Poetry Tip #3:

POETRY TIP #3, THE LINE: LENGTH AND ENDINGS

Poetry is written in lines and lines are grouped into stanzas. We can emphasize what we want to convey by where we place key words and phrases. The end of the line is the strongest position, the middle is the weakest.

The length of the line influences how we read the poem aloud. In verse a traditional way to measure the line is by counting the number of stressed syllables. The kind of poetic foot (iambic, anapestic, trochaic, dactylic) establishes the meter. The meter and number of feet in the line are key factors in fixed forms such as a limerick or ballad stanza.

Two feet = dimeter

A flea known as Ralph
Swallowed a cow
(bugs, poems about creeping things)

Overslept,
Rain is pouring
(Somebody Catch My Homework)

Three feet = trimester

Bradley always answers,
We hate it when he answers,
(Somebody Catch My Homework)

To you it’s only homework,
But I’m half wild with fright
(Somebody Catch My Homework)

Four feet = tetrameter

Since Mama bought this stupid horn
I hate the day that I was born
(A Thousand Cousins)

Bumping at the windowpane
He fought against the solid air
(The Alligator in the Closet)

Five feet = pentameter

The termite never eats the way he should,
It’s not his fault, his food all tastes like wood.
(bugs, poems about creeping things)

I’m going to pound the cover off that ball!
I’m going to blast it clear outside the park!
(The Mouse was Out at Recess)

Most modern verse is told in lines of five feet or fewer but now and then you may encounter a need for longer lines.

Six feet = hexameter
Seven feet = heptameter
Eight feet = octameter

Iambic pentameter that doesn’t rhyme is known as blank verse.

I’ve never seen old man McGrew in person.
(People call him that behind his back.)
(The Purchase of Small Secrets)

Another important duty of the line is to tell the reader when to pause and when to keep reading. Punctuation at the end of a line signals the conclusion of a thought or a convenient spot to breathe or take a millisecond timeout to relish and consider the meaning of what was just read. That kind of line is called end-stopped; not very imaginative but descriptive of its duty.

Said Mrs. Towers to Mr. Reeds,
“Why do you water those wretched weeds?”
(The Boy Who Counted Stars)

Other lines are free of signals that the reader should tarry at the end so without hesitation we continue on into the line that follows. The thought being expressed is usually incomplete at the end, which further encourages us to rush ahead.

Said Mr. Reeds, “Well, don’t you know
That blue-ribbon weeds need water to grow?”
(The Boy Who Counted Stars)

Coming up next: punctuation, capitalization, and syllabic vs. accentual lines.

David

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