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.
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.
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.