2.4 – The Sound & Rhythm of Power & Conflict Poetry (AQA)

Teaching Poetry is Teaching Sound

If ‘you met a traveller from an antique land’, you’d find yourself speaking in iambs. You’re ‘doing poetry’: but what does that mean? Add a rhyme scheme and you’re very obviously speaking poetry, not prose. You can feel how the sound carries you, often far beyond any meaning. Or the rhythm can even undermine the meaning of the lines, undercut the substantive tone, or make a the saddest of sentiments even sadder. It’s marvellous, isn’t it, how this is done?

This matter shouldn’t be ignored if we are to teach poetry as poetry, as opposed to teaching it as a kind of dense form of prose.

Consider the following lines:

I met a traveller from an antique land,

 –   *   –    *     –       *     –      *   –         *

Who said —“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

 –        *               –    *      –       *     –         *       –      *

Stand in the desertNear them, on the sand,

    *      –    –      *   –         *        *        –       –      *

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

  –        *     –    *     –         *     –     *       –            *

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

 –        *         –    *     –       *       –     *        *      –

The reader is brought up short at the phrase “Stand in the desert”, why? What is the poet doing? How is Shelly doing this? And why would a poet resort to such artifices?

But poets do resort to such artifices: caesurae, run-on-lines, iambs and trochees… these are the tools poets use, just as mechanics use a wrench, or prose writers employ figures of speech. If we are to have a grasp of what’s going on in a poem, we need to know what tricks are up the sleeve of the poet: how are our strings being pulled?

And pulling strings is no easy matter. So, there’s the knotty problem of why poets do what they do: why write poetry when it’s just so hard to write? No one asks this of the architect, nor the sculptor, rarely of the novelist or dramatist; however, when poets write poetry, they are doing something odd, and it is something peculiar to poets. It’s not that they are oddly obsessed with rhythm, rhyme and assonance: these things are what they do.

And when we read poetry, we are doing something different from watching a play or reading a novel (or a newspaper report, a Snap Chat message, or the ingredients of a recipe). But what? When we are drawn along by a deft rhythm, pulled up short by a sudden change of rhythm, dragged down by dissonance, or raised high by a peculiarly sweet assonance, we are reading poetry. But why are we reading poetry?

What a poem is for, is tied up with the fact that the sound of the poem is a fundamental part of what it is, as much as the shape of a sculpture or the façade of a building. When we engage with a poem we are engaging with its shape on the page, its length, its structure, and its sound. We expect rhyme, rhythm and music; if we don’t get them, we are shaken. In its presence or its absence rhyme, for example, can be ignored no more than a building’s function, foundation or stairwell. What is a stairwell for? And a building’s façade? If these are questions we don’t ask, it is because they are too obvious. However, we don’t ask this of rhyme for more complicated reasons. 

Lyric poetry (as opposed to narrative poems) doesn’t engage us in the manner of a novel or short story; yet are we not being entertained? Think of how songs engage us. And how different they are to stories. Yes, music engages us in a different way. The analogy between music and poetry is a useful one; however, it is limited, as with all analogies. What we do when we read poetry, is not what we do when we listen to music. Our relationship with poetry is fundamentally different. But what is that relationship? What does a lyric poem do for you?

And then, what does a lyric poem do for Shelly, Plath or Heaney? Are these poets getting anything out of it? As they are so darn hard to write, our first question of poetry should be: why bother? Poets bog themselves down with the bean counting of syllables and stresses, the difficulties of rhyme and rhythm, the awkwardness of dissonance and sibilance and plosives, the vagaries of alliteration and assonance… Now, no one wonders at the architect’s obsession with load bearing walls and steel beams, windows and glazed bricks. But at least they have a building to show for their efforts. What has, in the end, the poet achieved?

One summer evening (led by her) I found

   –        *      –     *   –        *     –    *     –   *

A little boat tied to a willow tree

 –   *  –     *       –    *  –    *     –     *

Within a rocky cove, its usual home.

    –   *   –   *   –     *       –    *   –     *

Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in

      *       –    –     *         –     *         –       *    –     *

Pushed from the shore.

      *        –          –     *       

If syllables and stresses, rhyme and rhythm, dissonance and sibilance and plosives, alliteration and assonance are all indispensable parts of making a poem, we really do need to ask why. And we must train our students to ask why. For if they are not asking these questions, they are not really beginning to understand what poetry is for, why it is written, and why they are reading it.

We cannot expect a full and rich appreciation of poetry in students without teaching them what a stressed and unstressed syllable is; no more can we teach a kid to build a skyscraper (or fully appreciate the achievement) without an understanding of foundations, the properties of concrete and steel’s tensile strength.

If we are to teach something in English Literature, let’s teach English Literature: what it is, how it works, and why we bother. That means teaching sound when we come to teaching poetry.

A programme of study (5 schemes of work – from Year 7 to Year 11) on teaching poetry as poetry:

Year 7 – Narrative Poetry

Year 8 – Sonnets

Year 9 – Lyric Poetry

Year 10 – Power & Conflict Cluster


Year 11 – Unseen Poetry