I want to talk about the Ghazal, and Rubayyat. But first, you may reflect on this.
It’s all about the rhythm. This is true in love, and it is true in verse.
The cadence, the motion, the rocking of sounds.
The Sex, whether gentle lovemaking, or passionate sweaty dual, all is rhythm. The motion in the ocean, the rhythm.
Sleep, whether hurried and disturbed, or smooth and deep, is rhythm. Breathing, hard and shallow after a workout or run, or soft and deep in moments of relaxation and contemplation, is rhythm.
In all traditional religions, before they lost formal rites, the rites themselves are rhythmic. In Islam what stands out par excellence is the daily Salat rite, but also the invocatory dhikr (zikr), in Hinduism the ejaculatory Japa Yoga is similar, in which traditional mantras were recited in a strongly rhythmic manner. The Greek Orthodox rites, some of them anyway, have similarly rhythmic natures to them.
Meter, or metre, is simply the art and science (both) of rhythmic language arranged in an order. Now we often misunderstand this, it doesn’t have to be a perfectly regular anal-retentive order, in fact the best metre has variation in it, sometimes intense variation, but still an underlying framework and order.
Many poets see themselves as free spirits who are suffocated underneath rules. But the greatest artists were people who first mastered the rules and then transcended them, who mastered the forms so well that the underlying reason for the forms because crystal clear. Then what they created was brilliant.
Modern poetry was caught up in a battle between formal verse, and “free verse” which really was mostly actually a form of prose poetry. Some modernist masters, like T.S. Elliot, were actually formalists who transcended the forms – Elliot’s poetry if full of formal verse techniques but cut out, moved around, re-used in new ways. Pound was like this, and even to some degree (though it’s harder to recognize) William Carlos William.
At the same time the traditional tools of verse never went away, it just went underground – since high art abandoned them, the humble lyric took residence with the people.
The ballad became the pop song, country Western lyrics have more in common with the traditional ballad than most people realize, only far more simple.
Take even Rap – much derided by many traditionalists – it has more in common with traditional English prosody than much of today’s high modern poetry. For rap is often a tetrameter or pentameter, with four or five strong stresses, on a line that is actually a disguised distich – often unknown to some MC’s themselves, the Rap Bar is a distich in which each two or three stresses is separated by a caesura.
Just like Beowulf, but much less complex.
The understanding and knowledge of meter is critical to modern song writers, even if what they churn out sounds puerile and silly to purists, the reason they have such force with popular audiences is because of meter and rhyme. Manipulate meter is critical to song writers and rappers. This is because it is the meter that enables the flow.
Let’s play a little game, all of these lyrics – recite them, out loud or to yourself. Do it normally, in your normal speaking voice, but not a monotone. Vary it like you would naturally vary the words.
Then – if you’ve heard the songs before imagine the singer’s or mc’s voice singing or rapping them to you.
Then yourself recite them as if you were reciting poetry. I don’t care about the content of the lyrics, insipid or inspired, we are looking at rhythm and stress .. and to a lesser degree rhyme.
When we finish, as you and I will both see that meter of some sort – either iambic accentual syllabic, or Strong stress based prosody, is still alive and well in pop music – even if it’s been abandoned by much of Western high poetry.
Why? Because it bloody well sells, why ? It’s what makes pop music so popular because it moves people emotionally and physically, when combined with lyrical meaning the flow that meter creates is extremely suggestitive, but we will explore this in a bit right before we get to the Ghazal and Rubayyat.
Do me a favor.
Imagine, in your head, the sultry voice of Shirley Mansion singing – “Dog New Tricks”
“I wish I had not woke up today
Everyone mistakes the things you say”
Here is our little scansion of the verses / means a strong stress – means a weak or no stress.
It’s not perfect, English actually has about 4 levels of accentual stress in most dialects, of which prosody only considers strong or weak. The rest of the song has the same pattern more or less. Garbage’s lyrics are pretty regular, in most songs. tetrameter, no caesura, trochaic or iambic straight ahead.
The rest of these verses scan similarly in the song
“Take the simple truth and
Twist it all around
Make it sound important
Make it seem profound”
Now, let’s look at Rap – take Nas “New York State of Mind“
“Bulletholes left in my peepholes
I’m suited up in street clothes
Hand me a nine and I’ll defeat foes
Y’all know my steelo with or without the airplay”
Irregular? Yes. Highly. Most rap is – why, because it’s not an iambic or trochaic prosody. In fact, there is some accentual strong stress here, Nas has a hidden caesura in most of these lines. And there are either 4 or 5 stresses.
When there are three stresses there is sometimes another lurking fourth stress that could be elevated through accent. It’s an intuitive prosody basic to English, pre-iambic – nursery rhymes have it. Beowulf has it, but in a far more sophisticated way. English folk poetry has it. Good rappers with good flow have it, bad rappers predominate because everyone and their cousin all want to be MC’s (is there anything more absurd than the pretentious spelling of MC as Emcee?)
Now, take nine inch nails – “Closer”
“You let me violate you
You let me desecrate you
You let me penetrate you
You let me complicate you
Help me; I broke apart my insides
Help me; i’ve got no soul to sell
Help me; the only thing that works for me
Help me get away from myself
I wanna fuck you like an animal
I wanna feel you from the inside
Sexy, isn’t it. Anyway – notice the stresses, and the unstressed syllables.
