The Beginner’s Guide to Poetic Meters

What are poetic meters?

the beginner's guide to poetic metersMeters are how we describe a rhythmic pattern in a poem. They are comprised of varying stressed and unstressed syllables. It can be difficult to determine whether or not a syllable is stressed or unstressed when you are first learning.

The trick is to know how a word is properly pronounced. Each word has a natural emphasis. Arranging these natural emphases in patterns is how poets create a meter for their poems.

A common example of how you know natural emphases is putting the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABle. EMphaSIzing SYllables corRECtly is SOMEthing YOU as a NAtive SPEAKer do NAturally. Hearing stressed and unstressed syllables has to be taught, even though we speak them naturally.

If you want to learn more about hearing stressed or unstressed syllables, this article provides a good baseline.

For the purposes of this beginner’s guide, we’ll learn about five of the more common meters.

  1. Iambic. A two-syllable meter, iambs are unstressed/stressed. From the example above, “a NAtive SPEAKS” is two iambs.
  2. Trochaic. A two-syllable meter, trochees are the opposite of iambs: stressed/unstressed. “NAtive SPEAKers” is two trochees.
  3. Spondaic. A two-syllable meter, spondees are stressed/stressed. “GET OUT” is a spondee.
  4. Anapestic. A three-syllable meter, anapests are unstressed/unstressed/stressed. “to be TAUGHT” is an anapest.
  5. Dactylic. A three-syllable meter, dactyls are stressed/unstressed/unstressed. “YOU as a NAtive of…” are two dactyls.

A single meter, or the smallest unit of rhythm, is a “foot.” So an iamb “NAtive” is a foot—as a trochee, spondee, anapest, and dactyl are.

When we’re describing poetic meters, we use the meter and how many feet are in a line. Usually there are no more than 8 feet in a line of poetry. We called the number of feet in a line as such:

  • Monometer (one foot per line)
  • 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)
  • Heptameter (seven feet per line)
  • Octameter (eight feet per line)

If you have four dactyls per line, you would call it a dactylic tetrameter. If you have six anapests per line, you would call is an anapestic hexameter.

The most common meter patterns in English poetry

While you can definitely identify many, many other meter patterns in English poetry, the majority of English poetry is based on Common Meter and Iambic Pentameter.

Common Meter (also known as ballad meter)

If you’re confused by common meter (there is no such thing as the “common” foot), relax. Common meter is called common meter because it describes the meter of four lines. The lines of a poem written in common meter alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. 

Common meter is also called ballad meter because these alternating lines are perfect for songs. You sing two lines at a time—a four-foot line followed by a three-foot line. Where the fourth foot would be in iambic tetrameter, you take a breath, and sing the next two lines.

In fact, most old hymns are written in common meter. Amazing Grace, It is Well… Count out the stressed syllables in each line and you’ll find a 4-3-4-3 count for each quatrain.

Iambic Pentameter

Shakespeare is famous for writing his plays and sonnets almost exclusively in iambic pentameter. Heralded as the meter that most closely imitates the spoken rhythm, many English poets choose to write in iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter, as we learned above, is where each line of poetry has five iambs. Many of the poetic forms are written in iambic pentameter: sonnets, blank verse, and heroic couplets being some of the more popular forms.

Why should I use meter patterns?

Many poetic forms come with a prescribed meter. Sonnets are perhaps the best example, as the form demands that you write it with a particular rhyme scheme in iambic pentameter.

Even if you’re not writing a poem with a prescribed meter, it is helpful to write with some sort of meter for consistency, rhythm, and tradition.

  • Having a consistent meter means that you can emphasize certain lines or thoughts by doing something different with the meter.
  • Using a meter consistently throughout your poem means that it will have a particular rhythm, which can also contribute to the effectiveness of the poem.
  • Hearkening to tradition by using a meter means you can have a conversation with poets of the past by doing things differently or by imitating them.

The long and short of using meter patterns is that meter forces you to be a better writer. To say what you want to say through the poem while being constrained by meter means you have to come up with creative, impactful ways to share what you mean. And if you don’t, you’re more likely to have written a lesser poem anyways.

While you may never choose to share poems written in a meter, practicing with meters is a great exercise for hearing stressed and unstressed syllables, which can teachers you to hear the rhythms of your un-metered poetry better.

How to write with poetic meters

I’ve certainly written my fair share of poems in meter on the fly. I opened a window with the rules of the meter and wrote out each line word by word, ensuring each word followed the rules and made sense with the previous word.

Here’s what I do now to make writing in meter easier.

  1. Have the rules of the meter available. Whether that’s in a new tab or written in the margin of the paper you’re writing on, put the rules somewhere you can easily access.
  2. Write out the basis of what you want the poem to say/be about. Worry about rhyme and meter later. What is your poem about? What images might you want to use?
  3. Work on fitting your ideas into the meter. You have several images to pull from, several ideas you want to share all ready. Use the meter to help you play with your ideas and images.
  4. Repeat #3. Get at least 2 different versions of your ideas into meter.
  5. Choose the best of what you’ve written. Compile the best lines/verses of your scribbles into a poem. This is helpful because it can allow you to take pieces of your poem and arrange them in many different ways rather than being satisfied with whatever you wrote the first (or second) time through.

To recap: meters are the rhythms of a poem as expressed by stressed and unstressed syllables. We can see what kind of meter is used in a poem by seeing what kind of feet, and how many of them show up in a line.

Much of English poetry is written in iambic pentameter (5 iambs per line) and common meter (alternating lines of 4 iambs and 3 iambs).

Writing in meter forces you to write more creatively. While you can write word by word, it might be easier to work out your ideas in meter and then arrange your best lines and ideas into a final poem.

Have you written much poetry in meter? Do you think a poetic meter can imitate natural speech? Do you have any tips for hearing stressed and unstressed syllables?

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