Understanding Meter

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Understanding Meter

Post by Perry » Thu May 09, 2019 1:35 am

I've been thinking about starting this thread for a while. It is intended to be a discussion of what constitutes good meter. I expect to receive feedback, of course, and some disagreement too.

The most common English meter is probably iambic pentameter, so I'll start with that. An iamb is a foot which has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (da DUM), and "pentameter" means five feet. Thus:

da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM

(A perfect line of iambic pentameter will always have ten syllables.)

Various substitute feet are considered acceptable in iambic pentameter ("IP"), and they include:

trochees (DUM da) -- Lines of IP will often start with a trochee, but trochees can be used in other spots as well.

pyrrhics (da da) -- When using a pyrrhic, one of the two syllables should be able to take a "theoretical" stress (more about that later), and because of that, some formalist poets believe that pyrrhics don't really exist.

spondees (DUM DUM) -- With spondees, one of the two syllables can usually be "demoted" to a "da", and for this reason some formalist poets think that spondees don't really exist either.

anapests (da da DUM) -- Some formalist poets believe that anapests should never appear in IP, but Frost did it frequently.

bacchius (da DUM DUM) -- This is even more controversial than using anapests, but if you can use anapests (which I do), it makes perfect sense to use bachii too.

Note: Since iambic meter is a "rising" rhythm, dactyls (DUM da da) and antibachii (DUM DUM da) are never used.

ionic (da da / DUM DUM) -- The ionic is actually two feet together in which the first foot is a pyrrhic and the second is a spondee. It mimics the ionic meter of Greek poetry.

headless iambs (DUM) or (_ DUM) or (x DUM) -- I sometimes use an underscore or "x" to indicate the missing first syllable. Headless iambs are often used at the beginnings of lines, or in the middle of lines after a pause or punctuation, resulting in a nine-syllable line. Again, some formalist poets would prefer they not be used.

hypermetrical syllable -- A hypermetrial syllable is an unstressed syllable that occurs at the end of a line, as follows:

da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da

The final syllable doesn't count as part of the meter.

Now, here is my first bit of advice: All of these variant feet can be used in iambic meter, but if you use too many of them in one line, the line may become awkward or lose its rhythm. In English, it is impossible to write metered poetry without variant feet. However, a good writer will frequently insert lines of perfect meter or near-perfect meter to maintain the metrical integrity of the poem.

"Hexameter" means six feet per line, "tetrameter" means four feet per line, and "trimeter" means three feet per line. As an example, iambic tetrameter is:

da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM

The same variant feet can be used in those meters.

Let me scan the first stanza of Harbal's poem "My Dream". (Harbal encouraged me to start this thread.)

last NIGHT / i FELL / in TO / a REST / less SLEEP
soon AF / ter I’D / been CLEAR / ing OUT / my FRIDGE,
SORT / ing WHAT / to THROW / a WAY / and WHAT / to KEEP.
i START / ed DREAM / ing I / was WALK / ing O’ER / a BRIDGE.

The lines are:

(1) perfect IP (with one or two problems)
(2) perfect IP
(3) iambic hexameter with a headless iamb at the start
(4) perfect iambic hexameter

Now, if Harbal wants to write a poem which has stanzas that are two lines of pentameter and two lines of hexameter, he is welcome to do that, but it should be a conscious decision.

The problems in line one are these: The first and third feet can be read as trochees, as follows:

LAST night / i FELL / IN to / a REST / less SLEEP

That makes the first line sound a little awkward, especially the trochee in the third foot. A skillful poet tries to avoid such metrical ambiguity by writing lines which can only be read in one way. It is especially bad to start a poem with an ambiguous or non-metrical line, as the reader has not yet established the rhythm in his head. However, no rule has ever been created that can't be broken once in a while, so let me close this post with the first line from one of Shakespeare's sonnets, a line which breaks all the rules:

LET me / NOT to / the MAR / riage of / TRUE MINDS

trochee / trochee / iamb / pyrrhic / spondee (the last two feet form an ionic)

If you can break the rules and pull it off, more power to you.

