Skip main navigation

Thinking about metre

Watch two poets - Vahni Capildeo and Penny Boxall - discuss ways of thinking about metre.
So, what I like to do with metre is play games. I like to set up expectation for the reader and then, quite often, confound it. And the way that you can do this is by setting up the expectation of a regularity, and then putting a sort of pothole in the reader’s path. So you set up something to be nice and regular and then you take something away or you put in an unexpected rhythm. And I think that can play really nicely between the kind of expectation of what the poem is going to be about, and actually, what it is about. One particular example of this, is my own poem, ‘A Wedding Day’.
And when I set off to write this poem I didn’t know it was going to be it was going to be a very regular metre, but it came out as that. It came out, it turns out as iambic octameter, that wasn’t something I planned but it was something that happened. I think the sort of, almost nursery rhyme octameter can set up a feeling that you know what that sort of poem is going to be about, but in that case, I sort of hope that I confounded expectations to a degree. So, in this poem the speaker is surveying a dresser full of objects and talking about, quite obliquely, the marriage that the speaker finds themselves in.
So, I’ll just recite the first stanza for you: ‘For now it’s on the shelf intact, but mine’s the sort of mind that slips, all this will smash, or rust, or crack. I see it turning out like this.’ Then the speaker goes on to catalogue all the sugar bowls, pepperpots, saucepans, platters, that are going to crack and smash and it’s the way for the speaker to talk about the failure of the relationship. So I think really that metre is about expectation, and as often as not about confounding expectations. [Vahni] And bothness is how I experience metre, from childhood I sensed the metres of Sanskrit poetry when my father chanted. He understood the words.
I mostly didn’t, so I heard pure sound and rhythm, has my work internalised those traditions? I can’t tell, but I am fascinated by cross rhythms, sometimes if you can’t hear a line, or if people mock a line for not scanning properly. What’s happening is just that the music of the line is unfamiliar, or two or more kinds of music are going on when only one was expected. S So we need to find inclusive of ways of listening, in between cultures, and languages. Kamau Brathwaite in his ‘History of The Voice’ (1984) traces the rise and dominance of iambic pentameter in British English language poetry over the last few centuries.
Brathwaite notes that ‘the hurricane does not roar in pentameters’ and that different bodied histories in the world call for different poetic measures. Kamau Brathwaite as poet and thinker therefore originated the concept of ‘nation language’. He composed evermore experimentally today from the basis of his primary home, in the Caribbean archipelago. Derek Walcott sometimes wrote lines with two rhythms happening at once you can see and scan them both in classical English metre with British pronunciation and in a rhythm corresponding to St.
Lucian speech: the joy is hearing both.

Metre is the term we use to describe the pattern of syllables and stresses in a line. It gives us a vocabulary for talking about, and recognising, how poetry relates to habits of speech, and how poets can play games with the rhythm and pace of their poetry.

In this video, the poets Vahni Capildeo and Penny Boxall discuss various ways of thinking about metre.

Choose one of our prompting questions to respond to in our comments section:

Is metre a concept you are familiar with?

Could you identify iambic pentameter (one of the most famous metrical structures of English verse and verse drama)?

Can you think of an example of a poem where the metre either confounds your expectations or reinforces the meaning of the lines?

How do you think about metre?

Let us know in the comments below.

This article is from the free online

Poetry: How to Read a Poem

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now