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I think it’s worth “stressing” an important benefit of knowing a poem’s meter, which serves as a gentle guide to how the poem should sound out loud. For example, once this sonnet’s governing meter has been established as iambic, with five feet per line, then reading line 1 aloud, say, as five iambic feet, without substitutions, sounds fine to my ear. Why would “and” be stressed? Well, English speakers stress conjunctions all the time. Did they do that four centuries ago? Sure, why not? A stressed “and” really ties together the two things the speaker lacks: wealth AND regard.

It might also be useful to look at song lyrics to see how this works. Songwriters generally don’t use meter consistently, probably because a singer has resources not available to the poet, for example stretching a single syllable over multiple notes or jamming multiple syllables into a single beat. But when they do use meter, it’s often for emphasis or intensity or to set a certain tone.

For example, take these lines from Taylor Swift’s “cardigan”: “Vintage tee, brand new phone / High heels on cobblestones / When you are young, they assume you know nothing // Sequin smile, black lipstick / Sensual politics / When you are young, they assume you know nothing”.

Here the governing meter of the verse proper lines is anapestic, with a dactylic refrain line. The normal meter of spoken English would suggest that “on” in line 2 would not be stressed. Yet when Swift sings the song, she does punch that word, with just a slight pause afterwards. In other words, knowing these lines are anapestic and dactylic are clues to how they’re supposed to be sung, even without having heard the song before or looking at the score.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-a8s8OLBSE

https://www.musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtd.asp?ppn=MN0214753

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Interesting. Do you really read line 1 with no 'substitutions'? Stressing 'in' ("when IN disGRACE") sounds quite bad to me. Regarding Taylor Swift, the refrain is certainly in a triple meter, but the verse could as well be analyzed as trochaic with missing final weak syllables (in the pauses after "tee" and "phone"--omitting final weak syllables is common enough in trochaic writing). Taylor herself does give some stress to "tee" and "phone," which tells against them being final syllables in anapests (though not decisive). But then one frustrating thing with all this "foot" analysis is that sometimes more than one analysis fits a given line, and it's unclear what's at stake or how to settle which is correct.

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Yeah, part of the fun of looking at meter is that the variability of speech introduces uncertainty. That’s why I think song lyric examples are so useful. Now we’re forced to hear how the line sounds, rather than just reading it silently off the page as many do with poetry.

But identifying a governing meter is a good place to start. That is, start simple and then complicate as needed to explain apparent deviations from the pattern, rather than start complicated (modern-day dictionary stresses) and then try to fit that into the pattern.

A relative of mine was teaching 10th grade English a couple years ago and one day we were talking about that experience and out of the blue he blurted: Try teaching iambic pentameter to 10th graders. So there’s that. But really it’s not as difficult as, say, learning how to read a musical score and countless kids in band can do that.

I’ve been envious for a while that there isn’t a universal equivalent to the musical score for poetry. Meter is only a hint, whereas a score is pretty definitive. For example, with Swift’s score, even if we didn’t know any English, we would see that the beamed notes (horizontal bars instead of individual note flags) indicate that the verse syllables are grouped rhythmically into triples.

There’s a lot going on in that song — her voice, the piano — but certainly the use of meter contributes to the effects she creates, and that’s kind of exciting to discover. That is, the verse lines, with their crisp three-syllable images, create a playful feel. Then a sudden switch of meter in the refrain helps introduce a note of irony, it seems to me. I think she knows what she’s doing, and meter is part of it.

By the way, I enjoyed your article. It must take a huge amount of effort to get a long, technical piece like that into shape.”

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Thanks!

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Interesting that you rely on Derek Attridge for this argument, as I found his terminology ("demoted" syllables and the like) much less intuitive than the classical theory.

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I'm still thinking through Attridge's theory, but I suspect I won't like it much either...

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“Theory can take you only so far” — J. Robert Oppenheimer on Milton

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