Meter

I fell in love with poetry because of meter. When I was a boy, my mother read lyrics by the great English poets to lull me to sleep at night. She had been given an anthology of "immortal" poems by her eighth grade teacher and cherished the book. By the time I was in the eighth grade, I had read every poem in the collection. Included was "The Bells" by Edgar Allan Poe, a stanza of which is quoted below. I would read the poem — chant is a better word —with my nine-year-old sister Lori, and soon this became a rainy-day game with us. We would huddle in her bedroom on the floor with the book and read the poem slowly at first, building up speed with each line until our voices rose finally into one amazingly rapid rap:

Keeping time, time, time In a sort of Runic rhyme, To the throbbing of the bells — Of the bells, bells, bells — To the sobbing of the bells: — Keeping time, time, time As he knells, knells, knells, In a happy Runic rhyme, To the rolling of the bells — Of the bells, bells, bells: — To the tolling of the bells — Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, Bells, bells, bells —

To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

When my sister and I finished the poem, we would burst out laughing, exhilarated and exhausted by Poe's chiming bells. We were as proud as any siblings double jump-roping in the city streets. (By the way, you also can jump rope to "The Bells.") You can rap to it, too, thanks to meter — the rhythm or cadence that you hear in a poem.

Learning meter should be easy. The hardest part, it seems, is overcoming fear of the strange words — anapest, iamb, etc. — that describe certain sounds or rhythms. The good news is that English has a natural rhythm. So if you use a natural voice in your poems, as described in chapter eight, chances are your lines will convey a pleasing cadence. In fact, English sentences often fall into an "iambic pentameter" beat. Don't let those words scare or impress you. An iamb is simply a two-syllable word (or two one-syllable words) with the inflection on the last syllable, as in "toDAY" or "a DAY." If you designate those words with the symbols for a light or unaccented stress (w) and for a hard or accented stress ('), those words would be marked "today" and "a day." Each iamb, or pair of light and hard syllables, equals a "foot." Pentameter means five pairs of such sounds, or five "feet."

If you marked off each foot with this symbol (|), an iambic pentameter line would look like this: " | I thought | y5u said | y5u took | a bus | today. | "

English, though mainly iambic in tone, is a rich language. It borrows words from other tongues, so variations in inflection are bound to occur. That's why you want to familiarize yourself with all the possible sounds and rhythms you can employ in poems.

When we speak of meter in poetry, usually we mean two things:

• A regular rhythm — a sound that you can tap your feet to — like music.

• An accentual-syllabic rhythm —a sound that takes into account the number of accents (or hard stresses) along with the number of syllables in each line.

Let's look at the history behind the term accentual-syllabic.

We inherit accentual meter from our old German and English influences. Centuries ago, poets simply counted the number of accents and usually employed alliteration — words beginning with the same letter —to mark off time, as in:

The Roman retreated on the road,

Vanquished by the victorious Vandal,

Banished in battle, broken,

Shields in shards, severed,

Longing to lie in his land.

Likewise we inherit syllabic sounds from Romance languages that influenced English in the past. (Asian poetry also is heavily syllabic.) Let's cast the above stanza into lines using the same number of syllables, to illustrate this type of meter:

The Ro-man re-treat-ed on the road,

Van-quished by vic-tor-i-ous Van-dais,

Ban-ished now in bat-tie, and bro-ken,

His shield in so man-y shards, sever-ed, As he longed to lie down in his land.

As your ear becomes more attuned to slight variations in sound, you'll begin to see the problems with accentual and syllabic meter. Accentual meter is too unnatural-sounding in modern English. (Who deliberately speaks with words that begin with the same letter?) Syllabic meter, on the other hand, is extraordinarily subtle. (Who can claim that all four of the syllables in a word like victorious are equal in duration or importance?)

Accentual-syllabic meter, perfected in the Elizabethan era, is inherited from ancient Greek poetry. Unlike Anglo accentual or Romantic syllabic meters, classical meter conforms better to modern speech inflections and tightens the standard line for more impact on the ear. To illustrate, let's rewrite that same stanza about the beaten Roman, using traditional meter (along with standard symbols for light and hard stresses and traditional feet):

| When tiie Ro- | man a-ban- | doned his roads | I And surren- | dered, the Van- | dais pursued; | | The Tmper- | ial arm- | or In shards | | And the art- | erfes sev- | ered, lie longed | | To lie down | In the pas- | tures of home. |

As you can see, the above stanza eliminates much of the alliteration and subtlety of the earlier versions. Yet it has a distinct beat like accentual meter and equal number of syllables per line like syllabic meter. The beat is derived from the hard stress of words as they normally would be pronounced in English, and the syllable count occurs automatically because a certain tone is repeated. As such, classic meter works almost like a measure in music. (The word meter, by the way, comes from the Greek word for "measure.")

To help simplify the basics of accentual-syllabic meter, I've composed an outline below. Study it if you have never learned formal meter, or review it if you know formal meter but want to brush up on the basics.

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