Posted tagged ‘dactyl’

No Rest For The Weary – Metered Feet

September 24, 2009

Went to bed at one a.m.  and woke up at five.  (The way in which ten cups of strong tea remain in your system never ceases to surprise me.)

I am not someone who particularly touts the benefits of sleep.  It’s great stuff, but the fact remains that there are only 24 hours in the day, and, when you have a day job, only so many (other) hours can be spent unconscious.  (That’s a joke, boss.)

Nonetheless, I do think that, over time, sleep deprivation can put a serious dent in creativity.  Great swathes of the sleep-deprived brain are spent on questions such as what is your husband’s cell phone number again, and where did you just put your purse, socks, apple, keys, and, most importantly, that fresh cup of tea?   Under those circumstances, it’s hard to make space for new combinations of brain waves.

As a result, I decided today to write about something kind of technical, which is meter in formal poetry.  Ta Da!

Or rather:  taDa taDa taDa TaDa TaDa.

The above, by the way, is my version of iambic pentameter, probably the most common form of meter in traditional English verse.  (I base this statement on the fact that iambic pentameter is the form of virtually all the lines of Shakespeare’s  plays, other than the prose dialogue of his commoner characters such as the Rude Mechanicals in a Midsummer’s Night Dream. )

There are variations.  But before going into these, I want to take a break to thank another blogger, Patrick Gillespie, who writes Poemshape at wordpress  and who kindly wrote about my poetry and blog:  Gillespie knows a great deal about poetic meter.  And although he inspired me to continue with this subject, I had oddly already started writing about this morning on the subway.


If rhyme gives a kind of music to poetry, meter is what makes it dance.   Ironically, meter is measured in “feet” (sort of like toe-tappings.  Also, like the English system of distance measurement.)  A line which is written in “pentameter” has five feet.

A “foot” of poetry generally varies in length between one and three syllables.   (Two is probably the most common.)

There are various terms for the specific rhythm of a “foot” of a poem. An iambic rhythm is a ta-Da, with the emphasis on the second syllable.  A trochaic rhythm is the opposite of an iamb: Ta-da.  (A better example may be “Dada” as in Marcel Duchamps.)   A spondee is a foot with two syllables of equal stress as in “graveside”.  (Sorry for that one.)   Two types of feet which use one long syllable and two short unstressed ones are dactyls and anapests. (What comes to my mind is “Heidigger”, a dactyl, although a perhaps better, example is “Pattinson”.)

It’s all kind of complicated.  Which is why I tend to write poems using a syllabic count rather than using meter based on “feet.”  (Perhaps I should have told you this before the long explanation.)

Yes, it’s cheating.  And lazy.  But using a syllabic count is quite helpful to a striving poet, particularly when sleep deprived.

When writing formal poetry, I also aim for pentameter, because that length of line seems very natural.  To reach an approximation of pentameter, I try to keep the lines between 9 and ll syllables (though 12 can also sometimes work).

Keep in mind, if you try this technique, that a syllabic count really is not same as a count of feet.  You need to be careful that you are not reading the line in an odd or contrived way in order to get it to sound “right.”

I include below another example of a villanelle.  I chose this one because it describes the aging, sleep-deprived brain, although the meter is not that great and may not qualify as as “pentameter.”  The second repeating line: “as pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day” is a bit long but just about works because,  arguably, it ends with two “anapests.”

Villanelle to Wandering Brain

Sometimes my mind feels like it’s lost its way
and must make do with words that are in reach
as pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day,

when what it craves is crimson, noon in May,
the unscathed verb or complex forms of speech.
But sometimes my mind feels like it’s lost its way

and calls the egg a lightbulb, plan a tray,
and no matter how it search or how beseech
is pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day.

I try to make a joke of my decay
or say that busy-ness acts as the leech
that makes my mind feel like it’s lost its way,

but whole years seem as spent as last month’s pay,
lost in unmet dares to eat a peach
as pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day.

There is so much I think I still should say,
so press poor words like linens to heart’s breach,
but find my mind has somehow lost its way
as pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day.

(All rights reserved, Karin Gustafson)

Do check out1 Mississippi, my children’s counting book, Going on Somewhere, my book of poetry, and Nose Dive,  comic novel.

Also, I am linking this to The Purple Treehouse today, where C.C. Champagne is talking about syllables in poetry.