Article for Teachers

On Sound and Rhythm

A way to start teaching poetry to children and young adults.

The speech of children is songs of innocence and experience. Seven- through eleven-year-old kids (apprentice writers) have already had thousands upon thousands of hours of practice talking (and listening) that would constitute—in terms of pole-vaulting or violin-playing—world-class experience. They are fluent within their own vocabularies. Already, the rhythms of their speech resemble those of rather interesting jazz.

Children’s language seems to have a built-in musicality: listen to their talk; it’s frequently like a mountain freshet bubbling along over rocks, full of silvery arcs. This is the raw material of poetry. By contrast, we adults, though much larger in our references and vocabulary, tend to fall into verbal ruts and toneless abstractions.

And children take a special delight in odd or pretty sounds. Given the chance to write, they are very playful with the sonic side of language. Experts say their learning of new words is a process of wonder, laughter, and punning. What children may lack is a developed sense of artistic judgment, so that their poems often include startling successes in sound right next to bland or awkward passages. They tend to accept whatever comes into their heads.

So they have the potential for art right on the tips of their tongues. It is important that we recognize this “little genius” for poetry that children have—and not try to “muscle” them into adult standards of poetic discourse. Yes, they should develop mature language skills—but gradually, organically, while as much as possible maintaining (and developing and transforming) their own fresh poetic talents.

A few versifiers such as Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutzky, and Dr. Seuss have become very popular with children. Deservedly so! They present ideas the kids can identify with, perfectly worked into clever, sprightly poems—for example, as in these lines by Dr. Seuss:

If we didn’t have birthdays, you wouldn’t be you.
If you’d never been born, well then what would you do?
If you’d never been born, well then what would you be?
You might be a fish! Or a toad in a tree!

I love Dr. Seuss! But ah, then the question arises, how to “use” poems like his in the classroom. Have kids take them as models, try to imitate the technique? No. Very few can make language flow and still fit such a meter. If they try, the results will highlight their weak points, not their strengths. A poem by Dr. Seuss is a fine gift from an adult to a kid, like a gold watch that the child can enjoy and learn from (and tell time by). It does not, however, inspire the kid to make a watch too. For that, we use freer forms of writing—freer senses of time.

In previous centuries of English-language verse, a formal sophistication, harmonized with an intricate set of rules, was more important than it is now. Few children (Blake and Chatterton were two exceptions) could master the complex skills needed just to “get in the door” of poetry. In those times, poetry only began when the requisite versification skill was there. That is, anyone could learn to versify like this:

The dog is walking now across the street;
He doesn’t like the hardness on his feet.

This is perfect iambic pentameter, with a perfect rhyme—but not good poetry. Good poetry, then as now, requires the spirit, imaginative resources, and intelligence of utterance. These qualities arise in the sound of a poem as well as in its meaning. The talented sixteenth-through-nineteenth-century poet was musical, able to vary sound away from the simple limits of iambic pentameter, while still keeping its basic structure. Poets accomplished this through differing syllable lengths, caesuras and other pauses, clustering and separating consonants, vowel progressions, secondary accents, alliteration and assonance, and rhythmic emphasis, among other means. The great poems of our immediate heritage go far beyond their verse system—circling back, in a way, to the vivacity and unpredictability of speech. It’s in the variations that poetry has always had its most intense life.

Here’s a little song from Shakespeare’s Tempest in which the spirit Ariel delivers some tough news to the Prince of Naples:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
    Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
    Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.

The curt trochaic tetrameter shows up clearly in line 2: OF his BONES are CORal MADE. In line 1, the alliteration of f’s helps impress on the listener the intended “snuffing out” of life. The initial spondee (Full fath-)—an accent formed of two “hard” syllables next to each other—emphasizes the severity of the announcement. Father and fathom, close in sound, underscore the father’s fate. The hard c of coral harmonizes with the hardness of bones. Those, are, pearls, were, his, eyes—almost every sound in line 3 can be held in the mouth (not snapped off, as with many consonants)—the liquid r’s and l’s, the buzzy s’s—expressing the slow transformation of soft eyes to pearls. In line 5, the spondaic sea change stands out rhythmically as a variation (with no light syllables between), slowing down the utterance, drawing attention to itself. And so on. No wonder the Prince replies, “This is no mortal business, nor no sound / That the earth owns.

