In verse, one of the most important parts of the work is its rhythm, the pattern of sounds and syllables and the way they “flow” together. Aesthetically, we perceive a poetic or musical utterance that is out of rhythm as dissonant, like a dancer tripping over his own feet. If you have any ear for music at all, you’ve probably noticed this. Think of when somebody you know tries to fit a bunch of words into the pattern of a familiar song, but he gets them all wrong. The line doesn’t scan, and it sounds awful.
This is one expression of the idea of meter. Now, if you remember English classes in high school, you probably recall those endless lessons about classical meter. You know, iambic pentameter, and…nobody older than sixteen can ever name any of the others. I know I can’t without looking them up.
But meter isn’t just important for reading Shakespeare and pleasing English teachers. (Personally, I didn’t care for either of those activities.) It’s actually an integral part of language as a whole, and verse in particular.
Unit of measurement
Now, I’m not going into a long digression about the kinds of meter and all that. I just don’t want to, and it doesn’t really help the discussion. Instead, this post will focus on the generalities of meter and how they relate to a language and a culture. That, I believe, is more enlightening than trying to memorize the difference between an iamb and a trochee or whatever.
Meter is the rhythm of language, as I said, and each language has its own, even before you start talking about poetry. Some languages, for instance, have a fixed stress position; according to WALS Chapter 14, about 56% are like this. Of these, most have a fixed stress on the penultimate (second to last) or initial syllable of a word, while the final syllable is a fairly distant 3rd place.
Now, if a language requires stress to be in a certain place, then that’s something verse has to work around. It forces a kind of “template” on meter. Initial and penultimate stress, for instance, both imply a stressed-unstressed (trochaic) pattern, while final stress gives the opposite (iambic) pattern. That doesn’t always have to be true, of course, but there’s an obvious pressure to do things that way.
A lot of other languages, however, are like English. Their stress can move around. In English, for example, affixes can and do affect stress: compare nation (stress on first syllable) to nationality (stress on the third from the last).
In such languages, there’s no obvious “default” meter. Now, there can be other factors determining which rhythms are acceptable, but any rules are more along the lines of convention than law. Thus, English has a rich history of different meter types, and these have come to be associated with different authors, styles, and even moods.
If you’re making your own language (and culture), then this knowledge gives you an edge on pursuing more creative aspects of your work. Say you’ve already decided that your conlang has a fixed penultimate stress. Well, the speakers will naturally gravitate towards poetic meters which go well with that.
Length of a meter
Now, that’s only half the problem. For a lot of verse, not only are you worrying about the rhythmic pattern of “heavy” and “light” syllables, but also how many there are. That’s where the “pentameter” part of “iambic pentameter” comes in: one line of that meter is five feet long, each of which is an iamb. (One meter, of course, is about 3.28 feet, but that’s neither here nor there. And so ends your daily dose of puns.)
English, thanks to its startling propensity for muttering, shortening, and just plain ignoring unstressed syllables, gets a lot of leeway in this department, but there’s only so far you can really go. Really, the length of a line is going to be measured in stresses, however a language counts them, and a verse in a consistent meter will have lines containing generally the same number of those stresses. (That’s where the “poor scanning” thing comes in: the words you’re trying to fit into the rhythm don’t line up with the expected stress pattern, so it sounds forced and unnatural.)
In languages without overt stress, the principle is roughly the same. Pitch-accent languages may be able to substitute high pitch or pitch drops for stress. Tonal languages are a bit harder, but there will be patterns there, too. And we can even talk about line length separate from meter, as in Japanese haiku, with their fixed structure of three lines, containing, in order, five, seven, and five morae. (A mora is like a syllable, except that, e.g., long vowels count as two morae instead of one. Some languages use these as the basic constituent of meter, rather than syllables.)
A musical note
Meter carries over from poetry into song, too. After all, they both come from the same foundations. In Western music, for example, 4/4 time is common, and the usual pattern is a heavier “stress” on the first and third beats of a measure. If you consider each beat to be a syllable (or mora, if your language is doing that), then that maps quite naturally onto a trochaic rhythm. Put the emphasis on beats two and four instead, and you’ve got something iambic.
There are a few easy ways you can use that to your advantage. One, you can assume that the off beats are unstressed syllables, making each measure two metrical feet, if we’re using 4/4 time. (Something like, say, 6/4 would be different, but the math should be easy.) Another option is to take one beat as the primary stress, turning each measure into a single foot.
Once you get outside the Western musical tradition, this pattern tends to break down, but not the basic idea of it. Beats match up with stresses, pitch changes, or whatever a language uses. That’s not even a cultural thing, really. It’s pretty much hardwired into our brains. The cultural aspect is all in deciding what patterns we want to hear.
Writing verse is hard. I can’t do it—that’s why I’m writing about it instead. Setting it to music is even more difficult. But the basics aren’t impossible to understand. Verse, whether in poetry or song, comes down to following (and knowing when not to follow) simple patterns in language. Meter is one of those patterns, an imprint upon our poetry, a kind of paint-by-numbers outline. If you’ve ever tapped your foot to a song or been entranced by a chant or speech, you know how powerful those patterns can be.