When I was judging the Writing Challenge, (and now, when I critique postings in the Critique Circle), I frequently read poems that had problems with meter. Metrical “hiccups” can really interfere with readers’ enjoyment of a poem, so here’s a tutorial to help you better understand meter and how to write it well.Meter is the rhythmic structure of a poem. The two basic units of rhythmic structure are syllable count, and stressed and unstressed syllables.
Traditional (non-free verse) poetry generally has a pattern of counted syllables in each stanza
. A very common pattern is the one found in the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Here’s the first stanza, with the syllable count given in parenthesis:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound (8)
That saved a wretch like me (6)
I once was lost, but now am found (8)
Was blind, but now I see (6)
So this stanza’s meter would be written as (8,6,8,6)
But wait—we’re not done. Not only does there have to be a pattern of number of syllables, but there must also be a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables
. Let’s take a look at “Amazing Grace” again, this time with the stressed and unstressed syllables emphasized.
a MA zing GRACE how SWEET the SOUND
that SAVED a WRETCH like ME
i ONCE was LOST but NOW am FOUND
was BLIND but NOW i SEE
See how the syllables alternate between stressed and unstressed? If this is something that’s difficult for you, try reading it aloud, really exaggerating
the capitalized syllables. Then, just for fun, try this slightly altered version. It has the same pattern of syllables (8,6,8,6) and the same meaning, but the stressed/unstressed pattern is “off” in a few places. Again, if you don’t “hear” it, read it aloud, or try singing it.
Wonderful grace, how sweet the sound
Saving a wretch like me
Once I was lost, but now I’m found
Blind, but now I can see.
Do you hear that it’s just not quite right? If I write that version out where the natural stresses fall, it looks like this:
WON der ful GRACE, how SWEET the SOUND
SAV ing a WRETCH like ME
ONCE i was LOST, but NOW i’m FOUND
BLIND, but NOW i can SEE
Irregular rhythm like this causes your reader to stumble a bit…the brain naturally seeks out a rhythm, and when it’s broken (or impossible to find), the poem just doesn’t flow.
Now let’s take a look at another hymn for another metric pattern, both in syllable count and in stressed/unstressed syllables.
how FIRM a foun DA tion, ye SAINTS of the LORD (11)
is LAID for your FAITH in his EX cell ent WORD (11)
what MORE can he SAY than to YOU he hath SAID (11)
to YOU who for REF uge to JE sus have FLED (11)
Not only is the syllable count very different from the previous example (11, 11, 11, 11), but you can see that each line has a stressed syllable followed by two
unstressed syllables (and an extra one thrown in at the beginning of each line for good measure).
By far the most common meter I encounter here on FW is the same (8,6,8,6) as in “Amazing Grace.” Here’s a suggestion for you poets who may be stuck in the (8,6,8,6) rut. Experiment with more interesting, even quirky rhythms. But here’s the deal—you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. There are lots of great sources of metrical examples, and you may even have one of them in your home right now (or at least one that’s easy to get). In the back of most hymnals, you’ll find something called a “Metrical Index.” It lists the meters of all the hymns. Find one that you like, and shamelessly copy it. Meters aren’t copyrighted—you’re not cheating. Get the rhythm going in your head, find the right words that fit the meter, and run with it!
You can also “borrow” the meters of poems already written by established poets. It’s fine, really it is.
A few notes:
1. Meter doesn’t have to be engraved in stone. Just as in music, sometimes two quick little unstressed syllables might take the place of one, or there may be a “rest” or a “grace note”—or just a metrical hiccup. If you’ve got a (10, 8, 8, 10) poem going, and one stanza happens to be (10, 8, 7, 10), the world won’t come to an end. But please--master consistent meter before you branch out to the exceptions.
2. I highly recommend RhymeZone.com. It can help you find good rhymes for your poems, but it can also help you find synonyms. So if you want to use “scared”, but you need a two-syllable word, turn to RhymeZone, and you’ll find a-FRAID or FRIGHT-ened, depending on where you want the stress to go. Dictionary.com also has a thesaurus.
When I was writing for the challenge, I didn’t write poetry often, because it’s just not my strength (although I love it). Here are a few examples of my challenge poems, included here to give you practice in finding and counting meter. Meditation on Isaiah 35The Fox Speaks—The Bird SpeaksThe Psalmist at the GateBumper CropCornucopiaMegan’s Hands
As I’ve said before, I don’t share my own links because they’re any better than others’ writing, but because I know where to find them. I’m not fishing for compliments, I promise.HOMEWORK
1. Read one or more of the above linked poems, and analyze it for meter. I wrote earlier that the meter of “Amazing Grace” is (8,6,8,6). Using the same method, tell what the meter is of the poem(s) you chose. Also, tell what the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is.
2. Same as #1, but with a poem or hymn written by another person
3. Same as #1, but with a poem of your own
4. Make a comment or ask a question about meter
If there are quite a few of you who enjoy learning about poetry, I may make this a series: I’d cover rhyme and slant rhyme
next week, and then some specific types and forms of poetry in future weeks. I welcome your suggestions for poetry-related OR other writing topics.As always, I also welcome ideas for future lessons (poetry-related or not). And I encourage you again to submit to the Critique Circle. This challenge break is a great opportunity to do that—perhaps to choose a Writing Challenge entry that you’d like to have critiqued. I check the Critique Circle every day, hoping for something new to critique, and I frequently find no new submissions for several days in a row.