The Technical Language of Poetry
In this chapter, we’ll be looking at some basic formal elements of poetry. Much of this material is based on sound. It is easier to understand with spoken examples. At the end of this lecture you will find links to videos that reinforce material presented here.
The vocabulary that has been developed to study poetry is elaborate. Although you may feel you’re being exposed to a lot of new words at once, in fact we will only be sampling this vocabulary here. You’ll find a longer reference list of common vocabulary words at the end of this chapter.
The study of the nature, forms, rules, and techniques is called poetics; part of this, the study of poetic meter and sound, is called prosody. The following poetics describes very well the majority of poems written in English from the late 15th century (the time just before Shakespeare) to the present. The major exception is free verse, which is primarily a 20th-century phenomenon. Although you may use this lecture as a supplemental glossary, the entries are not in alphabetical order because concepts described in many entries depend upon a knowledge of those that have been described before. You can’t understand what blank verse is, for example, until you know what meter is. Fortunately, you have a computer and can search for entries easily if you need to refresh your memory.
These are the most basic words anyone needs to know who wishes to discuss poetics:
Foot: We mentioned in a previous lecture that for the most part English poetry is measured by stressed syllables. As we stated there, a stressed syllable and its accompanying unstressed syllables is called a foot. English poetry has four basic feet, the iamb, the trochee, the dactyl and the anapest. Of these four, the iamb (pronounced “I am”) is by far the most common. The iamb consists of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Traditionally an unstressed syllable is marked by a ˘, and an stressed syllable is marked ´. But, for visual ease we will mark the stressed syllables in bold.
iamb: The bar
A trochee (pronounced “troh-kay”) is a backwards iamb, a two-syllable foot in which the first syllable is stressed:
The anapest (pronounced as written, “an-a-pest”) and dactyl (pronounced “dak-til”) are three syllable feet thus:
anapest: on the hill
dactyl: dumb as a
In addition to these four basic feet, there are two more, less common, that you should know, the spondee (“spon-day”) and the pyrrhic (“peer-ik”). These feet are common substitutions in poetic lines. In other words, they are not generally the basic meter of the line, but serve to add variation to the regular pattern set up in the meter by repeating one of the four basic feet. The spondee consists of two accented syllables together; the pyrrhic consists of two unaccented syllables together.
pyrrhic: to a
Line and meter: A string of feet is a line. The pattern of stresses in a line is called the meter. It’s obvious from looking at a poem where a line begins and ends. What you may not know is that lines have names based on the meter and on number of feet the line contains. Lines in English poetry tend to repeat the same foot a number of times. Variations tend to be isolated. For example, one anapest, or spondee or pyrrhic may show up in an otherwise iambic line. But it is still an iambic line.
Here are some more line names, from one beat to eight:
You’re unlikely to come across a regular line longer than eight feet.
To give the full name to a line you put the adjective form of the foot beside the name of the length. Greek epics, for example are written in dactylic hexameter. The line is natural to Greek and rare in English. (Even translations of Greek epics are often not rendered in dactylic hexameter.)
The most common line in English poetry is iambic pentameter. A pentameter line, as the name suggests, is a line with five feet. An iambic pentameter line would therefore look like this: da da | da da | da da | da da | da da
An example would be,
The bear is in the house be-side the brook.
The second most common line is iambic tetrameter, a four beat line:
I nev-er lost as much but twice
The third most common is iambic trimeter, for which I assume you do not need an example. You should be able to recognize these on sight. Any other line you may have to cross reference with your vocabulary list if you need to name it.
If you feel you understand, great. If you want to set the idea of iambic pentameter more firmly, here is a video that will help.
Scansion/Scanning/Scan: The task of determining the meter of a line, of being able find the proper name of a poetic line, is called scanning or scansion.
A word of warning: to understand how poems work, it is necessary to be able to scan them. However, knowing what scansion is and being able to scan are not the same. Many students in the past have come to me saying they can’t figure out how to scan a given line in a poem. The only sure way to improve is to practice. Here are a few helpful hints that might get you started.
- First, you should understand that stress is based both on the natural rhythms of the language, and is therefore “natural,” and also upon the habitual practice of poets, and is therefore “conventional.” If you are a native speaker of the language, then you have much of the expertise you need in order to scan a line. But you will also need to read a lot of poems with an ear for the meter to get the rest.
