'Poetry can't exist without rhythm. Don't be academically bullied into dropping rhymes'

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Earlier this year Write Out Loud’s founder, Julian Jordon, saw a poetry performance by Cynthia Buell Thomas and was moved to write: “Everything about it was absolutely top quality … a lesson in how to create and present live poetry.” Now Cynthia has taken the time to outline for Write Out Loud readers in a thoughtful and fascinating article her guidelines on how to perform poetry to the best of your ability.  

"In all cultures, the tradition of poetry is oral, whether spoken or sung.  The human voice is the world’s most powerful instrument, and bards have always played it well.  The poet’s power is an ability to excite our emotions with originality of thought, a stimulating style, and an effective delivery. Originally, poems were folk songs to stir our tribal pride; harangues to embolden us for battle; tales to make us sigh for love, and so on – and on and on. All poetry has purpose. The poet loves words, knows words, and uses words in very specific ways to create attitude and to influence our feelings. 

Once again, poetry is lifting off the page and into performance, a huge regeneration of oral roots supported by you, the poet who is brave enough to bring your own work to the open mic as a reading or recitation. The following ideas are my thoughts developed from both experience and supportive reading.  I have found that a little knowledge and effort can improve any spoken presentation, satisfying both poet and listener. Rhetoric is not a bad word.

If there is any first “this”, and then “that”, it must be that first you have put your ideas into some written form, expressing an insight that you feel is worth sharing.  You harnessed the power of words to express your unique self in your unique way. Effective reading or recitation should only make a good thing better.

I can’t speak about performance without reference to the general structure of poetry itself. So I include some very basic points about the craft  of a poem, hoping that you will stick with me. Broadly, all poets “work” the following skills of structure, whether intentionally or not. 

Every word has its own colour, the particular sound quality created by its structure of consonants and vowels, and how we pronounce them.   No matter how you say your words, the nuances of individual sounds are subdued or magnified when associated with other words. A poet uses many techniques to make internal melody - alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, internal rhyme, external rhyme –  all  methods increasing pleasure in the poem. Even from the page poem our eyes translate music. End rhymes (and a metrical beat) are still greatly enjoyed by performers and their public.  So-called “structured poetry” in many forms remains very popular. Even “doggerel” has its place, and can be most effective in performance.  After all, what is and what is not doggerel is entirely subjective.  In my opinion, poets should not be academically bullied into dropping rhymes.

Poetry cannot exist without rhythm, whether emphasised or subtle. Even a poet’s deliberate effort to have “no rhythm” is doomed, because the reader’s inner ear will stubbornly supply it. Rhythm exists in our everyday speech, and poetry is, after all, just “talking”. Apart from an established metrical beat, which can be lovely when well-executed, a natural rhythm adds much beauty to a poem.  Structuring the flow of desired sound becomes the poet’s skill for putting the precise word in the exact place.

Most words are loaded with multiple possibilities of meaning and connotations. The English language has great diversity, and most poets use a dictionary or thesaurus regularly. With an apt word, the poet encourages the reader’s mind to ripple out to other associations, adding diversity and richness to the writer’s ideas. Striking verbs are the crux of action, as are adjectives of description when they are used with particularity.  Inferences tend to engage a targeted audience.

Ideas are often developed with imaginative figures of speech like metaphors and similes which make unusual comparisons for extended meaning, metaphors especially requiring great care so that they do not muddle their messages. Personification is a poetic stalwart, not always kept under control.

In page composition the poet uses the placement of words, phrases and lines to guide the reader’s mind along a prefigured pattern of interpretation. This includes stanza separation, line breaks and punctuation. In contemporary poetry, “sight formation” can be very contentious. I think some poems simply cannot be performed because the visual impact of the page is essential, needing the ability to look back, or around, to associate ideas.

No matter what your theme is, or how you write it, poetry is deliberate.

Let me make this point right up front. You must realise that the poem you choose to perform is almost flying past the listeners as you speak.  The audience does not have copies, only your delivery.  So select a poem that moves easily forward, preferably without essential referrals to prior parts of the poem for best understanding. Listeners will follow a mood, but not usually specific details. Too short a poem often does not connect either; the audience hasn’t had enough time to adjust to your voice or your style of delivery to absorb your ideas. Haiku, for example, can be notoriously difficult to connect adequately.

