Poetry Rhythm, Meter and Feet

By Charles Hopkins Published 06/1/2006 | Arts and Culture
Being aware of internal structure makes reading poetry much more fulfilling, even if its only a bit of rudimentary structure. Its like anything wine, for example. Knowing something about wine helps you appreciate it more.

Poetic meter consists of units known as feet. Of course, regular everyday speech also consists of feet. A foot is made up of one or two lightly stressed syllables and one heavily stressed syllable. English and American poetry has four basic combinations of feet.

Maybe theyre called feet because people beat out a pattern or rhythm with their feet when clogging or tap dancing. Some steps are heavy and others are light. Some are soft and others sharp. Such beats create the rhythm of the dance. Poetry is the same; the beats can be carefully counted to achieve the overall rhythm. You can tap out the beats of a poem with your fingers to figure out the meter.

The first of the four basic combinations of feet is called the iamb and its pattern is light-heavy, or short-long. This means its an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, and it sounds like da-DUM. An example of an iamb would be a word such as without, believe or decay, and this kind of meter is called iambic.

The opposite of an iamb is known as a trochee and its called trochaic meter. The trochaic foot pattern is heavy-light, or long-short, which means it has one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable, so it goes DUM-da. Some examples are turtle, starlight and whisper.

The next kind of foot is an anapest with three syllables, and a pattern of light-light-heavy, or short-short-long. Anapests have two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable and they sound like da-da-DUM. Anapestic meter includes phrases such as to the sea, and And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.

The fourth basic foot is called a dactyl and its known as dactylic meter. Its the opposite of an anapest, having three syllables with a pattern of heavy-light-light, or long-short-short. It has a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables and sounds like DUM-da-da. An example would be out of the, or This is the forest pri -meval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks (from Henry Wadsworth Longfellows poem Evangeline.)

Another example of internal poetic structure is the number of feet in each line of poetry. One foot is known as monometer; two as dimeter, three trimeter, four tetrameter, five pentameter, and so on.

The iamb is the most common foot in American and English poetry because its pattern is the most similar to ordinary speech. The meter Shakespeare wrote in, iambic pentameter, is the most common verse line in English and American poetry, with five iambs per line. To be, or not to be, that is the question, is a good example.

Although the four meters described above are the most basic meters, there are others such as the spondee, long-long and the pyrrhus, short-short. In addition theres a tribrach, short-short-short, an amphibrach, short-long-short, a bacchius, short-long-long, a cretic, long-short-long, an antibacchius, long-long-short, and a molossus, long-long-long. The names themselves are wonderful!