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Making Meter Easy



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Making Meter Easy

Meter in Poetry is a large topic, so this article will focus on how to handle meter. First, we will be going over the naming of meter in poetry, such as iambic pentameter; common types of meter; and how to identify a poem's meter. Afterwards, this article will cover tips for writing in meter.

In order to do this, we will be exploring feet in poetry, and I don't mean the feet you stand on, but poetic feet, which also deal with syllables, and stress. We'll begin with feet as a meter in a poem is named through the feet of the poem.

  





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Feet Names

A foot in poetry is a repeated pattern of syllables. Feet are the building blocks of meter in poetry. Each line has a certan cadence known as a meter, and we can begin to identify that through talking about the feet.

A poetic foot is, therefore, a series of stresses that is repeated. In other words a poetic foot is not only whether a word is stressed or unstressed, but also the pattern in which stresses appear. That pattern is not always consistent, however. Sometimes writers rely on intonation and pattern to change the stress. They can even break the stress pattern dramatically in order to elicit interest.

The meter name is made up of the type of foot, and how many feet, make up the majority of the poem. We will begin by explaining and describing the types of feet you can see in this section, then move on to naming how many feet per line in the next.

If you would like more information about stress and how to identify it check out Stresses in Writing.

Or, our wonderful Hannah has gone over poetic feet in Secret Treasures in Poetic Devices but I'm going to go over it again for more examples.

Different types of feet are composed of stressed and unstressed syllables in various patterns. All patterns have a name, and the order of stressed/unstressed syllables does matter. I'm going to list the names in terms of what stress they start with. My symbol for stressed is going to be (X) and my symbol for unstressed is going to be (x). There are other ways of representing stresses, and a common one is with a flattened "u" looking character (unstressed) and a "-" character (stressed).

  





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List of Feet Names

Stressed
  • Monosyllabic: ------ (X) – CAT
  • Torchaic: ----------- (Xx) – SA-turn (aka choreus/choree)
  • Spondaic: ---------- (XX) – HORSE EYE (aka spondee/spondaic)
  • Dactylic: ----------- (Xxx) – EN-ter-prise
  • Antibacchius: ----- (XXx) – BLACK DUCK-ling
  • Cretic: ------------- (XxX) – PAINT-er BRUSH (aka amphimacer)
  • Primus Paeon: ----- (Xxxx) – COM-ple-ted it
  • Ditorchee: --------- (XxXx) – SUN of HEA-vy
  • Major Ionic: ------- (XXxx) – BOLD BOY a-top (aka double trochaic)
  • Choriamb: --------- (XxxX) – SET-tle on BLUE
  • Second Epitrite: -- (XxXX) – HAP-py BLUE SKY
  • Third Epitrite: ---- (XXxX) – COLD DARK pre-DAWN
  • Fourth Epitrite: --- (XXXx) – WARM BLUE CAT on
  • Dispondee: -------- (XXXX) – BIG BOLD BLUE BELL

Unstressed
  • Pyrrhus: -------------- (xx) – in-to (aka dibrach/dibrachic)
  • Iambic: -------------- (xX) – a-TOP
  • Anapestic: ----------- (xxX) – o-ver-JOY (aka antidactylus)
  • Amphibrach: -------- (xXx) – a-VERT-ed (aka amphibrachic)
  • Bacchius: ------------ (xXX) – the BOLD CAT
  • Secundas Paeon: ---- (xXxx) – the DOG on the
  • Tertius Paeon: ------ (xxXx) – on the CAVES of
  • Quartus Paeon: ----- (xxxX) – ov-er the CLOUDS
  • Diiamb: -------------- (xXxX) – oh JACK my MAN
  • Minor Ionic: --------- (xxXX) – a-top COLD COD (aka double iambic)
  • First Epitrite: ------- (xXXX) – oh WARM BOLD FLAME

  





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Feet Names Continued

Some of the groups of four-syllable feet have commonalities in their names. These are the paeon and the epitrite. They have the same commutative name but different numbers indicating where the oddball syllable is at. The paeon have all weak syllables aside from one, and the epitrite have all strong syllables except for one.

When you actually read the words, you may not hear the stresses in the same way because stresses are messy. They are hard to hear, and difficult to listen for as you're doing something else, such as reading. Stresses also vary depending on your dialect.

On top of that, because three-syllable words oftentimes only have a single main stress, there are some problems when using longer words in poems. It's difficult to follow something like an iambic foot when you want to use three or four syllable words, if you only focus on the raw stresses.

Fortunately, once you get into a pattern, your brain will compensate with intonation to read words with multiple stresses in a way that follows the established pattern. These changes in intonation affect the secondary stresses of the words. You can also use punctuation to help improve the beat and stress, so that the intonation could hide a flaw.

  





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Meter Names

Meter includes how many repetitions of a foot happen in a line. A poetic meter consists of the name of the feet (iambic etc.), and how long the line is. It might seem like a lot of information, but if you break it down into a list of syllable patterns, and a list of how many syllables, it becomes easier. The list is very simple. It just uses prefixes for numbers attached to "meter."

  • monometer -------- (1) (See) [monometer]
  • dimeter ------------- (2) (See Spot) [dimeter]
  • trimeter ------------ (3) (See Spot run) [trimeter]
  • tetrameter ---------- (4) (See Spot run from) [tetrameter]
  • pentameter --------- (5) (See Spot run from me) [pentameter]
  • hexameter --------- (6) (See Spot run from me with) [hexameter]
  • heptameter -------- (7) (See Spot run from me with his) [heptameter]
  • octameter ---------- (8) (See Spot run from me with his ball) [octameter]

When you look at pentameter what you should understand is that it is not saying "5 syllables" despite saying "5" with "penta" what it is saying is "5 feet". Each of these examples is of a monosyllable foot such as a monosyllable monometer. That's just for simplification, but if I were to put something like iambic (xX) or trochaic (Xx), then the example would be twice as long.

