The Wordplay and Music of Poetry: Guest Post by Leslie Bulion

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Reading

Today, to kick off the Master Class blog series on Poetry and Verse Novels, we have an fabulous guest post by Leslie Bulion.  I first discovered Leslie’s work at BEA (BookExpo America) last year, where I came across a copy of her book At the Sea Floor Cafe.  From the minute I picked up the book, I knew I was holding something special.  A collection of poems about undersea creatures? Sign me up!

But what made this book really sing for me was that while it clearly targets a kid audience, it has substance, and lots of it.  This book is not a gimmick–far from–and it addresses its young readers like the intelligent explorers that they are, conveying unique scientific facts in a fun, playful way.  Not only that, each poem in the book represents a different type of form, making this book equally valuable in teaching poetry as it can be for teaching about science and nature.

When I was looking for a poet to write a post on poetic forms, I knew Leslie was the perfect person for the job.  Without further ado, here’s Leslie Bulion, sharing her thoughts on poetic form, wordplay and music.


I use two overlapping, intertwined processes when I write a poem: I play with words and I try to hear the music. The lexicon of science provides me a certain palette of words, analogous to the word and image choices any poet will make when considering the tone and subject of a poem. Since science terms can be long and complex, they offer their own internal rhythm and meter—their own music. Science words can also be inherently funny when rhyming or riffing (and by riffing, I mean making up words. Writing poetry is FUN).

I use many different poetic forms—some known forms, some I’ve invented, and some forms I think I’ve invented but probably haven’t. While it’s easier to hear the music in rhythmic and rhyming poetry, writing non-rhyming poetry also depends on an understanding of rhythm and sound to help the words, lines and images flow. Poetry is meant to be heard; reading poems aloud is one way I tune my poetic ear. If a writer wants to explore rhythm and rhyme, working from a known form provides rules and limits for practice. For an even easier exercise, work from a well-known poem or song to which one’s ear is already tuned.

When I started my poetry journey as a children’s writer, I began by re-examining one of the simplest forms of poetry, the rhyming couplet—two lines of poetry with the same end rhyme, usually with the same meter. Here are the first two lines, a rhyming couplet, from my poem “The Invasion of the Bone Eaters” in At the Sea Floor Cafe:

Osedax, the legless worm,

Lands on whale-fall, digs in firm.

Each of these lines has four strong beats:

O/se/dax, the leg/less worm,

lands on whale-fall, digs in firm.

As it happens, both lines have the same number of syllables, but I don’t generally count syllables in rhyming poetry, just feet—in this case four feet in each line (four strong or stressed beats)—as you’ll see in these next two lines from farther along in the poem. This next couplet follows the same couplet rhyme scheme using a different end sound, and the same four-foot meter:

O/se/dax the gut/less won/der,

Egg sac blob and roots down under.

But see how the end beat in this couplet has two syllables instead of one? The meter works because wonder and under still have only one strong beat each.

A note about rhyme: for a pair of multi-syllabic words to be a perfect rhyming pair, they need to rhyme (sharing the same vowel, then consonant sounds, and the same stress pattern) from the last strong syllable to the end. In the world of perfect rhyme, wonder rhymes with under, but wonderful doesn’t rhyme with understand. Yet connection rhymes perfectly with infection.

“The Invasion of the Bone Eaters” has almost the same rhyme scheme and meter (without the repeated first word) as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Can you make up your own lyrics to that song? Pick a topic—say, your phone (mine just rang for the 18th time)—and sing out the words of your couplet to check your work. Your music memory will help you stick to the pattern.

Poets build on the basic couplet to create many different types of poems—longer poems, longer and shorter couplets in varying patterns, pairs of rhyming lines with mismatched meter—there are so many possibilities.

Now let’s take a look at the oh-so-popular limerick. Always funny, a limerick is a five-line poem in which lines one, two and five have three beats (or feet) and rhyme with each other, and lines three and four are a rhyming couplet with only two feet. In the Osedax poem above, all of the feet are binary, meaning two parts per strong beat (who cares about terminology? I don’t!). Limericks use a good smattering of three-part feet, which add a kind of breathless, rollicking rhythm and more fun. Here’s “Advice to a Caterpillar” from Hey There, Stink Bug!:

Said the swallowtail, “Kid, here’s the scoop:

That ravenous robin’s a snoop.

Once you pupate you’ll be

quite as dazzling as me,

but for now just pretend you’re bird poop.”

Can you hear the duh-duh-DAH duh-duh-DAH duh-duh-DAH rhythm of the three, three-part feet in the first line—three sets of two quieter syllables then a third, stressed syllable? “Said/the/swa” is the first three-part foot. Can you find the one place in the poem I used a two-part foot? (Hint: don’t look in the couplet for a two-part foot, even though each of the lines in that pair has two feet!)

So, okay, if you’re paying close attention here (and reading OUT LOUD) you’ll see I’ve fudged this poem a little. In order to match line five with lines one and two, you have to read “bird poop” (which is the way I always say “bird poop” in normal conversation) as “bird poop,” emphasis on the second word. I think I get away with this for two reasons. One, it’s a limerick, so no one will read it in a conversational manner, and two, come on, who doesn’t want to emphasize such an appealing science word as the word “poop”??

This rule-bending highlights something that has helped me tremendously in my poetry-writing: I make sure I’ve fully internalized ALL of the rules and conventions regarding any particular poetic form before I attempt to break ANY of them.

Couplets and limericks use perfect rhyme, but there are lots of other ways to play around with words. Check out these lines from “Upside Down and All Around,” which is a poem shaped like a spiral in At the Sea Floor Cafe. I’ve written it out here so you can see the rhymes:

Fair violet snail

with fragile shell

afloat on bubbled mucous gel

rafts hidden downside-up until

a man of war skulls by

(this meal

of tentacles

a real windfall

with lunch appeal)…

Slant rhyme is a partial rhyme that refers to words containing different vowel sounds and the same end consonant sound. It lends quite a different feel to the poem, doesn’t it?

I think my ongoing study of poetic elements—rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, imagery, and even letter sounds—informs the prose in my novels as well, setting a particular tone and feel for the narration and for each character’s speech and thought patterns. My hope is that playing with words and hearing the music of poetry strengthens and enhances all of the writing I do. For more information on poetic form and poetic terms, and lots more examples, please visit The Poetry Foundation.

If you’d like to see how I’ve used music with my poetry, check out my trailer at You can find me on Facebook and Twitter, too.


Leslie Bulion teams a life-long love of poetry and her science background in humorous children’s poetry collections including At the Sea Floor Café, Hey There, Stink Bug! and the upcoming Random Body Parts: Gross Anatomy Riddles in Verse. Her other books include the middle-grade novels Uncharted Waters, The Trouble With Rules, and The Universe of Fair, and her picture book, Fatuma’s New Cloth. A former school social worker, Leslie has written and edited books in the education market and has written nationally for parents and educators. She gives writing workshops and presentations to students, educators and writers throughout the US.

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