A Brief and Basic Overview
There are 2 basic types of English meter: 2-beat and 3-beat. But I have never read a textbook that accepts that simplicity; instead they want to insist that there are at least 4 basic types (if not more): iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and dactylic. Well, technically this is the traditional description (which I am reducing), and you’ll need those terms to pass a college test introducing you to poetry—but study a little more and you’ll discover that these are actually descriptions of Latin meters, borrowed to describe English. Let us consider them:
2-beat meter (iambic and trochaic) consists of alternating the stress between every other syllable, like these lines from Wordsworth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud (-/-/-/-/)
That floats on high o’er vales and hills, (-/-/-/-/)
Although “as” only gets a stress because it falls between two unstressed syllables, and English speech patterns naturally apply a little more stress in such a situation—but only a little: it’s still less than the naturally-stressed syllables.
Here’s another iambic line:
The remnants of a dream escape my thoughts (-/-/-/-/-/)
We say the line is in iambic pentameter, because it has five iambic (-/) feet, stressing every other syllable. But trochaic meter also stresses every other syllable:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary (/-/-/-/-,/-/-/-/-)
As you can hear, the rhythm is the same; only in trochaic each line starts with a stress and ends with an unstressed syllable. Well—most of the time. For what are we to do with these lines from Scott:
I have strain’d the spider’s thread (/-/-/-/)
‘Gainst the promise of a maid; (/-/-/-/)
Shall we call them trochaic, since they start with a stress, or iambic, since they end with a stress? Beginning a line with “’gainst” instead of “against” seems to indicate a determination to start on a stressed syllable; but of the 16 lines in the full poem, only four end with a complete trochee (/-)… so most teachers will end up calling it iambic (because everything is iambic except Poe’s “The Raven”), and tell you that those lines begin with a “clipped” foot.
Meanwhile, the meaningful distinction between iambic and trochaic meter really comes from Latin poetry, where those terms measure syllable length instead of stress. So I say dash it all and just call refer to it as 2-beat meter. But that tends to annoy teachers of literature who insist that the two meters are different (and yet who are never able of articulating how that difference makes a difference).
Moving on to 3-beat meter—or as the teachers will insist, anapestic, dactylic, and (shudder) amphibrach and amphimacer. Listen to the anapestic from Sir Walter Scott:
O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west, (~/~~/~~/~~/)
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best; (~/~~/~~/~~/)
Or this example from my poem “Faye”—
Deep in the mountains, a maiden awaits, (/~~/~~/~~/)
Confined to a tower, a dragon at guard. (~/~~/~~/~~/)
All of those lines had hour beats, dominated by the anapest (~~/); the first foot was clipped in every line. Invert anapestic, and you get dactylic:
Higgledy piggledy (/~~/~~)
Sorry about the nonsense—dactyls (/~~) at the end of lines result in polysyllabic rhymes, which almost always sound comic in English; so dactylic is almost exclusively employed for comic verse, and often for nonsense verse.
You must be an alien (~/~~/~~)
To enjoy such verse. (Actually, I do enjoy such verse.) Anyway, if the lines require polysyllabic rhymes, they get labeled dactylic, and if they don’t, they get labeled anapestic, so
Hickory Dickory Dock (/~~/~~/)
Counts as anapestic after seeming to start with two dactylic feet. Confused? Then your literature teacher makes it worse by telling you about amphibrach (~/~) and amphimacer (/~/)—but will provide you ZERO examples of English poetry written in those meters. Fortunately for you, I have an example:
The kids at the library love when he visits (~/~~/~~/~~/~)
To read to them poems and dramas and stories (~/~~/~~/~~/~)
Yes, I wrote “The Storyteller”—28 lines of natural amphibrach—as a game, to prove that first, it could be done, and second, that it sounds exactly like anapestic meter. In fact, my friend, appreciating the joke, declared it to be written in anapestic “with the first foot clipped and a feminine ending on each line” (yes, we’re nerds). Anyway, anapestic, dactylic, amphibrach—it’s all 3-beat meter, which tends to be more bouncy and quicker-tempo than 2-beat meter. 3-beat meter actually isn’t much used in English—maybe less than 5% of all English poetry, and most of that comic.
