Friday, October 24, 2014

Carrie Clickard: Step One– PICK A BEAT

Have you heard? 

          Igor Meter is on the prowl! 

Fortunately, TLD's resident rhyming gumshoe, Carrie Clickard, is back with some expert advice on how to approach this dastardly villain.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Every rhymer I know has had it happen.

Longing for the company of other writers you decide to attend a conference.  At the welcoming cocktail party, you soak in the camaraderie of the creative community, sharing hopes, dreams, frustrations, aspirations.  This is JUST what you needed.  There’s so much supportive banter you decide to risk a little honesty. “That’s right,” you bravely admit. “I write in RHYME.”

Suddenly it’s not a cocktail party, it’s an INTERVENTION.

Well-intentioned souls will bombard you with reasons not to waste your time, since “editors hate getting rhyming manuscripts.”  Others will offer advice on how to break your rhyme habit, pointing you to articles, books, seminars in perfecting prose techniques instead.  And a few will look down their long literary noses and declare that rhyme is simply too limiting, implying rhyme is something a poet will eventually grow out of.


These situations tend to divide rhymers into two groups:  The first will hear all the anti-rhyme bias and limp off to huddle in the world of prose, afraid to bring their verse out in the open.  But the second group, ah, those stubborn rhymers among us, we square our shoulders, lick our wounds and continue to versify, despite all the nay-sayers.  We’re determined to write clean, flawless rhyme that no one can take exception to.

This article is for us. 

With three of my upcoming picture books in rhyme, versus just one in prose, I know what the battle is like out there in the query/submission trenches.  And I’ve come to believe that the pro-rhyme/anti-rhyme divide is a matter of deep-seated personal taste, like the preference for red over blue, or jazz vs classical. You can’t change other people’s opinions, so don’t waste the energy.  Avoid the ‘haters’ as much as you can and focus on making your own poetry irresistible and undeniable. Then, in the end, your rhyme will speak for itself.

So let’s take some steps in that direction – with our first Rhyme Crime perpetrator:

That’s right. We’re about to dive into the feet and beats and stressors and all that tongue tripping stuff that makes up scansion and meter. Now, if you’ve done the poetry basics (iambic, trochaic, tetrameter, double dactyls, ad nauseum) in school, right now you’re probably thinking:

Don’t run away. Getting the meter right doesn’t have to be dry and daunting.  All we need to do is –
Pick a beat.
Make it stick.
Change it up.
And we can do it all to your favorite song. Really. Let’s tackle step one.


Now if you’ve already got a piece you’re working on, you might not need this section, and you’ll have to wait for MAKE IT STICK next time.  But if you haven’t settled on the meter of your poem already, here are some things to think about.

Does the beat I pick matter?
Opinions vary on this subject but I say wholeheartedly “yes”. First, because stressors in normal conversation can immensely change a sentence’s meaning. Consider the difference between
YOU don’t like school anymore     (but I do) 
You DON’T like school anymore    (you just say you do) 
You don’t LIKE school anymore     (now you LOVE it / or HATE it ) 
You don’t like SCHOOL anymore   (but you like chess club, or cheerleading, or Principal Stevens etc ) 
You don’t like school ANYMORE   (but you USED to)
In the same way, the beat you choose to emphasize, especially in your poem’s first few lines, can make a huge impact in how the reader interprets what you wrote. 

Secondly, the beat we choose helps set the emotion of our piece.  From a very young age, we’re surrounded by musical rhythms: lullabies, songs on the car radio, the theme song of a favorite TV show, classroom sing-alongs, weddings, funerals, even the muzak piped in to malls and elevators.  Without any effort on our part that music gets linked in our subconscious to a particular feeling or mood. When we hear that song again, or something similar in style, it reminds us to “feel the same way.” Part of that is down to the lyrics and the tune, but the beat can trigger our emotional memory all by itself. For anyone who’s heard the opening stamp-stamp-clap, stamp-stamp-clap to Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” you know what I’m talking about.

