Poetry is something that confuses a lot of people. Maybe you find it really easy to write, but when you try to critique someone else’s all you can say is ‘This is great.’ Or perhaps you’re more like me and you really struggle writing poetry, but you love critiquing other people’s work. And yet, sometimes you just tell someone ‘this isn’t working’ and you don’t know why.
One thing that a lot of people don’t understand about poetry is meter. Years ago, I thought meter was just the number of syllables in a line and if I just counted the syllables properly—like a haiku—I’d have poetry. I never understood why it didn’t work out.
While syllables are certainly important, what most people miss is that some syllables are stressed, and others aren’t. We all unconsciously know about stresses; after all, you need to know the stressed syllable in a word to know how to pronounce it. For instance, ‘family’ is FA-mi-ly, not fa-MI-ly or fa-mi-LI. My favourite example is trying to put the emPHAsis on the wrong syLAble. It’s actually kind of amusing when you try to say certain words wrong on purpose.
In many poems, even unrhymed ones, meter plays a large role. My professor likes to use the example of a famous Doctor Seuss rhyme:
I do not like
The syllables in bold are the ones that you stress whenever you say it. For instance, if you were using this as a jump-rope rhyme, those syllables would be the ones where you jump. There’s no way you’d say THAT sam I am. It just doesn’t sound right.
Whether or not you’re sticking to a meter in your poetry, just be aware that words with more than one syllable will have one stress, and it’s not always the first syllable. DANger, PRACtice and ACtive all have the stress on the first syllable, while aGREE, heLLO and baNAna have the stress on the second syllable.
With this in mind, consider the following ‘poem’:
I love my banana
It works, right. Unstressed, then stressed, then unstressed. Repeat three more times. However, this next one (even though it has the same number of syllables) doesn’t work:
Please agree, banana
Aside from the fact that the poem is complete and utter nonsense, what’s wrong with it? In the second line, the stress is all wrong. The rhythm makes us want to say A-gree, rather than a-GREE, and we know that’s wrong, so we start stumbling. It’s possible to say it sensibly, if you cut the sing-songy voice you’d use for doctor Seuss, but it doesn’t roll as smoothly off the tongue as in the first example.
When you’re writing poetry, one thing you want is for it to have a nice rhythm. Next time you’re writing a poem and a line just sounds off, or someone says that they found themselves stumble over it, start checking stresses. The ‘perfect’ word can’t just have the right number of syllables. It also has to have the proper stresses.
So, that’s my really brief lesson on meter. If you’d like to hear more about meter and how some famous poets, such as Milton and Shakespeare used it, I’d be happy to write another post or two. Otherwise, I’ll move on to some aspects of more modern poetry. Please comment if you’d like more on meter, or if there’s anything else you want me to talk about.