Poetry is one of those rather elitist things that a lot of people hold in awe, find difficult to understand, and generally tend to avoid (unless they’re forced, usually by an academic institution of some description). One of the main reasons why poetry can be so difficult to grasp and enjoy is because the form has such a high concentration of language, where every word is used for a very particular reason (or so your English teachers keep stressing) and there are just so many different techniques and metaphors and other crazy things going on that you become overwhelmed and want to scream, “Just tell me what you’re trying to say already!” and then give up and never touch anything that has funny line-breaks ever again, and you instantly tense when you see something like this:
Poetry is one of those rather elitist
Things that a lot of people hold
In awe, find difficult to
Understand, and generally
Tend to avoid (unless they’re forced,
usually by an academic institution
of some description).
Now, if you’ve just read and understood that, then I might have lulled you into a false sense of security, because oh wow, wasn’t that easy and obviously, by virtue of reading this blog you’ve instantly gained 100 points in awesome and are now ready to tackle the likes of Alexander Pope and T. S. Eliot! (Please don’t say, “Who?”… But if you must, Pope was an English poet from the 18th Century, and Eliot was an American-who-pretended-to-be-English poet from the 20th Century.) Well, wait just a minute (because you may have also noticed, post-euphoria, that my little “poem” is just the first sentence of this post with funny line-breaks)—poetry is hard, and it can take a while to really understand. But never fear, for we can have a go at demystifying the mysteries of poetry!
Let’s begin by talking about poetic metre. I suspect there will be a bunch of different reactions to that term, ranging from the following:
- “Oh yes, I know all about metre, thank you very much. Do move on to something more advanced, please.”
- “Ooooh, I’ve heard of ‘metre’! I have a vague idea what it means, but please explain in a bit more detail!”
- “This concept of ‘metre’ is completely foreign to me… Tell me more!”
- “It’s spelt ‘meter’, you pretentious pom.”
To which I will reply:
- “In that case, you’re more than entitled to go watch some Gossip Girl to pass the time! Yay Chuck Bass!”
- “Of course!”
- “Actually, I’m Australian. Be nice, or I’ll set my pet kangaroo on you.”
To put it simply, poetic metre is a particular arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line (or part) of poetry. When we speak, we naturally have a rhythm in our speech which emphasises certain syllables—without this rhythm, our speech would be monotonous in the truest sense. Metre simply tightens the rhythm into something a lot more specific and structured. Metre is, in my opinion, the most important part of poetry, the defining feature itself. If a poem loses its meaning and story and all those magnanimous things which we attribute to poetry, I would still think of it as a ‘poem’ as long as it still contains metre. For those who like analogies, metre is the backbone of poetry, the chassis of a car, the beat to a piece of music. Without it, a poem would turn into mush and not be a poem (with a minor exception, which I’ll briefly mention later).
Despite its importance, I think metre is one of the most misunderstood techniques about poetry, mostly because it’s not in plain sight and ultra obvious and haranguing for your attention with its ultra flashy similes and metaphors. Of course, this doesn’t mean metre doesn’t exist—when was the last time you actually saw someone’s spine jutting out of their back, or crawled under your car to admire its chassis? But metre is almost always there, and it just takes knowing what to look for, willingness to read (and repeat ad nauseum) lines aloud, and a dash of patience to identify it.
When we talk about metre, we must refer to two parts: firstly, we must consider the type of foot; secondly, we must identify the number of feet in a line. A “foot” (the plural being “feet”, as I’m sure you’ve guessed) refers to the specific ordering of stressed and unstressed syllables. The way to figure out the stress pattern is by saying a word out loud (perhaps multiple times): for example, we usually say “HEL-lo”, unless we want to ask a question and it becomes “hel-LO?”. Go on, try them out for sound, and hear the difference for yourself.
Here’s a list of some common feet, some of which you may have already encountered. I’m putting the nominal (noun) forms first, with the adjectival forms in parentheses. Don’t forget to try out the examples by reading the words out aloud (even if you’re reading this in public—come on, show poetry some love)!
- Iamb (iambic): Unstressed, stressed; e.g. “sup-PORT” This is the most common foot, as it most closely resembles the rhythm of natural speech. A lot of poets and playwrights used the iambic metre, with the most notable being Shakespeare.
- Trochee (trochaic): Stressed, unstressed; e.g. “AP-ple” The second of the common feet with two syllables. It sounds more serious than the iamb, possibly because it places the stressed syllable in the beginning.
- Anapaest (anapaestic): Unstressed, unstressed, stressed; e.g. “com-pre-HEND” A quaint little foot with three syllables that reminds me of someone prancing around and humming a tune.
- Dactyl (dactyllic): Stressed, unstressed, unstressed; e.g. “STRAW-ber-ry” This foot gives off the lovely rhythm with its three syllables, but as it starts with a stressed syllable, it has a bit more oomph than the anapaest.
After identifying the primary foot of a line, count how many of these particular feet there are in that line. We have different terms for the number of feet in a line:
- Dimetre: Two
- Trimetre: Three
- Tetrametre: Four
- Pentametre: Five
- Hexametre: Six
- Heptametre: Seven
The process of figuring out the metre of a line (or poem) is called scanning (with the noun being scansion). Let’s put this to practice and scan the following:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?1
After multiple readings (and perhaps some exaggerated arm movements), we should have an idea about the placement of stressed and unstressed syllables and get the following:
Shall I / com-PARE / thee TO / a SUM-/ mer’s DAY?
I’ve identified the primary type of foot as the iamb, and there seems to be five of them, so I now proudly pronounce the metre of this line to be iambic pentametre! (And indeed, much of Shakespeare’s work is in iambic pentametre, because it’s one of the most natural metres to use.)
So, you might be thinking, “Why can’t I read the poem differently and emphasise different syllables? Then I can say the metre is whatever I want it to be!” Well, yes, you can attribute whichever metres you like to a poem, but it might sound strange and unnatural if you make up your own—it’ll be like a flailing hippopotamus grooving to a completely different beat (i.e. whenever I try to dance). And to take that analogy further, the different metres are used to give a different flavour to a particular poem, just like how it’s a lot easier to dance a waltz when it has three beats per bar than seven and a half beats.
One final thing to note: I mentioned earlier that almost all poems must have a metre. What about the almost-nones, then? Well, instead of metre, those poems tend to have a particular rhythm. This is like a less-specific type of pseudo-metre (but not quite) that is more like a general pulse formed by dominant stressed syllables amidst a bunch of unstressed syllables, rather than a specific ordering of the both. I’ll touch upon this concept at a later stage when we look at some rhythmically-based poetry.
So there we go, poetic metre demystified. Now you should go around and scan some poems for yourself—trust me, it’s a lot of fun! And of course, if you have any questions or thoughts to share, please either leave a comment or drop me a line. Until next time!
1 From William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18”.