Verse  as Such



Common features in metrical and non-metrical verse


Jakobson a long time ago pointed out that the common feature in all verse – that is poetry written in lines – is parallelism.  And he outlined different kinds of parallelism,  parallelism described as repetition with variation.


At the rank of word you get rhyme and alliteration where one part of the word is the same and another different, rhyme with the same sound at the end, alliteration with the same sound at the beginning.   This kind of parallelism is a matter of the substance of language, that is sound.


At the rank of grammar you get the kind of parallelism of structures familiar from the psalms and some kinds of oral poetry, which the sentence pattern is repeated with variations in vocabulary.


Semantically, a related form of parallelism is the use of words similar in meaning, often in combination with grammatical parallelism.


Another kind of parallelism is, again in the substance  language, but not a matter of individual word sounds but rhythm.  This is the familiar repetition of the same rhythmical pattern line by line which we know as metre.     It’s the presence or absence of this kind of parallelism that makes a poem metrical or non-metrical – free verse.


Another kind of parallelism is where vowels or consonants or both are interwoven through the text, a little like plaiting.   The words and structures vary but the vowels and/or consonants recur.  This is often incremental so that sound a will give rise to sound a1 and then sound a2 but with slight variations so that by the time we reach sound a2 there is no clear sameness between it and a.  


A similar kind of incremental parallelism, now at the level of word/semantics occurs in Anglo-Saxon verse, where one word or compound-word sets off a similar one which is like and yet unlike the first.    And, of course, it is found in half-rhyme where this is continued through a serious of rhymes, such that the rhymes in lines 1,2,3,4 are hall ‘like’ each other but in different ways, and so rhyme 4 may sound quite alien to rhyme 1.


It’s connected too, to a wider ‘thematic’ kind of parallelism, where as Dylan Thomas has it one idea ‘breeds’ another, and which parallel in the sense of being the same but yet also not the same so that the idea that that one breeds takes is not obviously connected to the first, along the lines of the Tennis Elbow game,  or just association or non-narrative kinds of form.  And Freudian writers have often seen this to the key to poetry as such, as an art of the unconscious muse.


In non-metrical verse, very often, you find a selection of all these features of parallelism used.  It’s only when we see just one of them used that we feel that perhaps this is just chopped up prose.


However, it’s worth looking at a couple of common assumptions.  First, that metrical poetry is not in itself problematical and second that non-metrical poetry is ‘natural speech rhythm’ simpliciter.


If you read a line which is in the common ‘iambic pentameter’ you often find a mismatch between the rhythm as the metrical frame requires and the way you’d speak the words in ordinary conversation.


The natural intonation of the lines is


Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds

/            x   /    /        x       /   x     x       x   x    x /   x      /


Six stresses, only two scannable as part of an ‘iambic foot’.    The characteristic alternating rhythm of the traditional five beat line is lost.


But the framework ‘behind’ this is


Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds’

x        /    x   /       x      /    x    /         x  /    x /   x     /


The rule seems to be that it’s metrical if you can read it, even very artificially, as a di-dum five times.   That seems to be based on relative stress, that is, the syllables marked with stresses just above are relatively stronger than the ones each side of them.  The exception is the first syllable where, as they say, the foot has been ‘reversed’.   And variations on the metrical frame seem commonest there.


The upshot of this is that if you read metrical verse without  making any attempt to comply with the metrical scheme, it’ll often sound just the same as free verse, though the syllable count isn’t (much) varied, of course.   And of course interpretation (performance) may alter things.   You may want to make Shakespeare say


Love is not love which”


or even


Love is not love which”


It may well be that it’s sometimes better to see ‘metrical’ in terms of syllables per line that stresses.   Though, again, we have to bear in mind what might be called syncopation, where the frame is always ‘there’ in the background but not always fulfilled, the notion that T S Eliot expressed in his distinction between vers libre and vers liberé.


In the latter, where there’s no question of a ‘norm’ to vary from, then it’s other aspects of poetic language that make the text poetry – if they succeed – not rhythmical beat per line.


The point here is that often metrical and free verse need not sound different.


The second point is the idea that free verse is in some way closer to everyday speech.    Everyday speech is not, of course, metrical, except in a general sense that  (in casual conversation) the stresses fall at regular intervals of time (known as isochromism).    If you arrange ordinary conversation into lines of the same number of stresses each  you get the kind of stress-time rhythm that Arthur Waley developed so beautifully.   Here the only tinkering with speech rhythms is the making of some sort of pause – normally – after every five (or whatever) beats.