Meanwhile sustained amphibrach (/~/) doesn’t exist in English poetry. Neither does spondaic, for that matter, because
We. Do. Not. Talk. This. Way. (/ / / / / /)
Except very occasionally, for particular emphasis.
Of course teachers will continue to teach people about the 4 to 7+ different poetic meters—and bore many students to death, diverting them from the delights to be had in poetry. I think we would be much better off teaching only the two rhythms—2-beat and 3-beat—and letting students feel their impact upon the reader/listener.
Like the post if you agree, and if I haven’t bored you to death myself.
For anyone perverse enough to enjoy violent, unproductive argument I suggest going into a college classroom and putting to the students the very simple question, “What is poetry?” You will find this a more effective means of sewing discord than discussing politics or religion at the dinner table—particularly if any of the students in the room believe themselves to be writers of poetry. Woe to the person whose definition of poetry excludes the productions of a person who deems himself a poet!
It has not always been this way. For a long time, the word “poetry” referred to a readily identifiable form of literature, governed by certain explicit rules, distinguishable from prose, drama, and grocery lists. Now, however, the rules that once governed the form and identity of poetry no longer shape the definition of “poetry” in the minds of most readers of literature. Thus the title of this essay—On Poetry—tells the prospective reader next to nothing—except that perhaps I am going to write about what I think poetry is, in contrast to what my readers may think it is; and clearly I am going to offend a lot of people, and may have begun offending them already.
Much of this problem arises from the fact that the word “poetry” has taken on a powerful positive connotation that overshadows the word’s denotative meaning. This condition afflicts also religious designations (“Christian” and “un-Christian”) and national designations (“American” and “un-American”), among other important terms, such that use of the terms describe a personal emotion (“I like it” vs. “I don’t like it) rather than stating anything at all about whether the so-described object is in fact poetic, or Christian, or American. Such emotional connotations undermine their terms’ denotative meaning, making it impossible to productively use the terms, or discuss their definitions. I trust my readers will avoid this problem by laying aside how they feel about our subject long enough to consider what it is they are feeling about in the first place.
Let us then step back a moment in time—before relativism, before modernism, before free verse, before modern democracy, before Romanticism—and let us ask, “What is a poem? What distinguishes a poem from prose? from drama? from a grocery list?”
One may be tempted to define poetry in terms of its object (its purpose or function), and therefore consider emotion, or exalted language, to be the defining features of poetry. But closer examination contradicts this hypothesis: the object of prose or drama might also be the expression of emotion, and may be expressed through exalted language still as prose or drama. What then separates poetry from these classes of literature?
The answer—obvious to another era but often overlooked today—lies within the form, not function of a poem: the words in a poem are ordered according to a specific pattern or rhythm—in addition to the grammar of a language, which may be deviated from to a greater extent than in drama or prose—which is the dominant feature of the work. This pattern or rhythm is termed meter.
Many forms of meter exist—though as a general rule there is one dominant meter for any given language. For example, Classical Greek and Latin meter is governed by syllable length; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean meter by syllable number; Old English meter by alliteration and stress (accentual-alliterative); Hebrew meter by parallel thought. English meter—English poetry—is governed by syllable stress and number (accentual-syllabic). It is the shaping of a subject into a sequence of words ordered according to alternating stresses (stressing either every other syllable or every third syllable) and numbers of syllables per line that defines traditional English poetry—and the very structure that contemporary “poets” rebel against.
(The governing principle of English meter is not rhyme. English poetry has been written with and without rhyme—rhyme being an optional rule applied in addition to the metrical rules which created poetry. This is important to note, because many writers today mistakenly associate rhyme with the governing principle of English verse, and consequently misconstrue the debate over meter. Milton’s Paradise Lost is written in blank verse—an unrhymed metrical form—not free verse.)
The task, then, for a poet is to find the proper words and the proper word order to express his or her subject within the boundaries of his or her chosen meter. The genius of a poet lies in his or her ability to do this in such a manner that the form complements the subject rather than restricts it. In contrast, bad poetry is created when the poet must change his or her subject, or throw in meaningless words, in order to fit the rhyme or rhythm of the poem.
