Rhythm Requires Poetic Sections

Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

This is a proposed as an absolute (implicational) universal, and comes from Fabb and Halle (Meter): Where a text has a sustained regular rhythm, it is also divided into sections of determinate length.

Texts with a regular rhythm (sustained over a long stretch of the text) are called metrical.  The rhythm need not be periodic, and can vary; it is regular in the sense that it includes a range of variations which are overall subject to a set of rules.  In other words, metres are found in poems, defined as texts which are divided into poetic sections.  The following definition is from Fabb.

A poem is a text made of language, divided into sections which are not determined by syntactic or prosodic structure.   Such sections are called “poetic sections.”

The universal means that there is no metrical prose.  Meter depends on the division of a text into poetic sections – that is, meter depends on the text being poetry.  The fact that meter depends on sectioning can be seen also in the fact that metricality is locally sensitive to the edges of sections; the beginnings of lines tend to be metrically looser, the ends of lines metrically stricter.  Note that this is unconnected with how the text is written on the page. If we wrote out Paradise Lost as prose, the division into sections would still exist (it would still be a poem as defined above), as demonstrated by the fact that a generalization holds that every tenth syllable is word-final.

The universal also distinguishes regular rhythms in language from regular rhythms in music.  In music, regular rhythms can be sustained indefinitely over musical sequences which are not divided into sections; in other words, music can be a kind of “metrical prose” (Fabb and Halle “Grouping”).

The explanation of the universal is provided in the Fabb and Halle theory of meter, and is basically that regular rhythms are derived from counting.  In this theory, a regular rhythm is produced by rules which control the prosodic structure of the text relative to an abstract representation which is a periodic multi-level grid.  The grid is constructed by rules which build the grid from one end of a sequence of syllables (or morae) to the other end of the sequence; each meter is governed by rules which will build a well-formed grid only if the number of metrical syllables or morae fits within a specified range (e.g., for iambic pentameter, the grid can be built for a line of 9, 10 or 11 metrical syllables).  Thus in order to produce a regular rhythm, the text must be divided into sections which are of the right length to have a grid constructed from them, i.e., the text must be divided into sections (such as lines) of a determinate length, hence must be poetry and cannot be prose.

This universal combines with the universal controlling the length of the poetic line (Fabb), to produce a derived combined universal: Where a text has a regular rhythm, it is also divided into sections of determinate length which are short enough to fit into working memory capacity.

Future Research

There are some cases of what appear to be prose but have forms such as rhyme (e.g., Arabic rhymed prose or saj’).  The organization of these types of prose is underexplored; it is worth looking for examples of ‘metrical’ prose in which a regular rhythm is sustained over a long sequence where there is no evidence that the sequence is divided into subsections.

[See also Geoffrey Russom, “Comments on Fabb, ‘Rhythm,’” and Nigel Fabb, “Response to Russom.”]


Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel. What is Poetry?  Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. “Grouping in the Stressing of Words, in Metrical Verse, and in Music.” In Language and Music as Cognitive Systems. Ed. Patrick Rebuschat, Martin Rohrmeier, John A. Hawkins, and Ian Cross. Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2012, 4–21.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: a New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.



By: Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.