On poetry--Meter and Rhyme

This article is part 3 of 3 in the series On Poetry

Art experience is essentially personal. It never demands external attestation. It differs from person to person, taking shape based on their attitude and saṃskāra. Poetic criticism, therefore, can never find consensus. There is a popular saying, “loko bhinnaruciḥ,” “tastes differ.” I’m afraid it is only half a statement. Here is the other half: to a certain extent there does exist a natural consensus among us. This is perhaps due to the common background and experience of humans. Let us consider a few common examples: all of us agree that sugarcane is sweet, and neem is bitter. But what about the unbridgeable gap between sugar and jaggery, broccoli and bitter gourd? With these, yes, tastes differ. Milk, curds, buttermilk, coffee, tea—each of these appeals to each individual differently. Similar is the case with the themes and situations of poetry.

            Apart from the fact that the poet is endowed with pratibhā, he is very much like all of us. He shares his mindset and approach with a few—if not most—of his readers. There is consensus between the poet and the rasika, proportionate to the extent of this shared attitude. All of us invariably like Vyāsa, and Vālmīki. But as far as other poets are concerned, opinions differ. A real poet is unabashed by this difference of opinion, because he is answerable only to his creative imagination and the truth-beauty duo it produces. If his contemporaries do not like his art, he would probably say the same words as Bhavabhūti: “kālo hyayaṃ niravadhirvipulā ca pṛthvī,” “the world is vast, and time endless.” Entire texts could be irretrievably lost during Bhavabhūti’s time, but in the present age of print technology, one need not harbour such a fear.    

            So far, we have expounded on the inner features of poetry. It is now time to consider its outer frame—words and the various ways they are arranged. Keśirāja has succinctly captured everything to be said about this in the following words:

ಶ್ರೀವಾಗ್ದೇವಿಗೆ ಶಬ್ದದಿ-

ನಾವಾವಿಂದ್ರಿಯದ ವಿಷಯಮಂ ಶ್ರೋತ್ರದೊಳು-

ದ್ಭಾವಿಪ ನಿರ್ಮಲಮೂರ್ತಿಗೆ...

       The power of words lies in their ability to secure all experiences for us through the ear alone, which we would otherwise gain through other sense organs. The experiences that the poet brings to us are lokottara, not everyday affairs. This requires words that are full of uncommon strength, which must fulfill two purposes: one, to satiate the ear, the doorkeeper of the heart; and two, to convey the poet’s creation to the heart. There are a host of words that can simultaneously accomplish both these goals. Lalita (graceful), gambhīra (profound), adbhuta (wonderful)—as soon as words like these strike the ear, the mind grasps their meaning thanks to a certain syllabic power. This is termed suggestion, and it pleases the ear by virtue of pronunciation. [Translator's Note: Technically, such syllables are called vyañjakavarṇas, instruments of suggestion]. Every syllable has a distinct tonal impact on us. Letters belonging to the following three groups—(i) ta, ṭa, ḍa (ii) la, ḻa, ḍa (iii) sa, śa, ṣa—appear to be very proximate during pronunciation. However, when they come together in a poetic stanza, the combined effect is something different. Let us consider a few examples:



muḻideccāgaḻ mahogra-praḻaya-śikhi-śikhānīkamaṃ visphuliṅgaṃ

aḍḍamoreya gaṇṭumūgina jaḍḍudehada gujjugoralina   

            There are a few other words that do not sound impressive but possess great meaning. Examples include ṛṣi, tīrtha, and āśrama, which readily evoke an exalted feeling of reverence. This suggested sense is obviously not the same as dictionaries would have it. It is largely established due to cultural conditioning—because great poets and common people alike have refined it over centuries.

            Among the methods to please the ear, priority must be given to akṣaraguṇa (syllabic strength). Meter and music take the second and third positions. Along with music and meter, rhyme (which comes under syllabic strength) applies largely to verses. There is however, dhāṭī—sequence of short and long syllables—that is present in good prose, too. Sentences that are carefully crafted do indeed possess padamaitrī (consonance between words), taraṅgagati (wave-like drift), and layabhaṅgi (distinct rhythm). One can witness this in the prose sections of campūkāvyas.

