Poetry Boot Camp, Part 2

Alex Cabal
by Alex Cabal

Posted March 6th, 2008 • 3 comments

Welcome back, recruits. In the last installment of Poetry Boot Camp, we learned about the basics of meter and about the most common type of metrical foot in the English language, the iamb (an unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat, or: x / ). You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the iamb isn’t the only kind of foot in the language. There are a few others that you’ll come across, and a good marine (poet, sorry) knows how to tell them apart:

The trochee ( / x )

Girl reading booksIf an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, then a trochee is the opposite: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. For example:

OVer UNder STORies MEAdow FORest HEAVen

Because the stress is on the first syllable, lines starting with trochees often impart a sense of immediacy or forcefulness. The line starts at a high point, so to speak, and the rest of the beats in the line tumble down from it.

It’s uncommon to find completely trochaic meter in a poem outside of children’s rhymes. Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha is one famous example of a poem written almost entirely in trochees, but there aren’t too many other examples like it. Trochees are more often mixed in with other kinds of feet to create a more complex rhythm or emphasize certain words.

The next type of foot is one that you won’t find very often, but when you do, it’ll be with a bang!

The spondee ( / / )

A spondee is two beats, both of them stressed. It’s probably pretty obvious that it would be almost impossible to write a poem made up entirely of spondees. In fact, it’s pretty tough to find individual words that are spondees. Most spondees appear as beats ranging across two words. In these examples, I’ve capitalized all the stresses, and the spondees are in bold:

LOOK! OVer THERE!

WELL-LOVED of ME, disCERNing TO fulFILL

THIS LAbor, by SLOW PRUdence to MAKE MILD (from Tennyson’s Ulysses)

You may be wondering why the first two stresses of “SLOW PRUdence” aren’t a spondee. After all, it’s two stresses next to each other, right? That’s true, but it’s not a spondee because we marked the first two stresses in the line as a spondee. That makes “by SLOW” an iamb, and “PRUdence to” a dactyl (which we haven’t covered yet, but can you guess what it is?). The last two stresses on “MAKE MILD” form a spondee again. If we wanted to mark “SLOW PRU” as a spondee, we wouldn’t be able to fit the words before it into an easy classification. Meter isn’t an exact science, so I know it may seem a little confusing at first, but take a close look and it’ll become pretty obvious why we’ve broken the line up that way.

Spondees aren’t that common, but are sometimes spotted hanging out at the end of lines to make them go out with a bang. When they show up in the middle of lines, it’s often to put a stress (literally!) on what’s being read.

The last kind of foot made up of two beats is

The pyrrhic, sometimes known as the pyrrhus ( x x )

We’ve covered the iamb, which is unstressed and stressed; the trochee, which is stressed and unstressed; and the spondee, which is two stressed; now the only one left is the pyrrhic, which is two unstressed beats. Like the spondee, it’s pretty uncommon as a single word, and poetry written entirely in pyrrhics would be very monotonous indeed. Here’s a couplet shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia that features pyrrhics, in bold:

when the BLOOD CREEPS and the NERVES PRICK

and TINgle; and the HEART is SICK (from Tennyson’s In Memoriam)

Do you see how Tennyson arranged the first line? Interesting, isn’t it. The words that are the focus of the line, “BLOOD CREEPS” and “NERVES PRICK,” are stressed; the rest are unstressed. That line is made up of a pyrrhic, a spondee, a pyrrhic, and a spondee, with the spondees being the nouns and verbs. By controlling the meter like that, he commands our focus to land on those important things, blood and nerves, and what they’re doing. We haven’t got a choice but to feel our blood creeping and our nerves pricking, because the beat is guiding us!

The next line distracts us with a leading iamb, followed by a pyrrhic to lull us a little bit. The lack of stress follows into the first beat of the next foot (“the”), and maybe you start to scan a little quicker, because you’ve just read three unstressed syllables in a row, and then BAM! There’s the stress on “HEART” and one more iamb, “is SICK,” to finish the one-two punch. Just like the previous line, the stresses lands exactly on the noun and the adjective: “HEART” and “SICK,” and the stressless pyrrhic before them gives the stresses even more of an impact. Reading those three stressless beats and then hitting the stress on “HEART” is like a wave hitting a rock. It’s a K.O., folks, and we never even saw it coming.

Tennyson knows what he’s doing, and he’s done that on purpose: once again he’s commanding our attention to land on the words that he wants to emphasize. We can’t help but focus on the blood, the nerves, the heart, and their creeping, tingling sickness, because those are the only stresses in the entire two lines! You can bet that your average reader doesn’t have a clue about what a pyrrhic is, but he or she doesn’t have to–reading the beats comes naturally and unconsciously to any English speaker, and the effect grabs them without them realizing what did it. Tennyson’s sent the emotional impact of his few simple words through the roof just by paying attention to the kind of meter he uses. Now that’s poetry, and that’s why Tennyson was Britain’s poet laureate. Read over those two lines a few more times to really see how he manipulates the reader with his brilliant use of meter, and pyrrhics in particular.

But that’s enough fawning over Tennyson for now. Congratulations! You’ve learned the basics about the feet with two beats. You’re about 85% done with the major kinds of meter, and it wasn’t that bad at all, was it? We’ve still got a few more kinds of feet to discuss before we can move on to some other stuff. In the next installment of Poetry Boot Camp, we’ll be entering the wild and woolly world of the three-beat feet. Stay tuned!

P.S.

I know what you’re thinking: the girl in that image totally looks like a bootcamp-hardened fighting machine. Don’t worry. I thought the same thing.

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