It’s iambic with variants initial spondees every single line except the refrain
“You let me..” / / –
“Help me I..” / / –
now look at
“penetrate you” /-/-
“complicate you” /-/-
“I wanna feel you from the inside” -/-/-/-/-
Now, are you hot and bothered yet?
Back to rap. But something more sophisticated than American Hip Hop, Tricky dropping some lines with Massive Attack in Eurochild.
“Hell is round the corner where i shelter
Isms and schisms we’re living on a skelter
If you believe i’ll deceive then common sense says shall you receive”
“Let me take you down the corridors of my life
And when you walk, do you walk to your preference
No need to answer till i take further evidence
I seem to need a reference to get residence
A reference to your preference to say i’m a good neighbour
I trudge so judge me for my labour
I walk in a bar and immediately I sense danger
You look at me, girl, as if i was some kind of a
A total stranger”
-/-/ , –/–/-
-/-/- , /-//-/-/
-/-/-/- , –/-/
-/-/ –/-/ -/ /–/- (reference and preference can be pronounced in two syllables, colloquially it often is – in some bizarre sort of elision that only we English speakers can muck up)
-/-/- , /-/-
-/–/ , /-/-//-/-
-/-/- , -/–//–
Now, here is real fun. Recite – say it out loud – Ministry – “So What“. The meter should become as clear as a jackhammer.
In some ways, Al Jorgensen’s actually a brilliant lyricist – not something to impress a classicist traditionalist, but there is brilliance behind his bombast – and it can be seen in how his lyrics physically moves listeners violently, viscerally. Like many other Aggro or post-industrial music artists there is a good deal of loose experimentation with basic lyrical forms, deconstructed. Quite post-modern.
But there is some serious art underneath it when you look.
I’ll refrain from getting all “woo woo” on you, like that guy who wrote the book comparing Punk Rock to dada (a gift from Santiago in Second story books back in 1990 – that book changed my life man, if you are out there.)
“So what, it’s your own problem to learn to live with
Destroy us, or make us slaves
We don’t care, it’s not our fault that we were born too late
A screaming headache on the promised age
Killing time is appropriate
To make a mess and fuck all the rest, we say, we say
So what? So what?”
/-/-/-/ , -/-/-/
Now, Massive Attack again and then Ice Cube with NWA
3d in Massive Attack – “Inertia Creeps”
“Recollect me darling raise me to your lips
Two undernourished egos four rotating hips
Hold on to me tightly I’m a sliding scale
Can’t endure then you can’t inhale
Out of body experience interferes
And dreams of flying I fit nearly
Surrounds me though I get lonely
Moving up slowly
Notice the hidden caesura – just about everywhere. Again, like most massive attack stuff very regular, it SEEMS iambic but it’s actually a looser strong stress three or two stresses, pause three or two or sometimes four
Unstressed syllables can fit anywhere.
/-/-/- , //–/
-/-/-/- , -/–/
-/-//- , /-/-/
/-/ , /-/-/
/-/- , -/-//-/
-/-/- , /-/-
-/- , /–/-
Now to something less sophisticated, Ice Cube in NWA‘s “I Ain’t the One”
“I ain’t the one, the one to get played like a pooh butt
See I’m from the street, so I know what’s up
On these silly games that’s played by the women
I’m only happy when I’m goin up in em
But you know, I’m a menace to society
But girls in biker shorts are so fly to me
So I step to em, with aggression
Listen to the kid, and learn a lesson today
See they think we narrow minded
/—/, blah blah
Again, because the song’s, like, kinda funny.
“Run out of money, and watch your heart break
They’ll drop you like a bad habit
Cause a brother with money yo, they gotta have it
Messin with me though, they gets none
You can’t juice Ice Cube girl, cause I ain’t the one”
-/-/- , -/-//
-/- , /-//-
–/–/-/ , -/-/-
/-/– , -//
-////- , -//-/
Irregular, usually 4 or 5 stresses to line, but more freely added elsewhere. But the medial pause, a caesura. usually weighted after two or three stresses. Characteristic of most Rap. Especially early Hip-Hop, or English trip-hop. Modern Gangsta Rap structurally is often pretty idiotic.
A lot of Old School rap was surprisingly regular and well structured – the important thing in rap is the overall flow, and how the stresses accomplish it. So the scansion, where it looks like stresses are irregular, they are actually placed where it is felt they facilitate the flow of the lyrics.
Now – a bit more sensitive – let’s briefly bounce to MC Kayne
“how do i feel about you, well here’s what i’ve got to say.
hopes are sky high but my expectations are concave.
truth be told i just hope i can just once watch you sleep.
Irregular, but the caesura’s in the middle he’s got 3 stresses before each caesura, and 4 after
So, let’s move on to something more serious, shall we? All that I want you to do is to keep in mind the rhythm, tap your fingers or toe, count the pulses. The pulses are your friend. The ebb and flow, the rise and fall, the inward and the outward, the exhalation and inhalation, the penetration and the withdraw, the attack and the retreat.