If we have a three syllable foot like a bacchius (xXX), then despite having monometer (one foot per line) we have three syllables per line. A bacchius monometer poem wouldn't necessarily have one word per line, because it would have room for three syllables on each line.

That means that in the name of a meter of poetry, you have the name of the feet, and the number of feet in that meter. A single meter is a single line. So, iambic(xX) pentameter (xXxXxXxXxX) is ten syllables long. However, bacchius(xXX) pentameter (xXXxXXxXXxXXxXX) is fifteen syllables long.

  





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Wed Feb 21, 2018 1:43 am
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Identifying the Meter of a Poem

Naming meter is rather simple. First, determine what the pattern is, and then determine how many repetitions of that pattern there are. This process is included in what is called "marking up" a poem. You can see an article about marking up here. Basically, break apart syllables, capitalize or underline those syllables which are stressed, and ignore areas which don't necessarily match the overall commonality of the poem. If one or two syllables are off, it's okay.

Example Poem:
"conTENted JOHN is NOW
to SEE you DANcing with
the SUMmer SUN and GIVE
the LOUDest LAUGH, my KID"

Using the example above pulled from the Marking Up article, we can see that there is probably an error or two. I did this because it's not often you'll read stresses right due to intonation, pattern, and personal variations on words. Dictionaries will attempt to standardized pronunciation, so you can look at a dictionary with pronunciation guidelines and see the stresses they suggest if you're lost. In general, syllables are dependent on intonation and pronunciation. That being said, if we ignore the inconsistency (-cing with), we can try to see the potential patterns.

When I count the syllables per line, all of them are six syllables per line. If I had two unstressed or stressed syllables together in one word, I would have separated them with a -, so I don't have those. Also, each line begins with an unstressed syllable, and then is followed by a stressed syllable, then unstressed, then stressed. They're alternating. So now that I know there are six syllables per line, with an alternating pattern starting with an unstressed beat, like xX, xXx, or xXxX, I can begin narrowing it down.

Now we come to the fun part. We've identified potential patterns, so we need to eliminate patterns that are unlikely or impossible. I'm going to skip iambic (xX) for now and move onto amphibrach (xXx) first, and then look at it poentially being a diiamb (xXxX) to show the process of elimination.

If we try stacking the patterns, we can see which pattern it is. Amphibrach would stack xXxxXx instead of what we have, which is xXxXxX. This is clearest in the third line, "the SUM-mer SUN and GIVE" which provides us with distinctive groups. If this was a three syllable pattern then it would have to be xXx [the SUM-mer] as those are only the first three syllables. However, what follows is XxX [SUN and GIVE] not xXx, so that's not what it is.

While it could be xXxX, or diiamb, that actually has a repetition built into it, we don't have 8 syllables, we only have 6, so it is a diiamb and a half, and while there is probably a name for xXxXxX as a pattern, we want to simplify because that's going to be more common and therefore, we go with xX instead.

If you check the lists above, xX represents an iambic meter, but which meter is it? It has three sets of xX per line. That tells us what the meter is. Now if you know your numbering prefixes, you know that three is tri- so, that poem is in iambic trimeter.

The type of feet may not be consistent, so use the typical foot in the poem. Like in my example above, there may be some variations which could just be because of human error, or something that was intentional, or unavoidable by the poet. It is also possible that the errors are from the way our language has changed over time if you are studying an old poem. The most typical pattern is the one you want to identify if you wish to classify a poem.

  





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Writing Metered Poetry

The best way to go about writing meter is to practice. There are certain words which are always stressed or unstressed, and the better you get at knowing which these are, and when to use them, the better you will be at filling in the gaps that show up in your structure. You will also have to become more familiar with multisyllable words that can replace single syllable words, or the opposite, to match your syllable counts.

Don't restrain yourself just to iambic, but explore the other options as well. There are some really fun patterns, challenging patterns, and patterns which come naturally. If you want to find what pattern you write like most frequently, then just start writing, and mark it up. That should tell you what rhythms you prefer, and you can use that foot to start with.

The best way to get practice writing in certain meters is to pick up different structured poetry forms and try your hand at it. Most of them will probably have iambic pentameter or tetrameter depending on the style. This is fun because you get that xX beat which makes things sound dramatic.

After you have the style you want to write, or you just pick the meter you want to write, mark it up as you write with capitalized syllables for stress, and breaking down multisyllabic words with dashes. This way, as you write, you get a better sense of the meter as you put it down.

Don't be a stickler about meter! The more you focus on that, the less you're focusing on the poem sounding good, and meter is all about sounding smooth and flowy.

If you're just starting out, I'd recommend that you start by just writing a poem with meter in mind. Pick something concrete and write a descriptive poem about it. This could be anything as large as the world, to as small as a microscopic organism like bacteria. I've found it really fun to write very pretty poems about really disgusting things like road-kill or trash.

Lastly, challenge yourself! Get together with friends and write poems to one another and have them check your meter. This is probably the best way and the closest to how old poets used to do this, and why.

Originally meter in poetry wasn't about getting it perfect, but the challenge itself and to experiment with something that everyone could try. It's a formula, but just like there are three ways to solve one math problem, there are a lot of different ways you can make this formula your own.

  








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