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Writing Free Verse Poetry: Meter and Rhythm

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Dave Hood

Unlike traditional poetry, poets who write free verse aren’t forced to use a particular metrical pattern. And yet, some modern poets, such as Robert Frost, have used traditional forms to compose their poetry.  Frost wrote in blank verse, a  traditional form,  which requires each line to be written  in iambic pentameter and have no rhyme.

On occasion, contemporary poets write poems in one of the traditional forms, such as a sonnet or blank verse or epic or elegy. This is one reason to learn meter. Another reason is that meter is part of rhythm. And so, if you intend on using rhythm in your free verse poetry, you ought to understand meter.

As well, all good modern and contemporary poets know how to use rhythm and meter. Furthermore, a good poem includes rhythm.

In this article, I’ll discuss meter and rhythm.

Meter in Traditional Poetry

Meter is Greek for “measure.” In English poetry, poets use three common types of meter. In accentual meter, the stresses are counted and the syllables are variable. In syllabic meter, the syllables are counted. A poet who uses syllabic meter develops a pattern by having the same number of syllables on each line of  the poem. In accentual-syllabic meter, both the stressed and unstressed syllables are counted.

Accentual-Syllabic Meter

The poets of Europe, Canada, and United states use accentual-syllabic meter. The metrical pattern is developed by counting the stressed and unstressed syllables on each line. In traditional poetry, poets must compose poems that comply with a particular metrical pattern. For instance, Robert Frost, one of the most popular modern poets, wrote poems in blank verse. He was required to write each line in iambic pentameter, without rhyme.

How do you learn meter? You must first understand that every word in the dictionary has a particular sound, determined, in part, by the number of syllables in the word. Some syllables are stressed, others are not. For instance, cat, dog, bird–each have one syllable. In traditional poetry, meter is identified by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in words, which create a pattern of sound.

The foot/feet is the unit of measurement for meter, which is made up of stressed and unstressed syllables.  Each foot has a particular rhythmical pattern.  In traditional poetry, there are five basic rhythmic patterns, which are used to create meter:

  1. Iambic- one unstressed and one stressed syllable. Each unit has two syllables. Example: hotel
  2. Spondee-one stressed, followed by another stressed syllable. Example: Nightmare
  3. Trochee foot- One stressed, followed by one unstressed syllable. (Each unit has two syllables) Example: Rainfall.
  4. Dactyl-One stressed, followed by an unstressed, followed by an unstressed. (Each unit has three syllables)
  5. Anapest- One unstressed, followed by another unstressed, followed by a stressed syllable.

Length of a Line (Measured in Feet)

In traditional poetry, there are several types of line length:

  1. monometer-1 foot
  2. dimeter-2 feet
  3. trimeter-three feet
  4. tetrameter-four feet
  5. pentameter-five feet
  6. hexameter-6 feet
  7. heptameter-7 feet
  8. Octometer-8 feet

Each type of metrical pattern has a particular number of feet and rhythmic pattern. For instance, iambic pentameter has five feet per line of poetry, each foot consists of one iambic ( One stressed and one unstressed syllable). So, the poet would select words follow this “unstressed/stressed” pattern. For instance, Robert Frost, who wrote poetry in blank meter, selected and ordered words on the line according to iambic pentameter.

Using Scansion to Identify a Metrical Pattern

How do you learn to identify various patterns of meter and rhythm? Use a scansion to analyze and identify the metrical pattern in a poem.  Begin by breaking each word into syllables on a line. For each word, mark the unstressed and stressed syllables, and then identify the metrical foot on each line. You should see a pattern. Iambic pentameter is the most common type of meter in traditional poetry, because it resembles the metrical pattern or everyday language.

Even though modern poetry doesn’t have to follow a particular metrical pattern, such as iambic pentameter, you should have a good understanding of meter, especially iambic pentameter. All good contemporary poetry has rhythm–and meter is one of several ways to create rhythm.

Iambic Pentameter

It is the most common type of metrical pattern in poetry, because it sounds most like speech. Shakespeare used it in his plays, John Milton used it to write Paradise Lost, T.S. Eliot used it to write The Wasteland, Robert Frost used it to write blank verse. Each line has ten syllables. These syllables are divided into five feet. Each foot must have one unstressed syllable and one stressed syllable. In other words, the line will have five feet of iamb. The rhythmic pattern or beat is: da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM. For instance, “the dog, the cat, the bird“ follow this pattern. If you are intending to write poetry with rhythm, it is important to understand iambic pentameter. You can use it as a guide to write your own poetry.

