How to Write Poems – Chapter 3: The Repetition of Stresses

Contents | Chapter 4: The Repetition of Sounds

One can approach prosody—the science of poetry—from many different angles. This book will approach it from the angle of repetition. In poetry, many things can be repeated, including stanzas, refrains, sounds, and stresses. The first thing that we will discuss is the repetition of stresses. The repetition of stresses is a feature of accentual-syllabic verse, the type of verse most often used in metered English poetry.

In discussing meter, we need to first discuss syllables. A syllable is a series of sounds that is pronounced as one unit. A word that contains only one syllable is called monosyllabic. A word that contains more than one syllable is called polysyllabic. For example, the word “side” contains one syllable (but can be broken into a series of three sounds). The word “inside” contains two syllables: “in” and “side.” The word “insider” contains three syllables: “in,” “sid,” and “er.”

A syllable can be broken down into smaller parts, called phonemes. Phonemes are sounds that are represented by one or more letters or symbols. In the word “insider” we can identify six phonemes, which we can represent according to arbitrary symbols. For example, we might use the letter “S” to represent the “s” sound in “insider.” Since there are two different sounds made by the letter “i” in the word, we must use different symbols for each sound. We can use the letters “IH” for the first “i” sound (in the syllable “in”), and we can use the letters “II” to represent the second “i” sound (in the syllable “sid”). In this way, we can write the whole word as a series of phonemes (separated by hyphens): “IH-N-S-II-D-ER.”

Returning to syllables, we can give each syllable a value based on the stress we use when pronouncing the syllable. Some people use three or four levels of stress, but in this book we will distinguish only two levels of stress: weak and strong. The stress of a syllable can be broken down into its loudness and duration. Loudness refers to the strength of the syllable when it is pronounced out loud. Duration refers to the length of time that the syllable is normally pronounced.

In some languages, such as classical Greek and Latin, poems were written according to the relative lengths of the syllables in the poem. The duration of the syllables corresponded to the duration of the musical notes. Most classical Greek poems were meant to be sung with musical accompaniment. This type of verse is called quantitative verse.

In some languages, such as French, Japanese, and Chinese, the total number of syllables in a line is used to define the meter. Since variations in loudness and duration in these languages are not important, each syllable is seen as having the same stress. This type of poetry is called syllabic verse.

In Anglo-Saxon poetry, the tradition was to count only the stressed syllables. This type of poetry is called accentual verse. A variation of accentual verse, formulated by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), is called sprung rhythm. In this type of verse, the rhythm is made up of strongly stressed syllables separated by an irregular number of weakly stressed syllables.

Since the sixteenth century, English poetry has counted both the total number of syllables and the number of stressed syllables in a line of verse. This type of verse is called accentual-syllabic verse. It is analogous to the Greek practice of counting the total number of syllables and the duration of the syllables. In fact, we get many of our prosodic terms from the Greek language.

The English system, however, differs from the classical Greek system of prosody in several important ways. In English, we ignore the differences in duration of the syllables and focus on the loudness and distinction of the spoken syllables. In addition, in most English lines of verse, the lines generally have a repetition of the same units of strongly stressed syllables and weakly stressed syllables, while, in Greek, the units are prescribed to differ even within the same line of verse.

For example, in English we might have a normal pattern of having one weakly stressed syllable (“w”) followed by one strongly stressed syllable (“S”), and we can repeat this unit five times in one line, like this:

wSwSwSwSwS

In Greek, however, the poem might have a variety of patterns within the same line. The short syllables (“s”) could alternate with the long syllables (“L”) in a prescribed way, like this:

sLsssLLsLsL

The smallest repeated unit of syllables is called a foot. In English poetry, a foot represents a combination of weakly stressed syllables (“w”) and strongly stressed syllables (“S”). In English, we generally don’t see more than two weakly stressed syllables or two strongly stressed syllables in a row. Therefore, the most common feet in English poetry are the following:

