Crying, Singing, Speaking: On How Meter Leaks Into Our Lives

Not many of my friends who write poetry do so with a conscious, traditional application of rhyme and meter. I’m not complaining—I’m not a formalist, don’t think that these features are vital to poetry, and recognize that as we write, we constantly produce new forms (whether or not we refer to them that way). Creating forms feels inescapable, at times even stifling, because we humans are so inured to pattern that we find it difficult to construct a world or genre without it. Language itself is a pattern and a formal restraint.

And though few of my poet-friends write with meter actively in mind, we find snippets and echoes of it popping up in unexpected places regularly. Scanning free-verse poetry feels frivolous most of the time, but it can be a path of discovery—meter infects our language, whether we think we want it to or not, and its very involuntariness can give way to meaning.

It’s said that English speech is, naturally, largely iambic. If you’re attuned to it, you may start to notice strings of perfect iambic pentameter happening spontaneously in the world around you—something a stranger on the bus says, a phrase in an instruction manual, dialogue on a sitcom. Just by way of being encased in language, our lives and our bodies are inherently metrical.

Babies: not as dumb as they look. Photo by kellynphillong via flickr.com.

Babies: not as dumb as they look. Photo by kellynphillong via flickr.com.

And indeed, it seems that meter is totally fundamental to the way that we decipher and encode language. I was intrigued to learn in a psycholinguistics class that meter is not only the foundation of our understanding language, but might be one of the first things we come to understand. Studies measuring fetuses’ heart rates and babies’ sucking rates have shown that we become accustomed to the cadences and rhythms of our mother tongue even while in the womb. And new research shows that fetuses not only memorize these patterns while in the womb, but they learn to reproduce them: A cross-linguistic study revealed that the intonation of babies’ cries reflects the melody of their mother tongue. French babies produced cries with Francophone rising melody contours, and German babies cried with Germanic falling contours.

Despite the frustration that studying meter gives many writers and students, we understand it long before we know words like “trochee” and “caesurae.” It seems we understand meter before we understand words at all.

Another germane anecdote from the world of psycholinguistic study: Broca’s aphasics are people who have an impaired ability to speak fluidly due to damage to the brain, and for whom speech is laborious and clumsy, often consisting of halting, ungrammatical utterances of several words at a time. Some aphasics, despite their almost-total inability to speak, are able to sing fluently—and eventually, with music therapy, translate their speech-singing into songlike speech. You can listen to a speech by Harvey Alter, president of the International Aphasia Movement, discussing his experience using music to recover speech faculty hereemilypicture2

I won’t claim my analysis here is a scientific one, but this idea thrills me. It seems that aphasics undergoing music therapy are being taught to access language anew through an alternative pathway in their brain—through the intact right hemisphere rather than the damaged left—and, in my admittedly romantic understanding of the phenomenon, it seems that a similar thing could happen when we read, hear, or produce metered language. Meter might teach us, with our intact (but still so infinitely limited) faculties of language, how to access language through a new pathway in the brain, giving way to new meanings, feelings, and understandings of the world. It might be one of the many ways in which the randomness of language surprises, delights, and instructs us.

Emily Dhatt is a poetry reader at the Minnesota Review. Emily studied creative writing and linguistics at the University of Washington and is a current MFA candidate at Virginia Tech. She lives in the woods and has three cats.

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One thought on “Crying, Singing, Speaking: On How Meter Leaks Into Our Lives

  1. Thank you for alerting us to the Current Biology reference to that study about infants’ sense of intonation and rhythm. Perhaps there was something after all to the parental impulse a couple of decades ago to play Mozart for the soon to be born (as a head start to the fetus’s eventual application to Princeton). Meter is, I think, really nothing more than measuring rhythmic patterns that poets have necessarily borrowed from natural speech, sometimes imposing a regularity in place of normal speech’s variety — so it might be more accurate to say that rhythm (not meter) inhabits our lives. Infants, I imagine, perceive and emulate patterns, i.e. the raw material for metric poetry, but not meter (as your cats know the diurnal cycle but know nothing of clocks). An aside: do you have any thoughts about why some metrical poetry is so intolerably clumsy, as if the writer had not grown up hearing the natural rhythm of his or her own language? I have in mind “poetry” written by people who do not actually read good poetry, but feel that poetry is an elevated form for their thoughts about religion or Veterans Day or love, etc. How different from a great poet (Richard Wilbur comes to my mind) who can employ graceful and precise metric regularity without the reader really being aware of it.

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