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Meter and English-Language Poetry

Since poets are now free to irregularly change the rhythms and sounds throughout a poem, they have many more choices to make with every word put on the page. T. S. Eliot said in his essay "The Music of Poetry" in 1942 that "no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job", and, although written 60 years ago, it still holds true. The early 20th century changed forever the way we look at poetic form, but the traditions of sound and meter still hold a firm place in the poetic arts.

The words sound and meter are difficult to define and have many different aspects. Because of these difficulties, perhaps it is useful to think of these terms in the language of metaphor. If you think of the aural elements of a poem in terms of musical notation, you could think of meter as the rhythm created by the words (the horizontal movement of a piece of music, cutting up time into bigger or smaller increments) and sound as the notes of the piece of music (or the vertical movement, repeating sounds and syllables to create a "melody.") Each of these two elements are complex and require an in-depth definition. First, let's start with meter.

To "meter" something is to "measure" it (the word meter itself is derived from the Greek for measure), and there are four common ways to view meter.

Syllabic: A general counting of syllables per line.

Accentual: A counting of accents only per line. Syllables may vary between accents.

Accentual-syllabic: A counting of syllables and accents.

Quantitative: Measures the duration of words.

Of the ways of looking at meter, the most common in English are those that are accentual. English, being of Germanic origin, is a predominantly accentual language. This means that its natural rhythms are not found naturally from syllable to syllable, but rather from one accent to the next. There may be one, two, or three syllables between accents (or more, but this is a matter of debate). For this reason most English language poets opt to look at their own meter as accentual or accentual-syllabic. The former is the more common; adherence to the latter often leads an English language poet toward self-conscious verse, as their predictable rhythms are counter to natural English speech (not that it is impossible to create great verse with this technique, but there is a tendency for it to end up so).

Read it all here.


poetreader said…
As one who writes mostly "free verse". I like to describe poetry as "words that dance'. Being free of rigid meter does not mean that one can get along without rhythm, but rather that one finds the rhythm in the cadences of ordinary speech rather than in prescribed formats. English is a marvelous language in which an interplay of the stresses of syllables, the timing of utterance, and the sounds of syllables all work together to produce a tapestry of sound to bring life to the thoughts and imagery. Poetry is not merely cerebral, but intensely physical as well. As a performance poet, I have found that, when I am reading, if I have caught the dance of the poem, my hand wants to bounce, or my feet to tap, or my body to sway. Of this does not occur, if it is my own work I'm doing, I know there is something wring with the piece; and, if I am reading another's work, the lack of such motion shows me that I have not caught what the poet intended to be there. However one describes it technically, poetry dances.

ed pacht
Beautiful and true!

This deserves to be posted to wider reading.
Anonymous said…
What a great resource!
Thanks! Let me know what topics you would like addressed in 2010. I'm taking suggestions!

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