Doing Being Writing Prompt – 005 (Cadence)


Why do we rhyme? It sounds like a stupid question, and yet humans across all times and places have sought to arrange our funny mouth sounds into rhyme schemes. What is it about a strong cadence that is so enticing, so uplifting, so devastating, or so comforting to our ears? What is it about a weak, tired cadence that leaves us feeling empty or betrayed?

Whether we encounter them in poetry, music, dance, art, film, literature, or religion, cadences are the forces that guide our hearts through a narrative and bring us home to the conclusion. Cadences connect the beginning to the end, they give shape to chaos, and they make the whole struggle feel worth it. Cadences are our grand finales. We all know the satisfaction of a strong cadence, the perfect conclusion to a story – and we all know what it feels like for the proper ending to bail on us.

But a “happy ending” isn’t the right cadence for every story, and they can be a rather saccharine and weak finale in the wrong context. One of my favourite features of cadence is deception – building up an expectation and then twisting it at the last moment for dramatic effect. I think many people abandon rhyme for free verse because they feel it’s too predictable, boring, and only sets up “happy endings,” but that very function of setting up expectations makes rhyme the perfect vehicle for deceptive cadences. The key to creating deceptive cadence is to be aware of how normal cadences feel and to find ways that please you to disrupt them.

The good news is, if you’re reading this blog, you probably have a good sense of what “typical” poetic cadences feel like – but what about deceptive cadences? Over the last four weeks, I have begun introducing a set of poetic forms I’ve developed to better connect with cadence, rhythm, and flow (we’ll get to those another time). I’ve based my forms on meditations with the Bagua, or the eight elemental trigrams which are the foundation of the I Ching (pronounced Yi Jing). Each of these symbols represents an element, state of change, or (when combined) a situation. The images are generated by a series of broken (yin) and unbroken (Yang) lines. Heaven is composed of three Yang lines, Earth of three yin lines, and the rest are a combination of the two.

baguaI’ve turned to this system because I believe symbols are much easier to connect with emotionally than technical names. Imagining a fire does more to conjure the experience of warmth and energy within me than hearing the words “flame,” “heat,” or “power” do on their own. There’s no value in knowing the technical name of something in poetry or music if you can’t feel how it sounds / hear how it feels.

If you’ve been following along, you may recall that the Earth Cadence is ABBB, Water is ABAB, Fire is AABA, and “Air” (based on the trigram Heaven) is AAAA. I arrived at each of these cadences by starting with A (as all rhyme schemes must) and then assigning an A rhyme to the Yang lines and a B rhyme to the yin lines of the trigram. The eight elemental cadences are:

  • Earth – ABBB
  • Mountain – ABBA
  • Water – ABAB
  • Thunder – AABB
  • Wind – ABAA
  • Fire – AABA
  • Lake – AAAB
  • Heaven – AAAA

Half of these cadences fall into what I would consider “vanilla” poetic cadences. For example, Water’s ABAB, Thunder’s AABB, Heaven’s AAAA, and even Mountain’s ABBA are all very common – which isn’t a bad thing. These cadences are common for a reason: they are consistent, dependable, symmetrical. Sometimes these are the perfect choices. But if you’re bored with these rhyme schemes, the other cadences can add some much-needed variety. Earth’s ABBB, Wind’s ABAA, Fire’s AABA, and Lake’s AAAB are some of my favourite cadences to use because they are all asymmetrical, meaning that A and B don’t receive equal amounts of attention or energy. They have enough consistency with three A or B rhymes to sound smooth, but each has a unique character and feel when put into practice.

For example, you can use the Earth cadence to destabilize a Water cadence that has become tired, as this builds momentum for the B rhymes. A Wind cadence can also be used to add energy to the Water cadence, but this time gives emphasis to the A rhymes over B. An Earth cadence could also smooth out a Mountain cadence where the A rhymes feel too disconnected, while a Fire cadence adds emphasis to the A rhymes and gives Mountain a lot of direction. The key to deceptive cadences is setting up an expected resolution and then add emphasis by creating unexpected attention and asymmetry.

Use your own inner ear to work with these cadences and develop a connection with each of them – it’s up to you to discover which deceptions express your intentions. Do you want to make your cadence feel more jagged or more smooth? Do you want it to feel like it’s slowing down, speeding up, or stalling out? One of my favourite deceptions is using a Lake cadence to stall out the Heaven cadence. Heaven sometimes feels like it has too much momentum, and pulling the rug out from under the final A rhyme can be so satisfying.

By mixing up your cadences, you can add new twists and turns to the tried and true symmetrical patterns. If you’re still not satiated, you’ll just have to wait until my next spotlight on cadences when we’ll discuss my new elements that introduce C rhymes. After all, the I Ching doesn’t present its images as static – change is constant in every domain of life – and the lines are always fluctuating from yin to Yang. Holding onto the binaries of yin and Yang, black and white, and A and B doesn’t allow for a full range of emotion to be expressed. Future installments will also include spotlights on rhythm and flow, as well as my regular elemental prompts.

Please let me know what you think of these concepts, I’m very curious to hear your thoughts! And please feel free to share or link back to any of my writing prompt posts. The whole purpose of this new series is to get poets exchanging words, tips, and ideas. I feel my writing is sometimes too technical or too unrelatable, and I want to make sure I don’t get too inside my own head. I want my words to speak from my heart to your hearts, and I want to hear your hearts speak back to mine.

Happy Friday!

© Rylan Skelly, February 2019

Vinyl photo by Manuel Sardo on Unsplash
Bagua photo by Glitchwitch on Pixabay

3 replies »

  1. This is such an interesting way of looking at poetry! I like the symbolism and relationship of the different cadences to the I Ching. Do the labels mean anything? For example, if you’re writing a poem that has the Heaven pattern then end with a disrupting water pattern – besides this being a surprise or deceptive cadence, does it have any mystical meaning according to the I Ching?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Irma 🙂 I’m glad I’ve got you intrigued!

      There are many possible meanings to consider for each element and the changes between them. For example, Heaven is “the creative,” in the sense of the spark of life or divine inspiration coming down from heaven to earth. Heaven is what is strong, what is easy, it is harmony, oneness. Heaven is described as male while Earth, “the receptive,” is female, and Earth gives birth to reality by realizing the potential of Heaven.

      In contrast, Water is “the abysmal,” It represents danger, ambush, sadness, lowliness, ditches, pigs. It is also decribed as “in motion,” winding, rapid, and penetrating.

      So, symbolically it would be very effective to use Water to disrupt/decieve the beautiful, romantic, or otherwise harmonious begining to you had set up with Heaven. In the sequence of Later Heaven, the image of Heaven stands to the Northwest (symbolising the end of Autumn) and Water stands to the North (symbolising the begining of Winter) so there is also a seasonal connotation to following a Heaven cadence with a Water cadence. (In Ancient China, South was at the top of the map because it was the sacred direction, so moving from Northwest to North is a clockwise motion at the bottom of the map).

      Finally, when you combine the trigrams to create hexagrams (which are the main focus of the I Ching) the image if Heaven over Water represents “Conflict” because Heaven expands upwards while Water expands downwards, moving in opposite directions. However, if you move in the opposite direction – beginning with a tragic Water cadence and restoring it with a positive Heaven cadence – the symbol of Water over Heaven is “Nourishment.”

      So, long story long, yes – there are many mystical meanings you can attribute to any of the images and the changes between them. 🙂 I hope to introduce more examples as we go in the future, but I am always happy to provide additional info or clarifications in the comments!


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