Listen to this; feel its rhythm:
The pool players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
That's "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks. Have a listen to the linked video, too, if you have the time.
When we think of writing prose, rhythm isn't often the first thing that comes to mind. After all, lyricism and beat often get relegated to poetry. Yet some of the best passages of prose, description, dialogue, inner monologue, or otherwise, are memorable particularly because of their clear rhythm, feel, and overall voice.
So what do I mean by rhythm? It's more than simple sentence structure and length, that's for sure. Have a look at this passage by Evelyn Waugh:
"Suddenly quite near him there was a rifle shot. He heard the crack and smack and whistling ricochet among the rocks behind him. He dropped his torch and began feebly to trot. He lost the path and stumbled from boulder to boulder until treading on something which seemed smooth and round and solid in the star light he found himself in the top of a tree which grew twenty feet below. Scattering Greek currency among the leaves, he subsided quite gently from branch to branch and when he reached ground continued to roll over and over, down and down, caressed and momentarily stayed by bushes until at length he came to rest as though borne there by a benevolent Zephyr of classical myth, in a soft, dark, sweet-smelling, empty place where the only sound was the music of falling water. And there for a time the descent ended. Out of sight, out of hearing, the crowded boats put out from the beach; the men-o' war sailed away and Fido slept."
Read it: read it in your head, then read it aloud, if you can. The sounds within the passage, the use of "crack", "smack", and "ricochet", the repetition of the word "and" in the sentence slightly after — they evoke rhythm in and of themselves, by nature of the way they sound.
Next: feel. As you read, the feeling of what is being described takes a hold of you without much thought at all.
"There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind—wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place."
– Toni Morrison, Beloved
"Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall."
– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
And voice. You know there is someone behind this line, a person, with a force, and presence in the words.
“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
– Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road
Still, you may not see or hear the same from these passages. Maybe they didn't work for you. Maybe they did. The lovely thing about writing is how subjective it is, particularly in its effectiveness. What it did to one reader, it may not do in the next.
But if you do resonate with prose that has a distinct, poetical style, then the next question that may come up would be: what does one read to find their version of that voice when writing prose?
For rhythm: read (typically traditional) poetry. For feeling and heart: read poetry. For presence and voice: read poetry.
See what tingles your senses for each of those. I think everyone has their own preferred style and Goldilocks amount of each. You just have to explore to find it, then have the confidence to hold your head high and read, then try it.
I won't say I know for sure anything about writing, simply because I know I don't. But to any prose writers reading that have never tried either reading or writing poetry (particularly traditional, and not instapoetry): I'd like to suggest that you do. Here's why:
Poetry is often lyrical and meaningful, conveying layers of emotion and thought in lines of language that show more than tell, yet remain understandable and memorable. The word choice is often well thought out and deliberate, effective while remaining — not always, of course — beautiful. Studying, reading, and writing poetry encourages you to think deeper about the lines you craft and what you intend their effect to be.
This isn't to say it'll land perfectly with everyone once you do. Writing never does, because each person has their own store of experiences and emotion to draw on. But it does train your sense of language to a higher sensitivity, which will bleed into your prose.
(And if you need any other reasons to read a poem: it's World Poetry Day. Go read/listen to one!)
is a writer and self-dubbed professional daydreamer. Her work has appeared in Unpublished Magazine and Paper Crane Journal, among others. She is also a staff writer at Outlander Magazine.