Metre disorder

the compound word elevator-operator showing marks for the four weights of emphasis in poetry
The four weights of stress in poetry

I love poetry. I write poetry, I love rhyme and rhythm and structural play of all kinds. I write in rhyme. But I can’t see metre.

I know what metre is, I can hear it when it’s pointed out. I know it’s there. I just can’t see it or use it in any non-clumsy way. I’ve half convinced myself this is a condition, or a syndrome, or maybe a neurodiversity, a disorder. Or the malignant trace of a buried trauma.

Metre is not present everywhere. It’s not in most ordinary writing, which observes a kind of anti-metre which, if it’s good, mixes rhythms and emphases to form a kind of counter-metre that flows and is readable. We can’t call it metre because it’s not regular, it’s the deliberate (or accidental) absence of metre. So it’s something else (of course, ask an actual poet, or a literature prof, and they’ll probably tell you this is rubbish, that metre is present in all deliberate writing).

Metre is a structuring device, a way to impose structure on the flow of language, on the unstructured. So now I’m wondering if I’m missing structure elsewhere. That if I can’t see the repeating structure in poetry, maybe I can’t see it in other forms. Does this explain why I need an expert to point out the connections and the hidden figures in books and movies? Why I quite often miss the plot twist on first reading, or the recurring device in a movie or the huge, obvious repeating theme in a piece of music?

Is it also why I often feel like a mug in the presence of a politician or a persuasive communicator. Why it takes me a while to parse a new policy, locate the nub of the argument. I’m not an idiot but I’m missing the structure in some way. I’ve got half a grasp. I’m a bit slow.

This is also why I’m convinced that, for all of us, our main concern with regard to politics and to policy should be not to be mugs, to make a serious effort to spot the hidden structure, the concealed rhythm.

Anyway, I asked ChatGPT if it uses metre in its output:

Overall, my primary focus is on producing coherent and grammatically correct text that is appropriate for the given context or purpose, and any use of rhythm or meter would be secondary to this goal.


Then I asked it to summarise our conversation, only in iambic pentameter:

Sure, here’s a summary in iambic pentameter:

As an AI language model, I write
With neutral style that’s clear and concise.
My focus is on grammar that’s just right,
And punctuation that will suffice.

While rhythm and meter are not my aim,
I can recognize patterns in the text,
And sometimes use them to create a frame
For output that is of high quality and next.

My primary goal is to produce text that’s fit
For context and purpose, without any fuss,
And so, I strive to follow each writ
Of standard language conventions, without any muss.


And I think you’ll agree, it’s kind of amazing. So I asked it to make the stresses visible. It obviously doesn’t have the character-set needed to do proper stress markings so it’s just used capitals:

As AN AI LANguage MODEL, I write
WITH neuTRAL style THAT’S clear AND conCISE.
My FOCUS is ON gramMAR that’s JUST right,
AND PUNCTUation THAT will SUFFice.

While RHYthm and METER are NOT my AIM,
I can recOGnize PATterns in the TEXT,
And SOMEtimes USE them to CREate a FRAME
For OUTput THAT is OF high QUALity and NEXT.

My PRImary GOAL is TO proDUCE text THAT’s FIT
For CONtext AND purPOSE, WITHout ANY fuss,
And SO, I strive TO FOLlow EACH writ
Of STANdard LANguage CONvenTIONS, WITHout ANY muss.


The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s not strictly iambic pentameter but that it’s pretty close. This seems to correspond with what we know about the models – they’re making a probabilistic stab at the answer so it will often be off in some way, sometimes drastically. This is also how I write poems.

I make a probabilistic stab. Sometimes it’s a disaster.