Meter in Poetry and Why It’s So Beautiful

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I love poetry. Always have.

When I was fourteen, I became obsessed with poetry. I would memorize any poetry I could get my hands on and then recite it to myself while walking around aimlessly outside.

I had a certain taste: I liked Robert Frost, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare. No free verse for me. It didn’t have to rhyme, necessarily–although rhyming was certainly welcome–but it had to have something to draw it together, something to keep it in nice, neat lines and stanzas.

It had to have that almost-invisible structure that made it sound like poetry and not just a bunch of letters thrown on a page.

It had to have meter.

I used to think that lack of rhyme was why I didn’t like free verse. I was wrong.

Rhyme I can do without. Toss it out the window, poets. Throw it to the wind. I don’t mind.

But don’t you mess with meter.

If you don’t know what meter is, I won’t teach you. Go learn it. Much like the Oxford comma and Victorian literature, it will enrich your life.

I know that the words chosen are the most important part of poetry. They’re the lifeblood–the sweet wine of verse. But meter–meter is like a wine glass. If you don’t have a glass, your wine is just going to spill all over the floor. It’s wasted–a mess.

But if you take a glass first, and then you pour the wine in . . .

Beauty. Richness–flavor–wildness constrained in a crystal barrier that not only brings practicality and sensibility, but enhances the wine’s beauty.

That’s what I love about Frost and Carroll and Shakespeare–especially Shakespeare, the master of iambic pentameter. (You know he wrote all of his plays in iambic pentameter?)

Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing as death, a necessary end, 

Will come when it will come. 

(Julius Caesar, II.2.32-37)

There’s no sing-songy nursery-rhyme effect in that–but the meter is flawless. You can’t really hear it when you read the passage, but it’s there–a hidden undercurrent of structure and rhythm.

Brilliance.

It makes poetry easier to remember and recite, as well. That regularity in the lines makes it click in your brain much better than free-verse, which is probably why I loved memorizing poetry with strong meter so much.

Now, I know I’ve been pretty harsh on free verse. I don’t like it as much as poetry with meter. But I will admit that free verse can be beautiful, too. It just takes a skilled poet to pull it off. A very skilled poet.

You have to know the rules, you know, before you can break them.

There’s a lot of free verse out there that’s really just purple prose, in my opinion. But occasionally I find some that I fall in love with.

One of my dad’s favorite poems (and now one of mine) is Mother to Son, by Langston Hughes. Beautiful poem. Beautiful free verse.

But meter was my first love, and it will always have a special place in my heart. And why wouldn’t it? It’s a thing of beauty.

With all this talk about poetry, I figured I’d give you guys a little bit of my own. I wrote this poem in Junior year of high school for an assignment.

The assignment was to go to a dictionary and choose some words that sounded nice. We were supposed to make a list of them and then write a poem using those words.

Here’s my result. Let me know what you think.

A Visitant Today

I had a visitant today in that

Old hag-born wretch of lechery.

The magnanimous lady herself, come from

The nickelodeon to wamble glibly

In my rafty room. So frangible,

Fastidious, not worth a rotl of anything

Except in pleonexia. Decrepit,

Stygian dowager who cheats human

Caducity and in her placophobia

Becomes like death itself.

 

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