-2&3

In addition to basic beats, beats can be accented. In rock music, there are four beats in a measure and the accents occur on beats two and four. In a march, there are four beats in each measure and the accents occur on beats one and tree. In phases or words with more than one syllable, some syllables are stressed and some are not. For example in the phrase, “What is it?,” the “is” is stressed. But in the word, “arithmetic”, the syllables “rith” and “tic” are stressed.

Putting Theory into Practice

The secret to making your poetry more musical is to control the beat of the stresses in each line, so that the rhythm creates a relationship between lines that is more musical than that of sentences in a paragraph. Actually you can transform almost any paragraph into poetry simply by working with the rhythm.

Let’s take a paragraph and use rhythm to make it more like poetry:

“I saw her in the cafeteria. She was with Jane and Joan so I decided not to sit with her, because of them. I don’t know why she always has to sit with them. She knows I don’t like those two. Either Jane or Joan is fine by themselves, but together I just can’t stand them.”

The first sentence has a rhythm like this:

Dah di di di di di di dah.

That’s an okay rhythm, so let’s make the second sentence fit in with it better:

I saw her in the cafeteria

She was with Jane so I didn’t sit with her

... and we can keep going...


I saw her in the cafeteria

She was with Jane so I didn’t sit with her

Joan was there, too


I don’t know why she always has to sit with them

When they’re together it’s something I can’t stand

I don’t like those two


More subtly done, there starts to be a subliminal sort of allure. The reader or listener knows there is something going on, but can’t quite hear a real pattern or beat. Still, there is a musicality present. Let’s start with a new idea:

We were on the subway when you told me you wanted to break up with me. There were no seats, so we stood, each holding on to the overhead bar, facing each other. The lights were bright and people were crowded all around us. You said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t to this anymore. I can’t do us anymore.” My guts did a slow roll. Suddenly the subway car jerked to a stop and you fell against me. I caught you in my arms. A tear of mine fell on your cheek.

Here we have some usable images, actions and emotions. Let’s stuff them into a poem using our new found music-in-poetry abilities:

On the subway
We stood
Facing each other
When you said,
“I can’t do this -
I can‘t do
Us
Anymore.”
My guts
Did a slow roll.

Suddenly
The subway
Jerked
To a stop:
You fell against me;
A tear of mine
Fell on your cheek.

Analyzing this rhythmically, we can feel a kind of broken three-beat rhythm to it - just a bit of a lilt that tells you this is a poem, not a paragraph. The three beat time signature is laid out strongly in the first line, “On the subway” and then has nothing to really contradict the feeling of three until “Jerked,” where the poem comes “To a stop.” Then we have the three-beat feeling continue through to the end.

We have parts that rhythmically echo other parts and others that do not, so the ‘music’ in the poetry is sophisticated. Sophisticated rhythm in a poem keeps the reader off balance, not knowing what to expect and ready to be surprised. Surprise is one of the things people like in poetry, that’s why you want to always try to include some in yours.

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Comments 14 comments

AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 4 years ago from California

Great article about the issue of rhythm and flow! Loved it!


mistifields profile image

mistifields 4 years ago

Thanks again. I'm an aspiring writer, trying to conquer poetry. I find your hubs very useful.


Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 4 years ago from United States Author

Thank you. If I actually help somebody write poetry that is more rewarding to them - this is a wonderful thing. Thanks again!


Frieda Babbley profile image

Frieda Babbley 4 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

I'm dancin', I'm dancin', I'm dancin' the yam. Great topic. I feel rhythm and a musical essence is so important in poetry. Lovely examples. A very fun read.


Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 4 years ago from United States Author

Thank you, Frieda! I like the idea of you, dancing. When I dance, my kids tell me to stop :)


Hound Cat profile image

Hound Cat 4 years ago from Los Angeles area of Southern California USA

I have used some songs to help me make my poetry flow better. Glad to read your hub recommending a musical approach.


Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 4 years ago from United States Author

That's a great idea, Hound Cat. Thanks for sharing it with us. :)


sestasik 4 years ago

Great breakdown on these issues. Meter is something so many people struggle with when it comes to poetry.


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 4 years ago

I always wish I have this rhythm thing down. Thanks for showing how rhythm can transform a so-so poem to one that sings. Rated up.


Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 4 years ago from Stepping past clutter

Tom, I love this approach to writing poetry. I have heard that many poets write to music, which influences the rhythm of their work. Have you had this experience?


always exploring profile image

always exploring 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

The idea of writing poetry to the rhythm of music is fascinating to me. I think i will try it when i get the urge to write..Thank you Tom..Cheers


Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 4 years ago from United States Author

Thank you all so much. I think the main thing is to listen to one's poetry. Read it aloud. Hear how it flows or doesn't flow. Rhythm is just one of the tools you can use to write poetry that, as Anginwu said, sings. I love the idea of writing while music plays in the background, although I tend to get pulled away by music, so I usually write in silence. Thank you, Sestasik, Anginwu, Storyteller and Ruby. :)


Ann 4 years ago

This is a very good lesson. I will read it again. I would like to be able to combine words and music. Very, very good article! Thanks. :)

http://ravensartshack.blogspot.com/2011/11/behind-...


Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 4 years ago from United States Author

Thank you, Ann!

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