If a poem is dynamic, its rhythm headlong, then the tiny turbines of this momentum are the verbs. Action verbs muscle up a sentence and help its propulsion. They may also create unexpected astonishment for the reader. When we believe a poem is finished, we should examine every single verb for a more powerful alternative. Rhythm is the entire movement of the poem, the recurrence of stress and unstressed syllables as they relate to the pitch and texture of the sentences, one against the next. You can also play against the pattern to create tension, what Blake called “the bounding line,” such as these variations in his poem, “A Poison Tree”:
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
This is simple, but instructive. Watch how lines 2 and 4 stop with a comma in the middle, then double the rhythm making the line leap forward and gather in intensity. Over the course of several stanzas, this momentum would be like a snowball rolling downhill, gaining in size and speed as it picks up more and more lines.
Another method to make the sentence more lively is to turn a noun into a verb, and to relax the use of adjectives. Look at the moment of surprise at the end of Stephen Roberts’s poem, entitled “Sex,” when the noun maple becomes a verb:
Each love creates
its own final cause.
pink and violet
wisps arch behind
the oak and pine
distant, unseen slope.
The gray, creaky,
projects from the reed
rimmed shore into
the spectral lake.
Leaves sink surface
to sediment while
driven waves maple
out into darkness.
You can see the fingers of the waves curling down along the shoreline like the branches of a tree and receding out against the darker surf. The unexpected word maple, turned into a verb, is a moment of quiet surprise that also provides the sentence’s motion. The poem turns into itself and then follows the motion of the waves as it releases. It only takes a single verb, cleverly chosen, to set a poem upon, like a balloon balanced on the tip of a pin. See how Lorine Niedecker makes the cold come alive in this tiny poem, animating it by her choice of a unexpected verb that is usually thought of as a noun:
screwed to the wall
over a hole
so the cold
can’t mouse in
The choice of mouse here in the last line almost makes us see the cold as it sticks its nose into every crevice of the house, searching for a way in. Also a mouse is insistent, just like the cold, and that aids us in the feeling of the cold as a pervasive foe, not one to be easily deterred. It’s a liberating choice, allowing the poem a final motion as well, as the lines find their way inside the reader to slowly nestle and resonate.
Muscular Verbs, Carefully Chosen
Everyone has access to a dictionary. All the words are there. But their order and distillation are what the show-stopping, life-altering sentences are all about. When Sylvia Plath writes, “Love set me going like a fat gold watch,” or Whitman begins, “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,” and then ends with, “the sea whispered me,” you have the sense of unusual words, especially the verbs, carefully chosen.
There are more sounds in the English language than any other language, and we are blessed with about two hundred irregular verbs that can test our patience. If, for instance, I describe a rumble in the jungle by saying, “Foot by silent foot, the lion (choose your verb) closer to the unsuspecting pig.” Creeped closer? Crept closer? Sneaked closer? Snuck closer? Perhaps this was a Disney lion and he slinked closer. Or slunk closer. What does the lion do then? He leaped upon his prey. I prefer leapt upon his prey, but semantically there is very little difference. It is the sound that matters. If a knight must greet queens and kill dragons, how would this be accomplished? He kneeled before or knelt before her? He slayed a dragon. Or slew it? Does his head change sizes in that steel helmet? Would that mean his head shrunk? Or shrank? Drug or dragged? Weaved or wove? Strided or strode? Could it be that a stride piano strode down the street on the back of a Mardi Gras float? These choices are instinctual for the most part, but the decision must be based on the sounds before and behind the choice.
Excerpted from The Rhythm Method, Razzmatazz, and Memory: How to Make Your Poetry Swing, by Keith Flynn (Writer’s Digest Books, 2007)