Our previous post looked at the basics of poetry rhythm and metre (or, in the US, meter). This post goes into further detail on the common rhythms employed by poets, and it covers some of the terminology used to describe and discuss them. Not all poetry pays close attention to metre, but a great deal does and a poet should always be aware of what the various terms mean.
As we saw in the previous post, rhythm in spoken English is a product of patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. So, for example, the word poem is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. You could write it PO-em to highlight this.
Poets refer to this particular pattern as a trochee (a word originating from the Greek, as with much poetic terminology). It’s an example of what is called a “metrical foot”, which is just another way of describing a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Other examples of trochees would be “Monday”, “fire”, “water” and “speaker”. Of course, it’s always possible to pronounce these words so that they aren’t trochees (they aren’t “trochaic”) – you might, for example, say Mon-DAY rather than MON-day in an exclamation.
If you did say “Monday” with the emphasis on the second syllable, then you would be using an iamb rather than a trochee. An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Other examples of iambs are “around”, “infect”, “decide” and “trapeze”. Between them, trochees and iambs make up a great deal of English poetry.
There are two other metrical feet consisting of two syllables : the spondee (stressed-stressed, such as “heartbreak”) and the pyrrhic (unstressed-unstressed, such as “and the”). It’s rare for a poem to contain a lot of spondees or pyrrhics – they are generally used sparingly to break up a regular pattern of iambs etc.
It’s also worth knowing about some three syllable feet : the anapest (unstressed-unstressed-stressed e.g. “to the moon”), the dactyl (stressed-unstressed-unstressed, e.g. “poetry”) and the amphibrach (unstressed-stressed-unstressed, e.g. “undying”).
All of these terms are often used in combination with a word indicating how many of them there are in each line of a poem. This gives us a complete description of a poem’s metre. So, for example, if each line consists of five iambs, such as those from Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard reproduced in the first post, we would describe this as “iambic pentameter”. The word pentameter means, simply, that there are five metrical feet to the line. Other numbers of feet have similar terms: trimeter for three, tetrameter for four, hexameter for six and so forth. So, if your poem generally has four trochees to the line, you would say its metre is trochaic tetrameter.
If you write poetry, metre is an additional dimension to your work you should be thinking about. Sometimes, as you write a particular poem, it will naturally start to fall into a particular rhythm scheme. Sometimes it is a conscious decision. It’s always up to you whether you want to stay with a chosen metre and how strictly you want to adhere to it. Different metres will have different effects on the sound of your poem. It pays to experiment. For example, does your poem demand a fast-moving rhythm or something more sombre? Do you want to stick to a predictable, confident metre or write something less clear-cut, more full of uncertainties and pauses? The answer will always depend on the individual poem.