In the next post, I will list all the foot types and line lengths. In future posts I will analyze various lines of poetry. Please feel free to share.
Last edited by Perry on Fri May 10, 2019 12:28 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Understanding Meter

Post by Perry » Thu May 09, 2019 8:19 pm

Metrical Classifications

The overall classification of the meter I am discussing is called "accentual-syllabic". In "accentual" meter, the poet counts only the stressed syllables in a line (with stresses preferably, although not necessarily, separated by unstressed syllables) and ignores the number of syllables. I have read that the King James version of the Bible is largely written in accentual meter, with lines having four beats, two before the caesura (pause), and two after the caesura. (I have read portions of the Bible, but I don't have one with me to consult right now.)

In "syllabic" meter, the poet counts only syllables. Syllabic meter was the first meter I used. I wanted to control my line lengths but didn't want to bother with feet, so I limited my lines to a certain number of syllables, and then trusted my ear to avoid awkward sounds. Poems written that way can sound similar to metered poetry.

Here is an example of syllabic writing:

In a modern office plaza, barely noticed
by people passing, from the edge of my eye
I saw, and then stopped to behold, a great tree,
not yet in leaf, rising from the paving stones
as if they were its natural element.

I was shooting for 11 syllables per line, although the first line has 12. The beats (stressed syllables) vary from four to six per line. It sounds pleasant enough, doesn't it? Counting syllables is an easy way to give your poems a feeling of measure or control. I usually give myself a range of syllables in which to work (8 to 9, or 10 to 11, or 11 to 12).

"Accentual syllabic" meter is when you count both accents (stresses) and syllables. Thus, a line of iambic pentameter should have no more than five feet with one accent per foot, and preferably no more than 10-12 syllables. (English being what it is, it is okay to fudge the syllable count a little.)


Metrical Feet

Sadly, the forum software won't let me insert a table, so I have to list this information vertically. Some feet have more than one name.

iamb, iambus
▬ ▲
da DUM

trochee, choree
▲ ▬
DUM da

pyrrhic, dibrach
▬ ▬
da da

spondee
▲ ▲
DUM DUM

anapest
▬ ▬
da da DUM

bacchius (ba-KAY-us), plural bacchaii (ba-KAY-ay)
▬ ▲ ▲
da DUM DUM

dactyl
▲ ▬ ▬
DUM da da

antibacchius
▲ ▲ ▬
DUM DUM da

ionic
▬ ▬ ▲ ▲
da da / DUM DUM

The following feet should be ignored, as they serve no purpose but to justify chaotic rhythms in a poem:

tribrach
▬ ▬ ▬
da da da

amphibrach
▬ ▲ ▬
da DUM da

amphimacer, cretic
▲ ▬ ▲
DUM da DUM

molossus
▲ ▲ ▲
DUM DUM DUM


Line Lengths

two feet per line: dimeter

three feet per line: trimeter

four feet per line: tetrameter

five feet per line: pentameter

six feet per line: hexameter

seven feet per line: heptameter

eight feet per line: octameter
Last edited by Perry on Sat Jul 06, 2019 7:31 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Understanding Meter

Post by Harbal » Fri May 10, 2019 6:21 pm

Brilliant, Perry, I'll study this thoroughly.

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Re: Understanding Meter

Post by Perry » Fri May 10, 2019 8:54 pm

What I've posted so far is just the basics. As I said in your "Witches" thread, writing in perfect meter isn't necessarily what you want to do. The creativity is in the exceptions, and in the uniqueness that you bring to your poems.
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Re: Understanding Meter

Post by Harbal » Sat May 11, 2019 1:38 pm

You say that trochees (DUM da) can be inserted into IP, Perry, are there any limits or restrictions on there use?

