I suspect Paula Cole was a poet in another life. She’s just that good at forms.

William Carlos Williams once said, “measure is all.”

Ezra Pound insisted in 1915 that “rhythm must have meaning.” A line, any line, whether in a poem or a song, is a unit of measured time.

How we use those finite increments are the key to memorable songs.

To bring emotion to words on a page, or in our case, lyrics in a song, there has to be poetic meter. Often, the melody line, production of a song, and the chord progression hide the fact that flat, uninspired meter lurks within the verses themselves.

There are a few songwriters who have the ability to bring prosody and poetic meter to songwriting every time pen touches paper: Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Sting, Suzanne Vega and Paula Cole are perhaps the best.


Poetic Meter & Paula Cole’s “Bethlehem”


I think Paula Cole is one of the best songwriters to come around. I had the privilege of seeing her live in a small pizza place – The Tomato Head – in Knoxville TN when she released her first album.  I’ve seen her several times since, and she has never failed to bring her songs to life when performing.

As a songwriter, she has the gift of being extremely literal when describing a scene, but uses the rhythm of the language to evoke very strong, very empathetic emotions in her songs. Let’s look at one of her best, and one in my top 50 best songs ever – “Bethlehem.”


Paula Cole’s “Bethlehem”



Lyrics “Bethlehem”

Pulling on the apron strings looking up.
Standing on the chair to be grown up.
I feel so little, I need my pillow.
I hate time, I hate the clock,
I want to be a dog, I want to be a rock.

Notice how she uses couplets (two rhyming lines in a row) to move the listener quickly through the telling.

She uses meter, or the rhythm of the lines, to contrast the first two lines, which seem long and flowing, with the remaining three in the verse, which almost seem chopped into eight small pieces.

She does this by separating the structure with a single line that uses internal rhyme – “I feel so little / I need my pillow.”

She also uses phrases separated by commas to create the chopped up feeling.

This is a great illustration of why you should put punctuation in your lyrics. Punctuation gives you a sense of the rhythm you’re creating.


Exercise: Finding The Poetic Meter In “Bethlehem”


Say the verse out loud.

Even without the music, you can hear how your voice stresses the words in certain places:

PULLing on the Apron strings LOOKing UP.

Four stresses.

Now do the same on the second line – stresses in the same place? Pretty much? That’s meter!

Now say the final three lines out loud.

They don’t match the first two: “I FEEL so LITtle, I NEED my PILlow” sounds like more stresses closer together.

I HATE TIME” sounds like three stresses in a row, “I HATE THE CLOCK” sounds like four stresses in a row as well. Notice that the “I” is not stressed.paula cole harbinger

Cole uses a completely different meter, or rhythm, in the last three lines of the first verse, to subtly change the intensity of the song.

She does this by using the stresses within the words. That’s poetic meter – and the strength of language in a song. She is a master of it. Pick any song she’s written and you’ll see the attention to rhythm and lyric.

By understanding meter, or the rhythm of the language, she creates a contrast between the sublime, idyllic world of a child with

“Pulling on the apron strings looking up. Standing on a chair to be grown up,”

and the gradual climb to the harshness of being a child:

I feel so little, I need my pillow.

I hate time, I hate the clock.

I want to be a dog, I want to be a rock.

She uses meter to deliver a song about the hardships of growing up without sounding harsh, while still creating a strong emotion and connection for the listener within the song.

There is no mystery surrounding what the song is about.

But, you’ll notice you never find the line “her life was hard,” or “it was hard growing up.”

Because she understands language so well, she never has to be so blatant. This is an exceptional song illustrating how to “show” rather than “tell.”