Home | Poems | Plays | Short Stories | Essays | Children's Stories | Children's Poems | German | Photographs | Autism Appreciation | Contact

The Heart of Poesy

- An Introduction to Rhythmic Poetry -

In this essay I’m trying to explain the basics of poetry in a way that can be understood by everybody, avoiding all technical terms. I’d be grateful for any feedback, especially if anything should be unclear or difficult to apprehend. Please send an email to

When we see a text which is divided into lines, we immediately know it’s a poem. This wasn’t always so.

From the dawn of mankind until the early 20th century (when the ‘free metre’ or ‘free rhythm’ gained popularity and almost completely replaced traditional poetry), the term ‘rhythmic poetry’ would have been considered a pleonasm, because the criterion for poetry was the rhythm.
Just like music, poetry has the most natural source any art can have: the human heartbeat. It may be calm and bring the mind to rest, it also may gallop through forests like stags on the run!

Listening to a piece of music or reading a poem will, without us taking notice, influence our heartbeat. For the time we are confronted with the artist’s work, our pulse will adapt to it, and our hearts will beat as fast or as slow as his did when he wrote or performed it, feeling the same love or peace, the same fear or anger - for a little while we become one with him!

This mechanism can be very well observed in groups. Whether believers recite the Lord’s Prayer at Mass, the fans go crazy at a Jerry Lee Lewis concert, a crowd of football friends chant their team, a bunch of children sing their favourite songs while playing or a herd of Nazis stamp their tunes into the street: they’re all captured by the rhythm, and their hearts, literally, beat as one.

When we come across the line ‘The Minister of Justice will resign’ in a newspaper, we read ‘The Minister of Justice will resign’; in a line of poetry, we’ll read ‘The Minister of Justice will resign’. This is because between two heartbeats there is only time for one or two syllables; if there are three, as in ‘Minister of Justice’, we automatically put a minor stress on the middle one which we wouldn’t stress in normal language.
And this is what it is all about: beats and filling the spaces between them. We count the beats in each line, normally between three and six, and use the same number of beats in each corresponding line. (There are exceptions in certain patterns, but we’ll leave that for later.)

1. 	The Tara moon stood full and bright   (4 beats)
2. amidst a clouded sky: (3 beats)
3. that blue I’ve never seen a night, (4 beats, corresponding to line 1)
4. no holy place that high. (3 beats, corresponding to line 2)

Here we have the most popular stanza of English poetry: 4-3-4-3 beats with the rhyme scheme A-B-A-B. You will also notice that each line begins with an unstressed syllable, like an anacrusis in music, and ends with a beat.

1.      And on I walk to see the waterfall        (5 beats)
2. that's coming down the ancient rock: (4 beats)
3. the vibrant waterfall is grey with youth, (5 beats,corresponding to line 1)
4. the ancient rock is green with age. (4 beats,corresponding to line 2)

Although the rhyme isn’t used, lines 1 and 3 are corresponding (5 beats each), as well as lines 2 and 4 (4 beats).

1. 	Erin’s ruins stand in blossom,       (4 beats)
2. jewellery from Nature’s store, (4 beats)
3. bounteous like the Hanging Gardens (4 beats, corresponding to line 1)
4. Babylon was famous for. (4 beats, corresponding to line 2)

Here each line begins with a beat; the rhyme scheme is X-A-X-A (X is used for a line without a corresponding rhyme). You will also notice that lines 1 and 3 are one syllable longer than the others as the last beat is being followed by an unstressed syllable.

1. 	The river is me as he springs from the hill             (4 beats)
2. and leaps through the Valley in bends wild and still, (4 beats, corresponding to line 1))
3. caressing the meadows with life-giving touch, (4 beats)
4. embracing the woods with his nourishing clutch. (4 beats, corresponding to line 3)

This example sounds much faster because there are two syllables between the beats which speeds up the reading pace. The rhyme pattern is A-A-B-B.

The foremost duty of a poet is clarity of rhythm. When a reader has to read a line twice in order to find out where the beats are supposed to be, he’s dealing with a poorly gifted poet.
Here are a few hints to avoid this:
1. Within a poem, every line should begin the same way - either every line starts with a beat, or every line starts with an unstressed syllable.
2. Avoid too many one-syllable words in a row.
3. Read each line over and over again, trying to put the stress on the wrong syllables. If this is possible, change it!
4. You can vary the number of syllables between the beats, but in this case you have to make dead sure that it’s impossible to put the stress in the wrong places.
5. The first line introduces the rhythm of a poem; make sure the first line leaves no doubt about the rhythmic pattern.
6. If you write free metres (= poems where each line has its own pattern), make sure the reader is aware of the rhythm and doesn’t read it like a prose text.

In order to avoid the monotonous sound metric poetry is (often rightfully) accused of, you should make use of two very effective tools:

- Enjambment: Rather than expressing a complete thought or sentence in each line (as in

I roam the lonely streets at night,
and in a house I see a light,
and in the light I see a face;
I wish that I were in her place)

you carry them over to the next line (or even the next stanza), thus avoiding the prolonged pause at the end of each line (as in
One thing leads to another, and
we cannot change the plot;
some of the things that we have planned
work out while some do not.)

- Stress shift: In a poem whose lines start with an unstressed syllable, the occasional line may have the stress on the first syllable instead and be followed by two unstressed syllables; this way the reader gets back into the original rhythm with the next beat (as in the second line of

As I look up, her china shoulders
nobly surmount her svelte physique;
this bracing nymph keeps her beholders
enthralled by Cynthian mystique)

A Word About the Rhyme

The rhyme is the most recent invention to connect lines in poetry; alliteration and assonance are much older. The rhyme has first been used in Latin church music about 1,000 years ago.
I am very attached to the rhyme myself, although it’s not a necessity in poetry; but if it’s employed, it should be used properly!
The rhyme is the completely identical pronunciation of two or more words, commencing with the vowel sound of the last stressed syllable. Despite the practise of many songwriters (and, I’m ashamed to say, just as many poets), a p doesn’t rhyme on a t nor does an m on an n. When in doubt, you should consult the pronunciation code in your dictionary. (And, please, shun identical rhymes like bare/overbear or whole/hole and optical rhymes like love/move or sound/wound).
The rhyme may consist of one, two or three syllables. If the word ends with a stressed syllable (like ‘unaware’), the rhyme has to be found for that syllable only (like ‘care’).
If the stress is on the second last syllable (like ‘enchanted’), the rhyme has to be found for the last two syllables (like ‘granted’).
It doesn’t happen often that the stress is placed on the third last syllable (like ‘maddening’), and if it does, the rhyme has to be found for three syllables (like ‘gladdening’). But compare these examples:

And in the ancient monastery
the people lived in poverty.

And, living inside the old walls of the monastery,
the people were subject to hunger and poverty.

In the first couplet the words ‘monastery’ and ‘poverty’ rhyme, in the second they don’t. This is due to the way they are read; in the first example there is only one syllable between the beats, therefore the reader automatically puts a minor stress on the last syllable of these words - and ‘ry’ and ‘ty’ rhyme perfectly.
In the second example there are two syllables between the beats; the reader continues this rhythm and puts the last stress on the first syllable - and ‘monastery’ and ‘poverty’ don’t rhyme.

To get started, you may sit down and write a poem now, but maybe you’d like to have a look at the classics first and figure out what techniques and patterns they used, how their stanzas are constructed etc. You’ll find a lot of inspiration and, believe you me, a lot of flaws as well!

For those who would like to get more into it, I recommend the book The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary by Francis Stillman (though I’m not sure if it’s still in print).

© 6243 RT (2002 CE) by Frank L. Ludwig