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Poetry in motion; it’s all in the rhythm

Rhythm is infectious. A good song will get many a toe tapping or room swaying, with even the most reserved person likely to succumb. Walking and poetry share a strong basis in rhythm, so it isn’t surprising that each one has been inspiring the other for centuries.


How many people, I wonder, have been inspired to go for a springtime walk by the opening lines of Wordsworth’s well-loved poem, Daffodils?

I wandered lonely as a cloud,  
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,  
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils.

The inspiration for the poem came from a walk Wordsworth took with his sister Dorothy around Glencoyne Bay in the Lake District. It is the easy pace of walking that allows the poet time for some, perhaps unexpected, observations along the way. Wordsworth provides a clear example of walking; inspiring poetry; inspiring walking.

Poetry as an art form may predateliteracy. Epic poems such as Homer’s Odyssey appear to have been created in this form to aid the ability for people to remember and share the stories they contain. The repetitive rhythm within poetry can help to induce a calmness that is conducive to meditation. An old Navajo walking meditation is a beautiful demonstration of the marriage of poetry and walking.

With beauty before me, may I walk  
With beauty behind me, may I walk  
With beauty above me, may I walk
With beauty below me, may I walk
With beauty all around me, may I walk
Wandering on the trail of beauty, may I walk

Poetryuses the rhythmic qualities oflanguage to evoke particular emotions. And more often than not, one of those emotions is contemplation. The rhythm of walking is steady, continuous and repetitive and also lends itself well to contemplation, making poetry and walking natural companions. The two together allow you to be taken on both a physical and emotional journey.

But neither walking nor poetry has to be a lonesome experience.  Walking brings harmony between groups of people. We all possess an innate ability to build rapport with each other, and that includes the use of subtle body language. Walk alongside someone for a while and you’ll naturally find yourself falling into step with each other, and probably even synchronising your breathing. Chanting is a wonderful form of communal poetry, bringing people together with a shared purpose and sense of unison.

Duckworth ChantIndeed the military has been using these combined methods for centuries to support morale and improve the unity of armies whilst they march. Amilitary cadenceorcadence callis a traditional call-and-responsework songwhich is set to the beat and rhythm of the quick-time march. This serves the purpose of keeping soldiers moving in step as a unit and in formation, while maintaining the correct beat.

Perhaps the most famous cadence call is the Duckworth Chant, more commonly known as Sound Off. On a miserable night march in 1944, an army company was returning to barracks at Fort Slocum, New York following a long tedious tracking exercise through swamps and tough country. A chant broke the serenity of the night. Upon analysis, it was found that a soldier by the name of Private Willie Duckworth, was chanting to build up the morale of his companions. It is thought he was using the method he’d learned when harvesting crops in teams, where work songs helped to increase output while reducing feelings of tedium. 

It was not long before the catching rhythm was spreading throughout the ranks.  Fatigued soldiers started to pick up their step in cadence with the mounting chorus of enthusiastic male voices. Instead of down trodden, exhausted men, here marched hundreds of soldiers with heads up, a bounce to their step, and grin on their faces. Returning to Fort Slocum, Private Duckworth, at the request of the training centre instructors, created a series of verses and choruses to be used with the marching cadence.

The heads are up and the chests are out
The arms are swinging in cadence count

SOUND OFF (By individual)
1 - 2 (By troops)
SOUND OFF (By individual)
3 - 4 (By troop)
CADENCE COUNT (By individual)
1 - 2 - 3 - 4, 1 – 2..... 3 - 4 (By troops)

A V-Disc (a morale-boosting gramophone recording to be played for serving troops) of the Duckworth Chant was issued in 1944. It’s well worth a listen – simply click on the play button below.

So next time you’re struggling to keep up the pace, why not try your own Sound Off?






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Sunday, 23 October 2016
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