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Re: Understanding Meter

Post by Perry » Sat May 11, 2019 9:57 pm

Harbal wrote:
Sat May 11, 2019 1:38 pm
You say that trochees (DUM da) can be inserted into IP, Perry, are there any limits or restrictions on there use?
Let me first say that the word "inserted" may not have been a good choice on my part. Most writers simply write their lines, and then scan them to see if the they are metrical. If the lines don't conform to the chosen meter, the writer makes adjustments. However, there have been times when I purposely searched for a word that was a trochee because I knew it would sound better.

If you are writing in iambic pentameter, using three trochees in one line may break the rhythm, but one or two should be okay. However, a line of all trochees will fit right in with IP because it maintains the alternating rhythm.

Ending a line of IP with trochees can sometimes sound strange.

You must use your artistic judgement to decide what sounds good.

Generally speaking, rising rhythms (iambs, anapests, spondees) have a positive, aggressive or happy sound, and falling rhythms (trochees, dactyls, pyrrhics) have a sad or resigned sound.

===============

The first line of my poem "Dancing Girl" has a trochee in it which sounds natural. Indeed, having two stressed syllables in a row provides a kind of emphasis:

Her parents weren’t bad parents per se.

her PAR / ents WERE / n't BAD / PAR ents / per SE

In a line of iambs, it is better to have a trochee inside the line than at the end (generally speaking).

That poem, incidentally, is loose iambic tetrameter, not pentameter. By starting the poem with a line of pentameter, I provided emphasis to the opening line. Good or unique opening and closing lines tend to improve any poem.
Last edited by Perry on Thu Aug 01, 2019 7:27 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Understanding Meter

Post by Harbal » Sun May 12, 2019 5:57 am

So is it fair to say that you could use a trochee (or any other kind of foot) in IP anywhere as long as it sounds okay?

Another thing: the number of syllables in a word sometimes seems to depend on how you say the word, or should I say, the number of clearly defined syllables. In your example below, you have split the word "weren't" into two syllables. If I had been writing that line and I needed two syllables I would have written "were not", because, to my ear, "weren't" is just one syllable. Have you got any thoughts on that?
Perry wrote:
Sat May 11, 2019 9:57 pm
Her parents weren’t bad parents per se.

her PAR / ents WERE / n't BAD / PAR ents / per SE

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Re: Understanding Meter

Post by Perry » Sun May 12, 2019 12:00 pm

Yes, if a trochee sounds good in a line of IP, by all means include it. A lot of the creativity of metered verse is found in the variant feet. You want about 30% or more of your feet to be variants, lest your poetry become too monotonous.

I pronounce "weren't" in two ways, sometimes as one syllable, and sometimes as two (wernt and wer-int). In that line, I pronounce it as two. There are dozens if not hundreds of words that can be pronounced as one or two syllables -- like all those words that end with an "our" sound: flour, sour, etc. Aisle and all those "ai" words are another example. When reciting poetry, I tend to pronounce a word in whatever way makes the line sound best. I suspect that if you examine your own speech, you'll discover you do the same thing.

I didn't use "were not" in that line because it sounded too formal.

By the way, my online dictionary gives two pronunciations for "weren't": [wurnt, wur-uhnt]
Last edited by Perry on Wed May 15, 2019 8:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Understanding Meter

Post by David » Tue May 14, 2019 6:37 pm

Impressive stuff, Perry. There are technical words in here I've never heard before - for good reason, perhaps. They seem pretty obscure, but that may be my loss.

Have you read James Fenton's Introduction to English Poetry? That's a book I'd recommend to a beginner - or a non-beginner.

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Re: Understanding Meter

Post by Perry » Wed May 15, 2019 9:51 am

Thank you, David. I haven't read the book by Fenton. I learned most of what I know from Judson Jerome's books.

Actually, the name Fenton is familiar. I might have read his book when I was young. I don't remember every book I've read!

