Getting Your Poems on the Page: Writing Music-Rhyme, Rhythm & Repetition

Sage Cohen

By Sage Cohen
Songs can take hold of us and refuse to let go. I have been taken hostage for days, years, decades by some of my favorites. I’ll bet you have, too. What do songs do that speaks so directly to us and moves us so deeply?

In songs, rhyme, rhythm, and repetition typically work together to deliver messages in a way that we respond to physically and emotionally-so much so that hearing a song can spin us back to the time and place of our first hearing it-resurfacing smells, feelings, even people who we might not otherwise have remembered. It seems, then, that the songs we love somehow plug into our nervous systems, entangling themselves in our memories. Because songs are poems set to music, we have the same opportunities to tickle people down to their foundations with the rhymes, rhythms, and repetitions we choose in our poems.

Repeating sounds can help create a kind of cohesion in a poem. This is the delight of rhyme; it’s easier to retain a phrase if it is strung together with sounds that echo each other, probably because it feels good to say and hear it.

Songs rely heavily on instruments to communicate rhythm; poems use words and lines and white space. But the trajectory is similar. The way you break a line, space a stanza, and choose your words for their syllabic pluck is akin to the drum keeping a beat for a song.

Most songs have a chorus-a catchy few phrases that get repeated intermittently throughout. When done successfully, a chorus creates a kind of comforting return to the familiar, while expanding in meaning each time as the song progresses. Repetition can work the same way in free-verse poems, but with no standard formula to follow. The real craft of repetition comes in offering something fresh with each appearance, using a recurring idea or image to peel back layer after layer, rather than circling the reader back to the same idea, of which she will tire easily.

Your turn!

Modeled on song lyrics, write a poem that has end rhymes, similar syllable-count lines, and possibly even a recurring chorus. Use the lyrics of any songwriter you admire as your example-and don’t be shy about imitating.
October 2007 Family Fun Magazine

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.

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