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Ear Training: Sound and Meter

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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.