Thursday, June 25, 2009
We've Got Rhythm
I say striking because I am hard pressed to recall any moment during my university education when a professor enjoined us to consider the metrical construction of a Shakespearean sonnet, a 17th century Donne poem, or the variations on metre introduced in Whitman’s poems in the 19th century or by Eliot and Pound in the 20th century. Judging by what I’ve heard from others, I doubt formal scansion is a prerequisite at many schools. Should it be? With the presence of so much free or open verse, some might answer No. I'll leave the counter arguments to another day and for the moment focus on some basic premises underlying both free and traditional form, while offering a few observations.
So what is rhythm anyway? Simply put: a recurrent sequence of accents at predictable intervals…first experienced by the fetus with the beating of its mother’s heart, later with its own breathing and by the natural and unnatural sounds and occurrences that surround us throughout our lives: the sound of our walking, phases of the moon and changing of the seasons, waves breaking on the shore, the sound of someone slapping dough to make bread, children playing jump rope, couples in coitus, sports like running and rowing and badminton.
While the argument for nature’s role in rhythm makes a kind of intuitive good sense I wonder about the extent of culture’s role in our understanding and use of rhythm. Rhythm is something we understand as a more deliberate pleasure in the songs we learn as children, as we learn to dance, play an instrument, etc., in other words as a product of cultural experience. But a longer view of “culture” is required here; rhythm as a facet of cultural learning occurs not solely within our own lifetimes and the framework of existing or current culture, but may have already occurred, worked out centuries, perhaps millennia before, as a product of pre-linguistic and early linguistic culture.
Consider, for example, the length of time it took African rhythm to find its way into popular Western music (e.g. Delta blues, Rock and Roll). No fewer than four centuries passed – from the beginnings of the African slave trade in the 16th century to the cotton fields of 19th century southern US to the jazz clubs and big band sounds of Chicago and New York of the 20th century – before Africa was recognized as the progenitor of modern pop music rhythm. I speculate that through out this time there occurred an acculturation of the western ear to distinct African rhythms.
Central to the pleasure that African rhythms gives us is the meshing of regular and irregular beats or accents while we dance - or, as we eventually discover within a line of music or poetry.
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