The meter is the beat of the poem. Many poems use a set pattern of emphasized and unemphasized syllables, one of the many ways in which poetry is different than prose.
The basic unit of meter is the foot. A foot is a given pattern of stressed (hard) and unstressed (soft) syllables.
Common types of metrical feet include:
- Anapest. Two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. Example: underneath.
- Dactyl. One stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Example: bicycle.
- Iamb. One unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. Example: return.
- Pyrrhus. Two equally unstressed syllables. Not common in modern poetry, as unstressed syllables are usually worked into a broader metrical scheme.
- Spondee. Two equally stressed syllables. Example: Imagine someone shouting, “No! No!”
- Trochee. One stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. Example: happy.
Feet Per Line
Metrical feet are typically grouped into lines. Prefixes are used to designate the number of feet per line:
- Monometer. One foot per line.
- Dimeter. Two feet per line.
- Trimeter. Three feet per line.
- Tetrameter. Four feet per line.
- Pentameter. Five feet per line.
- Hexameter. Six feet per line.
- Heptameter. Seven feet per line.
- Octameter. Eight feet per line.
Thus, the term iambic pentameter refers to a line of poetry consisting of five iambs (patterns of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable).
Note that a foot can be comprised of more than one word, and some words may contain several feet. For example, the phrase “I pledge allegiance to the flag” is an example of iambic tetrameter.
Not sure what type of meter a given poem uses? Try reading it out loud slowly, tapping your hand on a table to emphasize the stressed syllables.
Sometimes you may notice that the first few syllables of a line of poetry don’t follow the same metrical pattern as the rest of the line. This introduction, if you will, is called an anacrusis.
Getting to Know Your Tools
Once again, knowing the names of the different types of poetic meter is not crucial to writing good poetry. However, being aware of the many different options can encourage you to try new meters, eventually building up a familiarity with your tools so that you can choose just the right one for your next poem.