Talking about Meter

Meter has to be one of the hardest subjects to tackle in Creative Writing, and how you handle it can make or break your students’ experience of writing poetry. Some teachers probably ignore it altogether, which seems a shame, yet others quickly get into the weeds and make poetry seem complicated and impossible to write, which is another kind of shame that’s easy to do. In my textbook, A Writer’s Craft, I try to take a middle path by introducing concepts of meter and feet, but not stressing them too much. I also try to explain why it’s so complicated, which I’d like to get into in a little more detail here.

When working on the proofs for A Writer’s Craft, the editors wondered why I didn’t give a one-word example for pyrrhic, like I had for all the other feet. About the only example I could come up with is “uh-uh”, but even that could be pronounced differently, depending on the context. A pyrrhic foot has two unstressed syllables. But it’s impossible not to stress a syllable at all, so I like to say it has two less stressed syllables. Less than what? Less stressed than the other syllables that surround it.

In performance, I might pronounce “uh-uh”  with the accent on the first “uh” or the second “uh,” or I might pronounce them the same relative to the other stressed syllables around them. Any examples I find for the pyrrhic foot (or dibrach) can be viewed the same way, and most examples of the spondee (with two stressed syllables) are suspect: viewed in isolation, we probably stress one syllable of a pair more than the other, but in a sentence when surrounded by other unstressed syllables, the spondee stands out. (The word is a pretty good example of the foot, but whether you say SPONdee or sponDEE or SPONDEE may depend on your preference and the words in the sentence around it.) With no words around it, our example, “uh-uh,” might sound like a spondee (“UH-UH”), an iamb (“uh-UH”), a trochee (“UH-uh”), or a pyrrhic foot (“uh-uh”). The way you pronounce it may also affect the meaning. So I chose to leave the example blank.

Disclaimer: all of my examples of metrical feet in the textbook are a little misleading because they are words. Typically, when scanning a line of poetry, the feet in the line and the words in the line don’t match up. A word may have parts of a couple of feet in it, or a foot may be made up of more than one word. Often the foot starts in one word and ends in the next, and the next foot starts in that same word. Some polysyllabic words may even have parts of more than two feet in them.

Looking words up in the dictionary is only a partial help. The dictionary usually marks the strongest stress in the word, but when scanning poetry, relative stress is also taken into account, and sometimes there is a syllable in a polysyllabic word that has more stress than most syllables, even if it isn’t the most-stressed syllable in the word. “Polysyllabic” is a good example, since I would stress the first and the fourth syllables, though I would probably stress the fourth slightly more than the first. Syllables two, three, and five definitely have the least stress.

When looking for examples of metrical feet, I came across an example of a scanned poem by James Merrill that illustrates my point of how difficult and subjective it can be to  scan a poem. The example is at the OWL at Purdue, which I respect, so I don’t raise it to criticize them but to consider the challenges of scansion. For now, I’ll ignore the fact that the example poem, “A Downward Look,” is in free verse, so scanning it may be anathema. Their attempt, though often good, raises some issues. For instance, in the third line of the poem, they scan the word “luxurious” as having 4 syllables, which is true, but in performance it often sounds like 3 with the accent on the middle syllable. In the scanned line, OWL seems to end the line with an anapest (they don’t mark the divisions between feet, so it’s a little hard to tell). I’d probably call it an iamb with “ious” sounding more like “yus” than “ee-ous” and ending on the stressed syllable “bath.” The full line, scans well either way: “Foam on a long, luxurious bath” with one trochee and then 3 iambs or 2 iambs and an anapest, depending on your pronunciation. Both the trochee and the anapest would be acceptable variant feet in a mostly iambic line.

Another bothersome line is the first line of the third couplet, “Over protuberances fault,” which OWL scans as having only 3 stresses: “OVer proTUBerances FAULT.” The dictionary would agree that the most stressed syllable in “protuberance” is the second, yet it also notes a secondary stress on the last syllable. Scanning, “erances” as three unstressed syllables is problematic, since that’s rare. You could say this line contains a trochee “OVer” followed by an amphibrach “proTUBer” followed by an anapest “-ances FAULT.” But that would be a very muddy rhythm indeed, with no clear pattern and completely different from the rest of the poem. More likely is that the line falls into iambs after an initial trochee “OVer | proTUB | erANC| es FAULT.” The stresses aren’t all even, but they are all more stressed than the surrounding syllables. [This paragraph has been edited in response to Keir Fabian’s comment below.]

There aren’t always hard and fast rules for scansion, in other words. You need to listen to the pattern of stress in the line, not only think about the stress in the words. And ideally, you begin to recognize a pattern of stress in the lines and stanzas of the poem, which will help you decide how to hear the dominant rhythms and variant feet.