- That said, if you are asked to scan a line, do this:
- Identify the stresses of longer words. If a word is longer than one syllable, the stressed syllable is the normally accented syllable. If you can’t figure out which syllable is accented, say the word over and over, stressing a different syllable each time. Only one pronunciation will sound right. If you are still confused after doing this, you can always look in a dictionary. Dictionary pronunciation guides identify accents.
- Note, one syllable words are tricky. You can usually decide ahead of time that prepositions such as “in” and “on” will not be stressed. But this is not always true. And pronouns such as “I” or “she” may or may not be stressed depending on the line. Consider the following two lines:
I never lost as much but twice [I nev-er lost as much but twice]
If I am forced to stay I’ll scream. [If I am forced to stay I’ll scream]
In the first line the first “I” is unstressed. (The first time we read this line we might stumble over this word wondering whether to stress it or not. Further reading will reveal that for the sake of a smooth rhythm it should not be stressed.) In the second line the first “I” is stressed but the “I’ll” is not stressed.
How do we know? The tendency of the English line is to fall into regular patterns of stress. The determination we’ve made for these three “I” syllables cause these lines to fall into regular iambic patterns. Repeated readings of these lines will show that native speakers tend to read these lines as we’ve indicated.
- So, third: once you have found the fundamental foot, let that guide you in determining stress—keeping in mind that substitutions are always possible.
- Fourth, remember scansion is not an absolute science. People do disagree about how to scan particular lines. And there may be more than one way to scan some lines. The trick is to read the line naturally and then take a hint from the obvious pattern developed by the line to help you through troublesome syllables. Remember, unless you are reading free verse, most lines will fall into a regular pattern. (But I repeat: most poems throw in substitutions here and there to keep you from falling into a trance.)
- Remember that in scanning you are merely uncovering and identifying what you already are doing when you read the line. The line should always sound natural. You only scan a poem to analyze it—to find out how it works.
But why do poets use different lines anyway?
We’re making a slight detour from vocabulary building here. But if you know why this matters you will probably be more able to learn the material. Different lines have different effects. We won’t be able to go into any elaborate study of different lines and their effects here. But I’ll offer two very different lines for comparison.
First we have four lines of the typical iambic tetrameter: ˘´ ˘´ ˘´ ˘´
Whose woods/ these are/ I THINK/ I know.
His house / is in/ the vil-/ lage though.
He will / not see/ me stop– /ping here
To watch/ his woods/ fill up/ with show.
(Notice in the second line here “in” is stressed, even though it’s one of those little prepositions I mentioned above, and “is” is unstressed even though it’s a verb: the line determines the pattern of stresses.)
Now compare that to this slightly irregular dactylic dimeter: da da da | da da da
Half a league, / half a league
Half a league /on-ward
All in the / val– ley of / death
The dactylic foot makes the line seem faster and gives the appropriate sense (for this poem) of horses running. Even though the dactylic foot is longer than the iambic foot, its slack syllables give it the impression of speed; the frequent stress in an iambic line gives slows that line down.
Now back to vocabulary…
Rhyme/rhyme scheme: You already know what rhyme is. Poems don’t just have rhymes they also have patterns of rhyme. Rhyme is one of the most obvious elements of poetry. When the last words of lines rhyme, this is called end rhyme.
Nay, fly to altars; there they’ll talk you dead:
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
When rhymes appear in the middle of lines, this is called internal rhyme.
Once upon a midnight, dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.
The pattern of end rhymes is called rhyme scheme. Rhyme scheme is designated by alphabetic letters in this way:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood a
And sorry I could not travel both b
And be one traveler long I stood a
And looked down one as far as I could a
To where it bent in the undergrowth b
NOTE: If you are asked to show the rhyme scheme of a particular poem, you must do so using a’s, b’s, c’s etc., in lower case.
A perfect rhyme of vowel alone (if there is no consonant) (go, show) or vowel + consonant is there is one (goat/boat), is called true rhyme.
If the “rhyming words” sound similar without a true rhyme, (like car/tear or goat/slow), this is called slant rhyme (or off rhyme or half rhyme).
