Poetic feet

I’m jumping ahead to poetry because I’ve reached that point in the new writing book, which (have I told you this?) I’m calling Writer to Writer, and hoping my publisher will go along.

On October 17, 2012, writeforfun wrote, I would love a post on poetry! What makes good poetry, how to find the best rhyming words, how to keep good meter…plenty more that I can’t think of right now. Actually, that’s my biggest problem – meter (am I spelling that right?). I tend to “Fudge,” as I call it, the meter so I can fit in the words or syllables to finish the thought, sacrificing rhythm for rhyme. I try not to let it become too extreme, although very few of my poems are consistent enough to be turned into songs. I also do have a hard time with rhyming, usually only using approximate rhyme, but that problem isn’t quite as extreme as the meter.

I’m still very much a student when it comes to poetry, although there are poems in many of my books and Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It is a poetry collection. Last year I took two poetry classes and every January I attend a poetry retreat for female kids’ book writers.

Assessing quality in poetry is trickier than in stories. Most of us, I think, are confident in our judgment of novels. Good or bad, we pronounce, and then we’re happy to spout our reasons, like, predictable or thrilling or boring or great characters, and so on. When it comes to poetry we’re not so sure. The only hallmarks of a bad poem, in my opinion, are forced rhyme and sickly sweet sentimentality of the sort we find in greeting cards – which are fine for that purpose. By forced rhyme I mean something like Then Jack did run, so as to rhyme with to have some fun. In normal speech or prose we’d say Jack ran. The did run sounds weird and calls attention to itself. Poems of long ago used forced rhyme. That was the convention back then and not a flaw. But modern poems go for a more natural feel.

Aside from those two, I go with what I like, and generally I like poetry that speaks to my experience or that opens me up to new experiences. I’m not fond of impenetrable poems that need to be puzzled over for hours, but many poetry hounds love poems that yield their meaning only slowly. Two poets I adore are Ted Kooser and Lisel Mueller. I don’t have permission to reprint any of their poems, but you can find samples online. Both generally stay away from topics that aren’t appropriate for kids, but they’re poets for adults, so you might have a grown-up take a look first. One of my favorite Ted Kooser poems is “A Jacquard Shawl.” Here’s a link to it, but first a warning: there’s nothing inappropriate, but it’s not happy: http://www.ronnowpoetry.com/contents/kooser/JacquardShawl.html. And my favorite Lisel Mueller poem is “Monet Refuses the Operation.” Here’s a link to that one, which is inspirational, and which, in a single poem, represents why I love poetry: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/236810.

The point is, decide for yourself what you like and what you don’t. Many poems don’t send me, but the ones that do are worth reading the others for. The ones I love pierce my heart.

As for meter, not all poems have it. Free verse, very common today, has no meter and no regular rhyme, although everything, poetry and prose alike, contains words that rhyme. In my last sentence, for example, no and although rhyme. Many many many fabulous poems are written in free verse.

My go-to book on the basics of poetry is The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms (high school and above, I think, but it may be okay for younger kids – check with a librarian). Here’s a snippet of what it has to say about free verse, “…it demands more of the poet, because he or she must question every word, test the shape and sound of every line, and be able to defend the choices made.” Sounds scary, but the idea is just that you should have a reason for what you do in a poem (which can simply be that it appeals to you that way). And that reason can change over time as we become more experienced poets. I confess that when I’m writing a free verse poem I can become confused about where to end a line. I try it one way and then another and then a third. I rearrange the whole poem and switch back and forth, and finally go with what I like best, which I may change a month later if I revise.

Meter and form help with line ending decisions. In metered poetry, the line is divided into feet, each foot a unit of meter. Accented and unaccented syllables determine what kind of meter we have. Shakespeare wrote in iambs, which is one unaccented syllable followed by an accented one, sounding like ta dum, as in the word complain or the two words to eat.

Here are other major kinds of meter in English:

∙ the trochee, which is the opposite of the iamb. It’s an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one, as in the word screaming or the two words jump in.

∙ the dactyl, which is an accented syllable followed by two unaccented ones. The word carefully is a dactyl.

∙ the anapest, which is two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one. Into feet would be an anapest.

∙ the spondee, which is two accented syllables. Very few words are spondees, but here’s one I found online: shortcake. This spondee sentence example comes from my Handbook: “Bad heart, flat feet, sad shoes–bad news.” In that sentence every word receives equal emphasis.

If your head is spinning, maybe this will give you comfort, I once read that it’s impossible to figure out – called scanning – the meter system  in a prose sentence or in a line of free verse. You can see meter only if the poet put it there, which I personally find a great relief. I’ll tell you why with iambs, which I understand better than the others – because I took a class in prosody, which means the study of poetic meter and versifying, and our professor went into iambs very thoroughly.

It’s all in the pattern. Let’s take the first stanza from a sonnet I wrote about a new kind of apple. It’s a Shakespearean sonnet, which means it’s written in iambic pentameter with a certain (Shakespearean) rhyme scheme. Pentameter means there are five feet – five iambs (ten syllables) per line. Here they are:

The Arctic Apple, perfect apple, skin
a blushing scarlet, flesh as pale as snow–
flesh slow to brown and oxidize; it’s been
revamped, its genes were modified. It grows

If you read it out loud in a ta dum rhythm I think you’ll hear the stresses, the iambic-ness of it. Of course, that’s a terrible way to read the poem for any other purpose, like meaning or feeling, but  try it just for now.