Rhythm Modern and Contemporary Poetry

What is rhythm? John Dreary, the author of Creating Poetry, writes: “Rhythm is the rise and fall and surge and abatement of words–the melody.“ Rhythm is the flow of words on the page. It is the beat you hear when you read a poem. It includes some pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, which create a pattern of sound. You can use several techniques to add rhythm to your poetry. These include line length, line breaks, meter, repetition or refrain, and parallel structure.

Line Length

The length of a line can alter the rhythm of a poem. If you write a long sentence on a line, you’ll slow down the pace, and add more syllables to the line. If you compose a line with fewer words, you’ll speed up the pace, and typically add fewer syllables.

Example:

In a row boat,

on a quiet lake,

a  boy fished for trout. (faster pace)

or

In a row boat, on a quiet lake, a boy fished for trout. (slower pace)

Line Break

Where you place line breaks will also alter the rhythm of a poem. A line break tells the reader to pause. You can add a line break in many ways, such as by adding:

  • White space. Add space between words,  between lines, between stanzas. White space tells the reader to pause.
  • Enjambment. Divide a phrase or clause on one line, and then restart on the next line. The purpose is to create a sense of forward motion.

Example:

the snow

falls

the wind

howls

  • End-stop. Add a period or coma at the end of a line. Both tell the reader to pause.

Meter

Another way to add rhythm to your poetry is to use meter. A simple way is to count the syllables on each line.  This is called syllabic meter. For instance, you might want to create a syllabic pattern with 7 syllables on each line. If you do this, be sure to read your poetry out loud to see how it sounds.

You can also use one of the popular metrical patterns such as iambic pentameter. Or, you can create your own metrical pattern.

Refrain or Repetition

Repeating words or phrases is an easy way to create emphasis and to create rhythm. Songwriters use refrains or repetition in their lyrics.

Poets also use repetition. For emphasis and to create a sound effect, they repeat a phrase or line throughout a poem.  For instance, Dylan Thomas repeated the refrain “Do not Go Gently Into the Night” four times in a poem by the same name.

Two popular types of repetition used by contemporary poets to create rhythm are:

  • Repetend. Repetition of a word or phrase at different locations within the poem.
  • Anaphora. Repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of two or more lines in a poem.

Parallel structure

You can also create rhythm by using parallel structure. It requires that you use the same grammatical form  words, phrases, clauses that have the same grammatical form, such as verbs, nouns, verbal or prepositional phrases. Use also for coordinating (and, or,  but, for, nor, yet, so) and correlative conjunctions (Not only…but also, either…or).  Parallel structure is a simple way to create rhythm.

Examples:

(Nouns in a series)

The dog, the cat, the man

departed from the flaming house.

(Participles in a Series)

Blowing snow, gusting wind….

(Parallel structure for Coorelative Conjunctions)

Not only did he slip

but also broke his leg

 

Tips  for Creating Rhythm

Think of meter as a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables on a line. Some modern and contemporary poetry have a particular rhythm patterns; other poems have an irregular rhythm matter. Here are a few suggestions on how to add rhythm to your poetry:

  1. Be sure to read your poems aloud to hear how they sound. Remember, at the end of each line, you have a pause.
  2. Consider using some form of rhythm. The most popular is iambic pentameter, which is based on five feet. Each foot has one unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable (u /). This metrical pattern sounds most like every day language.  If this is too complex, use a syllabic pattern. Instead of counting stressed and unstressed syllables, count the syllables per line. For instance, you could write a poem of three stanzas, each stanza has five lines, and each lines has 7 syllables.
  3. Use repetition to create rhythm. You might repeat a word or phrase in different places of a poem.
  4. Alter your line length to change the pace. Long lines are used to slow down the pace. Short lines speed up the pace.
  5. Always use parallel structure. If you are not sure of parallel structure, find yourself a grammar book, and then study “parallel structure.”
  6. Break lines where you desire the reader to pause or  where you desire to create emphasis.
  7. Always revise your poems for rhythm.
  8. Remember, in free verse poetry, you create your own rhythmic patterns.

Resources

For additional information on learning about meter and rhythm, read the following:

  • Creating Poetry by John Drury
  • Good Poems for Hard Times by Garrison Keillor
  • The Poets Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
  • The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
  • Western Wind by David Mason and John Frederick Nims
  • The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland
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Freelance Photographer and Writer

David Hood

David Hood

Artistic/Creative Type

Bachelor of Arts Degree, Diploma, and many writing and photography courses.

Many years experience as a writer

Freelance writer and digital photographer

Published author of "The Art and Craft of Creative Writing"

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00F4VOYRK

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