Audiences and venues are hugely different.  I suggest that you pick out five or six poems to have with you on any given night, poems with different themes. You have no idea what type of performance you will have to follow, perhaps immediately. It is really difficult to present a serious love ballad right on the heels of a belly-laugh comic routine. You can curse your luck, or you can have a poem that will bridge such a gap, one light in vein, to temper the audience mood for the offering that is really special to you.  Be flexible. Do a quick shuffle of intent.

On stage is no time to be selecting what you want to perform. Have your choices ready  and sorted. Keep any preamble brief. If a poem requires extensive introduction it is likely too short, or too involved.

Now for the real deal. The biggest step in transferring your written poem to a performance piece is to read it aloud many times, first gently to yourself, and then as if you had an easy listener in conversation.  You must wrap your tongue around the words, their vowels and consonants. If any single word, or phrase, stumbles out awkwardly, then change those words. They are not right for that part of the poem, and your mouth knows it. Trust the lips, the teeth and the tip of the tongue!

Once you have disciplined your words, and you can anticipate the lines of your own work, you now need to speak these lines out as if to an audience, projecting your voice into and across a room.  If you have practiced in privacy, this will be surprisingly natural, and your confidence will not desert you.  You do not have to act, or gesticulate, or do anything but read or recite well.  Do not then mumble into your neck over a floppy paper. If necessary, have a support so that you can clearly see the poem while you are reading, and you can also keep some eye contact with your listeners.  Finger sliding a tiny script on a very small screen tends not to be audience-friendly, as the performer often squints  and usually fumbles the  lines.  If  you use a microphone, be sure the mic is at the correct height for your mouth, and put your lips close enough so that your voice is clearly transmitted. Ask that the volume be raised if you need extra help. Check with your audience; they will be honest because they want to hear you.  Take your time between poems, and be sure to come back to the correct microphone position.

Know your poem well enough to be sure of those parts that you wish to emphasise for best effect of your intended meaning.  You are the only guide, leading your listeners in your intended interpretation. You have to know what effects you want. This means that you are aware of your pace of speaking, slowing down, speeding up, and pausing.  Perhaps you may linger on a favourite word, giving it more time value to highlight a hidden rhyme, or to suggest excitement of some kind. Practice will give you control.

We vary the pitch of our natural speech constantly, its highness and lowness, and the sliding range. A skill in controlled cadence fills your poem with atmosphere and affects the emotions of our listeners. Varied pitch in the rise and fall of poetic lines is especially important to show the beginning and the ending of a thought. Find your cadences in privacy, and then enjoy them publicly.  Do not be shy. You will feel immediately the difference in audience response.

Regional accents need to be consistent, and consonants must be included. Performance is not like banter over beer. Clarity rules.

Finally, if you are reciting, try to avoid a “spacey” look that plagues some performers.  Often, everything mentioned above is well done, but they lose all audience contact as they find their lines from memory, eyes blanked out. If you can’t get past this internalising, better, perhaps, just to read the poem, looking up occasionally to engage your listeners. Just a thought.

Also, ironically, sometimes there is the peculiar need to rein in over-enthusiasm as too much flamboyance of body movement and vocal acrobatics can actually detract from the poem itself. Often the audience cannot understand all the words.  There needs to be a balance between bombardment and relaxation. Most of us should be so lucky as to be so good that we are in danger of going over the top. But it’s a point."


◄ Mud Wrestling With Words: Bang Said The Gun, Burning Eye

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Harry O'Neill

Fri 27th Sep 2013 17:39

(you call these thoughts!)

An obvious fact about most of the poetry written today is that it has little to do with what we`re talking about here. Although the `competition winner` stuff is creeping back a little, most of the other is what some might call the `anything goes` `chopped up prose` utterly free verse type.

In other words fee verse has won the day...the question is: Is this a liberation? In my opinion it is, as many people who would fight shy of the old stuff now feel free to join in - folk are now `trying their hands` at it, which is a good thing.

In my opinion, the problem is that some of the `academics` have persuaded beginers to abandon and forget the past (instead of using it).

