Poetry 101: Rhythm
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(or: why you probably hate looking at poetic rhythm)
Students are typically taught rhythm through “scansion,” which is the process of marking the emphasis of each syllable of a poem. Typically, students are taught two levels of emphasis: unaccented ( x ) and accented ( / ). Scansion is used to identify rhythmic units (known as “feet”), especially in traditional poetic forms like sonnets and blank verse, where the repetition of “iambs” (syllable groupings, such as x /) are an important part of the poetic form.
Sadly, this approach gets confusing, largely due to this method’s oversimplification of rhythm. While some syllables have clear accents, words like “be” can be read in almost any position of emphasis. For example, what is the correct emphasis of “I will be good”?
I will be good? ( x / x / ) I will be good? ( x x x /) I will be good? ( / x x / ) I will be good? ( / / / x )
The line could be read with any of these rhythms, and many more, dependent on both context and reader preference. Many students leave the classroom confused, frustrated, and with a (rather sad) distaste for anything having to do with poetic rhythm.
(or: how you can learn to love rhythm again)
Instead of using the binary approach of unaccented or accented syllables creating various metrical units, try thinking of rhythm as the drum-beat and bass line playing through the poem. Ignore the idea of “essential emphasis,” and focus on how each syllable’s emphasis compares to the syllables before and after. How do the words flow into one another? Are words becoming more emphasized? Less? Is there a repeating pattern of rhythm? Where does that pattern get disrupted, and how does that disruption draw additional emphasis or make the poem more interesting?
Listening for the rhythm of the piece shouldn’t feel like math homework: It should feel like lying back and listening to some smooth jazz. Scanning and marking poetry can be useful, but only if we’re looking for rhythmic flow rather than essential rhythm. We can mark when rhythm increases (/), decreases (x), or stays about the same (-). Even then, however, it’s important to note that any given scan of a piece represents the way one specific reader would emphasize the words. In the same way that no two musicians play the same piece in the same way, no two readers will give the exact same emphasis to a line.
Quick Reference Guide for Rhythmic Terms
Foot: A unit of rhythmic meter, typically comprised of two or three syllables.
Poetic styles are often labeled by how many feet they have, with the term coming before the “meter” indicating the number of feet per line.
Trimeter: 3 feet
Tetrameter: 4 feet
Pentameter: 5 feet
Hexameter: 6 feet
Heptameter: 7 feet
Octameter: 8 feet
An additional term tells you what type of feet are being used:
Iamb (Iambic): x /
Spondee (Spondaic): / /
Trochee (Trochaic): / x
Pyrrhus (Pyrrhic): x x
Anapest (Anapestic): x x /
Dactyl (Dactylic): / x x
So “iambic pentameter” is poetry written with five iambs, “anapestic tetrameter” is written with four anapests, trochaic trimeter is written with three trochees, and so on.
The most common meter you’ll encounter is “iambic pentameter,” which is used for blank verse poetry, sonnets, and several other traditional forms.
An Example of Scansion
( x / x / x – x / x / )
Shall I com-pare thee to a summ-er’s day?
( – – – / x / – – x / )
Thou art more lovely and more tem-per-ate.
( / / x / x / x / x / )
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
( x / x / x – x / x / )
And summ-er’s lease hath all too short a date.
Again, remember! This is just one person’s scanning of the rhythm. Many of these phrases could be read with different emphasis and would still be “correct.”
1. Scan this sonnet from John Donne:
Death, be not proud, though some have call-ed thee
Migh-ty and dread-ful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost ov-er-throw,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
2. Now try to write a line that has an iambic rhythm (x /):
3. Now write out your scansion first, then write the words for a line:
Please feel free to share your results in the comments, below!