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Basic Meter

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Language shares a lot with music. At heart, both rely on the repetition and variation of sounds and rhythm. Much of the visceral effect of writing, in both poetry and prose, relies on the manipulation of sounds. Reading silently to oneself is a very recent development, historically speaking, and if you ever plan to read out loud to an audience, getting familiar with the music behind words is invaluable. Let’s start with meter.

Meter is the rhythm of behind a line. It’s more prominent in poetry, especially older poetry, because they’re closer to the time when poetry was always accompanied by music. It was like the pop and rock and R&B of their time. Even today, you can hear the patterns behind the words and some bands get really inventive with imagery and wordplay. However, musicians have a distinct advantage over writers. The rhythm is right there alongside the words, played by the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar. That gives the lyrics more freedom to play with and against the meter.

Writers only have words, and most of the time the words aren’t even spoken. They’re just sitting there on the page, waiting for the reader to figure them out. Creating a solid meter is more difficult, and while the results will never be as complex as music, they can complement the other strengths of writing.

What About Free Verse and Prose?

Starting around the time of T.S. Eliot and picking up speed with the Beatniks, free verse is poetry that isn’t written to any specific meter. Plus, prose is rarely written in meter. Why bother?

Well, no matter what writers do, they can’t get away from rhythm. Even if it’s not explicitly defined, it’s there, and excellent writers of all kinds have a distinct rhythm. It can take years to develop, but it’s there.

T.S. Eliot also likened his poetry to the rhythms of jazz. Jazz improv is hard, because you have to hear the rhythms and chords that aren’t there. Eventually, yes, writers can develop their ears enough to forego all the book learning and fly, but to start out with it’s often easier to start with the rhythms that are there.

Syllables and Emphasis

It starts with dictionary stress. Every entry in the dictionary is followed by a jumble of letters telling people how the word is supposed to be pronounced. (Online, you can just click the speaker icon, but that hasn’t existed for very long.) In my copy of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which is both the third edition and completely and utterly updated beyond any shadow of doubt, the entry for "table" reads:

ta·ble (tā' bəl)

The letters in parentheses are meant as a pronunciation guide. When native English speakers say "table", they put more emphasis on the first syllable. If you put it on the second, it just sounds weird. That’s what the little apostrophe thing after "tā" means. It’s a stress marker. Anytime you see that in a dictionary pronunciation, the syllable that precedes it is stressed. So with "enjoy":

en·joy (en joi')

The first syllable is unstressed, and the second is stressed.

It gets a little more complicated with single-syllable words and primary/secondary stress, but that can wait.

Metrical Feet

For whatever reason, the basic meters in poetry are made up of building blocks called feet. I don’t know why, but I’m sure that if I ever find out it will either be a really funny story or the result of a literal translation from Greek. There are 4 basic feet used for building meters, and they all have funny names:

iamb
An iambic foot has two syllables. The first one is unstressed, and the second one is stressed.
By itself, "enjoy" is an iambic word.
trochee
A trochaic foot also has two syllables. The first one is stressed, the second unstressed.
By itself, "table" is trochaic.
anapest
An anapestic foot has three syllables.
The first two are unstressed, and the third is stressed: "commandeer"
dactyl
A dactylic foot also has three syllables.
The first one is stressed, and the next two are unstressed: "battery"

(Note for purists: I’m ignoring the distinction between primary and secondary stress and the metrical implications for now. I don’t want this article to get too long.)

To create a meter, just pick a foot and decide how many of it you want per line. For best results, all of the feet should be of the same kind.

monometer – one foot per line (not to be confused with manamanah)
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
octometer – eight feet per line
nonameter – nine feet per line
decameter – ten feet per line

Seven feet per line is usually considered pushing it. If you get higher than ten you’ll probably run out of room on the paper.

Then, you put the two together for the name. Two dactyls per lines is dactylic dimeter. Three trochees is trochaic trimeter. Four anapests is anapestic tetrameter. And five iambs is the classic iambic pentameter.

Putting It Together

Once you’ve decided on a meter, you just need to slot words into it. For the example here, I’m going to use trochaic tetrameter since it’s similar to 4/4 time, which is what most contemporary music is based on. Hopefully the underlying rhythm will be more familiar than the other possibilities.