This emotional memory makes selecting the right beat important if we’re trying to set a mood for our story.  Are you looking for quirky and funny, or inspirational and stirring?  Is your poem a soothing sail across silky oceans or a rollicking pirate romp?  Read the opening of your poem aloud. (If you’re on the subway, you might want to wait until you get somewhere less public.) Is the rhythm putting you in the right mood?

If the beat in your poem doesn’t fit right, try thinking of a song that evokes the right emotion.  Sing the song and tap out its beat with your hand or toes.  Pay attention to the heavier beats. Are you hearing “bah-BOOM bah-BOOM” or “BOOM-bah BOOM-bah” or something more complicated?  Don’t worry about sticking the correct meter-label on it now, just listen to the beat and see how it makes you feel. If you can’t think of a particular song, grab a random playlist and try several out.  Which beats make you dreamy and which ones crackle and pop?

Chances are, if you’ve been writing rhyme for any length of time, you already have rhythms and meters you’re naturally drawn to.  Some writers find their voice in short clean beats, others crave intricate wordplay, and there’s room for both.  But be sure you’re actively choosing. Take a moment at the beginning of any new poem and ask yourself: Is this the right beat or am I just repeating what comes easily?

Wait a minute! I hear all the scansion addicts out there cry.  You can’t just tell people to imitate a song. If you’re going to write good metered rhyme, you MUST know whether you’re writing in iambic or trochaic. You have to know the difference between tetrameter and pentameter. That’s what makes good poetry, right?

I’ll answer that with a strong “Maybe.”

If you already know all the Greek terms and can tell the difference between anapestic hexameter and amphibrachic tetrameter at 50 paces, then you’re probably stellar at polishing your rhyme already.  But for those who aren’t, I’m not sure the terminology is absolutely critical.  Of course, to be treated as professional, your rhyming piece must be written in clean, consistent meter. It needs to be as flawless as possible, without accents on the wrong syllable or tortured feet. But whether you have beautifully penned sheets of iambic pentameter marked with short/stressed syllables, or beat out the rhythm of a Pharrell Williams song on your kitchen table, all that matters is that you MAKE IT STICK.

That being said, let’s identify some beats.  Pick a few favorites from your playlist and as Pharrell says “Clap Along.”  While you’re listening, ask yourself

How many beats before the BOOM?

BOOM-bah  (Trochee)
"When You Wish Upon A Star" by Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards)
When you wish up on a star 
Makes no diff rence who you are
A ny thing your heart de sires will come to you.

ba-BOOM   (Iambic)
"Karma" by Alicia Keys  
Weren’t  you the one who said that you don’t want me an y more
And how you need your space and give the keys back to your door
And how I cried and tried and tried to make you stay with me
And still you said your love was gone and that I had to leave

BOOM-ba-ba  (Dactyl)
"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" by John Lennon 
Foll ow her down to a bridge by a foun tain where
Rock ing horse peo ple eat marsh mall ow pie

ba-BOOM-ba  (Amphibrach)
"Famous Blue Raincoat" by Leonard Cohen 
It's four in the morn ing, the end of De cem ber
I'm writ ing you now just  to see if  you're bet ter
Oh New York is cold, but I like where  I'm liv ing
There's mu sic on Clin ton  Street all through  the eve ning.

Now don’t be surprised that many songs don’t follow the same beat all the way through (we’ll talk about that under step number three: CHANGE IT UP). And also, a singer may choose to vary the meter to suit their personal vocal style or interpretation.  What you’re looking to do here is to find a list of songs or parts of songs you can use as meter examples.  Note down the names, which beat pattern they follow, and a few notes about the mood the song evokes.  Keep adding to this list in the weeks ahead, whenever you find a useful tune. It can become a valuable reference for step two: MAKE IT STICK, which we’ll address next time.

Phew! Thanks for making it all the way through.  Here’s a little piece of fun as a reward for your hard work: "Flow like Poe" by MC Lars.  “I’m going hard on that tetrameter…” cracks me up every time.  I can’t give the song a high grade on clean rhyme and meter, but it’s a hoot and a half.