Language has it`s own internal rhythm, which can be effectively used in both `traditional` or `free` poetry. I believe that we need to juxtapose and combine, alternate or hybridise both together and feel our way towards something structurally worthwhile.

A good start would be to display the generally admitted best of both styles together and discuss them.

Laura,(peace!) There are many poems on here I`ve not understood, for all sorts of reasons.(sometimes my own thickness)

The metaphors I`m talking about are those that are so private to the poet that they do his poem a disservice by making it obtuse to fairly normal interpretation.
The glaringly obvious ones do it a disservice by being
obviously glaring.

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Frances Spurrier

Thu 26th Sep 2013 13:42

Great article Cynthia. I like the title. I think the 'don't feel a poem has to rhyme' mantra has been taken too far.

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Laura Taylor

Thu 26th Sep 2013 11:17

Harry - about this:

"metaphor and simile is that it should be fairly and universally accessible (and not some private inaccessible private mind - world of an individual)"

how exactly do you KNOW what is 'universally accessible'? There are some of my poems that you have been unable to understand, and I've thought they were blindingly obvious.

And - if you do somehow chance upon something that IS 'universally accessible', where do you draw the line between that and 'glaringly obvious' or 'cliched'?

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Graham Sherwood

Thu 26th Sep 2013 10:04

Crikey, a masterclass here Cynthia. A lot of this goes over my head as it sounds like a checklist for the performance brigade (the majority on here I suspect).
I do not however agree with the comments about trusting the lips and the tongue.
Obviously, if a piece is going to be read aloud it should be easy to project and words therefore may be changed to effect this. However if read "in the head" these sort of amendments do not need to be made.

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John Coopey

Thu 26th Sep 2013 09:42

"It don't mean a thang
If it ain't got that swang"
My own take on the matter:

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Harry O'Neill

Wed 25th Sep 2013 22:47

Cynthia wise words wisely said.

Your points about poetic creation and presentation could hardly be bettered.

Rhyme has indeed been academically bullied out of todays `serious` poetry and the only way back back for it will be along the lines of your insistence on the primacy of rhythm. (and serious pleasure in the sound of a serious poem). You are spot on that poetry is essentially oral, and that our eyes translate the `music` of it even from the page.

Poems are indeed a `placement of words along a pre-figured pattern of interpretation`. that pre-figuration is a coherence of chosen words which take additional strength from the poet`s choice of placement, and in doing so sometimes say more than even the poet himself realises. The poet`s intention, (choice or exclusion of the words) is what is deliberated -the result is what the poem does with those words.

The only thing I would add to the timely points you make about metaphor and simile is that it should be fairly and universally accessible (and not some private inaccessible private mind - world of an individual)

That our eyes translate music even from the page much needed saying – as did your words about structured poetry, and the available structures. I would have liked more on the relation of structure to the typographical shape of the poem on the page.

Your points about performance are very helpful I wonder – when the whole person is up there before the audience – what part the individual personality plays?

A very enjoyable, informed, and valuable essay

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Steve Higgins

Tue 24th Sep 2013 00:51

An excellent piece of work Cynthia and one which reflects my own feelings about poetry so well. The title says it all . .

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Mon 23rd Sep 2013 14:13

I love your title Cynthia! I would amend it to read 'Good poetry can't exist without rhythm.....'

I see plenty of examples of poetry (some of it highly acclaimed) which I find totally un-poetic. For me to like a poem, there needs to be rhythm, which I often call flow. That flow can be found in non rhyming poetry but it's much harder to achieve and harder to explain.

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Laura Taylor

Mon 23rd Sep 2013 10:30

What a great piece, thanks Cynthia! I love this part, it is sooo true:

"If any single word, or phrase, stumbles out awkwardly, then change those words. They are not right for that part of the poem, and your mouth knows it. Trust the lips, the teeth and the tip of the tongue!"

Fantastic, should be made a sticky on the site this!

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Mark Mr T Thompson

Mon 23rd Sep 2013 09:48

Excellent piece.

The juxtaposition of accent needing to be consistent and consonants must be included seems to me at odds. Perhaps, as you have said elsewhere the key is their deliberacy of inclusion and omission.

As for consistency of accent... well again it is about purpose, accuracy and control.

Mine is far from consistent but it does have plenty of purpose.


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