Poetry Tip #3, The Line: Length and Endings

Hi everyone,


Back again with another poetry tip. Please remember that these tips do not begin to fully cover the topics included. They are only meant to provide quick insights and guidance. They are more like crib notes or executive summaries. If they whet your appetite to learn more, there are plenty of good books on poetry.

Last time I talked about the importance of word placement within lines of poetry. 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.

Today let’s look at the lines themselves. Poetry is written in lines and lines are grouped into stanzas. 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 — Tip #1) 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)

Rain is pouring
(Somebody Catch My Homework)

Three feet = trimeter

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 it 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, 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)

Tip for next week: punctuation, capitalization, and syllabic vs. accentual lines.

Poetry Tip #2, The Line: Arrangement

Hi everyone,

In 2010 I posted a series of eight poetry tips. Visitors to my blog still refer to them from time to time. For anyone who might be interested, I’ve decided to repost the tips, one each Thursday (unless I need to reschedule for a good reason). For some, these will be helpful as you continue to explore poetry and develop your skills as a poet. For others, the tips will be basics you already know well and use automatically in your work. If you fall into that category, feel free to argue, clarify, expand, or add examples as we go. Many thanks in advance.


Poetry, whether verse or free verse, is constructed in lines and a great deal depends upon how the poet arranges them. Pulitzer winning poet Karl Shapiro said, “The line provides the greatest possible concentration of meaning and feeling in the most controlled manner possible.”

Free verse provides the poet with more flexibility (and more decisions) about the best arrangement for conveying meaning and feeling. Generally, positions of greatest emphasis fall near the end or the beginning of a poetic line. Read some poems by another Pulitzer winner and 2007-2008 U. S. Poet Laureate, Charles Simic, for good examples of how a single sentence can be crafted into a powerful stanza of free verse. Here’s the opening to “Evening Walk” from The Voice at 3:00 A.M. (Harcourt, 2003, page 61).

You give the appearance of listening
To my thoughts, O trees,
Bent over the road I am walking
On a late summer evening
When every one of you is a steep staircase
The night is slowly descending.

Would you have arranged any of Simic’s lines differently? It would be as simple as moving furniture around a room.

You give the appearance
Of listening to my thoughts, O trees
Bent over the road
I am walking on a late summer evening . . .”

. . . is still a poem, but in the first line the emphasis has changed from what the trees appear to be doing –listening – to how they look, which is less important at this point. In the third line we have traded off walking along the road for a stronger emphasis on the road itself, another poor exchange. The road isn’t what’s important; walking along it is.

In certain fixed forms of verse, the poet has less flexibility. A short ballad stanza must be phrased in four lines with three beats (usually iambic) in lines 1, 2, and 4 and four beats in line 3. Change the basic recipe and you bake something else.

A limerick is told in five lines with lines 1, 2, and 5 three anapestic beats long and lines 3 and 4 two anapestic beats long. A lot of limericks fall somewhat short of the goal, but they all have five lines that approximate the basic definition for that kind of Cinquain (or Quintet if you prefer).

However the poem is told, the line establishes at once the rules for reading it. Here’s “Giraffe” (from Snowman Sniffles and Other Verse, by N. M. Bodecker, Atheneum, 1983, page 18).

I like giraffe and hope that he
In his own way is fond of me
Despite the fact that he and I
Did never quite see eye to eye.

That’s known as a long ballad stanza (4, 4, 4, and 4 beats respectively) told in two couplets and it’s typically Bodecker-clever. But the poet didn’t choose to break the lines the way I’ve written them. Since no one could see eye to eye with a giraffe, Bodecker obligingly arranged his lines into something more appropriate.

I like
the giraffe
and hope that he
in his
own way
is fond of me,

the fact
that he and I
did never
see eye to eye.

The poet chose to emphasize the imposing height of his subject by breaking four traditional lines into twelve and further dividing them into two stanzas. The new lines, some now as brief as one or two words, urge us to read a bit slower and think a bit longer about the tall star of the poem.

Next Thursday – Poetry Tip #3, The Line: Lengths and Endings — will include similarly brief discussions about other aspects of poetic lines, including number of beats, end-stopped, enjambment, punctuation, capitalization, syllabic, and accentual.

Poetry Tip #1: The Foot

Hi everyone,

In 2010 I posted a series of eight poetry tips. Visitors to my blog still refer to them from time to time. For anyone who might be interested, I’ve decided to repost the tips, one each Thursday (unless I need to reschedule for a good reason). For some, these will be helpful as you continue to explore poetry and develop your skills as a poet. For others, the tips will be basics you already know well and use automatically in your work. If you fall into that category, feel free to argue, clarify, expand, or add examples as we go. Many thanks in advance.


The poetic foot is a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables that can be arranged into a consistent pattern within a line of poetry. The foot is the building block of verse (poems with structured language) and most verse relies on one (or occasionally more) of 4 basic patterns. Two of the feet (the most common ones) are sometimes called rising meter because the stress falls on the last syllable, and two are falling meter because the stress is placed on the first syllable.

