How to Mark Meter in a Poem

When you’re trying to determine a poem’s meter, especially an irregular meter, it can be useful to mark the meter -- that is, to annotate the poem with symbols that show what kind of poetic feet it uses and where they occur.

Syllabic Stress

The first step in marking meter is to read through the poem syllable by syllable. Determine which syllables are more stressed and which are less stressed. Usually nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives contain at least one stressed syllable -- for instance, in the word “defer,” the second syllable is stressed -- while function words such as conjunctions and prepositions are often unstressed. As you read, place a diagonal stress mark, called an acute accent, over each stressed syllable. Place a breve accent, which looks like a “u” or the bottom half of a circle, over each unstressed syllable.

Finding Feet

Once you’ve marked the stressed and unstressed syllables, divide the syllables into two- or three-syllable units, called poetic feet. Iambic feet are two syllables long, one unstressed and one stressed -- “balloon”; trochaic feet are the opposite, with one stressed and one unstressed syllable -- “traitor.” Anapestic feet have three syllables, two unstressed and one stressed, while dactylic feet have a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Draw a vertical line to mark off each two- or three-syllable foot.

About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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