What Is The Basic Unit Of Meter In Poetry

Meters in poetry, like meters in music, are patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables which can change from line to line and give a poem its rhythm. Different cultures, countries and common speech utilize different meters which are then incorporated into their respective written works. Poetry typically uses meters in aesthetically pleasing ways for the purpose of conveying messages, emotions, and achieving a desired effect. Every poet must have a solid understanding of their chosen meter in order to write successfully and effectively.

The underlying foundation of a poetic meter is the “foot”. The foot consists of a set number of syllables which have a specific stress or emphasis pattern. For example, a metrical foot commonly found in English poetry, known as an iamb, consists of two syllables and has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. “De-fy” is one such example of an iamb. An anapest is another type of meter which consists of three syllables, with the first two being unstressed and the third being stressed. “Un-der-stand” is an example of an anapest. Each meter contains a specific number of “feet” per line and poetry can have a single foot type per line, multiple feet types per line, or some combination of both.

Although the majority of poetic meters commonly used in literature have been in existence since at least the age of the ancient Greeks, many cultures have developed their own unique meters. In the English language, poems traditionally have four common meters: iambic pentameter, trochaic tetrameter, dactylic hexameter, and anapestic trimeter. All of these meters adhere to a specific number of syllables per foot and feet per line, making them relatively easy to recognize and analyze. However, as literature evolves, so do the meters used within it. Many modern poets are beginning to experiment with additional and newly developed meters, including the dactylic pauldron and the iambic scepter.

Experimentation with meters is one of the most integral parts of writing poetry. It is important for poets to understand how their meters are working to create specific sounds and effects. For example, iambic pentameter evokes a sense of speech and seems more natural when spoken. Trochaic tetrameter, on the other hand, has a much more rigid and pronounced rhythm and can be used to create an ominous tone. Anapestic trimeter is often used to create a light-hearted and humorous effect. Other meters can simply exist to create alternate organic rhythms or break up traditional ones while maintaining structure.

In the end, it is up to each individual poet to determine which meter is most suitable for their works. Although there are common forms which have been around for eons, every poet has ultimate control over which meter they use and how they use it. It is this ability to control and create expressive metric flexibility within poetry which has allowed poetry to remain relevant for so many centuries.

Rhythmic Devices

Meters are not the only metric devices used in poetry. Poets may choose to use rhyme, repetition, alliteration, assonance, and consonance in order to emphasize words, create structure, and provide further expressivity. While meters are more structural, as they provide a framework within which words can be arranged, these other tools are tools of expression which can be used contemporaneously with a chosen meter in order to emphasize words, increase the impact of a line, and break up traditional rhythmic segments.

The use of rhyme and assonance in particular is found in many traditional poetic forms. Rhyme is the repetition of identical or similar sounds between words and can serve to emphasize certain words or messages. Assonance is a less pronounced version of rhyme, typically found within a line or even a single word. Repetition of a sound or word within a line or line of verse can both draw attention to that word as well as add a certain emphasis and/or rhythm. Alliteration is the repetition of the same initial consonant sound and this device can be used to create an interesting flow to a poem’s meter or draw attention to certain syllables at the beginning of words.

Types of Meters

While some important meters are mentioned here, there are many others which are used in poetry and literature. Just a few of the more frequently used meters are the iambic, anapest, trochaic, dactyl, amphibrach, amphimacer, and pyrrhic. The iambic meter has two syllables and an alternating pattern of a unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Anapestic has three syllables with the first two being unstressed and the last one being stressed. Trochaic appears similar to the iambic, except the syllables are reversed. The dactyl is composed of three syllables with a stressed syllable, followed by two unstressed syllables. The amphibrach and amphimacer each have three syllables with the middle one being stressed. The pyrrhic has two syllables and, unlike the other meters, both syllables in the foot are unstressed.

Meter in Poetry Writing

While every poet should have an idea of the meter they are utilizing, pouring too much effort into sticking to it can take away from the creative and expressive side of a poem. A common mistake is to spend too much time meticulously adhering to a meter, often with constraints like not allowing a single syllable to be altered or emphasizing words that don’t need to be emphasized. While helpful in certain contexts, this type of approach can put too much of a focus on structure and not enough on expressivity.

Poets, especially in the modern age, should refrain from following a meter with absolute precision and instead allow the meter to shape itself naturally. Integrating metrical fluidity into poetic writing can both capture and enhance one’s desired effect. As long as the meter remains generally consistent throughout a poem, the writer has much more freedom to use words which convey their intended meaning and emotion. The meter, in this context, should serve as a tool for expressing and emphasizing words, not a prison which constrains them to a specific structure.

Transitioning Between Meters

Experimentation with meters is a necessary tool for any poet in order to find the meter capable of serving their poem best. When transitioning between meters, it is important to use smooth and intentional transitions. If done well, it can add an additional dynamic to a poem. For example, transitioning between a trochaic and iambic meter in the same line or block of text can increase the impact of both regardless of whether each foot is strictly metrical. Fading from an anapest to an iamb in the same line can give a segue from lightheartedness to seriousness.

In written form poetry this type of structure is often denoted with punctuation or pauses between the differing feet. These types of breakpoints can be incredibly effective in written form by creating an instant change in intensity. This tactic also works for spoken word poetry, as the manipulation of tempo and cadence can convey the same emotion without deviating too far from the original intent of the poem.

Advocates of Embodied Poetics

One growing field of interest within the world of poetry is the idea of the ‘Embodied Poetics’. These poets believe that the act of writing a poem should not be a distant experience, but rather an intimate and close process. This is done by assigning specific physical actions and hand gestures to each foot of a given meter. This approach can provide a much more tangible representation of a poem’s rhythm and flow, in addition to helping the poem’s writer to better interact with their written work. This type of embodied poetics is becoming popular within both the academic and casual poet communities, giving poets a unique way of understanding their own writing and allowing them to interact more deeply with their work.

Imagery, Metaphor and Meter

Poets will often use various techniques such as musicality, descriptive language, creative imagery, and metaphor in order to intensify the experience created by the meter. This can be done by choosing words that emphasize a particular single foot of the poem or by choosing words that are rich in meaning so that they will stand out when read. Poets can also use devices specifically associated with visual or auditory perception such as alliteration or assonance for this same purpose. All of these approaches can help to bring the lines of a poem to life and ensure that what is being said will resonate with the reader or listener.

Regional Influence on Meters

Just as the English language today has been greatly influenced by other cultures and dialects over the years, so too are the meters used within it. Regions with distinctive languages often have their own meters which are adapted from their traditional dialects and reformatted into poetry. For instance, Mexican and Spanish meters use the syllable patterns of the language in addition to utilizing stories and themes found in folklore. Similarly, African languages have meters and rhythms which are based on their own unique traditions and beliefs.

The incorporation of these different meters, rhythms, and beliefs has enabled poets to enhance their work and create unique pieces which better reflect their particular cultural heritage. This practice has further helped literature to remain relevant in today’s diverse world and serves as a reminder that different cultures can exist harmoniously and add to the richness of poetry and human experience.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

Leave a Comment