            There must be an element of novelty in poetry for it to be attractive. This should never be at the cost of sacrificing metrical rhythm and emotional content. Meter should necessarily be in line with the aesthetic ambiance of the poem. If one uses a long meter to express a subtle emotion, the mood will take a hit by the inevitable usage of superfluous words. This marks the death of poetry. Similar is the case of rhyme, which is primarily meant to please the ear. It should serve its purpose and retire. Poetry intends to produce rasa, aesthetic enjoyment—this is an uncontestable fact. To achieve this, rhyme is in turns conducive and inconducive. So, it is impossible to lay down strict rules about the usage of rhyme, alliteration, assonance and the like. Contextual appropriateness sets right everything. Without the fear of making an extreme argument, we can say the following: meter and rhyme bring with them terseness and compactness, which in turn help in driving home the import of the poem with greater efficacy. They also make up for the paucity of poetic content to an extent.

            If I may express a personal taste, I am an ardent advocate of ojasvitā (brilliance)[1]. I am afraid that freedom of the extreme sort makes the poetic process unstable and leads to rasābhāsa. [Translator’s Note: This word is wrongly used in the sense of rasabhaṅga, disruption of art experience].  A signal illustration of this is the genre of Free Verse (Verse Libre) that is emerging in English. Let us consider a few examples[2]:     

1. Within an office whose exterior

Resembles an ultra-conservative mind

You battle with the avaricious words

Of a meagre, petrified man.


2. Messengers,

Of varied fate,

Of pitch and toss and gain,

Of life and driven time,

And the inane

Of jesters.


3. Out into a garden backyard came a woman in a blue apron

Carrying yellow meal in a bright tin pail


4. Among two hundred acres of pasture and root-crops

The only moving thing

Was the tail of a donkey

A man and a woman

Are two

A man and a woman and a donkey

Are three.

At the sight of a donkey

Ambling down a green field

Even a slave of traditional rhythm

Must be abashed.

The dinner-gong is sounding,

The donkey will be moving,

A man moves also.

            This is not poetry, but its feeble, distorted reflection. Unless the emotional content is couched in a set of powerful words, it can never achieve stability. It is hence essential to follow the rules of grammar and prosody. This is the fundamental tenet of the poetic tradition. Kāvya need not necessarily take the form of verse. But contrasted with prose, verse often has greater potency to impart beauty and force to emotions. In case the requirements of meter seem too hard to handle, it is better to compose elegant prose than dish out oddities in the name of verse.

            I am aware that I have pronounced an immoderate proposition. I humbly submit that it does not stem from any ill intention. Poetry to me is worthy of worship, and this attitude made me write these lines.

            Word and meaning are mutually dependent entities. A harmonious blend of sound and sense makes a sentence beautiful. To capture the entire essence of a thought, we may find a single appropriate word. At most, two. At one level, the mere search for such words is difficult. To aesthetically combine them with other words in a poem is another challenge. Greater still is the task of correctly understanding the import of these words, which the poet has used with utmost skill and caution. Poets and readers of this sort are extremely rare. Knowing this, our ancients proclaimed,

ekaḥ śabdaḥ suprayuktaḥ samyajjñātaḥ svarge loke kāmadhug bhavati   

If correctly understood and used well, a single word grants all our wishes in heaven.       

[1] I have used the word ojas in the sense of a poetic tool that can cause a powerful impact on the mind. It is not intended in the sense propounded by aestheticians such as Bharata and Daṇḍi. Mammaṭa says, “cittasya vistārarūpadīptatvajanakam ojaḥ,” “Ojas is that which causes the mind to expand and brings about a flash.” I completely agree with this.

[2] Ref: Modern English Usage.

[This is a translation of select portions of the Kannada essay Kelavu Sāhitya Samsyegaḻu, taken from the work Jīvanasaundarya mattu Sāhitya. This was a part of the author’s Presidential Address at the eighteenth Karnataka Sahitya Sammelana.]





Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



Shashi Kiran B N holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master's degree in Sanskrit. His interests include Indian aesthetics, Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit and Kannada literature, and philosophy. A literary aficionado, Shashi enjoys composing poetry set to classical meters in Sanskrit. He co-wrote a translation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh’s Kannada work Kavitegondu Kathe.