Born in the Midwest and transplanted to sunny Florida, Carrie Clickard is an internationally published author and poet whose career also spans graphic design, illustration and film.  Her fourth picture book, THOMAS JEFFERSON & THE MAMMOTH HUNT has just been acquired by Simon and Schuster for publication in 2017.  Her first picture book, VICTRICIA MALICIA, debuted in 2012 from Flashlight Press.  MAGIC FOR SALE and FU LING AND THE DRAGON GATE will publish in 2016.  Her poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals including Spider (forthcoming), Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Clubhouse, Spellbound, Penumbra, Haiku of the Dead, Underneath the Juniper Tree, Inchoate Echoes, and The Brisling Tide.  You can find out more about Carrie and her work at her website.

To find out what other rhyming criminals are lurking in our midst, be sure to check out Carrie's first post on Today's Little Ditty – Carrie Clickard: Rhyme Crime Investigator.

There's just ONE WEEK LEFT to submit your zeno for J. Patrick Lewis' DMC challenge.  Next Friday will be our end-of-month wrap-up post... and what a doozy it will be!

Please pay Cathy a visit over at Merely Day By Day. She's our gracious host for today's Poetry Friday roundup.


  1. I've never "gotten" rhyme and all that boom stuff, but maybe, just maybe, this will help! We can hope. Thanks for taking the time to explain it all.

  2. Great post--Carrie and Michelle. Though octopi may want to run away, meter matters.

    1. Thanks, Liz. I couldn't resist the octopi. I've had that exact reaction to a few of my poetry classes in the past. And I agree, meter matters - HUGELY!

  3. This post came in such a timely manor as I try to perfect an iambic picture book. (I'm on version 17.) However, I just found out that it's actually labeled "iambic." I've always learned by ear...performing poetry and music through high school and storytelling in the classroom, reading mentor picture books with outstanding rhyme. Researching the actual terms always confused me, so I continue to 'play it by ear.' Thanks for validating that I'm not crazy. :) Slowly I will learn that terms that match my ear. I look forward to your next post.

    1. Hi Carrie! Always glad to meet another rhymer. And no you're not crazy, and you're not alone. Scansion can get maddening. It took a little over 25 revisions before Victricia Malicia hit the presses. I'm sending you strong and happy thoughts while you polish!

  4. Great article, Carrie! I'm intrigued that you mention amphibrach (ba-BOOM-ba) instead of anapest (ba-ba-BOOM). I probably would have scanned that one as headless anapest with some variations. Is there a school of thought on that...?

    Looking forward to the rest of the series!

    1. HI Renee! Thanks for the thoughtful read and comments! I will indeed be dealing with anapest along with the others in part two. But I admit to being partial to amphibrachic tetrameter, as a few of my favorite Seuss books, such as On Beyond Zebra and The Sleep Book are written in that meter. And so is my first rhymer, Victricia Malicia. My editor and I had some lively discussions over that tricky middle accent.

  5. So good! I'll be back to reference this post again and again. Thank you, Carrie and thank you, Michelle! =)

  6. Thank you Carrie, I've read & worked it out all the day. I just took Renee's class, & have some of this info, but it helps tremendously to hear it again. Thanks Michelle, too!

  7. Hi Carrie...
    I love to love to write in rhyme
    I do it do it all the time
    But writing prose is so much fun
    I will not will not choose just one.

    You are one smart lady...and your post was hilarious...and helpful. Thank you for sharing your of luck with your fabulous books!

  8. Michelle and Carrie,
    This is packed with information. Thanks!

    A Thank You Rhyme:

    Thanks for the tips
    about rhyme,
    I'll be back when
    I have more time.

    Your advice will
    help poetry sing,
    like the beautiful blossoms
    of spring.

    It's not just rhyme
    but beat,
    that's makes poetry
    such a fun treat.

    You can see much help
    I do need,
    thank you for planting
    the seed.


    1. OK, that's really bad....but it was a lot of fun.

  9. Thanks for the short course on rhythm and rhyme!

  10. Great post! Thanks, Carrie. I'm a play it by ear poet for the most part. But I'm learning the technical side...slowly. I just put the two Seuss books you mentioned in your comment to Renee on hold. I think I would really enjoy them and I haven't read them!

  11. Terrific post! Thanks! I'll be bookmarking this one.