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Poetic License:
Some Thoughts on Meter

by Lawrence Schimel

Return to Poetry & Greeting Cards · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Let's begin this article on poetry with a few lines of prose drawn from the short story "A Common Night," by Bruce Holland Rogers, which was published in the anthology of Alice in Wonderland-related stories titled Fantastic Alice, edited by Margaret Weiss, where an English teacher finds himself fallen down the rabbit hole and stands now before the giant mushroom:
"I mean that I teach poetry."

"I'm not surprised," said the Caterpillar. "Poetry has a thing or two to learn. It has more feet than I do and they're terribly difficult to keep track of."

The caterpillar refers, of course, to meter, which is the fundament of all poetry. Even most non-metrical poetry, including free verse, depend heavily upon the cadences of the language, the alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables. By repeating established patterns of cadence the poet can establish a rhythm.

Meter is commonly broken down into units called "feet" containing one stressed and either one or two unstressed syllables in various patterns. It is impossible to have three consecutive unstressed syllables in English; the third unstressed syllable would take on a secondary stress. Similarly, certain syllables may change their stress in relation to the words which precede or follow them.

There are four predominant verse feet in English:

1. The iamb contains two syllables, one unstressed followed by one stressed.
u '

2. The trochee also contains two syllables, but the stress pattern is reversed: one stressed followed by one unstressed.
' u

3. The anapest has three syllables, two unaccented and a final stress.
u u '

4. And finally, the dactyl has a stressed syllable followed by two unaccented syllables.
' u u

There are obviously a few other possible combinations--such as the spondee (' ' ) or amphibrach (u ' u) -- which are less common, and which are not generally part of the definitions of the established poetic forms like the sonnet, sestina, villanelle, or pantoum.

Many forms of poetry require a certain meter. Limericks, for instance, are composed of lines which begin with iambs followed by one or two trochees.

u ' | u u ' | u u '
There once was a man from Detroit

A form called the Double Dactyl is composed of two stanzas in which most of the lines are comprised of two dactyls. It has various other rules, such as the fact that the second line must be a name, which severely limits the number of possibile candidates to write about; Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Christopher Isherwood, Samuel Richardson, all have names which are perfect double dactyls. A bit of ingenuity can convert an unsuitable name, such as T.S. Eliot, into one that can work (Thomas Stearns Eliot).

Perhaps the best-known form requiring a regular meter, however, is the sonnet, which, if you'll remember back to the last installment of this column, I promised to discuss this time. Because of their popularity, sonnets are also one of the few forms which have had every possible variation of breaking its rules, but generally speaking a sonnet will be fourteen lines long, will have a regular rhyme scheme, and will customarily be written in iambic pentameter, which is to say lines consisting of five consecutive iambs. The two most common patterns of sonnets are the Petrarchan, consisting of an eight line stanza called an octave and a six line stanza called a sestet, and the Shakespearean, which consists of three four-line stanzas (quatrains) and a final two-line couplet.

At this point, let me give you an example of a recent sonnet to use as a model for further discussion. "Arthur" by Brenda D. Crank was published in the anthology Xanadu 3, edited by Jane Yolen.

by Brenda D. Crank

A thousand tears have aged your face and yet
You seem to me as young as spring and fair;
And I, your king, absolve you of regret,
While asking only for your thought in prayer.

The dawn comes near and soon a cock will crow,
And then the bloody battle will begin;
Excalibur and I against the foe,
The knight you loved, my son, my dearest friend.

It's time to part, my love, like sword from stone,
And you must join the sisters in the nave,
To pray for England and for England's throne;
Whose future surely none but God can save.

Shed no more tears for what the daylight brings,
For history is filled with fallen kings.

You should be able to determine which type of sonnet this is, even though there are no stanza breaks. For one thing, the indented final two lines would lead one to guess Shakespearean, even if you hadn't noticed that the rhyme scheme of the poem breaks it down into three four-line stanzas in which the first and third lines and the second and fourth lines rhyme with each other. Read the lines aloud and listen to how regular the meter is, each unaccented syllable followed by an accented one, and the entire pattern repeated for the entire line:

u ' | u ' | u ' | u ' | u '
A thousand tears have aged your face and yet

This sonnet is exemplary in its content as well, for in the Shakespearean sonnet each quatrain is generally used to express a distinct question or idea, which is examined from a different angle in each successive quatrain and then summed up or answered in the final pithy couplet. Notice how in "Arthur" each of the quatrains is distinguished not only by the rhyme scheme but by the fact that each is a compleat sentence sentence.

This "question and answer" format is repeated in the Petrarchan sonnet, wherein the octave introduces a question or problem which is answered or commented upon in the sestet. Its rhyme scheme is generally consistent for the octave, wherein lines 1, 4, 5, and 8 rhyme with each other and lines 2, 3, 6, and 7 all with a second rhyme, and most commonly either 1, 3, 5/2, 4, 6 or 1, 4/2, 5/3, 6 for the sestet.

Of course, these "rules" for writing a sonnet are meant to be broken. And even when adhering to the rules, there will be variation; lines need not be perfectly iambic, so long as the predominant pattern is consistent enough to be recognized as such. Many modern sonnets no longer rhyme, or have variant rhyme schemes, but are still identifiably a sonnet because it adheres to enough of the rules.

Having now explained, albeit briefly, all of the above, I feel compelled to give a few words about publishing formal poetry. Meter and form are something I think is very important for every poet to learn, even if they plan only (or mostly) to write free verse poems, if only to make them more aware of their language and to give them some of the history of poetry. There are two camps when it comes to poetry, those that like formal verse and those who don't. It's therefore especially important to read the magazines you wish to submit to before sending your poetry. I recommend Lewis Turco's The Book of Forms to anyone interested in further readings on both meter and form. In the meantime, start marking the stresses in various bits of both poetry and prose until you become aware of meter and the various types of feet; as the Caterpillar says, "they're terribly difficult to keep track of," and you'll want lots of practice.

Read the Complete "Poetic License" Series:

Some Thoughts on Meter

Some Thoughts on Fun and Verse

Some Thoughts on Nontraditional Forms

Some Thoughts on the Sestina

Some Thoughts on Free Verse, Part I: The Line

Some Thoughts on Free Verse, Part II: The Shape of the Poem

Copyright © 2001 Lawrence Schimel
This article originally appeared in Speculations.

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Lawrence Schimel makes his living as a full-time author and anthologist. He has published over 47 books in a wide variety of genres and media; his work has appeared in The Writer, ForeWord, The Saturday Evening Post, the Boston Phoenix, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and others, including numerous international publications. His writing has been translated into Basque, Catalan, Czech, Dutch, Esperanto, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, and Swedish. For more information, visit http://desayunoencama.livejournal.com/.


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