For a writer, I am not that well read. I guess you might call me a self-made man, never having gone to college.

I am going to keep adding posts to this thread in which I analyze various metrical situations.
Last edited by Perry on Wed May 15, 2019 7:32 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Understanding Meter

Post by Perry » Wed May 15, 2019 7:32 pm

Finding the Base Meter of a Poem

The "base meter" is the meter that the poet intended for a poem, even if the poem strays from it from time to time. It is a poem's nominal meter, not counting any variant feet. How do you tell what the base meter is? Simply by counting syllables and stresses. Here is an example:

This is the first stanza from Alicia Stallings poem "Another Lullaby for Insomniacs":

Sleep, she will not linger:
She turns her moon-cold shoulder.
With no ring on her finger,
You cannot hope to hold her.

Most lines have seven syllables and three stresses. Since there is no meter that results in seven syllables per line, it becomes clear that the seventh syllable is simply a hypermetric syllable, especially since it is never stressed. When I eliminate the hypermetric syllables, the remaining six syllables per line read as iambic trimeter with two variant feet in the four lines.

Scanning the lines makes everything clear:

x SLEEP / she WILL / not LING / er
(headless iamb / iamb / iamb / hypermetric syllable)

she TURNS / her MOON- / cold SHOULD / er
(iamb / iamb / iamb / hypermetric syllable)

with NO / RING on / her FING / er
(iamb / trochee / iamb / hypermetric syllable)

you CAN / not HOPE / to HOLD / her
(iamb / iamb / iamb / hypermetric syllable)

The base meter is clearly iambic trimeter (da DUM / da DUM / da DUM), but with a twist: She wants each line to end with a falling rhythm, and thus she is ending as many lines as possible with a two-syllable word that has the stress on the first syllable, which results in a hypermetric syllable. (Please note that hypermetric syllables are always unstressed.) Some of the subsequent lines, however (which are not shown), do not have a hypermetric syllable, but are simply iambic trimeter -- so that's how I figured out that iambic trimeter is the base meter. Figuring out the base meter of a poem just takes a little investigating.

Now, the first line could have been scanned like this:

SLEEP she / WILL not / LING er
(trochee / trochee / trochee)

... but I know that is wrong because the rest of the poem is clearly iambic, and so the first line must be scanned with iambs, starting with a "headless" iamb.

Above, I said to count "syllables and stresses" to find the base meter, but keep in mind that sometimes stressed syllables are "demoted" to unstressed positions, and sometimes unstressed syllables are "promoted" to stressed positions. You have to check multiple lines to look for a pattern. This opening line from Browning's "The Last Duchess" demonstrates what I mean:

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
THAT'S my / LAST DUCH / ess PAINT / ed on / the WALL
trochee / spondee / iamb / pyrrhic / iamb

Subsequent lines are more regular.

Now, let's look at Frost's "Reluctance":

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

Let's look at the syllables and stresses for the lines:

7 syllables (3 stressed)
9 syllables (3 stressed)
7 syllables (3 stressed)
9 syllables (3 stressed)
8 syllables (3 stressed)
6 syllables (2 stressed)

Sometimes the stressed syllables are separated by one unstressed syllable, but usually by two, and in no logical pattern. (Subsequent stanzas are similar.) So what is the meter? In this case, there is no meter, as this is accentual verse, in which only the stresses matter. Frost was going for three stresses in the first five lines, and two stresses in the final line of each stanza. Frost was such a skilled tactician that he achieved that perfectly. Other writers who have used accentual meter, such as Auden, don't always have such clearly evident stresses. By separating many stressed syllables by two unstressed syllables (instead of one), Frost was able to give the poem a thumping rhythm -- kind of like Whitman's poetry, but better controlled.

(Auden is a fine poet, but he wasn't as focussed on the perfection of his meter, just as Stallings isn't.)