Feet with rising meter:
Iambic: da DA – above, below, a boy, a girl, reduce
Anapestic: da da DA – in the night, from the light, from above

Feet with falling meter:
Trochaic: DA da – funny, kitty, morning, teacher
Dactylic: DA da da – following, teaching us, tricycle, Harrison

Examples of lines using rising meter:
Iambic: da DA
The farmer in the dell,
The farmer in the dell,
Hi-ho, the derry-o
The farmer in the dell

Anapestic: da da DA
‘Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a mouse.

Examples of lines using falling meter:
Trochaic: DA da
Peter Peter pumpkin eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.

Dactylic: DA da da
Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon

The English language is largely composed of words, lines, and phrases in rising meter. That is, we often speak in iambic and anapestic meter. For example:
“The English language has a basic beat” is a statement made entirely of iambic feet.
da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA

“You can practice the meter aloud by yourself” is a line of anapestic feet.
da da DA da da DA da da DA da da DA

The two falling meters (trochaic and dactylic) are harder to find in normal speech and are therefore also more difficult to use in poetic lines. It’s why they draw attention to themselves when the poet successfully puts them to use in a poem.

Two other kinds of poetic feet should be mentioned. Once in a while a poet needs a foot that has no accent in it: da da. That’s known as a pyrrhus. It’s opposite, a syllable with two accents only, is a spondee: DA DA.

This is meant only as a short introduction to poetic feet. Whole chapters have been written about them but these essentials are enough to get most poets started without becoming students of prosody. There are other kinds of poetic feet but these six basic arrangements will account for nearly all of what you need to function well when writing verse.

Next time: Poetry Tip #2: The Line (Part 1)

Poetry Tips

Hi everyone,
(Of course I used to have more hair! Of course it had real color!)

Yesterday I noted that visitors to my blog had pulled up two of the poetry tips I first posted in 2010. This happens now and then, enough that I’ve decided to give the dates and topics of the original series. They are:

1/18/10: The Foot
1/27/10: The Line#1
2/10/10: The Line#2
3/30/10: Visual Elements
5/4/10: Accentual and Syllabic
5/19/10: Short Stanzas — Couplets and Triplets
5/26/10: The Quatrain

In addition, I occasionally post something such as these:

1/22/11: My approach to writing this month’s W.O.M. poem
7/12/14: Preparing for a villanelle
8/22/15: Sizing and Shaping for Impact
1/3/16: Putting Lines to Work

Putting lines to work

Hi everyone,

Have you noticed how lines with the same number of accents can differ so much in length? There are reasons of course and poets use them to help establish a mood and urge the reader to proceed at the poet’s intended pace. This technique works in free verse, too, but we may be more aware of it in structured lines. Here are examples of essentially iambic lines with four accents.

He scratched his head and said, “How come?”
Where valiant warriors draw their swords
His name alone numbed men with fear
I’m doomed to play this horn for years
You’ve joined the Pirate Brotherhood
We swore an oath to make that clear
And blocked his freedom to the yard
“This snake belongs to me,” he said
Don’t you shake those horns at me
Who came in by the door in spring
Tomorrow I’ll fix steak and bread
Stood all day in the burning sun
Here I stand forlorn and bare
I’ve gottogotothebathroom!
Faster! Faster! Not enough!
Even when we study madly
To signify that he’s around
He’s not exactly like a pet
Stuck together like a ball
Follow me and we will go
Every year I say I’m quit
Actually we’ve never met
No one’s ever satisfied

The first thing you notice is that I’ve arranged them from longest to shortest lines. They are long or short to suit whatever mood was being conveyed. But you need to read each one aloud before drawing conclusions. For example, the quickest line is, “I’ve gottogotothebathroom!” because I ran the words together to convey panic. Another quick line, “Faster! Faster! Not enough!” is aided by exclamation marks to hustle the reader along.

Although, “Here I stand forlorn and bare,” ranks 13th in length, it takes longer to read than many above it, such as, “‘This snake belongs to me,’ he said.”

In actual length, the longest line contains 8 words, 8 syllables, and 31 letters. The shortest contains 4 words, 7 syllables, and 19 letters. The long one, “He scratched his head and said, ‘How come?'” represents a rather slow thinking boy whose bubble gum bubble just got popped all over his head. The shortest one is a children’s lament about their parents’ thermostat war.

Long vowels help slow the pace of a line. Short vowels can give it more juice. Careful choice of words, selecting synonyms with more letters over those with fewer, creates a longer looking line that signals the reader to take his/her time. Generally speaking, serious subjects tend to want longer, more reflective lines. Lighthearted verse is usually at its best when the lines are crisp and jiffy right along.

Often these fine tunings occur during the latter phases of rewriting. That’s when the true character of a poem may reveal itself and we become aware that some perfectly good words, which we may have loved originally, may now need to be traded for those that fit better.