Rhyme aside, all the magical sound techniques in the Shakespeare song work exactly the same in a poem by an untrained student (though the outline of the kid’s poem may be more free-form). Example:

Music takes me
away from the broken record
life I live.
           –Jesse Thompson (8th grade)

The m’s in music and me join them, help the music “take” the me. These solid sounds suddenly soften in away—it feels “away.” The k sounds in broken record ironically link it with Music takes—a broken record is music, but it’s stuck. You can hear in its four syllables how it whirls around rapidly. The alliteration of life I live presents another sound, with soft, pretty tones—it shows the new life at the same time as it mentions the old.

In [the past] century, the practice of poetry, while no less sophisticated than in prior eras, has been involved more consciously in making decisions directly based on everyday speech and on input from the subconscious mind. Within their limits of judgment and range of reference, kids can do this as well as—or better than—adults. They’re in touch with the basic sparkle of language.

In its musicality, most contemporary poetry does not use a metrical system; its rhyme or off-rhyme is more scattered than organized. This scattered quality does not imply carelessness; it could be likened to the arrangement of leaves on a tree.

Here’s a poem by a well-known contemporary American poet, Gary Snyder:

Mid-August At Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain

Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

Though this is a free-verse poem, many sound correspondences function in it, to “tie things up” and add expressiveness to what’s being talked about.

First, the taciturn tone is expressive of the situation—a lone fire lookout in wild country. The first two lines almost rhyme (have vowel rhyme—assonance) via the long a’s of haze and rain. Haze is further united to the descriptive elements of line 2 by alliterating with heat and rhyming within the line with days (twice). Note how the long o’s stand out in line 3, forming a sort of swing with the tough sound of Pitch and the hard c of cones at the end of the line. Cones begins a series of k sounds continuing in Across rocks—and expressive of those hard items. Then, with meadows, a softer, hummy, buzzy sound carries through line 5, just right for the soft insect-song scene. Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup makes some very lively music (repeat it a few times, for the rhythm) out of a plain drink of water. In the last two lines, the long i’s of miles and high, as well as the slowed-down rhythm of high still air, emphasize the breathtaking height of the tower.

Alliteration, assonance, and rhyme are wonderful if they’re not made too mechanical. In modern poetry they tend to be organic or serendipitous rather than schematized. It’s just that the more trained the ear is, the more appropriate that serendipity’s arrival. Similarly, with children rhyme usually functions best when it is natural rather than prearranged. Here is an example by a seventh grade girl:

P isces
I s my
S ign,
C ool
E very time. Can’t
S top thinking why I’m so fine!
            —Ana Grullon

The assonance and rhymes of the long i’s take place with a charming jazzy syncopation.

Asking students to use end-rhyme and meter will lead in most cases to stiffness and artificiality in their writing—in its content as well as its form, since the two are pretty much indivisible. We can evoke children’s poetic potential with loose or variable forms (free verse), and it will find its own shapes in due time.

Though children already have a lot of aesthetic power in the “sound” aspects of their writing, they’re not conscious of it as an approved commodity. So what can one do to make students more aware of language-as-music?

It starts with the teacher reading a lot of poetry. In doing so, you become familiar with the various “sounds” poets employ and can welcome new ones in your students’ writing, just as a botany student, wandering in the woods, is excited by new plant combinations.

As workshop leader, you should try to choose sample poems that are strong in soundplay or musical quality. Remember, rhythm in speech or in modern poetry is bright and special more in its variations than in any regularity. As explained above, this is also true of metered verse. You should point out and repeat lines, phrases, and sections that are especially appealing—either in the pleasure of the sounds themselves or in the ways they lend emphasis to certain words. Once you’re attuned to the happiness of variability, you can trust your ear for examples. It’s basically a question of attentiveness.

Read poems aloud in class with verve and a strong, natural emphasis on the rhythm and sound.

As often as possible, point out, among your comments on the kids’ poems, interesting or playful sounds they’ve created, or instances where sound supports—or intriguingly works against—meaning. If you make many comments on sound, sound will become important to your students.

Following are examples of felicitous uses of sound, with commentary.

B ouncing
A long
L ike the ground was just there to
L et it spring back into the air.
             —Juan Martinez (7th grade)

The rhythm naturally speeds up like the diminishing bounces of a free ball. Making the ball primary to the ground intensifies its free spirit. Also, the there/air rhyme amounts to a bounce from ground up.