For traditional English poetry, the art of poetry and the artifice of poetry are inseparable. This describes the historical reality of English verse—make what value judgement on it you will. Yet this is clearly not a description of contemporary English poetry (if indeed any description is possible). What happened?
Actually, no one thing happened; rather, several literary and cultural changes occurred that simply recast traditional English meter as unfashionable, favoring instead a “freer” form of expression. We begin with the Romantic cult of artistic genius.
The form of Romantic poetry (not to be confused with romantic poetry; capital letters are important) is traditional enough: the Romantic era poets wrote in English meter, attending to the principle of alternating stress. What was not traditional about them was the way they perceived themselves, and their work.
“Poetry,” declared Wordsworth, “is the spontaneous overflow of emotion, recollected in tranquility.” This definition shifted the identity of poetry away from its form and towards its function—and so did much to alter the popular conception of poetry. One of the consequences was the suspicion of meter: whereas formerly meter had created a poem, now it could be construed as an obstacle: how can one express “the spontaneous overflow of emotion” if one is confined to meter? Never mind that Wordsworth wrote in meter, or that he “recollected in tranquility” the emotion that inspired the poem—for now emotion was perceived to be the poem itself. Hence the Neoclassical poetry of Alexander Pope, being the creation of reason and meter—wit—was to become regarded as illegitimate verse.
Shortly after Wordsworth’s spurious [re]definition, Shelly declared that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”—a statement characteristic of the cult of artistic genius in Romantic literature, music, and painting. Artists became the true men and women of the world, Promethean heroes who challenged the gods and society, living as superior beings outcast from the world. (Of course, readers who understood and appreciated their work could share in this vaunted superiority.) Poetry had undergone a transformation in terms of its social significance: formerly the work of learned intellectuals, it was now the proper domain of the individual of passion.
The poetry-as-emotion theory, fairly created in the Romantic era, continues to be championed today, and has become so much a part of our culture that many people simply assume it to be the natural, eternal definition of poetry—despite the fact that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Meanwhile, the theory regards metrical poetry as suspect—artificial, with all the negative connotation that word now can muster.
Another consequence of this theory is the perception that poetry is the sacred expression of the poet, and therefore a poem cannot be termed good or bad without making a judgement upon the poet. Such is our cultural view of personal emotion.
But the Romantic re-definition of poetry is only part of the story. For the next part, we must cross the Atlantic Ocean to America, land of rampant individualism and Walt Whitman.
Whitman (who interestingly enough, could write outstanding metrical poetry) pioneered the style of poetry that later became known as free verse—though this is not the same type of free verse as that which dominates the twentieth century. Whitman’s goal was to develop a form of poetic expression independent of traditional metrical forms—not to develop a poetic expression that was formless (a distinction rarely recognized by most writers of “free verse” today). His work expressed the values of individualism and personal expression (two forces which also chafe under traditional forms, which they regard as restrictive), and has come to embody the spirit of American poetry.
What happened to poetry afterwards happened also to painting, for the same cultural reasons. Between Whitman in poetry and the Post-Impressionists in painting, Pandora’s Box was opened: new “forms” multiplied themselves, and artists in every corner were preaching the end of the traditional along with the purer—more “authentic”—virtue of the new. But while in visual art we at least have some names to identify types of work (cubism, fauvism, futurism, suprematism, etc.), in poetry we have only the catch-all term, “free verse”—and as this expression continues to proliferate, it becomes increasingly difficult for readers—and authors—to identify what shapes that verse. Some readers may regard this artistic proliferation—this unrestrained freedom of expression—as a good thing; others may regard it as travesty.
Poetry-as-emotion and poetry-as-individual-expression are invoked to describe the creations—but no one can cogently identify what qualifies this emotion and individual expression as “poetry” in contrast to prose rendered in short lines and sentence fragments. The situation is further compounded by cultural devotion to moral relativism, which annexes the realms of visual literary art: now nobody has the right to say anybody else’s creation is not “art,” or “poetry.”
Thus the cynic defines poetry as “whatever people say is poetry”—and is justified in doing so.