Four feet, each a trochee, give this line pattern:

stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed

To shorten it up a bit, I’m going to shorthand it like so:

/ ^ / ^ / ^ / ^

Where / is stressed and ^ is unstressed. It’s not traditional scansion, but it will do until I find those marks in Unicode. (Update 3-10-14: I found those marks in Unicode, but now I don't trust find and replace to properly swap them out. It's ˘ for short and ˉ for long, by the way.)

All a writer has to do is put syllables into the appropriate slots. Many times, people will try to use only words that are trochaic by themselves, but that’s not what meter actually means. It’s the position of the words in the line that’s important.

This is ok:

(Apologies to mobile readers. The tables bleed off the edge of the content area at smaller screen widths, and I haven't found a good way to make the tables smaller but still readable yet.)

/ ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^
ta- ble en- joy

This isn’t:

/ ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^
ta- ble en- joy

There are typically a few core words per line, and then some filler around them. For example:

/ ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^
I en- joy a nice- ly done pro- duc- tion.

Or, in sentence form:

I enjoy a nicely done production.

I now have a line written in trochaic tetrameter. Now I need a few more.

/ ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^
I en- joy a nice- ly done pro- duc- tion,
One which moves in in- terest- ing di- rec- tions
Where the au- di- ence must use de- duc- tion
On the cast's pe- cu- liar in- tro- spec- tions.

And as a stanza:

I enjoy a nicely done production,
One which moves in interesting directions
Where the audience must use deduction
On the cast’s peculiar introspections.

It's not that deep, but that high seriousness of purpose isn’t necessary at this point.

There are a few thing I want to point out. First, there’s the matter of "interesting" and "peculiar." The way I usually pronounce it, "interesting" has three syllables, not four. I say it "in-trest-ing" instead of "in-ter-est-ing." Similarly, I say "pe-cyu-lyar" instead of "pe-cyu-lee-ar." That’s why they’re positioned the way they are.

Secondly, the last line starts out with "On the." The stress of small words like that is typically ambiguous; it can be read many different ways, depending on context. Most of the grammatical helper words (articles, single-syllable prepositions, etc.) act similarly in meter. However, because the rhythm is established in the prior three lines, the pair is more likely to be read as a trochee.

Exercises

Basic Feet

  1. For each of the four basic feet, write eight lines of tetrameter. They don't have to make sense, nor do they have to rhyme. That means:
  • Eight lines of iambic tetrameter
  • Eight lines of trochaic tetrameter
  • Eight lines of anapestic tetrameter
  • Eight lines of dactylic tetrameter

Basic Feet 2

  1. Next, read the passages you've written out loud five times.
  2. When reading, ridiculously over-emphasize the stresses. It will sound stilted and choppy, but that’s the point. You can always back down once you get a feel for it.
  3. After finishing the fifth time, move on to the next passage and read it out loud five times, again ridiculously overemphasizing the stresses.
  4. Listen for the differences between the two.
  5. When you’ve finished with the second, read your third and fourth passages out loud five times each.

Basic Feet 3

  1. Next, read each passage out loud, ridiculously over-emphasizing the wrong stresses.
  2. Do this at least five times for each passage before moving on to the next one.
  • Read the iambic lines with trochaic meter.
  • Read the trochaic lines with iambic meter.
  • Read the anapestic lines with dactylic meter.
  • Read the dactylic lines with anapestic meter.

If the passages don’t sound even more ridiculous than they did before, you didn’t get the meter quite right, but that’s what practice is for.

Basic Feet 4

Finally, read each passage out loud in a more conversational voice. The stresses and emphases should still be there, but will vary in strength and duration. (Some will be louder and longer than others.)

  1. Read each passage out loud five times before moving to the next meter.
  2. See if you can still hear the differences between them.

The ultimate goal is to be able to hear and feel the movement of the rhythm, which paves the way for more advanced metrical tricks.

The Google Says…

Making Your Own Days by Kenneth Koch – excellent all-around reference for poetry.
(Jonathan, the creative writing department reference library never did get off the ground. If you see this and want the book back, let me know.)