In short, poetic meter
is the rythm
of a poem
. It is the pattern of unstressed and stressed syllable
s that impart a lyric quality to a poem when read.
The three basic building blocks of a poem are the foot, line, and stanza. They are congruent to the word, sentence, and paragraph of prose. A foot is the most basic block and consists of two or three syllables. The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the foot define the type of foot. The predominant type of foot in a line and the number of feet in a line determine the line's meter.
The metrical notation that used here will consist of "u" for an unstressed syllable, and "/" for a stressed syllable. This is applied to the foot "tick tick BOOM" as such:
u u /
tick tick BOOM
There are six types of feet in most poetry. By far the most frequently used type of foot is the iamb. An iamb consists of two syllables. The first is unstressed, and the second is stressed. Think of a heartbeat. "pa-PUM, pa-PUM, pa-PUM" consists of three iambs. In the notation described above an iamb would be annotated as "u /". The adjective used to describe poetry that are based upon the iamb is "imabic".
The following is a table of the two- and three-syllable feet used in English poetry:
Name Notation Adjective Example
iamb u / iambic to thee
trochee / u trochaic happy
spondee / / spondaic blackboard
pyrrhic u u pyrrhic in the
dactyl / u u dactylic plauseable
anapest u u / anapestic interfere
Once the predominant type of foot is determined, finding the number of feet in a line is a simple matter. Just count them (the line should already be annotated from having determined the type of foot). Consider the following line by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
u / u / u / u / u /
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
The line is iambic since it consists of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables, starting with an unstressed syllable, and ending with a stressed one. By counting the number of stressed (or unstressed) syllables we come up with 5 feet. A line with 5 feet is called pentameter. The names of meters based on the number of feet in a line are:
The full name of the meter is the combination of the adjective form of the foot following the meter name based on number of feet. The meter for the Elizabeth Barett Browning line above that consists of five iambs is iambic pentameter
Practicing scansion on paper for a while makes it easy to determine meter just by reading the poem (don't be afraid to use your fingers) rather than writing it down. It also helps the aspiring poet to adhere to meter more naturally.