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The Poetic Backbeat

Applying John Lennon's Songwriting Advice to Writing Free Verse Poetry

By Geoffrey Philp Published 4 months ago 4 min read
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John Lennon once proclaimed that impactful songwriting means to “Say what you mean, make it rhyme, and put a backbeat to it” (Lennon). Yet Lennon’s advice should not be limited to writing pop songs--it also offers guidance for composing free verse poetry. For although free verse, unlike sonnets, lacks rhyme schemes and rhythmic meter, it uses literary techniques to create rhythmic effects that convey meaning with symbolic resonance akin to the backbeat in music.

Free verse achieves its pulse through various techniques that modulate cadence, even without formal rhyme or meter. Varying line lengths introduce pauses and rhythms resembling natural speech, as Carl Sandburg demonstrates: "The fog comes/on little cat feet” (Sandburg). Additionally, free verse poets use enjambment to modulate amplitude, tempo, and form to achieve meaningful rhythm. An excellent example of this can be seen in William Carlos Williams' poem "The Red Wheelbarrow,” which is renowned for using short, enjambed lines to create a particular rhythm and a unique visual presentation on the page.

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens. (Williams)

In this poem, Williams breaks the lines at unexpected points, such as after "wheel" and "rain," creating a sense of suspense and drawing attention to each fragment of the image he describes. The enjambment compels readers to move quickly from one line to the next, maintaining a rapid, almost choppy rhythm that contrasts with the simple, everyday scene being described. This technique emphasizes the importance of each word and the spaces between them, guiding the reader to consider the interconnectedness of the poem's elements and the significance of the seemingly mundane scene. Though unmetered, such techniques calibrate form and pace to echo poignant life events through symbolically resonant literary rhythm.

Another frequently used method, repetition, sets up expectations similar to meter while underscoring significance through emphasis, which Robert Frost demonstrates in “Stopping by Woods”:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep. (Frost)

Figurative language as well, exemplified by "Hope is the thing with feathers,” adds vitality to a poem’s score:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all. (Dickinson)

In this famous metaphor from Emily Dickinson, hope is depicted as a feathered bird that sings within the human soul. The lively, fluttering imagery breathes vitality and energy into the abstract concept of hope. Dickinson's creative metaphor transmits her uplifting message through imaginative, sensory language.

Another technique used by Confessional poets, such as Sylvia Plath, offers private glimpses into raw human experience by stripping language to its barest emotional bones in direct revelation. An exemplar of this unfiltered candor and confessional style can be found in Sylvia Plath's hauntingly honest poem “Daddy.”

Daddy, I have had to kill you.

You died before I had time—

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

Big as a Frisco seal. (Plath)

In these lines, Plath confronts her complex emotions and personal history with striking honesty, embodying the essence of Confessional poetry.

Skillful free verse also amplifies the effectiveness of self-disclosure through imagery and metaphor, translating feelings into sensory impressions familiar to all. For instance, in Langston Hughes' poem "Dream Deferred," the poet uses metaphorical language to convey the emotions associated with unfulfilled dreams:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load (Hughes).

Hughes compares a deferred dream to various sensory experiences in this poem, such as drying up like a raisin or festering like a sore. These vivid metaphors create a tangible and relatable portrayal of the emotions tied to unachieved aspirations, demonstrating how free verse can powerfully convey personal revelations through imaginative and sensory language.

Just as a pop song's steady, pounding backbeat establishes rhythmic momentum, the vivid sensory details in Derek Walcott’s “Becune Point” use visual, auditory, and tactile imagery to immerse the reader in the landscape. Both the driving percussion and staccato sensory impressions ground us in the physical while underscoring mood, reinforcing emotion through hypnotic repetition to reveal critical thematic elements. The backbeat’s familiar “boom boom clap” mimics a heartbeat like the cracked landscape’s “haze,” “dust,” and “thirst” echo the poem’s existential mood. These layered rhythms and images embed listeners and readers through insistent, complex associations that intertwine place, history, and identity. Whether anticipating the next thump of drums or the “swirling burnooses” of memory, we are compelled to feel, see, and experience the visceral power. The backbeat and vivid sensory details similarly establish sharp focus, direction, and essential emphasis. Like the pounding pop percussion, Walcott’s spare yet harsh “barren hills and thorns” bury us in physical impression, utilizing sound and imagery to immerse an audience and reveal meaning.

Ultimately, Lennon’s blueprint for impactful lyrics transfers seamlessly to free verse by reminding poets to foreground authentic lived experiences while harnessing every tool at their command to make words ring out with haunting truth. And rewardingly unconstrained free verse can still deliver profound moments into indelible words with a backbeat through the deliberate selection of lines and language arranged in heightening sequences.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “ ‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42889/hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers-314. Accessed 14 Jan 2023.

Frost, Robert. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42891/stopping-by-woods-on-a-snowy-evening. Accessed 1 Jan 2024.

Hughes, Langston. "Harlem." Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem. Accessed 1 Jan 2024.

Lennon, John. “Songwriting.” The Beatles Bible. https://www.beatlesbible.com/people/john-lennon/songs/songwriter/. Accessed 1 Jan 2024.

Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48999/daddy-56d22aafa45b2. Accessed 1 Jan 2024.

Sandburg, Carl. “Fog.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45032/fog-56d225a6d4f89. Accessed 1 Jan 2024.

Walcott, Derek. "Becune Point." Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/40426/becune-point. Accessed 1 Jan 2024.

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About the Creator

Geoffrey Philp

I am a Jamaican writer. I write poems (haiku & haibun), stories & essays about climate change, Marcus Garvey, music icons such as Bob Marley, and the craft of writing through personal reflection & societal engagement.

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Comments (5)

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  • Andrene Bonner Writes3 months ago

    O Geoffrey. There is so much to say about this analysis. It is a teaching tool every ELA teacher in the public school should use. Students need to know how literary devices and techniques FUNCTION, not just recognize their use but how they work to create meaning. Thanks for evoking Lennon's scholarship to interrogate this artform.

  • Anna 4 months ago

    I love your work! Keep it up!🫶

  • Cathy holmes4 months ago

    This was really interesting, and informative. Thanks for sharing.

  • Lana V Lynx4 months ago

    I’m not a poet, but even to me it made perfect sense. Well done!

  • Test4 months ago

    You're doing amazing work

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