Meter in Poetry and Its Use

When you hear the word ‘meter’ in relation to poetry, what is being referred to is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllabic patterns in a particular verse, or in the lines of a poem. Stressed syllables are typically longer than their unstressed counterparts. Meter is a literary device used in poetry that acts as a linguistic sound pattern for each verse because it provides poems with rhythm and melody.

For example, if you were to read the following poem ‘Everybody Knows’ by Leonard Cohen aloud, you will notice that it produces regular sound patterns.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates And a long stem rose
Everybody knows Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes And everybody knows
Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
And everybody knows that it’s now or never
Everybody knows that it’s me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you’ve done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows
And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there’s gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows
And everybody knows that you’re in trouble
Everybody knows what you’ve been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it’s coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart Before it blows
And everybody knows
Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Oh everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows

The poem in the example above is what is referred to as a metered or measured poem. Studying different types of meters and versification is referred to as ‘prosody.”

Types of Meter in Poetry

In poetry, a meter consists of a series of feet, each foot has a specific number of syllables (both stressed and unstressed.) As such, a meter follows a rhythmic pattern in each line in a verse.

There are several different types of meters that add to the rhythm in poetry. They are:

  1. Iambic meter (unstressed / stressed)
  2. Trochaic meter (stressed / unstressed)
  3. Spondaic meter (stressed / stressed)
  4. Anapestic meter (unstressed / unstressed / stressed)
  5. Dactylic meter (stressed / unstressed / unstressed)

There are two subcategories of meter: qualitative meter and quantitative meter.

Qualitative meter: Qualitative meter is comprised of stressed syllables at regular intervals. For instance, iambic pentameter consisting of even numbered syllables.

Quantitative meter: Quantitative meter is different in the fact that is it based on syllable weight and not patterns of stressed syllables, such as dactylic hexameters.

Examples of Meter in Prose

  1. Trochaic Meter: People become what they believe
  2. Dactylic / Spondaic: Those who can dream it can achieve it
  3. Iambic Meter: Don’t search for faults. Find remedies
  4. Anapestic Meter: When you give and accept gratefully, you feel blessed
  5. Iambic Meter: The safest place on planet earth
  6. Spondaic Meter: Be happy, be positive, be you
  7. Trochaic Meter: Life is too short to hold grudges
  8. Dactylic Meter: If you know why to live, then you can tolerate anything
  9. Trochaic Meter: All the news here is ready to print
  10. Iambic Meter: Because you’re worth it
  11. Trochaic Meter: Bell lion not in doleful manner

Example of Iambic Pentameter

Here is an excerpt of Paradise Lost by John Milton.

Fast by the Oracle of God: I thence
Invoke they aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues…

If you were to read the above excerpt out loud, you would take note of the unstressed – stressed rhythm. Iambic pentameter is especially noticeable in line two with the overemphasis of the ‘voke’ in the word ‘invoke’. To better notice the rhythm, it might help to feel the rhythm.

What does aural mean?

The term aural can be loosely defined as meaning, “the characteristic or virtue that embodies a person or trait or quality that appears to radiate from someone or something.”

In poetry, a poet may use aural devices to manipulate who their poem sounds. There are several ways that sound poetry can be created – the most common being through repetition and onomatopoeia.

What exactly is repetition? Repetition is a tool that a poet will use to repeat certain words or phrases multiple times throughout their written work.

Walt Whitman was famous for using repetition in his poems, as seen in O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

This arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Next, is Onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia is when a word sounds similar to what it references. For example, the word ‘swish’ sounds similar to swishing. Other examples include zap, gurgle, achoo, boom, fizz, clanging, jingle, hiss, pop and rattle.

Poets use onomatopoeia to assist readers in better visualizing the things that are being described in their poems.

Gwendolyn Brooks uses this powerful literary device in her poem, Cynthia in the Snow.

It hushes
The loudness in the road.
It flitter-twitters,
And laughs away from me.
It laughs a lovely whiteness,
And whitely whirs away,
To be,
Some otherwhere,
Still white as milk or shirts.
So beautiful it hurts.

Another example is Carl Sandburg’s Honky Tonk in Cleveland Ohio

It’s a jazz affair, drum crashes and coronet razzes.
The trombone pony neighs and the tuba jackass snorts.
The banjo tickles and titters too awful.
The chippies talk about the funnies in the papers.
The cartoonists weep in their beer.
Shop riveters talk with their feet
To the feet of floozies under the tables.
A quartet of white hopes mourn with interspersed snickers:
“I got the blues.
I got the blues.
I got the blues.”
And . . . as we said earlier:
The cartoonists weep in their beer.

These types of aural devices are extremely valid in the world of poetry and prose. They present writers of poetry with the profound ability to manipulate how their work sounds – especially when recited orally. Repetition and onomatopoeia are only two aural devices.

Other devices commonly used in sound poetry include:

  • Accent
  • Alliteration
  • Assonance
  • Consonance
  • Cacophony
  • Dissonance
  • Euphony
  • Internal rhyme
  • Meter
  • Modulation
  • Near rhyme
  • Phonetic Symbolism
  • Resonance
  • Rhyme
  • Rhythm

Each of the abovementioned devices will have a different effect on a poem. For example, cacophony refers to the ‘discordant sounds of the jarring juxtaposition of harsh syllables or letters’ that are often used deliberately in poetry for the purpose of effect. Take Robert Shubinski’s Fences for example:

Crawling, sprawling, breaching spokes of stone,
With mortared sinews levy wretched rifts
In harmonies of universal tone,
And bridle open play of native gifts.

Weathered, knot-holed, bark-shorn splintered files
Of lumbered planks with unstemmed lust abound
To mar the grace of Beauty’s pristine smiles
By rude partitions of the helpless ground.

Frigid, rigid, twisted drawn-out lines,
With legioned sword-points thrust in ravished earth,
Make freedom captive in their sharp confines;
Oppressive sway the measure of their worth;

Barriers — a rampant man-made curse —
But fences formed by thought are even worse.

The first line, “Crawling, sprawling, breaching spokes of stone,” is filled with deliberately harsh syllables to create effect.

Alliteration is another commonly seen device used in aural poetry. This refers to the way a poet will repeat the initial sounds of stressed syllables in joining words or at various intervals in the same line or passage, most often at the beginning.

Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings provides an excellent example of alliteration in poetry.

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn

and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.