May we long share our odd, inanimate feast,

x        x    /      /         x       /     x  /  x    x    /


This is related to Hopkins’ sprung rhythm with the difference that Hopkins, while using the stress-timed feature of ordinary conversational English also asks the reader of his poems to bear in mind a metrical framework, so that in a poem like Windhover,  the reader has to ‘demote’ normally stressed syllables to fit the total syllables into the lines, and in so doing creates the onomatopoeic sense of the rushing swooping hawk.


The need for the reader of metrical verse to know at the outset that this is a poem and that he/she’s got to read it as metrical is what allows the metrical poem to make its effects, to play off the expected framework shape against the actual sound shape of the lines.    But this applies to free verse too, in a slightly different way.   If you know the piece of the page is supposed to be a poem, then you try to read it as a poem both in your performance (even if only to yourself) and in your search for associative and implied meanings.


One further point about metricality.  Halle and Keyser did a very thorough linguistic study of Chaucer’s ‘iambic pentameter’, and its from them that my summary above comes, that is, that a metrical line is one that can be read so as to conform to a metrical scheme.   But Halle and Keyser point out that for this to be possible at least a proportion of the natural stresses must coincide with the metrically required stresses.   The less they do the nearer the metrical verse sounds to free verse.  Herbert Read perceived something of this when he said that Wordsworth verse in The Prelude seemed to him to preview modern free verse. 


Another point to be made about this is that the less good the ‘fit’ between metrical framework and natural rhythm (the less ‘stress maxima’ as Halle and Keyser put it),  the more aware the read is going to be of the ‘syncopation’ of the verse, and if he tries to read it aloud metrically, the more carefully he’s going to have to think about which syllables to ‘promote’ to stress status, or ‘demote’ from it.   On the other hand the more the metrical line has the metrically required stresses coincide with natural conversational stresses, the less the verse is likely to sound ‘unnaturally’ when read as metrical.   If you can write your iambic so that the natural stresses all fall in its alternating rhythm, it in fact makes the metrical frame less foregrounded, and so more like natural speech.



One further dimension of this topic  is the role of intonation.  First it’s worth thinking about David Crystal’s hypothesis that a line of verse – whether metrical or non-metrical -  is to be defined not numerically but prosodically.   Crystal proposes that the ‘default’ position is that a line of verse is expressed through what he calls a ‘tone unit’, which is something like a cadence.   It’s the expanse of language which leads to a ‘tonic’ syllable, that that is a syllable which is prominent, first in being emphasised in the ordinary sense of ‘stress’, but also by having a semantically significant movement of pitch which may signal ‘complete’,  or ‘incomplete’  or’question’  or ‘exclamation’ and so on.   So in Waley’s line the tone group (marked // would run


//  May we /long /share our/ odd, in/animate /feast//


The single slash indicates an ordinary stressed syllable following, and the arrow that the word ‘feast’ is not only stressed by has a pitch movement downward, which usually indicates completeness.     The same overall pitch contour would account for a metrical line, the so-called tonic syllable at the end indicating also a line-end pause (or ‘breath’).   This kind of analysis seems to cover quite a lot of contemporary free verse.  Tim Liardet writes




You /know the /turnings /beyond the /world



that have /never been /mapped, the /pathos of the /last /street lamp



getting /smaller and /smaller.  You /know the /truth



of how /light di/vides, how the /world /slips/ through



the /finest di/vision of /light, and is /gone



The ‘cadence’ of this passage is shown by the series of fall-rise pitch-movements on key syllables, both at lend ends and before a pause (caesura) in the middle of the lines.     We could  describe the verse line here as a stretch of language which, from the point of view of intonation, ends in a tonic.     But Liardet has arranged his lineation so that the strongest tonics come mid-line.   He’s making use of the convention that line-end ‘expects’ a tonic, so that we are influenced to read (sometimes) a pause (an rise-fall tone) into the words at the end of the line.   Obviously this is affected by the grammar, and all the punctuation, marking clause and/or sentence ends, occur mid-line.    But the convention makes us, if in doubt, ‘promote’  ‘world’, ‘street lamp’,   ‘truth’, and (especially) ‘through’ to tonic prominence.   Just the same thing happens at the rank of syllable when we have to ‘promote’ a normally unstressed syllable to stressed status for the sake of a metrical scheme.


