126. The mystery rhythm of Sam was a Man


Mastering rhythm is important to any writing. If a sentence doesn’t sound right, something will go clunk in the reader’s head. This is why every fiction writer should read poetry. Rhythm is fundamental to poetry. Consider, for example, these line from John Masefield’s Cargoes:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,

Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine.


Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,

Butting through the Channel in the mad March days.


The first couplet has a stately rhythm, while second, full of short words and plosive consonants, is frenetic.

There is no doubt about the music of the lines, Speak the words aloud and they set the tempo.

But consider, ee cummings’ poem below. The rhythm appears staccato, broken. And yet, cummings was a master craftsman.

ee cummings

Is this simply a bad poem, or has he buried a secret in the heart of the words?

rain or hail
sam done
the best he kin
till they digged his hole

:sam was a man

stout as a bridge
rugged as a bear
slickern a weazel
how be you

(sun or snow)

gone into what
like all them kings
you read about
and on him sings

a whippoorwill;

heart was big
as the world aint square
with room for the devil
and his angels too

yes, sir

what may be better
or what may be worse
and what may be clover
clover clover

(nobody’ll know)

sam was a man
grinned his grin
done his chores
laid him down.

Sleep well

It’s a puzzle. There’s no obvious cadence when you read it aloud. Vincent Perischetti made a modernist choral arrangement of the poem

But I don’t believe cummings intended anything so cerebral. Instead, it’s a hymn to the (American) common man. Try reading the poem to the rhythm of an American barn dance caller and it suddenly makes sense.

barn dance








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