These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.
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 35
The Fox Speaks—The Bird Speaks
The Psalmist at the Gate
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.
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
For the first assignment, I chose "The Psalmist At the Gate".
The meter appears to be 8, 8, 6, 6, 8 with a few exceptions.
The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables appears to be:
2, 5, 8 for the eight-syllable lines
3, 6 for the six-syllable lines.
In those lines with a different number of syllables:
In nine-syllable lines, the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is 3, 6, 9.
In the one ten-syllable line, the pattern is 3, 7, 10.
In five-syllable lines, the pattern is 2, 5.
In one of the six-syllable lines, the pattern is 2, 5. (Unworthy, defiled),
My apologies if my analysis is incorrect.
I have been writing poems for decades, no formal lessons.
I usually write in 4 line stanzas of 5 or 7 (20 or 28 lines, not counting blank)
My two main concerns are:
1. Getting my point across
2. Rhyming (example: 1 & 2, 3 & 4, etc.), at the end of each line
Now, I do count my syllables (which are typically, as few as 10, but no more than 15, per line)
However, I do not keep in mind, the structure (i.e. how many syllables are in each line)
Example: each line to have 10 syllables, or one has 10, the next 12, the next ten, etc.
My main focus, is the message I wish to convey, if I limit myself on structure, it takes away from my focus, of getting the message across.
Whether that's right or wrong, It's my style, and one I have used for decades.
I have enough trouble trying to make sure I don't overuse rhyming words, at the end of each sentence.
Well done, Cinnamon Bear.
This poem is an example of how the metric structure of a poem need not be exact.
By the way, these verses have the same structure as most limericks. Also, it can be sung (mostly) to the tune of "Blessed Be the Tie that Binds."
poeticgent, would you be willing to post one of your poems here, so that we could take a look? Maybe we could give you some easy-to-implement ideas for improving your meter.
I'm curious, too, why you've decided that rhyme is important, but not meter. If inconsistent meter makes your poem "bumpy" and difficult to read, your message will be lost, just as it would suffer if your rhymes were faulty.
I'm just thinking that if you've written poetry for decades, you're probably pretty good at what you're comfortable with. Maybe it's time to stretch yourself, try something new?
I equate it to music...a song might have a lovely or important message, but if it is performed poorly, that message might be lost because the audience is cringing at the flat notes or the lack of articulation. But if it's done well, the message will reach its audience. The same is true of poetry--the message is more likely to be conveyed if the poetry is done well.
I'm not trying to be difficult. I really can't hear the difference with the wonderful grace version. I said it aloud sang it, and even tried to clap a rhythm but it doesn't sound off with me. When I did my picture book. I went through counting each line of syllables and wrote them down so I'd have a pattern and then went to people who can hear it and found out it was like you said more than just the count. Some people had me avoid the count altogether. I love writing poems when the mood hits me, but am always told I have meter issues. I am tone deaf, can't clap with a crowd unless I watch their hands, maybe I should just give up.
This is from my book (not what I had originally, but what experts told me sounded better).
oh what fun we have in school. 7
Our teacher's name is Mr. Green. 8
Everyone likes him because he's nice.9
He's firm, but never mean. 6
I guess I totally messed up the syllables. I wish I could remember how I had it originally. I think the Last line was never ever mean. I can't even begin to tell you what the natural stressed pattern is. I know how I say it, but have been told I don't always stress it right.
Sometimes God calms the storm; Sometimes He lets the storm rage and calms His child
To my ear, these are the stressed and unstressed syllables of these lines:
our TEA cher's NAME is MIS ter GREEN
EV ery one LIKES him be CAUSE he's NICE
he's FIRM but NE ver MEAN
The first and third lines have a pattern of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables, but the second line has an irregular pattern: stressed, unstressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed.
I've often thought recognizing meter is probably something that goes hand in hand with musical ability, and I think I asked that several years ago when I did a different version of this same lesson. Most people who said that meter was easy for them were also musical, and the converse was also true.
I'm curious about why you chose to write a poem book.
I wish I could figure another way to help you to "hear" meter. I thought for sure that saying it out loud or singing it might do the trick. Sorry. I'll give it some more thought.
If anyone else out there has an idea, please let me know!
Thanks, Jan. I did notice the similarity of "The Psalmist At the Gate" to a limerick. I had thought of limericks as having the meter 9, 9, 6, 6, 9. However, I just checked a couple of websites that describe other possibilities. Also, I always thought of limericks as being humorous, but apparently that does not have to be the case.