A ‘natural’ reading of Liardet’s passage – ignoring line end ‘indications’ would see

something like this,  which the tonics all mid-line.



You /know the /turnings be/yond the /world



that have /never been /mapped, the /pathos of the /last /street lamp



getting /smaller and /smaller.  You /know the /truth



of how /light di/vides, how the /world /slips/ through



the /finest di/vision of /light, and is /gone



If, for the hell of it we were to ‘rationalise’ the passage and put line ends where the conversationally only naturally pauses (breath intakes) came we’d have something like this







You /know the /turnings /beyond the /world  that have /never been /mapped,



the /pathos of the /last /street lamp getting /smaller and /smaller. 



You /know the /truth of how /light di/vides,



how the /world /slips/ through the /finest di/vision of /light,



 and is /gone



Such a layout brings out the kinship between Liardet’s verse form and the kind of grammatical parallelism familiar from the English versions of the biblical psalms.

We get the opening  ‘you know’  sentence repeated in the third line and implicitly repeated in the second where ‘you know’ is, as they say ‘understood’ (elliptical), and then following the second ‘you know’ clause we get to two ‘how’ clauses.  

But  this lineation takes away a whole dimension of rhythmical interest, the prominence (tonic stress) the poet wants us to feel in the syllables which end the lines in his own lineation.   Or, to put it another way, we no longer have the interesting run-on lines, the words picked out as specially important.


The way in which line ends can be played off against intonational and/or grammatical ends is viable for non-metrical as well as metrical verse.  



Line ends have traditionally been marked grammatically and phonically.  The end of the line coincides with a punctuation mark and with a rhyme.   If there’s neither punctuation mark nor rhyme then the line end draws attention to the line-end word spatially (and in reading by a pause).   Or at least in the work of many poets.   


Some poets, following perhaps some hints from Olson, use the space of the page to indicate intonational patterns.     But this can be little more than underlining the natural ‘prose’ rhythm, unless there’s some tension between the rhythm of the line and the rhythm of the grammar (sentences).     There’s no point in having the line as a verse unit unless it does something over and above what the language itself would do anyway.   Which is not to say that, aurally, Olson and other’s poetry doesn’t sound good.   You wonder why bother with all that theory, though.





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       Metre, Necessity and Chance


Think of the verse form of the poem as a model of language as such.  To remind ourselves of the lack of power we have over the structures of our language, we add some ad hoc ones.   This is a form of 'foregrounding' perhaps, a making ourselves aware.    The language (and in the poem) we cannot alter the basic grammatical and semantic rules of the language.  We can of course break the rules, but breaking them depends on their being there in the first place.   If we break all the rules we no longer have the language.

The metre may seem like a nuisance, not needed in these modern  times when perhaps we define verse and poetry differently.  But let's first see how the necessity works, this little model of Fate, in which necessarily we live.    The first thing it does is to require invention, imagination, so that we can obey its rules (as we obey the rules of grammar in ordinary speech) and yet say something naturally.    The metre requires a certain rhythm, a rhyme which we somehow have to 'fit in'.    If we already know exactly what we want to say his can be quite a problem.  But if we are in fact looking for what we want to say, this search can be an inspiration.   It can suggest what we are looking for,   dredge up unconscious things hinted at by sound, context, and so on.  In this way necessity mothers invention.

And it does this often by chance.   We have to find a rhyme and the finding of the rhyme is a matter of chance, what we think of, what the rhyming dictionary throws up.   As we present ourselves with these random possibilities our minds have to set them into a pattern that fits, develops, surprises, what the poem has said so far.    This is the same process that some poems in an apparently different context call 'collage', borrowing from the art world, where artists use already used materials and place them in juxtaposition although they at first sight have nothing to do with each other.  In poetry the imagist poets at or close to the birth of modernism in fact did the same thing, at least in their demands of the reader, who must look at  what they called 'juxtaposed' images and see in and for themselves what the connection is between them -   in the imagists' case very off an academic connection, an allusion.    So in our search for a rhyme for 'grass' we throw up to our minds all sorts of possibilities  - pass, farce, arse,  brass , and o on. 

We have a line

                James is sobbing on the grass


and we must now get together a phrase or clause or sentence which might carry the poem forward.   They are there as a matter of chance,  words that happen to rhyme, no other reason.     We have 'see' a meaning,  or a meaning might impose itself on us.


             James is sobbing on the grass

                                                                       He'll never pass