Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Why Meter Matters

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity 

Why Meter Matters

First published in Writer’s Digest

The 20th century was not particularly kind to metered verse. This was partly because, at the end of the 19th century, a group of French poets declared the birth of vers libre, or “free verse,” which sought to shake off the strictures of traditional poetry and pursue the more natural rhythms of common speech. With precedents like the Psalms of the King James Bible and Walt Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass, plus new English-language champions like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, free verse performed so well that, today, it is absolutely the dominant form. In 2006, the only way to get metered verse published is through specialized journals, children’s books, or by being an already-famous poet.
So why bother with meter at all? Because, in its methodical, technically demanding fashion, it helps us to better understand and manipulate the rhythms of language. It’s much like a jazz musician, who can improvise much more readily if he first learns the age-old chord structures of classical music.

Getting to Know Your Feet

The subatomic particle of meter is the foot – the two or three syllables that make up the “beat” in a line of verse.

Iamb: a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable. “To be / or not / to be…” (Shakespeare)

Trochee: a strong syllable followed by a weak syllable. “Tyger! / Tyger! / burning / bright…” (William Blake)

Dactyl: a strong syllable followed by two weak syllables. “This is the / forest pri- / meval…” (Longfellow)

Anapest: two weak syllables followed by a strong syllable. “I am lord / of the fowl / and the brute.” (Robert Frost)

Placekeepers: Occasional appearances are made by the Spondee (two strong syllables) and the Pyrrhic (two weak syllables) - but if you tried to base an entire poem on either one of these, your head would explode.

Building the House

Now that you’ve got your feet, let’s get walking. Try a few of the following forms for yourself – but please note: the idea is not to obsessively follow a chosen footstyle, but to use it as a general structure. As long as you maintain the integrity of your “beats,” occasional deviations are not only permissible – they tend to add interest.

Iambic Pentameter

Five iambic feet (weak-strong) per line

Although it’s easy to credit Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton for immortalizing this Godfather of Verse, at heart it’s the heartbeat (ba-dum, ba-dum) and a prime-number, indivisible flow of beats that produces a smooth, circular feel (think “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck). It’s also surprisingly common in everyday speech, as in the phrase, “I’d like a decaf mocha frappuccino.” Write it in non-rhyming “blank” verse – as Shakespeare did in his plays – or try out the classic sonnet form: fourteen lines in two parts, the octave (eight lines) and the sestet (six lines). Then sing it to the tune of “Danny Boy.”

“But if the while I think on thee, dear friend…” (Shakespeare)

Common Meter

Alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four beats) and iambic trimeter (three beats)

The favored meter of Emily Dickinson – and yes, you can sing it to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island” (or, for that matter, “The Beverly Hillbillies”).

“Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me…”

Dactyllic Ballad

The same alternating four- and three-beat lines as Common Meter, but using the dactyllic foot (strong-weak-weak), which lends the poem a galloping, waltz-like rhythm.

“Frederick and Daisy are crazy for me,
but frankly I question their taste…”

Trochaic Octameter


Eight trochaic feet (strong-weak) per line

Try it to the tune of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…” (Edgar Allan Poe)


A five-line anapestic poem (weak-weak-strong) in which lines 1, 2 and 5 have three beats and a rhyme, while lines 3 and 4 have two beats and a rhyme.

“A man with a chest cold named Bill
Ingested a nuclear pill.
The doctor said ‘cough,’
The damn thing went off,
And they picked up Bill’s head in Brazil.”

Make Up Your Own

Like any good cook, once you know all the ingredients – footstyle, number of beats per line, number of lines per stanza – it’s time to start mixing things up, leaning on your innate sense of rhythm to tell you whether or not something “clicks in.”
Years ago, I wrote a parody cowboy poem called “And Roy Rogers Sang the Torah.” I didn’t realize until much later that I had been writing in lines of trochaic heptameter (seven beats of strong-weak) centered on a fourth pyrrhic foot (weak-weak) that acted as a pause, or “caesura.”

“North we go a-roaming from Wyoming to Montana,
all upon a tankful of George Custer’s diesel gas…”

If someone had actually instructed me to write in that particular scheme, I’d still be there now, a-staring at the page.

Photo by MJV

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