i. Structure: Poets Must First Learn to Use Their Feet
Poetry is the music of spoken words. In learning
language skills every child becomes intrigued by
childhood rhymes and chants. People may disagree
whether common rhymed forms of poetry are better than
free verse and other unrhymed forms, but there will be
some who continue to write each. It is well worth learning
to write in different forms.
Common rhyme forms include a variety of ways to
write line segments and whole poems. Lines are divided
into syllables and feet. A syllable is a word or part of a
word that contains one vowel. A foot is a unit that
contains one or more syllables in a regular pattern.
A line usually contains a set number of feet.
Consider these lines from The Tyger by William Blake:
Tyger! tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
In the first line there are seven syllables in four
feet, of which each foot is a single word. The second line
has the same number of syllables and feet, but has six
words. The lines are written in Iambic tetrameter.
Iambic means having two-syllable feet with the
emphasis on the second syllable. Tetrameter means that
each line has four feet. In a poem the lines are
commonly framed in set patterns of number of feet per
line or in alternating numbers. Syllables are either
accented or unaccented. In two-syllable feet the first or
second, or both syllables, may be accented. In the lines
by Blake, above, the rhythm pattern may be read thus by
a young reader:
TYger! TYger! BURning BRIGHT
IN the FORests OF the NIGHT,
This pattern of emphasis is most like the way the
words are likely to be emphasized in a child's chant. In
conversation it would read more like this:
TYger! TYger! burning BRIGHT
in the FORests of the NIGHT,
For humor a person may choose to read it thus:
tyGER! tyGER! burNING bright
IN the forESTS of THE night,
Such play with meter will break the flow of the
poem. Children often use such alternate rhythms; and
such readings can sometimes enhance a poem in
unexpected ways. The meter can enhance or detract
from the meaning of the poem.
ii. Notice How Skillful Readers Accent the Words
In the following lines from To a Skylark by Percy
Bysshe Shelley, the reading can be changed depending
on how the reader chooses to interpret. It is a less
Hail to thee, blithe spirit
Bird, thou never wert.
It can be read:
HAIL to THEE blithe SPIrit
or HAIL to-thee BLITHE SPIrit.
When you read poems, pay attention to how you
feel the accents on the feet in a line. When you listen to
skillful readers, notice how they accent the words. Do not
assume that your reading is wrong just because a
famous reader reads it differently. Often a proper reading
brings out meanings that another reading would miss or
de-emphasize. Also, use your own judgment on an equal
par with the experts. sometimes experts in textbooks
miss the obvious point of a poem. Sometimes the expert
tends to over-complicate the meaning.
iii. Study a Poetry Glossary
There are names for the various feet and meters,
You can find them in a good poetry glossary or on the
Web in a list of poetic terms. A glossary is found in the
back of this book. Other glossaries can be found at many
sites online such as the site below.
Glossary of Poetic Terms.
Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms
by Babette Deutsch
Amazon Price: $11.20
Paperback 4th edition (Jan. '82)
- Purchase your copy on Amazon!
Mechanics of Poetry: A Glossary of Basic Poetic Terms
by Su F. Soref
Amazon Price: $12.99
Paperback (Jan. '96)
- Purchase your copy on Amazon!
Different patterns of feet and rhythm have a strong
effect on the poem's meanings. If a foot consists of three
syllables, the effect is a rippling pattern that sounds like
bursts of activity, such as horses galloping. If you were
writing a poem about a cavalry charge you might
consider using such a rhythm to set a pace, and then
change the pace to emphasize an increase in action.
The following lines are from Swinburne's Triads.
Notice whether you think they are appropriate to the
subject of the lines.
The word of the sun to the sky,
The word of the wind to the sea,
You will notice the rippling meter,
the WORD of the SUN to the SKY,
the WORD of the WIND to the SEA.
A limerick is a poetic form that uses three-syllable
feet. It seldom has a serious tone as it sound's like a
child's rhyme pattern. Despite this, serious poets do
experiment with three-syllable feet. Writing in metrical
forms leads the writer to experiment with many variations
of feet and line length.
In some poems a three syllable foot can be read
as a one syllable foot and a two syllable foot. Try reading
this poem Rondeau by Leigh Hunt both ways.
Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your lists, put that in:
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.
Does the poem seem to be read more comfortably
with two, or three syllable accents?
Read it again, and have someone else listen for how you
naturally accent it.