Saturday, June 18, 2011

Meter in Poetry

Meter is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line of a poem.  In a stressed-syllabic language like English, meter is the way we identify and understand the overall rhythm of the piece. 

What is Meter?
Meter is everywhere in English.  Every sentence has syllables which are stressed and unstressed - this is simply a facet of language which has been carved into our culture through several hundred (and possibly thousands) of years of linguistic change.

To see this, simply begin with an everyday sentence.  For example:
"I went to the store this morning to pick up some eggs."
If we italicize the stressed syllables, we get the following:
"I went to the store this morn-ing to pick up some eggs."
Can you hear the stressed syllables?  It's okay if you don't here them all at first - it's a very subtle effect, one which happens so naturally that we rarely think about it.  But it's an important effect because shifting the stress can change the implication of a sentence.  For example, "I went to the store..." could be used to register anger: "I'm the one who got up and fetched breakfast. You could at least thank me."

Writing with Stress
Unfortunately, we will not be present in order to pronounce the words for our readers.  Any stress heard by our readers must either rise as a natural result of the language we've written or it must be highlighted using italics.

See if you can identify the stressed syllables in these sentences.  Note that some stressed syllables receive "extra" emphasis in speaking in order to accentuate differences (e.g. assigning blame.)
I was going to drive to the park, but then Joey took the keys.
I was going to drive to the park, but Joey totaled my car.
I was going to drive to the park, but the bus is so much cheaper.
Did you find...? (In this example, the words with the extra emphasis are not only italic, but also bold.)
I was go-ing to drive to the park, but then Jo-ey took the keys.
I was go-ing to drive to the park, but Jo-ey tot-aled my car.
I was go-ing to drive to the park, but the bus is so much cheap-er. 
Notice any patterns in the stresses here?  Why does Joey receive extra emphasis in line two, but not line one?  Why do so many more syllables receive that "extra" emphasis in the second two examples than the first?  (hint: think about how much monetary and/or emotional value is at stake.)

Meter: What Is Meter? - Teaching Meter


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