Note: rhyme is based entirely on sound, never on spelling. “Cough” and “off” are a true rhyme. “How” and “low” are a slant rhyme even though they look the same.
When two words end with the same spelling but different sounds (cough/through), this is called sight rhyme.
Other sound devices. Poems use other forms of sound-alike in addition to rhyme as well. These include
- alliteration, the repetition of a consonant sound: Billy Bob burnt Busy Bills bumblebee;
- assonance, the repetition of a vowel sound: Billy wins his millions limping,
- anaphora, the repetition of the same word at the beginning of several lines.
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond
- epistrophe, the repetition of the same word at the end of successive lines Epistrophe is very rare. Here’s an example
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Rhythm: Patterns of stress produce rhythms. Rhythms are named by the meter, using the vocabulary you learned above. We say “the poem has an anapestic (or an iambic) rhythm.” The word applies to poems in the same way that it applies to music. Poets choose rhythm to create tone, and mood, and pace—to bring out their subjects. Think of how painters use color. Listen to the quick anapestic rhythm of the following:
In Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about
the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as the dance
in Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess.
Notice how the rhythm of the poem imitates the dance it describes. Here’s a copy of Bruegel’s great picture: The Kermess.
Stanza: a group of lines, usually set off by a space above and below, is called a stanza. You probably already know this word. You might not know that stanzas, like lines, have names. There are general names for stanzas based on the number of lines. There’s no name for a one-line stanza. But a two-line stanza is called a couplet. Here are some other stanza names:
Three lines = tercet
Four lines = quatrain
Five lines = quintet
Six lines = sestet
Seven lines = septet
Eight lines = octave or octet
Stanzas longer than eight lines are rare.
To give the basic name for a stanza you need only count the number of lines. Nothing else matters.
However, in addition to these general names based on number of lines, certain stanzas have more specific names based on the particular combination of the number of lines, the meter, and the rhyme scheme. For example, a stanza (of any length) in unrhymed iambic pentameter is called a blank verse stanza (see blank verse below). An iambic pentameter tercet that rhymes aaa is called a triplet.
At once extinguish’d all the faithless name;
And I myself, in vengeance of my shame,
Had fall’n upon the pile, to mend the fun’ral flame.
A four-line stanza written in iambic tetrameter or alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter is called a ballad quatrain.
All in the merry month of May,
When green buds they were swellin’,
Young Jemmy Grove on his death-bed lay,
For love of Barbara Allen.
There are a great number of specialized stanzas in English poetry. We will not, however, be concerned with any others for now.
Blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter. Long ago English poets experienced the poverty of rhyme in our language. Hence they often did not bother with it. Retaining the meter of the most common English line, iambic pentameter, they dispensed with end rhyme. Shakespeare’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy is a good example:
To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep—
No more, and by that sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to…
Poetic Forms: Future lectures deal with the notion of poetic form. If lines and stanzas have names, so do poetic forms. We’ll concern ourselves with a limited number for forms this term—sonnet, ode, ballad, free verse among others.
Final word: There are a lot of new words and concepts here to take in all at once. Your next step should be to look at the video lectures that illustrate these concepts more thoroughly. It’s good to read about these things. It’s better to read about them and then listen to how they sound. Poetry is all about sound.
Thomas Wyatt, “They Flee from Me” (Links to an external site.)
John Wilmot, “Against Constancy” (Links to an external site.)
William Blake, “Ah Sun-flower,”
Emily Dickinson, “269 (Links to an external site.) [Wild Nights-Wild Nights]”
Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky” (Links to an external site.)
Edgar Allen Poe, “Annabel Lee” (Links to an external site.)
Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Charge of the Light Brigade” (Links to an external site.)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Aftermath” (Links to an external site.)
A. E. Housman, “Loveliest of Trees” (Links to an external site.)
Thomas Hardy, “Channel Firing” (Links to an external site.)
Robert Frost, “Come In,”
Dorothy Parker, “Resume”
Theodore Roethke, “My Papa’s Waltz” (Links to an external site.)
Sylvia Plath, “Daddy” text
VIDEO LECTURE: Meter Is Meaning: Week 5 Meter is Meaning.mp4