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Poetry: Meter (Rhythm)

Meter is the rhythm or the beat of poetry. In the past, many poets observed formal metrical patterns, though today they do so less often. However, having a basic understanding of meter is very helpful if you want to control the rhythm of your poems, and it's essential if you aim to master the craft of poetry.

The syllables in a line can be divided into feet, or sets of stressed and unstressed syllables. Stress is where the emphasis lies. For example, in the word "running," the stress falls on the first syllable, "run." We say RUNning, not runNING.

There are six common types of feet:

Iamb - an unstressed and then a stressed syllable: "toMORROW," "a CAT"

Trochee - a stressed and then an unstressed syllable: "DRIVen," "FLAME with"

Anapest - two unstressed syllables and then a stressed syllable: "interRUPT," "after ALL"

Dactyl - a stressed syllable and then two unstressed syllables: "CALendar," "PRIor to"

Spondee: two stressed syllables: "HEARTBREAK," "BRIGHT STAR"

Pyrrhic: two unstressed syllables: "or the"

We also have different names for different lines depending on how many feet they have:

Dimeter - two feet per line

Trimeter - three feet per line

Tetrameter - four feet per line

Pentameter - five feet per line

Hexameter - six feet per line (also called an alexandrine)

Heptameter - seven feet per line

Octameter - eight feet per line

Here's an example of how a line by Shakespeare is divided into feet:

from FAIR | est CREA | tures WE | deSIRE | inCREASE

This line is divided into five iambs. Therefore, it's a line of iambic pentamber. Iambic pentameter is the most common type of meter in English.

If you find this explanation confusing, don't worry too much about it. Like any musical concept, meter can be hard to understand without having a face-to-face lesson from a teacher who can sound out an example. You may want to show this page to a friend who studies music, who may be able to grasp these ideas more quickly and in turn explain them to you. Some people have a good ear for this sort of thing, and others have to practice to get the hang of it. To make things even more complicated, sometimes a word will be stressed in one line, and in another line it won't be. In the example above the word "we" is stressed, but in this line it isn't: "we HELD each OTHer THROUGH the STORM." Finally, it's not unheard of for even two experts to disagree on the meter of a line.

At the same time, don't let meter intimidate you. For hundreds of years, even many of the worst poets were still able to understand meter. If they could do it, you can do it too. It's just a little harder for us since we read metrical poetry less often and it's less a part of our education system and daily life.

If you want to try your hand at writing in meter, start very simply: write twenty lines of iambic pentameter. For your first try, don't worry too much about writing something beautiful or interesting. It's OK to start with a very ordinary or silly line like: "my NAME is SUSie JEAN and I don't CARE." Just practice controlling your rhythm.


Once you complete this exercise, you can get a critique from a writing teacher.


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