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It may a vague question, but I haven't found any data on this myself.

I am Russian and I've heard a lot of reading of Russian poetry, since my childhood (poetry reading by heart is a staple assignment in Russian schools when studying literature). And I always felt that poetry has a strong sense of rhythm. I'm not speaking here about free verse, but if a poem has some particular meter, for example, anapaest, the poem will have a strong sense of rhythm when reading.

It's hard to formalize what does "a strong sense of rhythm" mean. I can say that if you can tap along the reading and the tapping will be rhythmical without a poem, it is a strong rhythm. Here are a couple of examples of Russian poetry reading: 1 2 3.

When I discovered English poetry I was surprised that its readings don't have such a strong sense of rhythm. Sometimes they have but more often it seems to me that readers don't care much about the consistent rhythm when reciting. Here's one example - I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth. It has an iambic meter, with 8 syllables in a line. There is a line at the beginning of the second stanza: "Continuous as the stars that shine". In order to keep 8 syllables in a line, it seems logical (at least to me) to read "continuous" with three syllables. But the reader in the video pronounces it with four, breaking the rhythm.

I can give many examples of such irregularities in rhythm, and I have a feeling that English-speaking readers just don't try to keep the strong rhythm and the reading sounds more like free verse (even if the poem itself does have the distinct meter).

Another example is "The Tyger" by William Blake. The poem has a very distinctive rhythm, but the first and last stanzas go like this:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The word "symmetry" feels weird here, it fits neither rhythm (last syllable isn't stressed) not rhyme (it doesn't rhyme with "eye"). If I were to read this poem. I would read "symmetry" as "sym-me-trai" (with the stress on the last syllable and sounding like to word "try"). But all the readings I found on Youtube just pronounce symmetry as expected, but break the rhythm.

Am I right, is there a difference between different cultures in the sense of rhythm when reciting poetry? Or is it just me?

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  • Very interesting question! I'm fascinated by these differences between languages in what makes "good" poetry (rhyme, rhythm, etc.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jun 7 at 12:59
  • That link has about the most cringeworthy reading of poetry I've ever heard. I wouldn't place any stock in a reader who manages to trill an 'r' at the end of 'saw'!
    – Spagirl
    Jun 8 at 11:49
  • Re the eye/symmetry rhyme, It could be that 'eye' is the issue. Wordsworth apparently never lost his Cumbrian accent, so it is possible that his pronunciation of 'eye' was more like 'ee'
    – Spagirl
    Jun 8 at 11:55
  • Back when Shakespeare (and a lot of other good poets) wrote at the end of the 16th century, wind really did rhyme with find (Sonnet 14) and eye was at least a very good near-rhyme with gravity (Sonnet 49). Two hundred years later, the English language had changed and these words no longer rhymed, but poets like Shelley (Ode to the West Wind), Keats (To Autumn) and Blake seem to have believed that Renaissance poetry gave them a license to use these rhymes. This baffles a lot of native English speakers, too.
    – Peter Shor
    Jun 9 at 0:59
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    @PeterShor Spagirl I understand that there should be some reasons why Blake put this word there. It seems logical that he wanted to write a poem in a certain meter. What my question is about is why people who recite the poem don't seem to try to keep the meter when reading aloud. There are many examples in Russian poetry when meter requires to use "incorrect" stressing in some word. And anyone reads the poem with this incorrect stressing, because you have to keep the meter when reading. And suddenly it is not the case in English-speaking world where keeping the meter seems not that important.
    – DrTyrsa
    Jun 9 at 8:11
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There really does seem to be a difference between Russian and English poetry in this aspect, but it's not that English listeners don't care about rhythm, but that English listeners have somehow acquired the ability to follow the rhythm even when the reader isn't going out of his way to emphasize it.

I think your latest comment has identified your real question:

There are many examples in Russian poetry when meter requires to use "incorrect" stressing in some word. And anyone reads the poem with this incorrect stressing, because you have to keep the meter when reading. And suddenly it is not the case in the English-speaking world where keeping the meter seems not that important.

You mention both rhymes and meter in your question. There is a big difference between these. For rhymes, many people will make try and symmetry rhyme when reading Blake's poem, by pronouncing symmetry with the vowel /aɪ/ at the end. And Walker's Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (published in 1824, around 30 years after Blake wrote The Tyger) says, about the two pronunciations of wind:

These two modes of pronunciation have been long contending for superiority, till at last the former seems to have gained a complete victory, except in the territories of rhyme. Here the poets claim a privilege, and readers seem willing to grant it them, by pronouncing this word, when it ends a verse, so as to rhyme with the word it is coupled with.

So Blake himself would have pronounced wind to rhyme with behind, and symmetry to rhyme with eye, even though these were not the usual pronunciations when he wrote the poem.

Further, modern English speakers are often bothered by the fact that eye and symmetry don't rhyme, as you can see from this elu.stackexchange question, and some of them do indeed pronounce symmetry to rhyme with eye.

On the other hand, ever since the time of Shakespeare, poets have written poems with metrical deviations from perfect iambic pentameter, and English listeners seem to have generally been able to follow the rhythm, even with these deviations. So when we listen to the recording of Wordworth's poem you link to, it sounds to us like it has a definite meter and not at all like free verse.

Scholars have looked at Shakespeare's and his contemporaries' poetry, and come up with the ways in which their meter (which scholars call strict iambic pentameter) was allowed to differ from perfect iambic pentameter. See my answer to this question. So as long as poems don't deviate too much from the meter, English listeners do not have much trouble following the meter.

For a different example, consider John Masefield's poem Sea Fever, which contains lots of deviations where two adjacent iambic feet have been replaced by a pyrrhic foot followed by a spondee. The poem would probably be nowhere near as popular without these deviations, which sound very pleasing and make this poem stand out.

There are indeed poems where the stresses differ enough from the meter that it can really detract from the poem. One of these is W. H. Auden's O Tell Me the Truth About Love, when read with an American accent. (I can't actually find an egregious American-accented reading on the web, which I think shows that readers do pay attention to meter.) Americans tend to have different numbers of syllables or different stresses in several words in this poem, for instance temperance, military, extraordinary, patriotism, and pronouncing these words in the American manner would significantly detract from the poem's meter.

Finally, let me mention Yeats' poem The Second Coming. The regular meter nearly disappears during the secion of the poem that describes the vision (between When a vast image and indignant desert birds), and while I can follow the rhythm in the rest of the poem, it is very difficult for me to follow the rhythm in that section. However, I believe that this was quite deliberate on Yeats' part. So for some poems, especially more modern ones, even though they may look like they have a regular meter, the poet isn't that concerned about whether the readers can follow the meter.

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  • > So Blake himself would have pronounced wind to rhyme with behind, and symmetry to rhyme with eye, even though these were not the usual pronunciations when he wrote the poem. But why most of the readers don't read it like that to keep the rhyme consistent? There is a an exapmle in Russian poerty, where poets used letter е (ye) instead letter ё (yo) to make one word rhyme with another. It isn't just historical spelling, it is "incorrect" reading (in licentia poetica style). And every reader (I haven't found conterexamples) respects author's spelling and reads ye instead of yo.
    – DrTyrsa
    Jun 10 at 9:07
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    @DrTyrsa: English poets also often use near-rhymes in their poetry (I think possibly because English has so many vowels it's harder to find perfect rhymes); for example, in Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats rhymes morn and return, as well as priest and dressed. It may be too hard for modern readers to tell the difference between cases where the poet intended near-rhymes (and thus, where the words should be pronounced regularly) and where the poet intended archaic pronunciations.
    – Peter Shor
    Jun 10 at 13:43

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