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Writing a poem: Metre

In this article about writing a poem, we explore how metre is used to structure a line in a poem.
In this article, we will be considering the use of metre in poetry. What we hope to do here is to begin to point you in the right direction. I’m afraid what mastering metre really requires though is practice, practice, practice…
Jeffrey Wainwright defines metre as follows:
“A specific, recurring pattern of poetic rhythm. Typically in English a metred line will have a set number of syllables, or stresses, or a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables, i.e. accentual/ stress-syllabic metre”.[1]
If this makes you feel confused, that’s a very normal reaction. In this step, we will try to use the same phrase each time, but change it in order to fit the new pattern.
The first thing to do when trying to identify the metre is to break the words in your sentence up into separate syllables. So the line (following our ‘tool’ theme)
The knitting needles loudly clicked and clacked.
becomes
The   knit   ting   nee   dles   loud     ly        clicked        and   clacked.
The number of syllables in the sentence is ten. We’ll write them next to the sentence like this:
The   knit   ting   nee   dles   loud     ly        clicked        and   clacked. (10)
Next, we need to identify the stressed and unstressed syllables. The stressed syllable is the one which has the most emphasis on it. It is often the core of a word or an important word. The unstressed syllables are usually small words (the, a, in, to etc.) or prefixes and suffixes (sur-, un-, -ing, -y, etc.). Here we have italicised the stressed syllables and left the unstressed syllables blank.
The   knit   ting   nee   dles   loud     ly        clicked        and   clacked.
Try saying the line, putting a little more emphasis on the stressed syllables than you usually would. Or, try tapping along while you read, quiet and loud depending on the syllable. Can you see/hear the pattern? What if we write S for stressed and U for unstressed under each syllable?
The   knit   ting   nee   dles   loud     ly        clicked        and   clacked. U      S       U       S       U       S         U         S                 U      S
The pattern is unstressed (U), stressed (S), unstressed (U), stressed (S), unstressed (U), stressed (S) etc. If we take the smallest unit that is being repeated, we end up with an unstressed (U) syllable followed by a stressed (S) syllable.
The   knit   ting   nee   dles   loud     ly        clicked        and   clacked. U      S       U       S       U       S          U         S                 U      S
This metre is called iambic. It is the most frequently occurring metre in English poetry.
If we swap the pattern round so that an unstressed (U) syllable follows a stressed (S) syllable, it is called trochaic. Let’s adjust our sentence:
Knitting needles click and clack too loudly.
This time, you may be able to see, the line begins with a stressed (S) syllable. Can you divide it into syllables and find the rest of the stress pattern? It should look like this:
Knit    ting     nee      dles     click     and    clack     too     loud    ly. (10) S        U         S          U         S          U       S           U        S        U
Here the smallest repeated unit is trochaic: stressed (S) followed by unstressed (U).
Knit    ting     nee      dles     click     and    clack     too     loud    ly. (10) S         U         S          U         S          U        S          U        S         U
The other two main metrical patterns are anapaestic and dactylic. Here, each metrical unit uses three syllables. If you read the line out loud, you will recognise a more pronounced rhythm:
With a click and a clack quiet needles they knit.
You can see that the sentence had to be changed more substantially too, because extra syllables had to be added. Have you tried finding the stress pattern?
With   a   click    and    a    clack    qui   et    nee   dles    they    knit. (12) U        U   S          U       U    S          U     U     S       U        U        S
This pattern, unstressed (U) unstressed (U) stressed (S), is called anapaestic. If we swap it round again we need to create a very different sentence:
Clickety clackety needles knit noisily.
Can you spot the pattern?
Click   et   y    clack    e   ty    nee   dles   knit    noi    si    ly.
S         U    U    S         U   U     S       U       U        S      U     U
This is called dactylic: stressed (S) unstressed (U) unstressed (U).
If you are finding this difficult, don’t worry! Metre and rhythm in poetry deserve a course entirely on their own. Here we are simply drawing your attention to another set of tools. You will naturally use the rhythms described here in your speech and in your writing. Once you become aware of this, you can make patterns out of these rhythms in your poetry if you choose.

References

[1]Jeffrey Wainwright Poetry: the basics (2016).

Further reading

Paulin T. The secret life of poems. London: Faber; 2008.
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