Ear Training: Sound and Meter
Introduction to Sound and Meter
Having defined pattern in poetry as "The artistic arrangement and use of the material (aural and visual) aspects of words into particular repetitive and/or serial forms as a means to structure a poem," and having discussed visual pattern elsewhere, we turn to those aspects of poetics that are probably most familiar to us, sound and meter. Whereas the visual aspects of poetry are "read at a glance," so to speak, the aural aspects are read in time, like music.
As said before, when most people think of poetry, the first things they think of are sound and meter. For thousands of years, poetic form has been defined by its cadence, its sing-song rhythms, and its sound effects. That is still true today, except now we include the visual aspects of the poem and we often do not subscribe to a set meter and rhyme pattern when we write. Poetry that does not use a set meter is called free verse poetry, but the phrase can be deceptive.
While it is true that free verse poetry does not subscribe to the set meters and forms that defined earlier forms of verse, it must still deal with these elements. While on the surface it may seem that free verse has pulled the poet away from the sound elements in a poem, in reality it has made the poet's task more complex. 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.
Meter and Scansion
The bible of most poets today regarding meter and sound is a book by Paul Fussell called Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. Although some of Fussell's ideas are a bit outdated (namely, he doesn't deal with the visual elements of a poem), his approach is complete, concise and useful. Fussell defines meter as "what results when the natural rhythmical movements of colloquial speech are heightened, organized, and regulated so that [repetition] emerges from the relative phonetic haphazard of ordinary utterance." (4-5) To "meter" something, then, 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).
To get a bearing on what these rhythms look and sound like, let's start with a method for writing out the rhythms of a poem. This technique is called scansion, and it is important because it puts visual markers onto an otherwise entirely heard phenomenon.
There are three kinds of scansion: the graphic, the musical and the acoustic. Since the most commonly and most easily used is graphic, we will use it in our discussion. For a discussion of the others, I refer you to Fussell, page 18. To begin to look at graphic scansion, we first must look at a couple of symbols that are used to scan a poem.
Syllables can either be accented, meaning they are naturally given more emphasis when spoken, or unaccented, meaning they receive less emphasis when spoken. A poetic foot is a unit of accented and unaccented syllables that is repeated or used in sequence with others to form the meter. A caesura is a long pause in the middle of a line of poetry.
To show an example of these symbols, let's look at a poem written with the less common, the accentual-syllabic meter, in mind. Here are three scanned lines from Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Autumn Idleness":
You can then see, when comparing the reading of the poem to the scansion marks, how they compare. These lines are taken from a sonnet and thus somewhat predictably written in iambic pentameter. They thus have five accents per line and their syllable counts are 10/10/10. The term iambic pentameter often comes up in discussions of Shakespeare or any sonneteer, but the meaning of the term is often mistaken or simply overlooked. Defining iambic pentameter helps us break down two important parts of meter: poetic feet and line length.
Poetic Feet and Line Length
There are two parts to the term iambic pentameter. The first part refers to the type of poetic foot being used predominantly in the line. A poetic foot is a basic repeated sequence of meter composed of two or more accented or unaccented syllables. In the case of an iambic foot, the sequence is "unaccented, accented". There are other types of poetic feet commonly found in English language poetry.
The primary feet are referred to using these terms (an example word from Fussell's examples is given next to them):
- Iambic: destroy (unaccented/accented)
- Anapestic: intervene (unaccented/unaccented/accented)
- Trochaic: topsy (accented/unaccented)
- Dactylic: merrily (accented/unaccented/unaccented)
The substitutive feet (feet not used as primary, instead used to supplement and vary a primary foot) are referred to using these terms:
- Spondaic: hum drum (accented/accented)
- Pyrrhic: the sea/ son of/ mists (the "son of" in the middle being unaccented/unaccented)
The second part of defining iambic pentameter has to do with line length.
The poetic foot then shows the placement of accented and unaccented syllables. But the second part of the term, pentameter, shows the number of feet per line. In the case of pentameter, there are basically five feet per line.
The types of line lengths are as follows:
- One foot: Monometer
- Two feet: Dimeter
- Three feet: Trimeter
- Four feet: Tetrameter
- Five feet: Pentameter
- Six feet: Hexameter
- Seven feet: Heptameter
- Eight feet: Octameter
Rarely is a line of a poem longer than eight feet seen in English language poetry (the poet C.K. Williams is an exception).
