December 12, 2008

Poetic meter

by: Christine Abriza

In most poems, the lines are written according to patterns of rhythm. Poetic meter is the measure of a line of poetry. It is rhythm that can be measured in poems.

Scansion is the act of making a poem to show the metrical units of which it is composed. It means any attempt, by signs, to indicate the beat of a line of poetry and to mark off the division of feet. Here are the steps to take in scanning a poem, (1) Mark the syllables (Read the poem at this and each succeeding step.) (2) Mark the feet. (3) Mark the caesuras (noticeable pause in a line of poetry and it has a peculiar effect on the total beat of the line). (4) Expect to encounter variations, but do not consider them in naming the bad meter (5) Check your scansion to make sure that it reflects the poem rather than preconceived notion of your own.

The smallest of these metrical units is the 'syllable'. English syllables are two kinds: accented or stressed, and unaccented or unstressed. An "accented syllable" requires more wind and push behind it than an unaccented; it also maybe pitched slightly higher or held for a slightly longer time.

After the syllable, the next largest metrical unit is the 'foot', which is group of two or more syllables. The six common kinds of feet in English metrics have been names derived from Greek:

1. IAMBIC foot consists of unaccented syllable followed by an accented. It can be heard in such words as "because, hello, Elaine".

2. TROCHAIC foot consists of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented. These are trochaic words: answer, Tuesday, Albert.

3. DACTYLIC foot consists of an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables. You can hear the dactylic beat in these words: beautiful, silently, Saturday.

4. ANAPESTIC foot consists of two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable. These words are anapestic: cavalier, tambourine, Marianne.

5. SPONDAIC foot consists of two accented syllables.

6. PYRRHIC foot consists of two unaccented syllables.

The next largest metrical unit is the 'line'. A line is the regular succession of feet, and, though it is not necessarily a sentence, it customarily begins with a capital letter. The number of feet in a line of verse determines the measure or meter. Most poems are not built on a fixed meter, but rather on a combination of meters and variety of them. A line containing only one foot is called a "monometer"; one with two feet, a "dimeter" line; and so on through "trimeter", "tetrameter", "pentameter", "hexameter", "heptameter", and "octameter".

Granted that much more than meter is needed for a poem, does it follow that a poem must have a meter? A large number of poets, especially in the early years of the twentieth century, answered this negatively. Their poems, written in rhythmical language but not in traditional meters, are called 'free verse'. Nonmetrical poetry is called free because the poet has freed himself from conforming himself to the set of metrical patterns. Free verse must not be confused with "blank verse', which is the customary label for iambic pentameter without rhyme. Unlike the free verse, blank verse has a regular metrical pattern.

Meter has two functions. First, it makes poem pleasurable because it is intrinsically delightful. In addition to making a poem enjoyable, meter makes it more meaningful. It is a part of the total meaning -- a part that cannot always be described in words, but can always be felt and is always lost when a poem is paraphrased or when it is translated from one language to another.

Clare, M. T., S.C. (1960) A Book of Poetry. New York: Macmillan Co.
Del Tufo, J. P. (1965) What is Poetry?. Publication Office:Ateneo de Manila University.
Seng, P.J. and Main, C.F. (1996) Poems: Wadsworth Handbook and Anthology. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company Inc