Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part II: Meter

In the first part of this series I talked about what I’m not going to be talking about.

Now I want to look at the mechanics of verse.

Let’s talk about the parts of verse. From small to large we have the syllable, the line, the couplet, and the verse. Longer poems may be also divided into sections or chapters.  I am going to using these words a little bit differently than most English teachers–I am not an English teacher, I am simply trying to explain basic concepts of poetry clearly.

You should already know what a syllable is. Lines are a certain number of syllables, and are usually ended with a hard carriage return (that is to say, the end of the line of poetry is generally the end of the line of text on the page.)

Couplets are built up from lines, are represent the structural building blocks of a poem. A couplet can stand on its own, in terms of scansion and rhyme scheme. (Although it need not be a complete thought, thematically.)

Verses are to poems what chapters are to novels, sections that are thematically complete in themselves but are part of the larger whole. A verse may be a single couplet, or several.

English, as I said in my last article, is a stressed language. Syllables in english words are either stressed or unstressed, and when you string a bunch of English words together to make a sentence you can plot the rhythm of the sentence by marking the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.

This is called meter, and poetry geeks divide meter into metrical feet of two syllables and give each type a name. Two unstressed syllables is a dibrach, an unstressed followed by a stressed is called an iamb, a stressed followed by an unstressed is called a trochee, and two stressed syllables is called a spondee.

To put that into context, let’s turn to Shakespeare, from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry

Dang! Would you look at all those flippin’ iambs!  Every single line is the same meter: “iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb”. Five iambs to a line, or, to put it more pretentiously, iambic pentameter. (Bet you always wondered what that phrase meant. Now you know.)

Iambic pentameter is a very easy meter to write, and it tends to roll trippingly off the tongue.  Many people consider it the natural rhythm of the English language. It can set the toes tapping like 4/4 time and a backbeat. Like any rhythm, though, it can get monotonous.

There are ways to break up a rhythm while still keeping to a poetic line.  For example, let’s look at “The Raven”, by Poe.

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

Eagerly I wished the morrow; – vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore –


What we see here is a “trochaic octameter”–eight stressed/unstressed pairs of syllables in a row, ending with a rhyme, followed by eight more stressed/unstressed pairs of syllables in a row, ending with the same rhyme.

Or, almost.  You’ll notice that the last line isn’t sixteen syllables, it’s fifteen, and it ends with a stress. The couplet is “eight trochees, eight trochees, eight trochees, seven and a half trochees.” That pattern is repeated throughout the entire poem, and I bet you never noticed it. The mind accepts it as meterical, but you’re aware of it on some level and it effects you much like a minor key in piece of music.

The verses in “The Raven” are composed of two rhyming couplets:

Eight trochees X
Eight trochees A
Eight trochees X
Seven and a half trochees A

Seven and a half trochees A
Three and a half trochees A

The end result is to combine a feeling of inevitability (emphasized by the repetition of the “ore” sound as a final rhyme) with a disturbing quasi-regularity. The form of the poem perfectly echoes the subject matter.

Now I don’t expect anyone reading this article to remember what trochees and spondees are–that’s not the point. The point is that the rhythm of language affects the reader at a level below the rational. The human mind looks for patterns and will manufacture patterns where they don’t exist. Understanding meter helps writers to understand how the form of prose (and prose has meter, don’t let anyone tell you different) can either enhance or work against the mood of the prose.

A regularity of meter can impose a feeling of majesty and dignity, as in another speech from Hamlet,

 I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Even set in plain text without breaks it comes across powerfully. Read it aloud, you’ll feel the meter pulling you along.

A broken regularity, on the other hand, can disturb the reader. Setting up an expectation and then violating it can throw the reader off balance, like missing a step on a staircase.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, Poetry and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part II: Meter

  1. Shakespeare always teaches so much about the beauty of the English language. Great breakdown of poetic verse. It’s clear to see how these principles can apply to prose writing.

  2. Pingback: Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part III: Anatomy Of The Sonnet | mishaburnett

  3. Pingback: Poetry For Fiction Writers, Part IV: Some Suggestions | mishaburnett

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