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prompt 210 Word of Mouth

April 24, 2014
They want me to give up on this poetry life, y'all --
but I don't know another way to pray.
-Barbara Fant

During the last three weeks, we’ve explored the origins of poetry through three dimensions: history, mythology, and liturgy. For the last Thursday prompt of this month, we’ll explore one of the earliest elements of poetry: the spoken word.

Before written language, the earliest poetry was spoken or sung. As I’ve mentioned in the other prompts, poetry was used to transmit the culture of a people from one generation to the next — its history, mythology, folklore, religion, stories, and even in some cases its law. Certain poetic devices — such as rhyme and repetition — probably developed as mnemonic devices to aid memorization.

As written language developed, these devices were used in a variety of poetry forms. For example, sonnets rely on particular rhyming patterns as part of their form. Other forms, such as pantoums, are heavy on repetition and some forms, such as the villanelle, employ both.

Consider one form that crosses over between poetry and music, the ballad. Ballads are clearly written for the ear, using rhyme and in some cases, repetition as part of the form. A good example of this is the American folk song, “John Henry” about a legendary African-American steel driver who attempted to race a steam engine and won, dying at the end of the contest. I’ll quote one of the stanzas below:

John Henry said to his captain,
"Captain, you go to town,
Bring me back a TWELVE-pound hammer, please,
And I'll beat that steam drill down, Lord, Lord,
I'll beat that steam drill down."

You see the use of both rhyme and repetition in this particular ballad: the end rhymes in the second and fourth lines, the refrain of “Lord, Lord” which is present throughout the entire piece, and the repetition of the fourth line in the fifth.

Now, let’s consider modern forms. As we move into the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries and with the advent of free verse, one might think that these time-tested poetic devices would fall by the wayside. Not so. Let’s consider a relatively new form: the bop, created by Afaa Michael Weaver. According to, the bop is a “form of poetic argument consisting of three stanzas, each stanza followed by a repeated line, or refrain, and each undertaking a different purpose in the overall argument of the poem”. To see how this works, check out part of “Rambling” by Weaver. First, we have the stanza:

Afaa Michael Weaver

In general population, madness runs
swift through the river changing, changing
in hearts, men tacked in their chairs,
resigned to hope we weave into air,
talking this and talking that and one brutha asks
Tell us how to get these things
They got, these houses, these cars.
We want the real revolution. Things...

And then, the refrain:

"I got rambling, got rambling on my mind"

Now let’s talk about spoken word. Spoken word poetry is just that — spoken — and it is geared to the ear. Modern spoken word poetry, whether as part of regular performance or slam poetry, employs these devices as well.

Here is a great example of poems using time-tested poetic devices in a modern way. Listen to Columbus poet Barbara Fant perform two of her poems, “Swallowing the Sun” and “Handfuls of Honey” at a TEDx Columbus event in 2011:

If you especially listened to “Handfuls of Honey”, you will hear her use of repetition as a poetic device. She does this in her use of refrains, which she modifies slightly throughout the piece — for example:

when He closes His fist and pulls us back in, 
I pray He calls us beautiful

and, later in the poem:

when He calls us back, I pray He calls us beautiful

She also employs repetition through the repeating and expanding of images/metaphors throughout the poem — for example:

it's about be, it's about be, it's about bee, 
like honey, like gold, like glow

and again, later:

grew it light, like risk, like gold, 
like glow, like sky

So this week, in our final days of National Poetry Month, I’d like you to try to write more for the ear than for the eye. Tools in your kit might include rhyme, repetition, refrains, and good old sonic standbys such as alliteration, consonance, and assonance.

BONUS: if you like, try recording yourself reading your poem and including it in your post — free sites include SoundCloud and of course, YouTube.

  1. April 24, 2014 9:32 am

    Feeling a little vulnerable but here goes…

    • April 27, 2014 2:21 pm

      You didn’t waste any time or mince any words in this poem. I like its rawness and directness.

  2. April 24, 2014 12:47 pm

    Probably not what you wanted. I’m Written Word Trad, but I gave it a spin

    • April 27, 2014 2:22 pm

      The door was wide open, to a lot of things, and you walked through it nicely.

  3. April 26, 2014 4:15 am

    My repetition poem’s here even if it doesn’t succeed in being musical

  4. April 26, 2014 11:05 am

    Ohh again, this was ao inspiring! 🙂 i really love spoken word!

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