Here’s how poetic notation shows the stresses:

The Arc’tic App’le, per’fect app’le, skin’

The syllable before the apostrophe gets the stress. For example, Arc is stressed and tic isn’t. I don’t know how to do it on my computer, but if you want to show the unstressed syllables, you’d put a little u above them.

And here’s how poetic notation shows feet:

The Arc’/tic App’/le, per’/fect app’/le, skin’/

What’s between the slashes is a foot (and the first foot doesn’t start with a slash).

Now let’s look at the word oxidize in this line:

flesh slow to brown and oxidize; it’s been

My professor explained that we look at relative stresses when we scan – figure out – meter. Oxidize is a dactyl; that is, the first syllable is stressed. But if we look at relative stress we notice that we emphasize dize a little more than that i in the middle. Because of relative stress, oxidize works as iambic. If it weren’t for relative stress, metered poetry would be really hard.

It isn’t so hard once you get used to it. If you write ten poems in iambic pentameter you’ll get the feel for it, especially if you use a thesaurus. If you switch words and move words around you can say anything in iambs, because much of English falls naturally into an on-off pattern of unaccented-accented syllables. To make it even easier, it’s okay in an iambic poem to throw in an occasional trochee (called a trochaic substitution) or an occasional extra syllable. It’s also okay to drop the first unaccented syllable in a line and to add an unaccented one at the end. Shakespeare does all of these frequently. Still, most of the poem needs to be in iambs so that a reader can pick up the pattern. Because I’m not very experienced with writing in meter, I try to stick to the straight and narrow, but that’s just me.

Let’s look at these two famous lines from Hamlet:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

They’re written in iambic pentameter but each has eleven syllables, that last unaccented syllable hanging off the end of each line. Both lines contain trochees, trochaic substitutions. I wouldn’t feel confident enough to do it, but this is Shakespeare.

Here it is with the stresses and the feet:

To be’,/ or not’/ to be’/–that’ is/ the ques’/tion:
Wheth’er/ ’tis no’/bler in’/ the mind’/ to suff’/er

Having said all this in a very long post, I found a neat little shortcut to meter worries. For the beginning of Writer to Writer I wrote a writing spell, which I wanted to have a strong rhythm and to feel spell-like, so I looked at the witches’ spell in Macbeth and I pretty much matched syllables and stresses.

Here are two lines from Macbeth’s witches:

In the caldron boil and bake;
    Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

And this is what I turned them into:

On the paper, laugh or wail,
Days of joy and weeks of woe,

In some of the other lines I altered the syllables slightly but for the most part I stuck to Shakespeare’s meter, and the result has a strong rhythm. There’s nothing wrong with doing this. It’s not cheating.

So here’s a prompt: Pick a poem or a fragment of a Shakespearean play or song lyrics that has a strong rhythm and go syllable by syllable to come up with a new poem with entirely different words (except for the unimportant ones, like and and the).

And here’s another prompt: Look at song lyrics that you like and see what’s going on with the meter. Use what you learn in your own poem.

And another: Pick a poem you’ve already written and revise it so that it’s in iambs. Or write a new poem in iambs. It can be short, say six lines.

If you’re in need of poem topics, here are a few:

• a spell to make something happen or to keep something from happening;

• a poem about winter or something you do in winter or from the POV of winter itself;

• a fairy tale told in a poem.

And here’s a final prompt: Please tell me if this was much too complicated, if you wanted to throw your computer across the room, or if it was interesting, or if I went way too deep into the weeds of poetry. Tell me if you felt moved to try writing in meter. I don’t think I’m going to go into this level of detail in the book – or even if I’ll go into meter at all, but I would welcome feedback.

Next week, rhyme, which is a little less complicated.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you!!! I really appreciate this post. I actually just went over meter in my British literature class, so I understand this much better now, although (between you and me) you explain it much better than my video teacher! Anyway, it really is helpful and gives me a lot to think about. Thanks!

  2. I found it all completely understandable, Mrs. Levine! It does help that I'm studying poetry in language arts right now, though. What a coincidence.
    Thanks for the helpful advice! I'm working on a poem prophecy in my book too, but it's not nearly as long as Ilsa Eruaistaniel's. 🙂

  3. Hi Gail,

    I'm sorry this does not relate to your post but I had a quick question.

    My girlfriend is obsessed with Ella Enchanted. Read it 50+ times. She probably could recite it by heart.

    I'd love to get her a first edition and get it signed by you but I don't see any book tours coming up (I'm in Atlanta).

    I was wondering, if I were to ship a book to the "Author Mail" address, if this would be feasible?

    There is no timetable, or any special reason. I just know it would mean the world to her.

    Thank you.

  4. To Mrs. Levine,
    I get bored with all my stories, and always end them quickly, after, at the most, a month. (Sometimes I come back to them after, and re-write them.) I always feel discouraged when this happens and feel I have not written enough, and that, no matter how much revising I do, it will never be good enough. Also, I always make things the worst possible in my stories, and make the character have to save the world. (You were probably groaning when you read that!)The trouble is, the stories are to serious for their short leanth, and could never be that long and have anyone else but me understand them, even if I revised it for years. I was wondering if you had any help on this. Also, how long is your shortest princess tale, (Words/computer pages) If you are wondering why I want to know, I want to so I don't think that I am completely hopeless, and that my stories (No matter how far away the date is) could, someday, be good enough.
    Thanks, Kathryn

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