The entire malaise of identification is ironic: if a word refers to everything, that it effectively refers to nothing—yet so powerful is the positive emotional connotation of the word “poetry” that authors of what is in truth a nameless category of linguistic production—insist upon calling their work poetry.
could count as poetry—though nobody could say why, and nobody could dare to say why not.
Of course the devotees to formal poetry—for traditional English meter has only been marginalized, not eliminated—could say (without value judgement, even—but value judgement is nevertheless assumed) that the above example does not constitute a poem. But formal poets today are few and far between, and often regarded as the Oppressors of poetic expression, in exactly the same way traditional churches are regarded as the Oppressors of the expression of faith.
Unfortunately, there is no solution for this dilemma of definition—or at least no solution that will ever be accepted culturally. One might think it simple enough to invent a new term to designate “free verse”—one that would be regarded as taxonomically equal to the terms Drama, Prose, and Poetry—but again, the term “poetry” has such a desirable connotation that writers of free verse will never relinquish it. Therefore to me, the term “poetry” alone is meaningless: either use the term “formal poetry” or the term “free verse” (and don’t forget that blank verse is metrical, formal poetry); then we can hold a meaningful conversation.
A Brief and Basic Overview
Formal meter refers to the basic rhythmic structure that separates a language’s poetry from its prose. In English, that structure is based upon the number and alternation of stressed syllables (accentual-syllabic). Other languages have their own forms, according to the : Japanese and Korean poetry, for example, is based upon syllable number; classical Greek and Latin poetry was based upon syllable length and number; and Old English poetry was based upon stress and alliteration (accentual-alliterative). These poetic properties emerge from the constraints of their language: English words, for example, have varying amounts of stress, with polysyllabic words having both stressed and unstressed syllables; in contrast, Korean words have all their syllables stressed equally, so number becomes recognizable where alternating stress is not.
Rhyme is a common accompaniment to English meter, but not a fundamental component. Poetry can be written in meter (alternating stress) without being written in rhyme; this is called blank verse—not to be confused with free verse, which does not bother with alternating stress. However, the rich vocabulary of English, being developed from German, French, and Classical sources, enables rhyme to feature more prominently in English poetry than in the poetry of other languages: in an inflected language like French or Latin, in which many words have the same endings, rhyme is less significant.
In English accentual-syllabic meter, poems are formed by what type of alternation they use (every other syllable, or every third syllable), and how many stresses are contained in each line. A sonnet, for example, is in iambic pentameter, meaning that every other syllable is stressed, and 5 stresses are in each line (-/-/-/-/-/). Some poems have lines of varying length: a limerick, for example, is written in anapestic meter (~~/), with its first, second, and fifth lines (which are rhymed with each other) with three stresses each, and its third and fourth lines (rhymed with each other) with two stresses each. But knowing the nomenclature isn’t necessary for hearing and feeling the meter of the poem:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary
Whether you call that trochaic meter or not, you can feel the beat. It feels different from the prose sentences in this paragraph. Why? Because the beat alternates (/-/-/-/-,/-/-/-/-). In contrast, if I scanned this sentence it would look like this: ~/~, ~~///~~~/~/. Consider another:
The water glides across her calves beneath her shortened jeans (scans -/-/-/-/-/-/-/)
or another pattern:
There never was knight like the young Lochinvar. (scans ~/~~/~~/~~/)
This is the essence of traditional English meter: crafting words in such a way that they naturally sound out rhythms of alternating stress. (If they are sounding them out unnaturally, being forced into the meter, that is a mark of bad prosody—all to common among song lyrics and preschool rhyming books today). When done well, the rhythm enlivens the content of the poem; when done poorly, it distracts from it.
Before the advent of free verse, meter (not content) was the defining feature of poetry (even Wordsworth, who defined poetry in terms of its content, wrote exclusively in metrical form). Since free verse appeared as an alternative to this poetic form, formal meter has become less popular, with more new free verse being published. And since free verse is not defined by its form, there has been some confusion about the nature of traditional poetry. I rather wish the two kinds of literary output had different names; but I am not the god of literature, so we shall have to make do with one name to share between both types of output. But hopefully, we can still recognize the difference between the two—and avoid trying to argue that one kind of poetry is the other.