Line length and poetic feet are most easily seen in more formal verse. The example above from D.G. Rossetti is pretty obviously iambic pentameter. And Rossetti uses an accentual-syllabic meter to flesh out his poem with quite a bit of success. What most free verse poets find more useful than this strict form is accentual meter, where the accents only are counted in the line (although when scanned, the syllables are still marked off...it is just that their number is not of as much import.)
Take this free-verse example from James Merrill:
Things to note about this poem:
There is no any "set" meter in this poem, but the meter clearly plays a key role in its effectiveness. In particular it is worth noting the line that stands alone (line 7). Notice that Merrill moves toward iambic pentameter in line 6 and then sustains it through line 7. Here there is an inversion from the typical set-meter/variation sequence that is found in a lot of more formal poetry. Here the variation comes in the move into set meter, rather than varying from a set meter.
Just like establishing a visual pattern in a poem, establishing a meter creates expectations in your reader. Consequently, as with pattern, to vary that meter is to create emphasis. Some will say that your ear should be the first judge on these matters rather than your eye (looking at the scanned poem). There is probably some truth to this. Many poets will tell you that you should always read a poem out loud several times every time you get a draft done. If it doesn't sound good every time, there might be something that isn't working. This is where scanning the poem might come in handy; dissecting the lines and sculpting them until they sound better.
Sound and Rhyme
When getting away from the straight rhythms of a poem, we get into the sounds. As mentioned above, if the meter is the poetic equivalent of the horizontal movement in a piece of music, then sound is the vertical movement. If meter serves to cut up the poem into time, then sound serves to configure the poem into a melody or sorts. This means that repeated sounds cohere the poem in much the same way that repeated rhythms do. There are nearly as many aspects to sound as there is to rhythm. The first is perhaps the one with which people are typically most familiar.
A major aspect of sound in more formal verse is rhyme. Poetry with a set rhyme scheme is less common now than it once was, but it is still used, and can still be powerful. Used effectively, it is one of the many important tools in the poet's toolbox. The presence of rhyme in a free verse poem serves to offset those lines that rhyme. Think of the non-rhyming lines in free verse as establishing a pattern of not rhyming, then the use of rhyme breaks the aural and visual pattern and creates emphasis by variation from that pattern.
Take, as an example, this rather whimsical poem from Robert Creeley," The Conspiracy":
I'll send you mine.
Things tend to awaken
even through random communication.
Let us suddenly
proclaim spring. And jeer
at the others,
all the others.
I will send a picture too
if you will send me one two.
The last stanza varies from the rest of the poem in that it is a perfect rhyme (the third and fourth lines have a "slant rhyme," and of course the word "others" repeated in lines seven and eight are also perfect rhymes, in a way, being the same word...more on kinds of rhymes in a minute). This serves to set the last stanza apart and to draw the poem to a close. Merrill's poem above also uses a similar device, although in separate stanzas. But because of the abnormal pattern of rhyme in the poem, it can hardly be said to have a rhyme scheme.
The term rhyme scheme simply refers to the repetition of a rhyme throughout a poem. A rhyme scheme is typically shown with letters representing the patterns that the rhymes make throughout the poem. Take, for example, this poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
I muse at how its being puts blissful back
With yellowy moisture mild night's blear-all black,
Or to-fro tender trambeams truckle at the eye.
By that window what task what fingers ply,
I plod wondering, a-wanting, just for lack
Of answer the eagerer a-wanting Jessy or Jack
There God to aggrándise, God to glorify.—
Mend first and vital candle in close heart's vault:
You there are master, do your own desire;
What hinders? Are you beam-blind, yet to a fault
In a neighbour deft-handed? Are you that liar
And, cast by conscience out, spendsavour salt?
Here the rhyme schemes would be labeled ABBAABBA for the first stanza and CDCDCD for the second. Take the rhyming words and put them next to the letters and you will see the reasoning:
Hopkins here is using a traditional Petrarchan sonnet form (evidenced first in the fact that, like all sonnets, it has 14 lines.) And the rhyme scheme is now obvious. The patterns put forth in the rhyme scheme create a notable pattern. Hopkins uses what most readers are familiar with— what is called perfect rhyme, where the two (or three or four) words are in complete aural correspondence. These are rhymes like "certain" and "curtain" or any of the rhymes in the Hopkins example above. But we have not yet discussed the other varieties of rhyme.
