In attempts to increase my fanciness, I’ve been reading the Bard himself: Will Shakespeare. And let me say—I’m fancier than ever.
But more to the point, my reading has reminded me of an argument—nay, a burden I have long held. It has been my unsightly duty since my first collegiate days to inform English majors—those smug sciolists—of the true tools at their disposal, to educate them in the art to which they profess mastery. In short: I explain that real writing takes advantage of rhythm, that great poets use meter, and everyone else is a hack.
Most writers learn about meter and rhyme schemes early on, and naturally they grow disenchanted with those boring studies and assigning letters to each line of a poem. But at some point, they learn that some of the masters—Whitman? I love Whitman!—wrote in free verse, a form where the chains of meter are thrown off. And so, in a desire to mimic their idols or to achieve novelty, they adopt this form, neglecting rhythm and rhyme and the like, and in so doing, they take a premature step. For just as Picasso learned to paint with absolute realism before venturing into Cubism, so young writers must first master language—to know how to use it fully. They must learn meter.
Of course, we all know what meter can do for the written word. When Shakespeare penned his plays in iambic pentameter, he made his lines stick like a mosquito in sap—they were memorable (the most important element of any writing). Rhythm and meter also have the ability to resonate in the body and stir up emotions—this is the art’s overlap with music.
Plenty of great artist and writers of our time are aware of this tool. Tarantino, widely praised for the dialogue in his films, has long used iambic pentameter in his films, and if you can get past the language, his iconic “Roy'ale with Cheese” banter is a prime example of this. By using meter, Pulp Fiction prevents an audience from falling asleep in their chair. It allows Tarantino (and co-writer Roger Avary) to disguise the exposition and long bouts of dialogue—every screenwriter’s nightmare—with rhythmic color/texture. It’s snappier, and it’s fun, and it makes his movies work.
Another tool utilized by the masters is rhyme. The instrument of rhyme has a lot of the same uses as rhythm (e.g. inscribing verse into our memory), and it does this largely through expectations—our brains can guess the words faster than we can read them. Rhyme also has the power of closure, completing a verse started with one sound and bringing it full circle for a sense of harmony.
One of the greatest artists of rhyme (and rhythm) is Dr. Seuss; his control of the English language, how he bends it and shapes it, is unequaled. His abilities are what make his work so memorable and so powerful for learning, and too often he is dismissed. Another famous champion of rhyme is Emily Dickinson. Consider this famous poem of hers,
I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air -
Between the Heaves of Storm -
The Eyes around - had wrung them dry -
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset - when the King
Be witnessed - in the Room -
I willed my Keepsakes - Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable - and then it was
There interposed a Fly -
With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz -
Between the light - and me -
And then the Windows failed - and then
I could not see to see -
Notice how Dickinson, in every stanza until the last, uses a near-rhyme. It is not, however, until the final stanza that we get a real, complete rhyme: me/see. And this final rhyme gives us the final sense of closure we need as the narrator achieves peace in death, and we ultimately understand what it means that the “me” can no longer “see.”
I am not claiming that rhythm and rhyme are any replacement for language and content (though those hasty English majors will surely miss this). Rather, language and content are enhanced peerlessly through use of rhythm and rhyme. These are possibly the strongest tools at our disposal, and they are the necessary building-blocks for developing writers.
Hold fast to stress, and syllables, and diphthongs even. Be fancy with your pen.
Labels: Dr. Seuss, Emily Dickinson, iambic pentameter, meter, poetry, Pulp Fiction, Tarantino, tools, writing