O how beautiful is the ocean. Why don’t you
C ompare it to the fish’s swimming motion?
E ven in a fishtank you can compare
A fish’s swimming motion. Even in a turtle
N otion, you can find a fish’s swimming motion.
               —Percy Nuñez (6th grade)

The rhythm of the second and third sentences (starting with lazy dactylic waves) matches their content. Comparing the whole ocean to the motion of one of its parts (is a resident a part?) is a deep idea, taken further by the fishtank limit. And further yet, beautifully accompanied by a goofy, attention-drawing rhyme in “turtle/ Notion ... motion.” Repetition and vowels—all swim.

When I was four my father went to Scotland.
They said he went to Scotland.

By italicizing the word said, the author (Randall Jarrell) is helping you to read the poem the way he’d like it to be read. I think every poet tries to put words on the page in an order that will best suit how they sound, thereby showing you how to listen to the poem. Jarrell’s poem is written in a disjointed manner, with thoughts abruptly interrupted, then completed several sentences away. He recounts a confusing night of death and fire, like a dream except that it was light outside. At night. The boy talks out loud to himself, trying to reason out what happened, where his father went, and his sister. Because he has been lied to about their deaths he is not sure that his mother is really his mother, and is told that he is not himself. You can hear the frustration and understand why certain words throughout the poem are stressed, in italics, to be read a certain way. This poem almost instructs you how to read it aloud.

“The Truth” is a wonderful example of the power of language. Watch the faces of your students carefully when you read this poem. At first, they will be silent. Then many ideas and remarks will fly. Direct this energy to the poems they will write. The general writing idea I suggest for this poem is simply to write about the consequences of lying. Ask them to write about the first feelings that came to them when they heard the poem. What connections did they make with the boy and his confusion? Did any of the poem feel familiar, like they could have written parts of it? Suggest the class write about what this poem caused to happen in their imaginations and memories.

Another example of a great poem to use as a model is Ezra Pound’s translation of Li Po’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife.” First of all, you can tell your class that this poem was written hundreds of years ago, during the T’ang Dynasty. (Both Li Po and Ezra Pound—a great twentieth-century poet—have fascinating personal histories that students enjoy hearing about.) The poet uses metaphor to talk about feelings. Tell students how the poem is coming to them from another language and another world, and yet how it can move them. Simply spoken, yet old and mysterious, the romantic lyricism of this poem makes it a pleasure to read aloud: monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead. The different mosses by the gate have grown too deep to clear away. Paired butterflies already yellow with August are somehow painful to the wife. She is growing old, she says, and yet she is only sixteen, married already two years. Students are fascinated by information like this. It is an exciting poem. You can communicate this excitement to your class with a smooth, confident reading of the poem and discussion afterwards of its particulars. Talk about the poem as you would to a group of peers in a writing group. Give them encouragement to talk about poems by setting an example yourself. Tell them what the poem did for you. For example, in “The River Merchant’s Wife” I hear the voice of a child growing up and experiencing a great love. There is the terrible implication that her husband is dead. The plainness of her speech makes the image of a girl even stronger. There is a yearning throughout the poem that pulls at my heart.

“The River-Merchant’s Wife” is a good model poem for the writing assignment of composing a letter to someone who is gone. Have your students describe a memory, or make one up. Writing letters is a natural way to begin poems: you can be direct and personal, and forget that it is a poem. “Forgetting yourself” in a poem is like flying. I highly recommend it.

Aristotle said that one of the two ways to learn is by imitation. Look at how poets write—learn from them. Learn to recognize each poet’s individual techniques and tricks and common themes and, most of all, have fun. It’s like when you’re learning to dance—you get behind the dancer and copy his or her steps. That’s how learning from great poems works.

Discovering which poets you like is a process of self-discovery. You are what you like. Then you can use what you’ve learned you love about poetry in your own poems. The value of a poem is what you choose from it, what strikes you. Discover your own standards and procedures for critical evaluation. Guide your students to do the same. Sometimes it is up to your sense of humor or insight to find something to remark upon in a poem that is not immediately clear to the reader. Sometimes it’s the element of surprise—a memory of love, or a recognition of a shared history—when suddenly, the poem changes everything. People cannot write poetry together and remain strangers.

Jack Collom, "On Sound and Rhythm" from Poetry Everywhere: Teaching Poetry Writing in School and in the Community.  Copyright © 2005 by Jack Collom.  Reprinted by permission of Teachers & Writers Collaborative.
Originally Published: August 15th, 2016

Jack Collom was born in Chicago. He joined the US Air Force and was posted in Libya and Germany before returning to the United States. He earned a BA in forestry and English and an MA in English literature from the University of Colorado. Collom started publishing his poetry in...