One issue that the poet must contend with is that in order to use rhyme well, it can't be forced. All of us have read ineffective poems where the rhymes sounded like "the cat sat on the mat" and we felt like we were being forced into a box that felt both unnatural and unnerving. This type of rhyme is actually called forced rhyme, because it does exactly that; forces the rhyme where it should not otherwise be. This method of rhyme can be used at times, but the poet should know that its effect is typically comic. Since one of the poet's end goals is inevitably to make the structure work for the poem, then the effective use of the different kinds of rhyme can serve these ends.
Types of Rhyme
- Perfect Rhyme: The words are in complete aural correspondence. An example would be: Certain and Curtain.
- Forced Rhyme: An unnatural rhyme that forces a rhyme where it should not otherwise be.
- Slant Rhyme: The words are similar but lack perfect correspondence. Example: found and kind, grime and game.
- Masculine Rhyme: Has a single stressed syllable rhyme. Example: fight and tight, stove and trove.
- Feminine Rhyme: A stressed syllable rhyme followed by an unstressed syllable. Example: carrot and garret, sever and never.
- Visual Rhyme: A rhyme that only looks similar, but when spoken sound different. Example: slaughter and laughter. This type of rhyme can be used more to make a visual pattern than to make a aural rhyme.
Again we can see, using the examples from the Creeley and Merrill poems, one way that rhyme can be used effectively in free verse. Here, as with the Merrill poem used to demonstrate free verse meter, the effect of variance comes from the establishment of the poem having no set rhyme scheme and then putting a rhyme into the poem.
Another often-seen rhyme technique is internal rhyme. With internal rhyme, the rhyme comes in the middle of the line rather than the end.
A good example of this is in the first stanza of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven":
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
" 'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door;
Only this, and nothing more."
Note that in lines 1 and 3 you get an internal rhyme with "dreary" and "weary," and "napping" and "tapping." This technique can sometimes be used to de-emphasize a rhyme that would otherwise be too obvious.
Take, for example, these lines from Gary Snyder's poem "Riprap":
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
There are a lot of things going on here, but the places worth pointing out in regard to internal rhyme are "place" and "space" in lines 4 and 6, and the internal slant rhyme in line 4, "choice" and "place."
Other Matters of Sound
Other Matters of Sound
The other major matters of sound that have yet to be discussed but are just as important are assonance, consonance, and alliteration.
- Assonance: The same or similar vowel sound repeated in the stressed syllable of a word, followed by uncommon consonant sounds. Examples would be: hate and sale, or drive and higher.
- Consonance: The same or similar consonant sound repeated in the stressed syllable, preceded by uncommon vowel sounds. Examples: urn and shorn, or irk and torque.
- Alliteration: Repetition of sounds through more than one word or syllable. For example: Take the (extreme use of) the "L" sound that repeats in the following phrase: "The lurid letters of Lucy Lewis are luscious, lucid and libidinous."
All of these aural elements are mostly found within the lines of a poem rather than at the end. Sometimes they carry from one line to the next or over several lines. These are often used when a line or two seems to lack cohesion (the repeated sounds create pattern, thus structure) or to create a repeated set of sounds that will either A) stand apart from the words around them (because they are aurally different) or B) will make a pattern with their own sounds that can then be varied for emphasis. Take the use of alliteration as an example. The (rather simple) line above can easily illustrate two possibilities.
If the line came on the heels of something like:
the lurid letters of Lucy Lewis are luscious, lucid and libidinous.
Surely we haven't seen anything like them in years.
The alliteration in the second line makes it stand out from the others that surround it. Conversely, if we added a variance from the alliteration and made it:
The emphasis is obviously on the word "crude," as it now stands apart from all the "L" sounds around it.
It is important to remember when implementing any of these techniques that the goal of structure in a poem is to contain the poem, to allow order and chaos to co-exist. If the structure becomes too apparent (to the point that it detracts from the experience of the poem, as in the "Lucy Lewis" example above,) it is doing its job poorly.