New to Meter?

metronomeMeter is not something that can be intellectualized; it must be felt. This column focuses on the most basic poetic foot, the iamb. (ta DUM) I wrote these thoughts in response to some questions that arose at a private workshop, and felt the subject might be of interest to poets outside the group as well.

1) If you write a poem with each line with 10 syllables (regardless of syllable stress) is it still considered a metered poem?

No. Forget syllables; think stresses. I don’t want to confuse the issue, but it might help you up front to know that there are two kinds of meter: accentual and strict. (OK, I made up “strict.” It’s actually called accentual-syllabic, but that’s misleading on the heels of “forget syllables.”)

Accentual meter is the oldest form, more like songwriting. Look at the nursery rhymes we loved, for example — chock full of little frills and trills that make it fun to chant out loud. Counting syllables won’t do you any good here:

THREE / BLIND / MICE
 (trimeter = 3 feet/3 stressed beats/3 syllables)
SEE / HOW / they RUN
 (4 syllables, still trimetric)
they ALL / ran AF / ter the FARM / er’s WIFE
 (tetrameter = 4 feet/4 stresses/9 syllables)
she CUT / off their TAILS / with a CARV / ing KNIFE
 (10 syllables, 4 stressed beats)
did EV / er you SEE / such a SIGHT / in your LIFE
 (11 syllables, 4 stresses, iambic/anapestic mix)
as THREE / BLIND / MICE

See what I mean? You just feel it! Tap your fingers, tap your toes, talk to yourself in trimeter or tetrameter, overstressing each hard beat, until it begins to pound in your head. Then you won’t need books or articles.

Then there’s the meter that is predictably uniform, which we’ll call strict meter for lack of a better term. Here’s an example of strict iambic pentameter.

if YOU / can KEEP / your HEAD / when ALL / a BOUT you
are LOS / ing THEIRS / and BLAM / ing IT / on YOU
if YOU / can TRUST / your SELF / when ALL / men DOUBT you
and MAKE / a LOW / ance FOR / their DOUBT / ing TOO

Whoa .. what’s up with that — one line has 11 syllables and the next 10? It’s because the alternating lines in Kipling’s “If” have frilly endings. The “about you/doubt you” combo with trailing syllables is called a feminine rhyme. Now, in normal conversation, I might place the stress differently in spots (i.e., BLAM ing it on YOU, ALL MEN DOUBT, make a LOW ance for), but in this poem the metrical pattern is firmly established in the first line, so it’s naturally in my head to “promote” or “demote” certain beats when I come to them. In this case, a dictionary would be of no help.

There’s a potential trap here, though. As I said, the metrical pattern must be established early in the poem, and easy to follow. One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen made by poets new to meter is trying to force stress on beats that would not be emphasized in any circumstance. A poem has to stand on its own, and readers are not going to be as forgiving of stumbling feet in your lines as you are.

Some poets like to insert the accentual frills into strict meter or, as they say, “break up the monotony” by substituting some of the iambs with other feet, which can also affect the syllable count. That may be well and good if it serves the poem, but too often it’s simply an excuse for lazy writing. Reciting poetry requires skill, too, so I prefer to leave it to the reader to rise above the singsong.

2) Can you tell me your method for writing an iambic pentameter?

Ah, the phrasing of the angels. A line of iambic pentameter is exactly how much we can comfortably say in one breath, and it most closely parallels the rhythm of our heartbeats. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone attempt iambic pentameter, though, until they have developed an ear for dimeter, trimeter, and tetrameter in that order. Once that’s down pat, it’s just a matter of getting out of the way and letting it flow.

Do you choose the words that rhyme at the end and write the line to fit them?

No, no, a thousand times no. Never let the rhyme drive a poem, unless for intentional comic effect.

or Write the line then edit the stress? or make an outline?

Possibly. The most important function of a poem is to communicate, and any poem worth its salt knows what form it wants to take. To anyone tempted to sacrifice content on the altar of structure, I recommend writing the message out in paragraph form without regard for rhyme or meter. If a phrase jumps out, that’s your hook. Let that phrase determine the metrical pattern and rhyme scheme, then rely on your own instincts (along with a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary) to gently guide it in the direction it wants to go. Don’t settle for words that are “close enough” — there is always another way to say a thing.

I hope I’ve offered something helpful here, and will look forward to seeing other opinions.   After you get the hang of hearing in iambs, you might want to give some other feet a run:


Quick Guide to Basic Metrical Feet

© Mary Boren, 2011