Iamb (iambic foot): wS
Trochee (trochaic foot): Sw
Pyrrhic (pyrrhic foot): ww
Spondee (spondaic foot): SS
Dactyl (dactylic foot): Sww
Anapest (anapestic foot): wwS
Amphibrach: wSw
Amphimacer: SwS

The number of feet in a line is given by a special word, also from the Greek:

One foot: monometer
Two feet: dimeter
Three feet: trimeter
Four feet: tetrameter
Five feet: pentameter
Six feet: hexameter
Seven feet: heptameter
Eight feet: octameter

To tell what type of meter is used, we write the predominating type of foot and the number of feet per line. The most common meter in English poetry is iambic pentameter. This meter normally contains five iambic feet per line. We can write a vertical line between each iambic foot, like this:

wS|wS|wS|wS|wS

Although poems can be written with strict adherence to meter, most poems that follow a specific meter substitute (with greater or lesser frequency) different kinds of feet into the poem to add variety.

The practice of analyzing the metrical structure of a poem or a line from a poem is called scansion. Let’s scan the following two lines from “An Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope. We can put single vertical lines between the feet and double vertical lines between the pauses (called caesurae) in the lines. We can put the strongly stressed syllables in bold font.

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,

Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.

Whoev-|er thinks||a fault-|less piece|to see,

Thinks what|ne’er was,||nor is,||nor e’er|shall be.

wS|wS||wS|wS|wS

Sw|wS||wS||wS|wS

We can see that the first line consists of regular iambic pentameter, while the second line has a trochaic (Sw) substitution where the first iambic foot would be. (When adhering to meter, and when scanning, words often end up being split and being placed in more than one foot.)

When scanning poetry, what is important is the relative strengths of the stresses. Within a specific foot, a syllable is said to be strongly stressed when it is stressed more strongly than the other syllable(s) in that foot, regardless of whether or not it is more strongly stressed than the syllables in other feet on the same line.

When writing poems that follow a metrical pattern, we need to know what syllables are usually stressed and which are not. For polysyllabic words, we can check the dictionary to see where the stresses fall within the word. For monosyllabic words, we can choose to stress them or not stress them, depending on where they fall within the line. However, as a general rule, nouns (e.g., “hat,” “mouth,” “car,” “love”) and verbs (e.g., “go,” “throw,” “came,” “care”) are usually stressed more strongly than prepositions (e.g., “in,” “to,” “for,” “of”) and articles (“a,” “an,” “the”). In addition, helping verbs (e.g., “shall,” “will,” “did,” “has”) usually have weaker stresses than regular verbs.

If we write according to meter, the majority of the feet in a line should be of the predominating foot. For example, if we were writing in iambic pentameter, at least three of the five feet should be iambs.

Some common substitutions in iambic pentameter include a trochee for an iamb (most commonly in the first foot, and least desirably in the last foot), an anapest for an iamb, and a pyrrhic and a spondee for two iambs. We can illustrate these substitutions schematically below:

A trochee for an iamb:

Sw|wS|wS|wS|wS

An anapest for an iamb:

wS|wS|wwS|wS|wS

A pyrrhic and a spondee for two iambs:

wS|ww|SS|wS|wS

Lines can be extended by adding a (weakly stressed) syllable to the end of the line. This is called hypercatalexis. Adding a weakly stressed syllable to the beginning of the line is called anacrusis. (A single syllable by itself is called an imperfect foot.)

Hypercatalexis:

wS|wS|wS|wS|wS|w

Anacrusis:

w|wS|wS|wS|wS|wS

In addition, lines are sometimes truncated by removing a syllable from the beginning or the end of the line, and this is referred to as initial catalexis or final catalexis.

Initial catalexis:

S|wS|wS|wS|wS

Final catalexis:

wS|wS|wS|wS|w

When determining the meter of a poem, we must scan the entire poem and look for the predominating meter. This is because there can be many variations in the meter, and scanning only one line might lead us to mislabel the meter of the poem.

Contents | Chapter 4: The Repetition of Sounds