Slave to the Rhythm?
I am driving through the slanting Belfast rain with my seven-year old daughter. The windscreen wipers scrape and clack out a pattern. I suggest to her that they are saying ‘Taka-bu-ti, Taka-bu-ti,’ the name of the Egyptian mummy in the Ulster Museum. The combination of rhythm and word inspires us to compose a verse together, a sort of rap. It’s a natural progression: rhythm, word, song.
This illustrates a basic fact of life: rhythm is inescapable; it surrounds us. Our bodies pulse with it, day follows night, seasons turn, and tides rise and fall. Rhythm is fundamentally linked to human creativity and expression. This is true of visual art (e.g. Matisse’s Dance), and architecture (e.g. Zaha Hadid’s Stone Towers), as well as music, dance, and the written or verbal word.
Although rhythm has been a vital element in the composition of both music and literature, there are differences between the two concerning its deployment. In the case of musical composition, unless you are familiar with the work of modern experimental composers, such as Stockhausen, you might find it difficult to imagine music without it. And while there have been experimental compositions which have tried to liberate music from the constraints of rhythm by doing away with bar lines and time signatures, it could be argued that they are still defined by its absence, and thus continue to be wedded to it. I think it’s fair to say that the creation and reception of music without rhythm is not widely practised in comparison to music that has it.
This is not an issue for writers. The constraints of formal metre have been experimented with, and rejected by, poets since the 19th Century. Formality of rhythm is no longer the norm that it was in the past. If you wanted to read a modern poem in Shakespeare’s beloved iambic pentameter, you might have to trawl through quite a few poetry collections before you found one. But this doesn’t mean that rhythm in poetry is dead: far from it. Opening my three most-recently acquired books of poetry I very quickly found examples of its use:
“The sea and Southern bread, and sweets we couldn’t get”
(Paula Cunningham, ‘Geography and Sweetshops,’ in Heimlich’s Manoeuvre);
“This night is half moon night, half liquid every roof
This night a half out snail half feels the moonbraile”
(Alice Oswald, ‘A Sleepwalk on the Severn’);
“‘Too much butter will har’n your arteries.’”
(Maria McManus, ‘Rose “Cissy” Hegarty’s Kitchen,’ in We are Bone).
This last line fits perfectly to the beat of the traditional Breton Dañs Plinn, which was performed to stamp down new earth floors – a good way to work off that excess butter. For me, the use of a particular metre in this modern poem evokes an image of traditional customs and music. This tension between ancient and modern is a symptom of the times we live in, and it’s often reflected in the art we produce.
Living without rhythm is impossible. Creating art without it isn’t – but how desirable is its absence in your life?
Jason O’Rourke is a writer and musician based in Belfast, Ireland. His short stories and poetry have been published online and in print, as well as on his blog, ‘Vernacularisms.’ He is currently guest blogger for the ‘Ideas Workshop.’ In 2013 Jason was nominated for a ‘Best of the Net’ award and won the Fiddler’s Elbow (Rome) short story competition.
As well as his creative writing, Jason has published a number of essays and articles about the history of the medieval book, and has made several recordings of Traditional Irish Music.
Jason’s Belfast Notes can be found on his blog at http://vernacularisms.com