Poetic Purpose: Why Meter Matters

“Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.”

~Edgar Allan Poe

Aside from signing my friends’ yearbook with personalized limericks, I admit that I have little experience with poetry. However, I adore reading it, as it was meant to be read, aloud. I love the sounds of its rhymes, the flow of the lines, the imagery and emotion that are woven together into a spoken song… but I’ll stop trying to sound poetic and go back to actually discussing poetry.

As with many of my posts, this one is inspired by my AP Literature class. We are beginning a unit on Hamlet and as it is virtually impossible to separate Shakespeare from iambic pentameter, we spent a period learning about meters of poetry. Right away, it made sense to me and, I noted with interest, my musical friends. However, those who had no musical experience (at least to my knowledge) seemed confused at the entire concept of poetic rhythm and its purpose. While my violinist and vocalist friends were nodding their heads appreciatively, many others were asking why does meter matter? Basically, meter in poetry matters because it helps the poet to give purpose to his or her writing and the reader to understand this purpose. As simple as this answer may sound, though, it is easy to miss if one does not understand the parallel concepts of poetry that are found within music.

To explain this concept further, I’ll provide a brief music lesson which will, I hope, function as a more concrete example that can later be used to clarify upon the abstract ideas of poetry.

In music, like poetry, meter is crucial. Consider for a moment one of the most famous forms of dance music: a waltz. What do you think of when you think of a waltz? The words that come to mind for me would be adjectives such as romantic, gliding, and elegant. Clearly a waltz is not rough, casual, or jerky. But what makes that distinction? For the sake of this example, let’s say that meter does. Obviously, other musical elements such as dynamics, tonality, and chordal structure are key as well, but meter is undeniable the biggest distinguishing trait of a waltz. Waltzes are generally in triple meter, which refers to counting each measure (or small section) of music in three beats, with the first beat receiving the most emphasis.

Listen to this waltz played on the piano by Arthur Rubinstein (Chopin’s waltz in c sharp minor Op. 64 No. 2).

Can you hear the left hand playing on the three main beats? Listen carefully and you will hear beneath the melody a strong “ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three” pattern. This is what triple meter sounds like in music.

This is the opening of the above waltz. See in the lower line the three main beats?
This is the opening of the above waltz. See in the lower line the three main beats?

Why triple meter? This is a fair question. After all, couldn’t a waltz be elegant, gliding, and romantic in any other meter? The answer is no, it probably could not. A waltz is a dance and  the triple meter, with its emphasis on beat one and then lighter beats two and three, is innately dance-able.  (Yes, “dance-able” is a word…) The dancers would make their largest and strongest step on the first beat, the emphasized ONE, and then smaller steps on the subsequent beats, two and three. And not only is the waltz in triple meter fit for dancing, it is fit for elegant, smooth,and lovely dancing. Other music with different meters can be danced to, but not in the same way. You see, the meter here serves a unique purpose.

Let’s consider another musical meter: quadruple. This meter consist of four main beats, giving it a steady one-two-three-four rhythm with each beat being approximately equal in emphasis. Take a listen to this famous quadruple meter pop song, “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles:

This is a passage from "Love Song". The four main beats are depicted in the treble clef.
This is a passage from “Love Song”. The four main beats are depicted in the treble clef.

Would you say this is a graceful song? Or perhaps a delicate song, like a lullaby? Of course not! This is a energetic, determined, and even angry song. Listen to the driving chords that create the strong one-two-three-four rhythm. These are crucial to making this song what it is! “Love Song” would sound ridiculous if performed in triple meter like a waltz, but the continuous one-two-three-four rhythm of quadruple meter provides a forward drive and a memorable riff that are guaranteed to not only communicate the frustrated feelings of the artist but become stuck in the listener’s head for the rest of the day. (Or, in my case, from 8th grade until now.)

So how does this relate to poetry? Exactly. Meter in music relates exactly to meter in poetry; that is why the choir and orchestra geeks understood our poetry lesson while others found it puzzling. Not only are lyrics to songs poems set to music, but the meters of the two are often the same! For instance, the quadruple meter we just listened to is the musical equivalent of spondaic meter in poetry, which consists of repeated stressed syllables. See the similarity?

In music: one-two-three-four

In poetry: / / / /                    ( / refers to a stressed syllable)

“Love Song” was a quadruple meter song, so let’s look at a spondaic poem for comparison. The internet for once failed to provide me with what I needed, so I was forced to write my own example, which shall remain untitled.

   /       /      /       /

Coffee now please

 /    /      /      /

I need caffeine.

  /         /       /     /

Two more coffees

 /    /    /      /

Or I’ll be mean.

I think the emotion behind this piece is pretty clear: I’m tired and need coffee in order to avoid being cranky. Not exactly “Love Song”, but the frustration and forcefulness of the writer is as apparent in my untitled snippet of a poem as it is in Sara Bareilles’ famous breakup song. The only difference is that my poem is not set to music and therefore referred to as spondaic dimeter, meaning there are two sets of two stressed syllables per line (thus four syllables total per line). If I were to set this poem to music, it would probably be in quadruple meter like “Love Song”, with each stressed syllable placed on a strong beat. Like quadruple meter, spondaic meters tend to communicate power and potentially anger with their clearly-defined emphasis and lack of unstressed (softer) syllables.

Swing/jazz music and dance are characterized by a fun, energetic vibe given by their swung rhythm.
Swing/jazz music and dance are characterized by a fun, energetic vibe given by their swung rhythm.

There are many other meters in both music and poetry and the parallels between the two are undeniable. For example, trochaic meter, which consists of an stressed syllable followed by a unstressed syllable, is remarkably reminiscent of jazz music with its rhythms of swung notes. The link below features a swing song, “Sing, Sing, Sing”, with its characteristic “long-short-long-short” rhythm which is comparable to the stressed-unstressed meter of trochee poetry. This rhythm can indicate a sense of freedom from regulations of strict meters as it bends from straight, even beats.

These parallels fascinate me and I could discuss them forever, but I must answer the question I began with: Why does meter matter? We looked at why it matters in music, that is, to communicate the composer’s emotions and purpose in writing the piece. Chopin’s waltz was in triple meter to convey the sensation of dancing with poise and beauty; Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song” is in quadruple meter to demonstrate her determination and frustration as she tells off her needy ex; and jazz music has a swung rhythm to give it its carefree, spontaneous feel. In poetry, meter is used in the same way: to provide a structure that supports the ideas of the poet and communicates them better to the reader. I used spondaic dimeter to convey my urgent need for coffee through its demanding, blunt rhythm and I feel that my choice of meter made my emotion more apparent to the reader than if I had, say, written about my need for coffee in an iambic pentameter sonnet, which probably would have come across too flowery and romantic for my topic. In the same way, real poets (meaning not me) use specific meters for specific purposes. Whether or not they do so intentionally is a question for another day, but there can be no doubt that they do use different meters for different purposes and this allows for effective communication of ideas and emotions through verse.

To conclude, I will address another question that a peer of mine asked: Why do we, as students and readers, need to know the various types of meters? Again, I will return to my music comparison; as a music student, I obviously need to know the meters of the pieces that I play, but even as a listener, I should be aware of these meters so that I can fully appreciate the artistry of the music. By being aware of the elements that combine to create music, such as meter, I am better able to understand and appreciate a waltz for its elegance, or pop for its energy, or jazz for its freedom.  When reading and studying poetry we ought to be aware, as educated readers, of meter just as we ought to be aware of elements such as figurative language, diction, and point of view, to deepen our understanding of the piece and allow the purpose of the poet to be fully communicated to us as his or her audience.

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