You might suppose that sword-fighting and poetry are fundamentally dissimilar, and be correct in so thinking. However, the place in which the two converge might surprise you: it all begins with footwork.
English is a stressed language. This means that certain key words are given more vocal emphasis than others. Take, for example, the following very common sentence:
He struck the clown.
A practiced speaker of English will read this, “He STRUCK the CLOWN.” This is a line with two stresses. Another example:
The weeping Russian stroked his pony toy.
This would be read, “The WEEPing RUSsian STROKED his PONy TOY.” This line has five stresses.
In English poetry, the arrangement of stresses in a line is referred to as its meter. The analysis and categorization of meter is called scansion. In scansion, a stressed syllable is referred to as a foot. See what I did there? I’m sorry. -.-
Meter is a fundamental quality of English poetry, but its science can be applied to prose as well. Through careful arrangement of stresses within a line, in combination with the other properties of words chosen, one can influence the “feel” of a piece in the subtlest ways. A thorough understanding of poetry should improve your writing across the board.
The different types of meter have their own names, which you aren’t going to find yourself using much outside of academia. Like in the line above, “The WEEPing RUSsian STROKED his PONy TOY.”
It’s the same as “But SOFT, what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS!”
That’s the ol’ iambic pentameter, famous because English tends towards iambic movement, and, that being so, ten-syllable lines will tend to have five stresses. While iambic pentameter is a staple of English poetry, you shouldn’t feel compelled to use it. Rather, you should experiment with different forms and learn the use of them.
If you’re interested in the technical terminology, have a look here: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/meter.html
My go-to example for the way meter influences the reading of a line (and a good general summation of the “trick” to poetry) is “Sound and Sense” by Alexander Pope, the same poem for which the textbook I suggested is named. Study this, listen to what it says and what it’s saying!
“True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance,
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense:
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rock’s vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o’er th’unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus’ vary’d Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!”
Some things to keep in mind…
- Scansion will sometimes be up for debate. Not very often, but it does happen.
- You’ll probably find it easier to use many one and two-syllable words at first. There’s nothing wrong with that.
- Holding your hand under your chin and feeling where your chin bobs the most as you read a line can help you determine where the stresses fall.
- If you’re unsure which syllables in a word are stressed, you can try consulting a dictionary.
- Any deviation from an established metrical scheme makes that line stick out from the rest. Make sure you have a good reason for doing so!
- At the same time, keeping the meter too regular can be boring after a while.
Write a metered poem of eight to twenty lines in length. Perform scansion. (Your biggest enemy in learning meter is reading in an unnatural way to trick yourself into thinking your meter is correct, when in fact, it is not. Be careful of this pitfall.)
Read some poetry by A.E. Housman, or someone comparable, so long as they employ meter. If you aren’t sure whether a poet does, perform scansion and find out! I suggest Housman because his meter is usually easy to pick out, but feel free to look elsewhere if his work isn’t to your taste.
Alright, folks, the thread is now open to questions and discussion. You may also contact me privately if you prefer.