Saturday, 20 April 2013

Poetry - one word, three syllables

I am in that poetry mire that I often find myself in each year, before the Year 11 exams. As students count down the weeks they have left in school, I count down the poems I have to cover for their exam. I enjoy poetry, but I am frustrated in the teaching of a named poems. Who picked them? Why did they pick them? It always feels that I am teaching someone’s preferred list of poems and not mine. The latest AQA anthology at least gives us some new poems. However, I still struggle with some of the choices and the same old few appear again. I know that poets have mortgages to pay but couldn’t we have a few more new contemporary poets and not the same few that are on the never-ending poetry tour of ‘Poetry Live’.  A new poet does appear but it always seems to be paying lip service to the others.  It is like there in an unhidden rule that there should be at least three Duffy and Armitage poems in each anthology. Part of me thinks that Duffy and Armitage are ingrained in most teachers’ brains that they will use them readily, with or without an anthology. Let’s have a wider variety of poets. Isn’t the anthology developing some teacher’s knowledge of poems as well as the students?
At the moment, I am working my way through the conflict section of the anthology. No Duffy, but one Armitage.  I am at the stage that I have two poems left: ‘Come On, Come Back’ by Stevie Smith and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Alfred Tennyson. One poem I am looking forward to and one poem I loathe. I like Tennyson and I like Smith, but ‘Come On, Come Back’ is just ‘meh’ for me. It is beige. It is just dull. Now this is a cue for one teacher, who loves this particular poem so much that they had it read out at their wedding, to argue with me. Anyway, I have decided this year to have a light touch approach to studying the poems. Instead of slaving through every line and squeezing the poems to death, I have danced over them and focused on technical aspects or concepts and dipped into the meaning briefly. That brings me to rhythm.

If I am honest, I have always struggled with rhythm and its use in poetry. Not because I am a dad-dancer and I have no rhythm at all, but because it isn’t something that comes naturally to me, or even students. Students can spot a simile or some alliteration at fifty paces, but can they spot rhythm? No. It is mainly the problem with how poetry is taught usually. A reductive analysis based on a set of expected techniques (similes, metaphors, alliteration, and personification). Get students to look at a poem and they will look at these techniques and miss some pretty obvious things. Therefore, I wanted to crack this problem and get students talking about the rhythm in an intelligent way that stopped them from featuring spotting.

So, what did I do? Syllables. Well, more specifically three syllable words.  My Easter holiday was spent counting line by line the number of syllables in a poem – I know how to live! But, I didn’t even get to looking at stressed and unstressed syllables, as I had discovered some interesting things during the process.  

Take Simon Armitage’s ‘Out of the Blue’. His free verse poem explores the sense of desperation and helplessness a person would have being trapped in the Twin Towers.  The following are the three syllable words in the poem:

anyone / bullying / surrender / appalling / appalling / spiralling / believing / believing   

It was interesting to see that these words mostly occur in the second half of the poem.  That suggested that the first half of the poem features words that are one or two syllables long. How does that link to the poem’s meaning? The use of three word syllables could reflect the exertions of the voice or the tiredness in their actions. As the voice loses hope and energy, the words get longer and the pace slows.  Furthermore, it is interesting to see that ‘believing’ and ‘appalling’ are both words that are repeated and are three syllables long. A subtle way for the poet to draw attention to these ideas. The poem is about the shock of events (appalling) and the disbelief (believing) and it is interesting to see that these words are part of the rhythm of the poem. The rhythm of poem changes with these words. So, the question I ask students is: why does the rhythm change for this word? What is so special about this word?

What about the other poems?

·         ‘Belfast Confetti’ tends to have lines ending in three syllable words

·         ‘The Yellow Palm’ tends to have three syllable words for things that the reader are not familiar with.

·         ‘next to of course god america I’ has three syllable words that describe the ideas being attacked in the poems.  
Once I had spotted the three syllable words, I focused then on two syllable words.

Through a distant shot of a building burning


In fact I am waving, waving  


A lot of the two syllable words in Armitage’s poem are verbs. The irony of the poem is that it features many verbs, but the poem is about inaction and the inability to rescue the voice. Overall, there is an irregular rhythm in the poem that reflects the chaos and disorder in the poem.  However, there are points where there is a regular rhythm in certain lines. The pattern of lots of ones followed by several twos is common in the poem, which could reflect the initial panic of the voice  and then the fatigue that follows a rush of energy. There is also the rhythm pattern that bobs up and down. A line might start with a one but then will fluctuate between twos and ones after that. The line above shows this pattern. The constant rise and fall of hope and despair is repeated in the rhythm of the lines. Often, the lines end on a two syllable word, emphasising the lack of hope. It seems in the poem that the longer the word, the greater the sense of failure.  Or, looking it from a different perspective, it could be seen that the ones and twos reflect the irregular breathing of the voice. Short, sharp bursts followed by long, deep breaths in the smoky atmosphere as the building burns.

What about the other poems?

·         ‘Futility’ tends to have lots of two syllable words at the start of the first stanza when things are so slow

·         ‘Bayonet Charge’ tends to build up syllables in sequence.

Last, but no means least, I focused on the one syllable words.

Do you see me, my love. I am failing, flagging.

1, 1,1,1,1,1,1,1,2,2

As mentioned before, we have this pattern again or building up, but the use of one word syllables here show us direct thoughts or feelings. When faced with dying, the voice uses simplistic words to express his basic emotions. This links to Ted Hughes’ ‘Bayonet Charge’ in the following line:

King, honour, human dignity, etcetera


There is an obvious sequence here, but the one word syllable is ‘King’, which shows us the voice’s main concern and reason for fighting. It is short and direct. His main thought.  Just as much as three syllable words show us a poet's main ideas, a one syllable word can show us a voice’s direct thoughts.   


I have been guilty of getting students to read out poems and write down the number of syllables, but it hasn’t always had the most successful results. This numbers approach actually helped make the process of analysing the rhythm quicker and more effective. I now will teach them to look for the threes, then the twos and then the ones - and hopefully avoid any laughing at toilet humour. Look, I have found a lot of number twos.  

The 3-2-1 can be simplified further for students by looking at word length; however this isn’t as accurate as plotting the syllables. Nothing replaces listening to a poem and hearing the sounds, but a quick process of looking at the three syllable words first has helped me, with students to explore how rhythm is used and how patterns can be noticed in the number of syllables.

What about stressed and unstressed syllables? Well, I am stressed and when I have some time where I am unstressed I may look at those further. 
Thanks for reading, 


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