A Thought on Meter

I’m in the middle of grading poetry exam, and thinking about how difficult it is to teach writers about rhythm, especially meter. This group of students is doing pretty good discussing it, but this always reminds me of the challenges they have in actually scanning a poem or hearing stressed and unstressed syllables in a line. I’ve often asked students to bring percussion instruments to help emphasize the beat in a line, though they typically get confused and tap on the unstressed or don’t tap on the stressed syllable. Of course, performance makes a difference, and there is some room for variation in how you say a sentence (do you stress the word ‘a’ or ‘the’ for instance?). But it shouldn’t be so hard, except we aren’t trained to hear it. We do it by instinct, but ask us to analyze stress in a sentence, and all we hear (and feel) is stress!

So my thought tonight was to try my typical exercise in reverse. I often have students scan a line of poetry and then tap out the meter as they read it, tapping loudly on the stressed syllables and softly on the unstressed. So what if I started with tapping? If I scan a line or two of a poem first and give them the rhythm. Then have them practice tapping it a few times before adding the words. That way, I’d know it was scanned correctly and that they could handle the rudimentary percussion before having to think about language. We might then go on to scan and tap a few more lines from the same metrical poem, looking for variations to the standard foot. Or try some different patterns (move from iambic to anapest, for instance). Anyway, it’s just a thought, but I figured I should write it down somewhere, so why not here?

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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