I failed to properly understand poetic metre until my second year of university, so I have had more than enough mental-blocks about it. It was described to me as the ‘mathsy’ part of poetry and that was enough to shut down my brain.
But it is actually a lot easier than it sounds. At A Level, if you can remember that a poem is written in ‘iambic pentameter’ you will be fine. But if you can identify what meter a poem uses yourself, you can then go on to see where the poet deviates from the metre, and that opens a HUGE can of worms. Good worms. To put in your essay.
TWO THINGS TO REMEMBER
STRESSES and FEET. Stressed Feet.
When metre is talked about, you will hear two words, like ‘iambic pentameter’. The first word refers to the type of stresses we have in one line, and the second is about the number of these stresses we have in one line. ‘Iambic’ is just one type of stress pattern we can have, and ‘pentameter’ means that we have FIVE (pent) of these kind of stress patterns in one line.
There are a couple of stress patterns that poets most commonly use. Let’s start with the most common – iambic.
- IAMBIC: this pattern involves two syllables – an unstressed one followed by a stressed one. I remember it with this: ‘I AM‘ . I stole that off somebody else, so it’s 100% her fault if it’s ineffective.
- If you can detect this stress pattern FIVE times in one line – there will be ten syllables. It would be like this: I AM, I AM, I AM, I AM, I AM.
- In a real poem, the iambic stress looks like this:
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.
(Pope, ‘An Essay on Criticism’)
- It’s essential to read it aloud. If you speak it naturally, you should be able to detect where the emphasis of a word falls automatically. You know that you say ‘exPOSE’ and not ‘EXpose’. Hopefully.
- This is where you have to count. One ‘iamb’, i.e. one ‘unstressed – stressed’ pattern, is one foot. Count how many there are in one line and you have the number of FEET.
- If you can see 5 iambs, you have 5 FEET and 10 syllables.
- If there were only 3 iambs, it would be trimeter. 4: tetrameter. 5: pentameter. 6: hexameter.
So that’s iambic pentameter sorted. Maybe.
To confuse things – there are lots of different stress patterns. ‘Iambic’ is only one kind. And not all of the others only have 2 syllables. Here are the others, in a highly unhelpful, not exactly memorable list for you:
TROCHAIC: stressed + unstressed. TROCH–ee
ANAPESTIC: unstressed + unstressed +stressed. in-a-TREE
DACTYLIC: stressed + unstressed + unstressed. HAPP-i-ly
That is not really any use to you like that! That is lazy formatting and I am sorry.
BUT ALAS there is one poet that was sent to help struggling literature students with understanding poetic metre and this is him:
You all already know his work:
Dr. Seuss always writes in meter – and in weird ones like anapestic tetrameter that you wouldn’t think anybody could actually get down on the page. And it doesn’t sound strange though you’d think that it would! (That last line is, ahem, actually anapestic tetrameter. Done all by myself.) Cool so here is the real master of anapestic tetrameter at work in ‘Oh, the places you’ll go!’:
Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
*will make you the winning-est winner of all.
*Last line is only 11 syllables, so it doesn’t count.
But can you see how we have two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable? That happens FOUR times in one line, which means that we have a tetrameter here. (Remember that ‘anapestic’ has three syllables, unlike iambic, which only has two).
Now the only thing to do is listen to it.
This is a bizarre version of ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go’ that I found on YouTube. It does have an atmospheric soundtrack, however. Really listen to what syllable, or what word, the speaker is stressing.
I have lots and lots of examples of different poetic meters. Seeing how they work in real poems is the only way to understand. If anybody wants this explained without cheesy YouTube videos, I am more than willing to do so!