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Poetic Meter

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Simple presentation of poetic meter in English

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Poetic Meter

  1. 1. Poetic Meter Meter is the rhythm of a poem. There are specific ways to analyze meter so that we can say something clear about a poem’s rhythmic pattern. This lesson will show you how!
  2. 2. Scanning a Poem ♦ We “scan” a poem to determine its basic rhythm and to consider the relevance of that rhythm to the meaning of the poem. ♦ Poetry has much in common with music, and both have mathematical foundations. ♦ When we scan a poem, we begin by saying the poetic lines aloud, paying careful attention to the syllables which seem to be stressed (pronounced with more emphasis).
  3. 3. Let’s Look at One Poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by Adrienne Rich (1951) Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen, Bright topaz denizens in a world of green. They do not fear the men beneath the tree; They pace in sleek chivalric certainty. Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool Find even the ivory needle hard to pull. The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand. When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by. The tigers in the panel that she made Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.
  4. 4. A Scan of Lines 1 and 2 To “scan” a poem, we mark each stressed and each unstressed syllable with a mark. Here, we’ll use / for stressed and ~ for unstressed. ~ / ~ ~/ ~ / ~/~/ Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across the screen ~ / ~ / ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / Bright topaz denizens of a world of green. Then we count the stressed syllables in a single line. Here there are 5 stressed syllables in each line.
  5. 5. Counting Stressed Syllables Once we have taken a count of the stressed syllables in each line, we have a good idea of what the dominant meter of the poem is. Every line may not be the same, but usually there will be one dominant pattern. In Rich’s poem, we could scan all the lines and we would see that there are generally 5 stresses (5 stressed syllables) to each line. Poetry scansion makes use of some Greek-derived words to label the meter of a poem. Let’s take a look at those. We measure the meter of a poem using the measurement of poetic feet. A foot in poetry is one stressed syllable + the unstressed syllables that seem to go with it.
  6. 6. Poetic Meter These terms show number of stresses or feet to a line: ♦ One stress (foot) per line = mono + meter = monometer ♦ Two = di + meter = dimeter ♦ Three = tri + meter = trimeter ♦ Four = tetra + meter = tetrameter ♦ Five = penta + meter = pentameter ♦ Six = hex + a + meter = hexameter ♦ Seven = hep + a + meter = heptameter ♦ Eight = oct + a + meter = octameter Since Rich’s poem has 5 stresses per line, or five poetic feet per line, we can say that its meter is pentameter.
  7. 7. One More Step ♦ Finally, we try to determine the dominant type of stressed + unstressed syllable combination which seems prominent throughout the poem. ♦ In Rich’s poem, there are many alternations back and forth between unstressed and stressed syllables. Many look like this: ~ / ~ / ~ / ♦ This pattern of ~ / also has a name derived from Greek: it is called an iamb. ♦ Although there are some exceptions -- notably the pattern ~ ~ / in Rich’s lines -- we can say that the dominant, most common pattern is the iamb, or the iambic pattern.
  8. 8. Iambs and other weird patterns Along with the iamb, there are other possible patterns: Pattern Noun Adjective ~ / iamb iambic ~ ~ / anapest anapestic / ~ trochee trochaic / ~ ~ dactyl dactylic / / spondee spondaic We describe a poetic line, then, by its type and number of poetic feet. For example: 5 iambs = iambic pentameter 4 trochees = trochaic tetrameter
  9. 9. Describing Poetic Meter ♦ About Rich’s poem, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” then, we could say that its meter is iambic pentameter This tells readers that the dominant meter of the poem is 5 stresses to a line (pentameter) and that the dominant pattern or “foot” of syllable stress is ~ / (iambic).
  10. 10. But Why? ♦ Poetry is a musical art form. It depends for its impact on its rhythm as well as on its language. ♦ Being able to describe the pattern of a poem’s meter can help us to analyze its meaning. ♦ Sometimes, however, especially with more modern poetry, you will find that there is no clear dominant meter, that the poet has written the line as it would be spoken, in a more casual mix of syllables, a more conversational tone.
  11. 11. Common rhythms ♦ The iamb is very common in the English language: we often speak in iambic pentameter without realizing it: ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ♦ I’d like to have you meet a friend of mine. ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ♦ Did you take out the garbage yesterday?
  12. 12. Rhythm and Meaning ♦ While the iamb ~ / easily represents a natural rhythm and emphasis often used in English, the trochee / ~ gives a feeling of pressing forward, of more urgency or insistence: / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ Charging down the King’s path steady On to meet our death charge ready ♦ The anapest is used for a galloping kind of rhythm ~~/ ~~/ or for a light, almost comic feeling: ~ / ~ ~ / ~ ~ / There once was a fellow at Drew Who spotted a mouse in his stew, Told the waiter about it, who said “Well don’t shout it” Or the rest will be wanting one too!”
  13. 13. For more information ♦ Take a look at Jack Lynch’s web page on Meter: Works Cited Rich, Adrienne. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X.J.Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 7th ed. New York: Longman, 1999. 657.