Leonard Bernstein

This is a poetry challenge.

Think back to that great song in West Side Story when the women argue about whether it’s better to live in American or Puerto Rico.  Sing this in your head:

I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev’rything free in America
For a small fee in America!

Rhythmically, this is a fascinating lyric.  It combines  3/3 time (waltz time for those of you who didn’t get piano lessons) and 2/2 time on the word “America.”  Let me count it out for you.

I like to   be in A    mer    i       ca.

1-2-3        1-2-3        1-2    1-2    1-2

Notice that all the ones are the heavy beats while the twos and threes are the weak beats.  All the numbers get equal time.  You can beat this out on your desk with your left hand doing the ones and your right hand doing the twos and threes.

Most poetry settles for a fairly settled rhythmic pattern like iambic pentameter.  You’ll find it in Shakespeare sonnets and in a line from Keats below:

2     1        2      1          2         1         2    1    2      1

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a few variations to make the words fit the rhythm, that’s the way it is through the whole poem or sonnet:  sets of 2-1s (iambic), repeated five times (pentameter).

Now, along comes composer Bernstein, and he wants to mess around with the rhythm and time.  He’s not the first, but he does it so well here that this becomes a song (actually the chorus) we all like without quite knowing why.

So your challenge, should you choose to accept, is to either use Bernstein’s rhythm or come up with a crazy—but compelling—rhythm of your own where it is not consistent within the line but is consistent across the different lines.

Your content is your own choice, whether funny, serious, or musical.  I know you can do it!

17 responses to “Leonard Bernstein

  1. Sorry the spacing is a bit off, but I think you get the idea. If not, ask me.

  2. Started working. This should be fun.

  3. We didn’t go to the Y today.
    It is so cold; takes your breath away.
    Swimming can wait for another day.
    I’d rather hibernate anyway!

  4. Shift the breeze in the forest leaves to the mountains
    Hide the stars and the moonlit sky with gorillas
    Play through summer and sleep through winter forever
    Find some children to keep the planet behind us

    • I spent some time considering the phrase “to keep the planet behind us.” It made me think of having the best possible back-up.

  5. Haven’t written in a while,
    I’ve gone a few feet – even miles.
    The muse really isn’t much use,
    A fragile thing easily beaten and bruised.
    Waiting on it to inspire
    To write words you’d admire,
    But instead this is all I’ve gotten,
    A missive, easily forgotten.

    Still I hold out all hope,
    That I don’t sound like I’m smokin’ dope.
    Waiting on the words to come together,
    Wound together like on a tether.
    Instead all I get is tripe,
    But really, who am I to gripe?
    At least I’ve gotten a tickle,
    From that muse, so temperamental, so fickle.

  6. HI Walk. Nice rhymes! (tether/together! inspire/admire! tripe/gripe!) At least you got a tickle; my muse is hiding under the bed.

  7. Gospel Blues

    Sold my soul to-the devil baby.
    — Jesus-bought-it back again for
    Me. — — —
    When I
    Think-about-the time I wasted I just
    — Pray-about-it on my bended
    Knees. — — I

    Sold my soul to-the devil brother.
    — He-ain’t-coming back here for me.
    — — — —
    — — — When I
    Think of how I wasted good time;
    — I am glad I was set
    Free. — — —

    Think of time I wasted —
    Sorry things I tasted; I can
    Hope to be remade —
    –To how I would have been. —
    Think of time I wasted —
    Sorry things I tasted; I can
    Hope to be remade —
    As if I didn’t flee. —

    Now I got myself to Jesus
    When his hand came down to reach me.
    And I feel — —
    That I’m healed. — —
    I sold my soul to the devil baby.
    — Jesus-bought-it back again for
    me. _ _ _

    [Four beats per line, double dashes are one silent beat, single dashes link words which are sung on a single beat; i.e.- two eighth or four sixteenth notes together.]

  8. Hi Ann, I guess it was some 5 years ago I took your Beginning Writers’ Workshop which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since that time I have had a few stories published online, and here is a link to my latest. Every Day Fiction gives readers an opportunity to cast starratings for stories and offer comments.

    I don’t recognize many names now with your blog. I hope all are still writing. Jeff


  9. Hi Jeff. I’m glad you shared your link; It’s kinda poetic!

    “The figure smiles. “Yes, I am Christopher. What’s your name?”


    “What’s your dog’s name, Aaron?

    Aaron pauses. “Well, I don’t know. I never gave him one.”

    “I think it’s time you named him, Aaron.” “

  10. Ann, I enjoyed your post! I have two words for you: Stephen Sondheim.

    Longer response: The lyricist of “West Side Story” was Stephen Sondheim, who took on the daunting task, early in his career, of collaborating with an already famous composer. Bernstein presented “America,” which he had actually written much earlier, and Sondheim fit words into the tune as is without having the nerve to ask for any rhythmic alterations. (Source: “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim’s memoir of his early years.) The musical cleverness is Bernstein’s, but the poetic cleverness is Sondheim’s, and this post should more accurately bear Stephen’s name.

  11. It sounds like the intriguing rhythm is Bernstein’s, but even so I appreciate the additional information, Steve. Sondheim is without peer. Send in any available clowns!

  12. It is a story often told,
    how we all age and become old.

    Night Cream remedies for wrinkles.
    Diapers for those surprise sprinkles.

    Cakes baked big for extra candles.
    Walkers made with thicker handles.

    Library books labelled “large print”.
    Finding eyeglasses, common stint.

    I think I’ll lie down. Take a nap.
    Revisit youth with cat on lap.

  13. It’s a hot one in Miami
    ‘n Carlos’ sexy mammy
    wipes the hood down with her chamois
    which is her underwear

    While crafty crosstown Keshia
    and her Puerto Rican meestah
    rob the Hotel Coral barista
    with a Glock they made from wood.

    Sandy mails a “Greetings from…”
    cleans and puts away her gun
    you can hide but dare not run
    when Big Tuna calls your loan.

    And the sun, it shines so bright
    on the land of sea-side blight
    ‘till the gangs they sense the night
    and carve out a little business.

    The majestic palm trees sway
    as the copper-tone bathers play
    at a cost of two months’ pay
    like any holiday, it’s what you make it.

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