Poetic License: Seger, Gershwin, Dylan and Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Poetic License (Seger, Gershwin, Dylan and Dickinson)

So you’re a little bit older and a lot less bolder
Than you used to be

Bob Seger, Rock and Roll Never Forgets

Of course, it should read a lot less BOLD. But by assaulting our sense of grammar, the two-syllable rhyme sticks in our heads.

Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale,
Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale,
Fo he made his home in
Dat fish’s abDOUGHmen–
Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale.

Ira Gershwin, It Ain’t Necessarily So

By converting the word abdomen from a dactyl (three-syllable word, first syllable accented) to an amphibrach (three-syllable word, second syllable accented) and giving the second syllable a long “o” sound, Gershwin creates a clever, memorable and amusing two-syllable rhyme with the words home and in.

It ain’t no use in turning on your light babe
That light I never knowed
And it ain’t no use in turning on your light babe
I’m on the dark side of the road

Bob Dylan, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright

I’m pretty sure Bob Dylan knows that knowed isn’t a word you will find in a dictionary. But the choice is a beautiful abomination.

If I should die,
And you should live,
And time should gurgle on,
And morn should beam,
And noon should burn,
As it has usual done;

Emily Dickinson, If I should Die

I could talk all day about the choice of the word gurgle in line three, but usual in line six is equally compelling. Adjectives aren’t supposed to modify verbs, that’s an adverb’s job. (Of course, this is putting it rather crudely. A word is not a part of speech, a word acts as a part of speech, and usual usually acts as an adjective.) Curiously, the poem would not have suffered metrically if she had used the word usually because both usual and usually can be pronounced as trochees (two-syllable words with an accented first syllable.) Usually can be enunciated as a two-, three- or four-syllable word. However, using the word usual suggests that beaming is the sun’s quotidian task whereas usually would have implied that beaming was the sun’s normal condition. Great art is the result of such apparently minor distinctions.

by Richard W. Bray