In this example, I would also hear two stresses in the word “radiates” of the fifth stanza, which makes that line a regular iambic line. And in the last line of the example “Happens upon the plug,” I would scan it as a trochee followed by two iambs, stressing the second syllable of “upon,” rather than the first as OWL does it. The dominate rhythm of the poem seems to be iambic, and there are a few alternate feet for variety or for effect. Usually there is only one alternate foot in a line or the difference isn’t very noticeable, such as an anapest in a mostly iambic line (which only adds an unstressed syllable).

What makes it a free verse poem, rather than a metrical poem, is that the line lengths vary  from three to five feet (trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter lines) and there isn’t a consistent pattern. The fourth stanza is even one line, whereas the rest are couplets.

It may not make sense to scan a free verse poem, but doing so can illustrate that rhythm is important, even if there isn’t a meter. Free verse has patterns of rhythm, though they can be looser and less regular.

Introducing meter as something to listen for and learn about is worthwhile in the introductory classroom, but it’s important to stress that rhythm often varies by performance and virtually no poem in meter holds slavishly to the dominant foot. Most will include variant feet for variety or to better show the emotion in the line. This is one reason I introduce rhythm in an early chapter on language, and then look at meter again later when talking about poetry.

Scanning poetry is complicated and frustrating, but it can also be a good group activity where everyone can laugh at their own attempts to figure it out. I’ve had students clap, tap their desks, or even bring in percussion instruments to break the ice and help them recognize the more stressed syllables in a line. Make it a game, and acknowledge that there’s rarely one perfectly right answer. Even the experts can get it wrong, and poets rarely scan their poems — they listen. Develop an ear for meter, and you can ignore all the Greek terms and diacritical marks, and just enjoy the rhythms of language.

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.

5 thoughts on “Talking about Meter

  1. Hi Kendall. Yes, meter is a tricky subject to teach. I don’t teach, but I have written extensively on meter, both on my blog and on Quora. I did have an interesting chat with someone who does teach when I commented on his post: We discuss, among other things, how to teach pupils how to recognise stress, and we’d both already hit on the same idea of looking at words that are spelt identically, but have different meanings according to where you place the stress!

    In regard to the scansion of “A Downward Look”, personally I don’t agree that it’s written in free verse: yes, the lines vary in length, just as George Herbert’s “The Collar” does – and in both cases the lines are written in perfect iambic meter. In the case of this poem we have a combination of trimeter, tetrameter and pentameter lines.

    The differences in my scansion would be as follows:-

    – “Luxurious” I would scan as three syllables, to fit the iambic meter

    – I would add a stress to “new” in “NEW PROjects”. It fits the meter either way, but it just seems a more obvious pronunciation to me. Possibly, they didn’t think such a scansion *did* fit the meter (it’s a pyrrhic followed by a spondee, which is a pattern I discuss in this blog post *after* discussing the “minor ionic”:

    – In the final line, I would place the stress on the 2nd syllable of “upon”: “HAppens uPON the PLUG”. Again, it just seems the more obvious pronunciation to me, and it’s a pronunciation which doesn’t require the more unusual double trochee.

    In one of the lines, “Over protuberances, faults,”, you’ve added an extra “the” that isn’t in the poem!

    That’s as much as I have time to write now, but will add some further comments later!

    1. Thank you for catching the issue with an extra “the” before “protuberances” — I’m not sure how that happened! But I may go back and correct that paragraph accordingly.

  2. Picking up from where I left off!

    Rereading your post, we agree on the best pronunciations for “luxurious” and “upon” in this poem.

    In regards to teaching meter, besides helping students to recognise stress, it seems to me that clarity about the principles of beat placement is the single most important thing to focus on. Foot division is merely a convenience, and only serves to *highlight* the beat placement. And once the principles of beat placement are clear, *then* one can highlight the effects of destressing a beat or stressing a non-beat. The danger here is that a student may become confused about the difference between stresses and beats – which is *why* it is so important to start off with a clarity about the principles of beat placement. I *think* I do a pretty good job of that in this post: See what you think. (This post is identical, except it also includes some exploration of metrical patterns that are specific to the *dramatic* verse of Shakespeare’s day, as well as an example of the expressive effect of contractions:

    My assertion that a beat can be pushed *forward* is one that many would disagree with (I don’t know about you!). The source of confusion lies in the fact that the traditional approach to scansion (dividing the line into 2-syllable “feet”) actually obscures this principle – something I explain in the blog post I gave a link to in my last comment:

    The other danger when teaching students about “feet” (which I expect you’re familiar with) is that they may end up confusing, for instance, iambic and trochaic *feet* with iambic and trochaic *words and phrases*, and find it hard to grasp that iambic and trochaic *rhythm* and iambic and trochaic *meter* are not automatically the same thing (i.e. you can find trochaic rhythms within iambic meter, and vice versa). This is something I address in this post: I *hope* I explain it all very clearly! I’ve received positive feedback so far, and I’d certainly value your feedback on this and my other posts, given your firsthand experience of teaching students about meter!

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