All the poems on this site are in formal (traditional) English meter, for those who still enjoy that kind of thing—and for those who might discover a new enjoyment in it. So please, look around; and if it does bring you some delight, share it.
As a matter of personal taste (which shouldn’t threaten or upset anyone—and yet this one often does), I find poetry written in formal English meter much more beautiful than what is written in free verse. Not bad meter, mind you—I much prefer expressive free verse to sloppy, negligent, and unexamined attempts at poetry—but poetry of the kind written by Shakespeare and Spenser, Johnson and Donne, Dryden and Pope. It is a kind of poetry not much celebrated today—or for the past century—and is often dismissed as “artificial.” But for my part, I find it to be no more artificial than free verse; although I do find a lot more artifice in it, and consequently, delight.
Good metrical poetry has a rhythm that is not only recognized but felt; done well, this gives a poem a kind of power common to music. Most free verse, in contrast, lacks such rhythm (although it depends upon the poet: poets like Walt Whitman and T.S. Elliot did not disdain rhythm, but rather sought alternative rhythms; but many other poets since Elliot have nearly abandoned rhythm). Occasionally an alternative rhythm is offered (as in the poetry of Billy Collins); and other times a bit of free verse manages a different type of music, but more like a toccata instead of a sonata. But I prefer an established rhythm—and all the variations, and deviations that are only meaningful (or even possible) against the background of a standard.
The standards, or rules, of formal English meter may seem like limitations to many partisans of free verse; but to the formal poet these “limitations” are the essence of poetry, distinguishing it from prose, and instead of stifling expression, they contribute to its production. For example, if I choose to write a sonnet, I immediately conjure up a context (most sonnets, and the Petrarchan sonnet in particular, are on the theme of love; although another common theme for sonnets is mortality); and that context contributes to the meaning. If I choose to write in anapestic instead of iambic meter, my poem becomes imbued with a different energy and levity. Meanwhile I have so many choices available to be both between forms and between content for a given form that I in no way feel “limited” in my expression. Complaining about the “limitations” strikes me as complaining about people choosing to color within the lines in their coloring book; but if you want to color outside the lines, then please, at least don’t insist that others agree that it’s just as pretty (or pretty in a better way).
Writing in the context of these rules also joins the writer to a community of other writers, including not only the living but also the long dead. It is an acknowledgement of others’ participation in your creative work. Meanwhile most free verse that I have read (mostly through college books) seems to me to resent this community—so interested are its practitioners in their own individualism. Whether this social atomization and spirit of rebellion is fundamental to free verse is debatable; but it is at least dominant throughout its history.
Meanwhile, on a personal creative level, I find myself much more capable of writing poetry in meter than in free-form (or formlessness). Often, after wrestling with different phrases, I finally determine my meter, and suddenly the poem starts to come alive. Meanwhile I can’t write a thing in free verse—because everything I write just appears to me as pretentious prose. Now I admit that not all free verse it pretentious prose (in fact I rather like the work of Billy Collins); but much of it is quite indistinguishable from prose, except that its author has chosen to designate it as poetry and write it in short lines and/or fragments. Anyway, I leave it to others with a sense of free verse to write free verse; all my ability is to be found in writing meter.
But none of this answers the question so well as a few examples of the real thing. Read a poem like “The Raven” or “Once Upon a Time”—two poems with extraordinarily different feels to them, but both written with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables—and ask yourself if either could work without such music to them. You’ll find that in both the metrical pattern adds a substance and a vitality to them that would otherwise be absent. That’s what writing in formal meter is about.
Of course, not everyone has the same taste; and I realize that I am now in the minority. Why this is the case is a long story (a good explanation to it is given in the book Missing Measures, by Timothy Steele); but I think a good summary is that people no longer understand formal meter—its mechanisms, construction, and effective use. In colleges a music major can learn how to compose Classical music; but it is a rare literature major who learns the same of formal English meter (results at your local college may vary—maybe you are lucky enough to have Timothy Steele as a professor).
But formal poetry is not dead, and I hope I can encourage its continued expression and growth. And I hope many of you will, too.