Sunday, October 15, 2006

Teaching metrics - background

I'm working on another section of the workshop presentation.

Just a bit of background, which I won't be giving in the paper, since everyone involved in the workshop probably has at least an MA in English or a related field. (It's worth mentioning in passing that many English verse terms are taken from Classical Greek, though they measured vowel length in ways we don't. So the whole terminology thing isn't perfect, but it's what we use anyway. Jack Lynch at Rutgers has a helpful page on terminology.)

In English metric verse, we measure by stressed and unstressed syllables. Stress is when you say a syllable or part of a word with a little more emphasis or loudness. As a native speaker of English, when you say the word "important," for example, you're likely to stress the second syllable, "port." If you speak Spanish, and say "Importante," you'll stress the "tan" syllable. Unlike Spanish, which has pretty regular rules for stresses, English is all over the place; that's one of the things that makes it a hard language to learn as a second language.

Say "important." Now say "impotent." In "impotent," you get a pattern of stress, unstress, and either another unstress or slightly stressed final syllable. (In my accent, I pretty much swallow the end "tent" syllable. Your accent will probably be different. This is one of the reasons why reading verse aloud to feel it in your mouth is so very important.) When you say "important," you have an unstressed, stressed, and unstressed pattern.

English tends to rarely stress two syllables in a row, but fairly often has a couple unstressed syllables between stressed syllables. The easiest patterns in English involve two syllables, one stressed, one unstressed. And, probably 90% of metrical verse in English falls specifically into the pattern of iambs: an unstressed followed by an stressed syllable.

Here's an example:

If she should write
Some verse tonight
This dimeter
Would limit her. (John Hollander, Rhyme's Reason)

We could also write this:

If she / should write
Some verse / tonight
This di / meter
Would li/ mit her.

The slash marks (aka virgules) separate each foot. (A foot is a measurement, as in inches, feet; it's easier to think of in terms of a musical measure. So when you see poetry talking about tripping over feet, or making "pedestrian" jokes, you know they're joking about meter.)

This example being iambic, when you read it aloud, you'll probably feel the second syllable in each foot stronger in your mouth.

So, iamb: unstress, stress
Trochee: stress, unstress

And because we sometimes see a foot with two stresses, we have a name for that:
Spondee: stress, stress

English verse is sometimes written in three syllable feet, with one stress and two unstressed syllables.

Anapest: unstress, unstress, stress
Dactyl: stress, unstress, unstress

(Want a mnemonic? An anapest is "all the BEST"; the word "anapest" is itself a dactyl.)

We also talk about the lengths of line using Greek-originated prefixes.
Monometer = one foot in a line
Dimeter = two feet in a line (the joke in Hollander's verse above)
Trimeter = three feet in a line
Tetrameter = four feet in a line
Pentameter = five feet in a line
Hexameter = six feet in a line (Also called an Alexandrine, because we LOVE our terminology.)

Most English metrical verse is in iambic pentameter, with a fair minority in tetrameter, trimeter, and hexameter.


The temperature outside, according to the NWU website, has reached 45F, so I'm cutting this short to go take a bike ride, get some fresh air, exercise, all that good stuff.

If you see someone wending along on an old ten speed in several layers of long johns and sweats, wave to me! (I'm actually thinking of getting a pair of those long biking tight things so I won't be so cold, but the idea of wearing ANYTHING remotely spandex makes me tense.)

The background stuff took me LOTS longer than I'd planned, so I'll come back in a separate post to add what I'm really going to talk about. I wonder at myself typing all that in because it's not at all what I'm really after.

Edit: Thanks to Dr. Virago for correcting a typo!


  1. Caught a typo you might want to fix for posterity:

    And, probably 90% of metrical verse in English falls specifically into the pattern of iambs: stressed followed by an unstressed syllable.

    You meant unstressed followed by stressed, I'm sure.

    And here's a nifty trick for remembering "dactyl" -- hold your left index finger in front of your face, pointing to the right. Dactyl means finger and "reading" your left index finger from left to right, you see "long" bone, "short," "short" -- just like a dactylic foot!

  2. Darn it! I was going to give the same device for remembering the stress pattern in a dactyl that Dr. V did.

    We must have read the same book, or had the same teacher, for that.

  3. Gotta get make sure it's the correct (not right) finger, though, or you get those pesky anapests.

    Bardiac, I have a question for you: what do you do with the occasional student who absolutely insists she cannot hear variation in stress? I'm a great fan of teaching meter (in whatever language) and love doing it, but sometimes my irresistible force meets an unmoveable (sophomore) object. My favorite last-ditch strategy is to make students recite lines of iambic pentameter intentionally stressing all the syllables that should be unstressed, so they sound like the Talking Moose and are, in principle, shocked into hearing what sounds right, but even that doesn't work for some people.

  4. Dr V, thanks for the correction.

    I love physical ways of learning, so I should do the finger dactyl thing. (I've freaked out more than one class by showing them the blind spot in their eye, why not do something a bit more appropriate to my subject!)

    I like your strategy lots, Tirincula, especially about doing them stress-backwards, so to speak.

    Have you tried having people play with their names and the stresses? I find sometimes that helps.

    I really had a hard time hearing stresses for a long time, but the strategy you use helps me tons.

    I imagine it's really hard for folks whose first langauge isn't English to work with English stresses.

    Maybe play with dessert and desert? or other examples?

  5. I think the analogy to musical meter you make in passing is misleading. Musical meter is temporal--you cut time into units then divide up the notes within those measures--but poetic meter is relative. With the exception of some 20th c. experiments in isochronous verse, poets don't mark out time, even in quantitative meters, but especially not in accentual-syllabic meters.

  6. Good point, Joseph, thanks.

  7. I was afraid I was being a little pedantic.

    Also: I grew up hearing my mother read metrical verse to me, as well as being steeped in the KJV of the Bible. I've been able to hear meter all my life, but it took me quite a while, even after I began writing poetry seriously, in both free verse & trad. meters, to get any good at analyzing lines of verse. The most useful thing anybody every told me--it's obvious, but I hadn't thought of it--was to just read the line & count the stresses on your fingers. Ignore the unstressed syllables at first, just make sure you've got the stresses distributed, then start marking out the unstressed syllables & the foot divisions. The trickiest situations are iambic lines that begin with a trochee because one is tempted to mark them out as trochees. I always start in the middle of the line when dividing up feet, especially if there is a caesura.

    Oh, and when teaching meter & looking for examples, begin with W.H. Auden, not, say, trad. ballads. Auden's meter is highly rationalized, ballads are metrically intuitive. Me, I love them both.

    Oh, hell, as long as I'm on the subject, there is a story I picked up when I was in the MFA program at Iowa that I can't absolutely confirm, but which I don't think is entirely apocryphal either. Apparently, the poet Donald Hall visited Donald Justice's Forms class (which I would take a couple of years later) & for the first half hour Justice & Hall conversed in blank verse. No one is claiming rhymed couplets--that would be apocryphal!

    Obviously, I love this stuff. Same goes for rhetorical figures. It mystifies me that my students so seldom share my enthusiasm.