Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of York's online course, Poetry: How to Read a Poem. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds How we become familiar with the word probably affects whether we feel able to make that word our own. For years I believed that technical terms like ‘metre’ and scansion were neutral useful words. The existence of such terms meant that we wouldn’t have to keep redescribing what we wanted to talk about - like that character in the comedy show who didn’t know the word for ‘fire’ and kept saying ‘orangey flamey thingy’.

Skip to 0 minutes and 34 seconds I longed to have good conversations about how the language of poetry moves - what the time in a line, and the technical terms I believed were shortcuts for getting to the interesting stuff, so we could all point out and share what we noticed and be talking about much the same thing. Of course, this isn’t true, some words remain alien if they have been forced on us, or if we don’t have a community in which to use them.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds And I realised that metre was a warm and fuzzy word for me, because in Trinidad where I grew up, metre was used by aunties and friends who were measuring out cloth by the metre bought from fabric shops, like soft play sculpture parks, or wonderlands, where measuring tapes and yard sticks also abounded. Metre was associated with measuring stuff that was graspable, wearable, tactile, colourful and this association very likely transferred a feeling of marvel and comfort into the word metre as applied to poetry. It’s good to have a feeling for language, utterance, and stuff. You shape it with mouth, hands, eyelets or devices.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds Now I come from a musical family, and my sister is a percussionist. So I think it’s no coincidence that when I’m writing a poem I think constantly about rhythm, which is really another way of looking at metre. So I’m not talking necessarily about regular metre, I’m talking as well about those moments of incidental rhythm, perhaps three stressed monosyllables at the end of a poem, or moments of pauses as well, which are all part of the metre.

Skip to 2 minutes and 13 seconds But what I’m doing when I’m composing a poem, is I’m constantly running through the idea of how it will sound, and that does mean when I’m writing a poem, I also read it aloud, and a lot of the work that I’m doing editing poems is reading aloud and hearing what doesn’t sound quite right, and trying to think of ways to fix that.

Skip to 2 minutes and 39 seconds Once, I linguistically isolated myself in Florence speaking only Italian or, when I didn’t know the Italian word, French or Spanish for a month. The exception was when alone in my room. I was trying to find out whether my speech had a natural rhythm, and what its metre might be, I kept talking to myself and noting down what I said by making marks on the page - slashes, dashes, dots, and curves no words as such. I realised that what seems like an irregular accent in the voice I had at the time, my accent is even more blended and mixed now, was regular, with a cyclical pattern that repeated over what I could divide into approximately 6 short lines.

Skip to 3 minutes and 22 seconds The sequence ‘disappearing people’ in my third book ‘Undraining sea’ is written in this personal metre. Though I used verse paragraphs that moved with the flow of the narrative. I did not use 6 line stanzas, for the narrative was more important to me than the metre used to convey it. However, the metre is why the narrative flowed at all.

As a poet - how do you think about metre?

In this video, poets Vahni Capildeo and Penny Boxall explore how they think about metre in their poetry.

Over to you

Consider these prompting questions and let us know what you think in the comments section. You may like to use these questions as a starting point for your comment, or you may choose to answer one specific question - we look forward to hearing from you!

How do you think about metre?

Has this video opened your eyes to other ways of thinking about metre?

What are the creative ways in which Vahni Capildeo and Penny Boxall think about metre?

Do these speak to your experience of reading or writing poetry?

Let us know in the comments below.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Poetry: How to Read a Poem

University of York