Please note that if you put three unstressed syllables between stresses in your accentual verse, the verse will deteriorate into a mish-mosh of unclear rhythms. Two unstressed syllables between stresses are the maximum that you can use.

I may eventually add more examples to this post about finding the base meter of a poem.
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Re: Understanding Meter

Post by Perry » Sat Jul 06, 2019 9:44 pm

I couldn't decide whether to post this poem (meaning Ransom's poem below) in this thread or in the Poems That You Love thread, and I may post it in both.

One of the things that has happened in the last 100 to 150 years -- a little moreso in the U.S. than in Britain, I think -- is that the SOUND of meter has fallen out of favor. Most editors these days want to read poems that sound like little short stories written in prose, not musical pieces.

The sound of meter is, of course, rhythm, since almost all metered poetry has some rhythm. For perfect examples of rhythmic poetry, you need only read Frost, who always wrote in meter, though some of his poems were more rhythmical than others. Actually, Frost wrote in both accentual-syllabic meter (in which the poet counts both beats and syllables) and accentual meter (in which the poet counts only beats). Accentual meter can be very rhythmical indeed, even moreso than accentual-syllabic meter, which is the "norm" among formalist poets. Frost's "Reluctance" is accentual meter and is extremely rhythmic. Frost's "Vantage Point" is in typical iambic pentameter (accentual-syllabic meter), and he takes no liberties in that poem. Millay's sonnets are also good examples of typical accentual-syllabic meter. In Frost's "Mowing", he threw in anapests (da da DUM) as variants to the iambs (da DUM) to give the poem a more galloping rhythm. That was something new, not only to Frost but to metered poetry in general, as formalist poets before him rarely took such liberties. So Frost, even though you might not think of him this way, broke new ground in the world of formal poetry. Because of Frost, many formalist poets now routinely include extra syllables in their metered poems if those extra syllables sound good to them.

Here are the first lines from "The Vantage Point" and "Mowing". Both are iambic pentameter, but "Mowing" begins with two anapests instead of two iambs:

From "The Vantage Point":

If tired of trees I seek again mankind,
if TIRED / of TREES / i SEEK / a GAIN / man KIND
(perfect iambic pentameter)

From "Mowing":

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
there was NEV / er a SOUND / be SIDE / the WOOD / but ONE
(iambic pentameter with two anapests at the start)

The point that I'm trying to make in this post is that metrical poetry has been loosened over the last 150 years from what it was before then, and I think that was a response to the free-verse movement. However, the loosening that Frost did was purposeful and calculated. In "Mowing" he quite consciously threw in anapests among the iambs, but did NOT throw in any other three-syllable variant feet.

Some poets have tried to loosen the strictures of meter even further. Auden was one of them, although it could be argued that he was writing mostly accentual meter. Among contemporary formalists, Stallings is not obsessed with perfect meter, yet her poetry is definitely rhythmic. John Crowe Ransom wrote very rhythmic poetry in which he took tremendous liberties with the meter, and that is one of the reasons I admire him. He showed, better than any poet, I think, that rhythm and a certain amount of chaos can exist together, and that the result can be very pleasing. I would call "Blue Girls" (below) a metered poem, and yet his meter is chaotic in places, and his line lengths are not consistent. Ransom had the courage to listen to his ear instead of blindly forcing his poems into metrical molds, and the result was very creative.

I bemoan the fact that more modern poets aren't trying to put rhythm in their poems. A couple poets on this forum are, but not many. All the prosaic free verse that is being produced these days has no music in it, and music (rhythm) is one of the main things that sets poetry apart from prose.

Blue Girls

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.

John Crowe Ransom

Ransom was apparently attracted to these seminary students who wore blue, but he also sounds somewhat jealous of them, annoyed not only at their beauty but youth, and annoyed because he couldn't have them. Those feelings came to fruition in "Piazza Piece", which is posted in the Poems That You Love (on page 3 I think). (Look at the second posting of "Piazza Piece"; the first posting was missing a line.)
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