GET RHYTHM

Teaching students to hear rhythm & metre

By Katherine Parrish

In poetry, sound is paramount. As it approaches music, it reaches our body, and moves through our body to our emotions in ways that only the best prose can rival. Yet, I have found that the sonic elements of poetry are often the most difficult for students to identify, discuss, and consciously reproduce or manipulate. Sure, many of them have a natural ear. But for the students who think that it’s all a mystery, and beyond their reach, I’m always looking to provide a way in.

Ironically, in these hip hop halcyon days, the quality of poetry that has always proved the most elusive to my students is metre.

I’ve taught iambic pentameter as the sound of the heartbeat. I’ve gone tit um tit um tit um as we recited Shakespearean Sonnets and Monologues. We’ve put stresses on the syllables of our names. We’ve clapped, and walked and stomped. The majority of my students remained insensible to it all. I could feel that drain of energy that comes when I know that they’re humouring me. And certainly, no one was having any fun.

Finally, in a last ditch effort, I turned to a tool that has always helped me make the most abstract notions of language concrete: coloured slips of paper. And it was here that I found success.

I distributed amongst the groups of students, a Grade Ten Applied class in this instance, a word list made up of verbs that all mean “to move.” It’s a long list with a lot of sonic and tonal variety. I first instruct them to identify words on the list that have one syllable. They call them out, and we write them on the board. They then write these words on individual slips of blue paper. We do the same for the two and three syllable words, recording them on yellow and lavender slips paper respectively. (The colours really don’t matter, but I do like to reinforce the syllabic count with the names of the colours. It helps me, and them remember).

We then talk about syllabic stress. We go through the two syllable words and mark the stress on the slips. This is difficult for many of them to hear at first- which is one reason why doing this activity in groups is important. Most of the words on this list are stressed on the first syllable. To reinforce the sounds, I sometimes ask them to divide their two syllable words in two further piles- those with first syllable stress and those with second. Repeat for the three syllable words.

Now the real fun begins. I tell them that using their words, they are going to write a line of poetry that imitates the rhythm I am about to clap for them.

I clap a very simple couplet:

Ta Ta Ta Ta
Ti ti Ti ti Ti ti Ta.

I also write the pattern on the board, showing the stresses.

Most groups are able to do it with little difficulty, but if any do struggle, I can tell with a casual visual sweep of the room, because the coloured paper is such a clear sign. And if they’re really struggling, I can even help them by suggesting that they look for words of a certain colour.

Once each group has completed their line, it’s time for the performance. We all clap the rhythm, the first group chorally recites its poem. We clap, and then the next group recites- without breaking the rhythm.

The effect is immediate. Instant understanding. Instant pleasure.
The first time I did it, I heard cries of “Oh!!! I get it” after they said their lines aloud.

The choice of words, of course, is open. I have found, however, that this particular word list is effective for two reasons:

1) the fact that the words are all so closely related in meaning yields results that are semantically pleasing, no matter what words you choose. And the students sense this, and get no small satisfaction from it.
2) The fact that the words all have something to do with movement underscores the meaning of rhythm in poetry. Rhythm is movement. It is HOW a line of poetry moves as it means.

From there, the extensions are many. I usually invite them to create their own rhythms, to play with it, to see what sounds good.

And once I have my decks of words, I can use them to teach any rhythmic pattern.

To extend, I have them provide the second line to a line in a given metre. Sometimes we do group challenges or quizzes where they have to complete a stanza, keeping the sense and the metre consistent.

I suspect this activity could work with any level of student, as long as they are able to read the words. I might adapt it for younger grades by printing the words on the coloured paper first. (Some of my grade ten students have only recently left the ESL program and are working with an English vocabulary range closer to those in Grade 2 or 3.)

For those looking for further reading, Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled provides excellent ideas for exercises in writing poetic metre along with witty and thoughtful discussions of the semantic impact of different metres. I have used it to inform my selections of metrical patterns, and have tried some of the exercises with advanced senior high school classes.

Katherine Parrish teaches poetry in her English classes at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in Toronto. She thinks aloud about poetry and pedagogy on her website: http://www.meadow4.ca/

The List:

wave
flap
flit
flitter
flutter
sail
wing
dart
float
sail
shoot
skim
bolt
bucket
bustle
dart
dash
festinate
flash
fleet
flit
haste
hasten
hurry
hustle
pelt
race
rocket
run
rush
sail
scoot
scour
shoot
speed
sprint
tear
trot
whirl
whisk
whiz
wing
zip
zoom
hotfoot
rip
barrel
highball
nip
ease
slide
slip
glissade
lapse
slide
slip
slither
creep
lurk
mouse
prowl
pussyfoot
skulk
slide
slink
slip
snake
sneak
steal
fare
journey
pass
proceed
push on
remove
travel
wend
traipse
tramp
trek
lurch
snap
twitch
wrench
yank
bounce
bound
leap
spring
hurdle
leap
spring
vault
bolt
start
hobble
blunder
bumble
bungle
flounder
fudge
fumble
muddle
shuffle
stagger
stumble
clump
yaw
falter
reel
stagger
stumble
teeter
totter
weave
wobble
bleed
exude
leach
percolate
seep
transpire
transude
weep
slog
slop
toil
trudge
wade
drop
fall
go down
nose-dive
pitch
spill
topple
tumble
drive
forge
lunge
flood
swarm
throng
troop
flow
gush
pour
rush
stream
surge
well
scamper
scurry
sprint
bolt
bucket
bustle
dart
dash
festinate
flash
fleet
flit
fly
haste
hasten
hurry
hustle
pelt
race
rocket
rush
sail
scoot
scour2shoot
speed
sprint
tear
trot
whirl
whisk
whiz
wing
zip
zoom
drift
gad
gallivant
meander
peregrinate
ramble
range
roam
stray
traipse
wander
clamber
blunder
bumble
bungle
flounder
fudge
fumble
limp
muddle
stagger
stumble
scuff
scuffle
shamble
hop
skitter
spring
trip
crawl
creep
snake
worm
ease
glide
slip
glide
glissade
lapse
slip
slither
coast
drift
creep
sneak
glide
lurk
mouse
prowl
pussyfoot
skulk
slide
slink
snakesteal
glide
glissade
lapse
slide
slither
sinuate
snake
undulate
loll
slump
march
stalk
amble
meander
perambulate
promenade
ramble
saunter
wander
mosey
flounce
peacock
prance
swagger
swank
swash
sashay
blunder
bumble
falter
lurch
reel
stagger
teeter
totter
weave
wobble
oscillate
sway
pivot
wheel
pivot
shift
turn
veer
reel
spin
swim
whirl
spin
twirl
whirl
eddy
whirl
flail
thresh
toss and turn
stamp
stomp
trample
tromp
zigzag
pivot
swivel
bound
hop
skip
skitter
spring
run jog
lope
circle
circumvolve
gyrate
orbit
revolve
rotate
wheel
ambulate
foot
pace
step
tread
flounder
welter
bathe
lap
lave
lip
bubble
burble
gurgle
lap
splash
swash
squiggle
squirm
waggle
worm
wriggle
writhe
jerk
lurch
snap
twitch
yank