“Love the meter and flow of your piece. It just moves along at the perfect pace.”
“I enjoyed your poem, but it broke down in a couple places for me. Your iambic meter was off in S1 L3. I suggest trying a headless iamb with a feminine ending in L3, that should lead you into the headless iamb in L4 smoothly and keep a smooth unimpeded flow.”
Sound familiar? I recall similar blurbs in reviews and reading them bewildered as to their meaning. There were a host of terms unfamiliar to me, but meter was the most foreign due to the explanations attached. I thought I had an idea of what meter might be, but when the explanations spewed forth my confusion reached new depths. Terms like iambic pentameter, trochaic tetrameter, anapestic pause for heptameter with a twist of headless trimester sounded suspiciously evil to me. These people were cultists ,for sure, and I was the virgin to be sacrificed to the poetry goddess, nude and innocent … well, for another time.
Over the last two years or so, I’ve reached some rudimentary understanding of meter, I believe. I’ll try and explain for those new to this mysterious entity.
First, I want you to think of music. That’s what poetry is and that’s what meter represents. In a word, meter is the beat. Think rock and roll. Envision the drummer, sticks in the air calling out, “One, two, three, four!” What happens next? Yep, the music starts. The “one, two, three, four” is the beat or rhythm or METER. You can feel it and clap to it. Play almost any CD and you’ll feel it. ONE is usually emphasized in rock music. ONE, two, three, four. Feel it? Okay, remember this.
Now, think of a waltz. How about Waltzing Matilda, we all know that song. A waltz is “one, two, three”. The first beat is emphasized, “ONE, two, three.” Listen to the song. Feel it. Okay, remember this too.
Any reggae fans? Cool beat, yes? Very distinctive. Rock and roll, yes, but the beat’s a little different. The third beat is emphasized, “one, two, THREE, four”. Listen to a couple reggae tunes. Hear it? Feel it? Clap to it and get it in your system. Okay, remember this too.
Now, just file the waltz away for later use, but don’t forget it.
We’re sticking with rock and roll for now. Try counting out loud, “one, two, three, four” and choosing different numbers to emphasize. To emphasize I suggest a knee slap. So maybe to start, “slap, two, three, four.” Try that until it’s comfortable.
Now, let’s get a little fancier. Let’s try two slaps. “slap, two, slap, four.” This is putting emphasis on one AND three. Try that until it becomes comfortable. Are people laughing at you? Tell them to join in or get lost.
If you have “slap, two, slap, four” down solid you are demonstrating Trochaic meter. That’s the pattern in poetic terms of trochaic meter.
Try this: “one, slap, two, slap”. Keep at it until it’s comfortable. Do you have it? Now, you’re demonstrating Iambic meter. That’s the pattern in poetic terms of Iambic meter.
Instead of numbers such as the ones we’ve been using, use syllables. Instead of “one, two, three, four” use, “syllable, syllable, syllable, syllable”. By using “syllable” you are speaking in strictly poetic terms.
All words are made up of syllables as you know. A syllable can be either stressed or unstressed. Here is where we get “stressed” out over meter when it comes to poetry. We can all get to the point fairly easily where we can get X amount of syllables per line. But that stressed/unstressed thing is what kills us, yes?
This is where the beat that we’ve learned comes in. The “slap” in music is the “stressed” in poetry. The stressed syllable is the one that is emphasized.
Take a word like running. Say it out loud. Listen to how you pronounce it. First we see that running has two syllables, we already know that, yes? Run-ning. Do we say RUN-ning, emphasizing “RUN” or do we say “run-NING”, emphasizing “NING”? An easy one, correct? “RUN” is emphasized. “RUN” is the stressed syllable and “ning” is the unstressed syllable.
We use “da” for unstressed and “DUM” for stressed syllables in poetry. “Running” in poetic terms is “DUMda”. Try some words and see how they would be written in poetic terms. I will here.
The rain in Spain, falls mainly on the plain.
da DUM da DUM da DUMda DUM da DUM
Remember, da DUM is iambic in poetic terms. Do you notice that in the sentence I chose, all of the various syllables follow that “da DUM” pattern? The whole sentence is iambic. There are ten syllables in total, count them. In poetic terms we call that pentameter. There’s a term for six, eight, twelve, etc. It can get confusing, but all it is is just a word that means six, or eight or twelve respectively. Trimeter, tetrameter, heptameter etc. It sounds foreboding when people start throwing terms around. Don’t be intimidated. Once you learn them, you’ll find they’re simple terms and don’t require any great scholarship to learn.
In any case, the line above: “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” is a line of the infamous iambic pentameter. Not so mysterious and foreboding, is it?
The keys are practice and the avoidance of panic. Don’t be intimidated. Some of the very best poets here and elsewhere took a good long time to master the basic meters we use. I personally know people who write sonnets that flow like butter who couldn’t write one to save their lives a little over a year ago. Anyone will tell you, I couldn’t write one worth four cents for the longest time. Ignore what they say about me now … LIARS!
Well, I usually go on too long with things. I hope I haven’t here. The bottom line is this: meter is nothing more than the beat. Poetry is meant to be musical. In general, if it sounds smooth when spoken out loud, it probably is good. Still, all of these things are tools. A smart craftsman has the proper tools to practice their craft.
I hope this helps a little bit. There is more, but this is a good start.