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Poetic feet and meter
Meter, too often assumed to be inevitably preceded by the word fixed, is usually associated with verse that sounds more or less like

ta-Dah de-Dah de-Dah de-Dee
de-Dah de-Dah de-Dum

or some such. Nothing wrong with fixed meter, by the way, but it often comes as a surprise to discover that there need be nothing "fixed" about it. Meter is simply the underlying rhythm of words and whether fixed or free, it is an essential ingrediant in the musicality of a line and the driving force behind the flow of words from one to the next.

In the English language, rhythm is based on syllables and the ways in which they organize themselves into sequences of weak and strong (or stressed) beats. The idea, in its simplest expression, is that in a natural reading of the words a higher ratio of strong to weak beats simply sounds better. The key phrase is in a natural reading of the words. Consider this line:

John resurrected a once failed agenda.

It is virtually impossible to read these words without these strong beats falling naturally off the tongue:


Note the equal distribution of weak and strong beats that gives the line a natural rhythm. It's a line with starch in its spine that demands to be read one way and one way only.

Consider this line:

If you hand your paper in late I'll reduce your grade by ten points.

There might be several ways to read this line (and speak it) but any natural reading would offer far more weak beats than strong. I'd say this is the most natural way the words would sound:

If you hand your PAper in late I'll reduce your GRADE by ten points.

Sure, you could emphasize other words, such as IF, HAND, LATE, etc, but that's not how you would actually speak the words, and the rhythms would come off as forced. You don't want that.

Patterns of weak and strong beats are organized into metrical feet. Feet have nothing to do with the actual words in a line. It is the syllables that count and quite often the syllables of a given foot will span two or more words.

The scansion of a line (determining the weak and stressed syllables and how they fall into proper feet) is really nothing more than an after-the-fact method of analyzing Engligh that "sounds good" and figuring out what makes it sound that way. It is equally valid with prose writing; while you won't be concerned with lines and specific numbers of feet, the language still sounds best when it falls into good solid scansion. And usually, a line that sounds weak and ineffectual (too many weak beats) does so because generalized abstractions usually have flabby prose rhythms, while finding a nice sharp image or a good action verb can usually get the job done better, with fewer syllables, and the result is words that scan well.

There are only six feet that comprise the bulk of proper scansion, the most common being the iamb, a weak beat followed by a strong beat. The trochee reverses this order, a leading strong beat with a weak beat following. Some feet have three beats: a dactyl leads with a strong beat followed by two weak beats. An anapest places the strong beat after the two weak beats. Pyrrhic feet (two weak beats) are usually followed by a spondee (two strong beats).

When we speak of a regular rhythm, we're not just speaking of a consistent number of beats, but a consistent number of feet. Iambic pentameter is a series of five foot lines, and it remains the most elegant structure for poets to work with. Unrhymed iambic pentameter is also called blank verse, but whether rhymed or unrhymed, there is no requirement regarding what feet are used, or in what sequence. Iambs seem to be a natural cadence in English and they tend to proliferate, but open any play by Shakespeare to any page. Each line is iambic pentameter and the variety of cadences within those five feet is unlimited.

Also, an extra weak beat or two at the end of a line usually is tolerated, particularly if you aren't carrying the thought over to the next line. I've actually seen a foot that consists of a weak-strong-weak combination but don't recall the name. Usually, it's considered an iamb with a weak beat going along for the ride.

Here are a couple of examples of pure iambic pentameter and how it seems to be a natural form for English to assume, even with these more mundane applications. These are all iambs (da DUM).

I couldn't love you better if I tried.

I need to take the car to get repaired.

And here's one that should be familiar:

To be, or not to be; that is the question.

Three iambs, a trochee and an iamb with a trailing weak beat.

Here's a line from our old friend Popeye:

I am what I am and that's all that I am
I'm Popeye the sailor man.

First line: one iamb and three anapests (it's a FOOT with a LIMP). Second line: an iamb, an anapest and an iamb.

Trochees (the word itself is a TROchee) lend themselves to dramatic statements, with their initial strong beat, as in this line of five trochees:

Here, we make our stand. We die for freedom.

Dactyls (DUM dee dee DUM dee dee)have a nice rolling rhythm:

Over the meadows the children are wandering.

And here's one of those Pyrrhic / Spondee combinations (two weak, two strong) I mentioned:

You're a hot babe.

In all cases you have a high ratio of strong beats to weak beats, such that it's difficult to find other ways to read the lines.

Often, all it takes to transform a weak line into a strong line is to pay attention to the meter. The example of the late paper at the beginning of this essay might find new life, and a strong rhythm as:

A late paper costs you ten points.
(An iamb, two trochees and a spondee.)

The relationship between rhythm and content is not always obvious, until you encounter lines that haven't paid attention to the way that a strong rhythm can enhance a line's content.

I think I know who these woods belong to

turns into

Whose woods these are, I think I know


a menacing person who wants to kill me

can have it's abstractions and flabby prose rhythm reworked with

a foe with a knife in his hand

And this example shows up in many different situations. Thomas Paine rallied a nation with his stirring words. Fortunately, he understood that drama is as much a function of rhythm as it is of content.

These sure are troubling times.

probably wouldn't have had nearly the effect as the elegantly simple

These are the times that try men's souls.

If simply shifting words around can't make a line scan properly, rethink it. There's probably an image that will do the job much more economically, and with a much stronger rhythm.
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