Last edited by Cinnamon Bear on Sat Jun 14, 2014 3:46 pm, edited 2 times in total.
Here's something that might help, although it would be time-consuming.
If you (that's anyone, not just Shann, although her question has prompted me to work on this) have a problem with hearing meter, but you love poetry and are determined to write it well--you can look up words in the dictionary--either a "real" paper dictionary or an online one--and the pronunciation guides there will tell you which syllables are stressed and which are not.
There are different ways of indicating stressed syllables, depending on which dictionary you use. Some use capital letters, as I did, so the word "wonderful" might be written as
WON der ful
Others use syllable markings:
won' der ful
It's hard to see, but there's a little apostrophe after the first syllable.
So--as I said, it would be cumbersome, but you could look up the words of more than one syllable, determine where the stress or accent is, and arrange them in a regular pattern.
For part 2 of the assignment, I chose “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree” which was written by an unknown author, sometime around 1761.
The meter is 8, 8, 8, 8; with the exception of the 4th stanza which is 9, 9, 8, 8.
The pattern of stressed syllables is 2, 4, 6, 8 in both the eight-syllable lines and the nine-syllable lines.
http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.co ... e_tree.htm
“Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree” Author Unknown (composed circa 1761)
This poem was set to music by at least two composers, resulting in two very different but equally beautiful, hymns:
“Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree” Sung to music composed by Jeremiah Ingalls in the late 18th or early 19th century.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cm3fZDZx ... Ex0YWwJd83
“Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree” Sung to music composed by Elizabeth Poston in the 20th century.
The version by Elizabeth Poston has been criticized by some who feel that the music should have been modified to better fit the meter of the spoken poem. Nevertheless, her version is one of the most beloved of 20th century hymns.
In my recent Challenge entry “I Am the Tree and My Friend Is the Bark”, I had in mind to some extent “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree”. With the exception of a couple of trip-ups, the meter and the pattern of stressed syllables are the same---8, 8, 8, 8 and 2, 4, 6, 8, respectively:
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=48610
In "Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree", the author means that the apple tree is Jesus Christ. In "I Am a Tree and My Friend Is the Bark", the bark is a human being. However, because he exhibits some Christ-like characteristics, he might be considered a Christ figure.
I did think of the dictionary, but it would get tedious. The reason why I did poetry for the book is because kids can be able to anticipate the words if they rhyme and I want kids to learn many things when a book is read to them.
Someone once told me there is a program that you can run a verse through to see the patterns, but I can't find one.
I have a coffee table book that is a poem. It came to me much like a vision. It felt like it took minutes to write it, but it was pages long. Some day I'm going to figure out how to get the meter right and publish it,
I have absolutely no musical talent. I was in color guard in high school and almost drove the band teacher crazy because he couldn't understand why I couldn't hear the beat and stay in step.
Sometimes God calms the storm; Sometimes He lets the storm rage and calms His child
This is a favorite of mine, and not many people know it. I first heard it on James Galway's Christmas album, and I've loved it every since.
An editor who's good with poetry could help with that, although it might prove to be more of a collaborative writing effort than a writer/editor relationship. Still, it's worth looking into. I'm sure the meter is salvageable, and the result would be a beautiful book.
I think I have a natural ear for rhythm/meter, and yes, a rhyming poem that doesn't have a consistent meter is hard for me to read. Shann, I wonder if an editor could tweak the meter of your poems for you?
Jan, reading the "altered" version of Amazing Grace, I was re-writing it in my head:
Wonderful grace, how sweet the sound
Saving a wretch like me
Once I was lost, but now am found
Blinded, but now I can see.
I chose #3 for my homework. This poem was birthed from an email I got, whose Subject Line was "The 84th Annual Bancroft Reunion." The meter was so distinct and fun - almost Suessish - a poem started writing itself in my head. I've "analyzed" the first two (of 16) stanzas. I didn't follow any guides or examples - just followed the meter of the first line. A
Each line is 12 syllables, and I've stressed the accent syllables. ABaaBaaBaaBa
Cat, thanks for sharing a link to that delightful poem. I liked very much one of your comments--Joanne said that the meter matched the subject matter. What a wonderful, insightful thing to say!
I'll have to give this more thought, but I'll bet that the really accomplished poets choose a specific meter to reflect specific moods. I'd love to hear from someone who has done that (oh, Kenn Allan, where are you?), and to know what their process is for selecting the right meter for the poem.
Is there anyone who can chime in on this?
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