Poetry Tip #5


Sorry it has taken a while to get to my fifth installment of Poetry Tips. I hope it will be helpful. Next I intended to discuss the sounds of our language as they apply to poetry, but I think I’ll leave that for later and go straight to some of the most common forms of verse. Soon. I promise!


Poems are written in syllables arranged into packets of sound to form lines and stanzas. In the English language, syllables are stressed (accented) or unstressed so when strung in consistent patterns, called feet, they create a variety of meters and rhythms. The most common feet are iambic (da DA), anapestic (da da DA), trochaic (DA da), and dactylic (DA da da). Iambic and anapestic are characterized as rising meters while trochaic and dactylic are falling meters.

Poetry written in English, whether as verse or free verse, is built with the same units of speech used in everyday language. Verse requires structure so we search harder for a syllable, word, or sequence to fit the need. Though free verse is also comprised of accented and unaccented sounds there is no set rule about where they fall. Sometimes the poet has to guard against slipping into meter out of force of habit.

Casual conversation is like free verse in that there are no rules for placing the accented sounds. We say what we want to say and move on. (In that last sentence, look for the accents: We say what we want to say and move on.) In Somebody Catch My Homework, the concluding line in my poem, “Monday,” goes like this:

Monday sure can be a bummer.

The line has eight syllables arranged into four trochaic feet (DA da DA da DA da DA da).
Chatting with a friend, we might put it slightly differently:

Monday can sure be a bummer.

This has the same number of syllables and the same number of beats, but the second beat (can sure) is now reversed from trochaic (DA da) to iambic (da DA), which changes how we scan the line.

Believe it or not this fractured line can, under the right circumstances, still be a legitimate line of poetry. When we write what is called accentual poems, we count only the number of beats in a line or group of lines. Where they are placed is less important than how many there are. Here is an example from Somebody Catch My Homework called “My Excuse.” The opening stanzas are:

But I did do my homework!
Yes ma’am!
I really really did!

Mama wrapped fish bones in it.
She really really did!

And them old fish bones
Stinked up the kitchen
Till Daddy throwed ‘em out.

Now our neighbor, she’s old,
And she’s got an old cat,
And she got in our trash can.

In these stanzas, there is no prevailing meter. If you count the number of beats in each line, there is variation there too. But if you count the accents or stresses in each stanza, you’ll find ten in each, and that’s the glue that holds the poem together, especially when you read it aloud. The reader feels a sense of cohesiveness in the stanzas that keeps the poem rocking along. The poem sounds conversational, and it is, but there is an underlying structure that helps it sound that way. Accentual poems are nearly subliminal in their influence on the reader but they can be effective.

Syllabic verse counts only the number of syllables in the lines or stanzas and is rarely used in English because of our system of stressed and unstressed sounds. Elementary students are taught to write two ancient forms of Japanese poetry – haiku and tanka – by counting and arranging syllables — 17 for the haiku in three lines of 5-7-5 and 31 for the tanka in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7.

In Japanese writing, counting syllables is not the standard. In their own language Japanese poets use units called onji rather than syllables. An onji is the smallest linguistic unit in that language. Thanks to our adaptations, haiku and tanka are the most popular syllabic verse practiced in English even though we’ve interpreted the form according to our own needs and applications.

Here is a quick reference to previous Poetry Tips.

#1: http://davidlharrison.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/new-post-soon/
#2: http://davidlharrison.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/poetry-tip-2-the-line-arrangement
#3: http://davidlharrison.wordpress.com/2010/02/10/poetry-tip-3-later-this-morning/
#4: http://davidlharrison.wordpress.com/2010/03/30/poetry-tip-4/