Poets use meter to create special effects in poetry. Using different types of meter, writers can create rhythms that convey the ebb and flow of life. Sometimes meter comes naturally as the poet transfers thoughts in words, and sometimes poets work hard to formulate a rhythm to match their intent. Understanding and identifying types of meter will build an appreciation for the craft of poetry. You can remember the steps of determining meter with this little song, "Scan it; clap it out; feel the beat; count the feet."
What is Meter?
Meter is determined by the number and type of feet in a line of poetry. A metrical foot consists of a combination of two or three stressed and unstressed syllables. Iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls and spondees are the five most common types of feet. In an iambic foot, we hear one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, such as in the word “submit.” In a trochaic foot, we hear the opposite: one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, as in the word “apple.” An anapest consists of three syllables, the first two accented, followed by one that is not. For instance, we hear two anapests in the phrase “in the blink of an eye.” A dactyl consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, as in the word “violence.” Spondees consist of two accented syllables next to each other. We can hear spondaic feet in words such as football or shortcake.
Once you understand what metric feet are, you are ready to determine the meter in a specific poem. This is done by doing a scansion. While reading a line of poetry, mark each syllable with a symbol to indicate whether it is stressed or unstressed. Look for patterns of repeating metric feet, and separate them with lines. Count out the number of feet contained in a line.
Clap it Out; Feel the Beat
If you are having trouble recognizing which syllables are accented, there are a few tricks you can do. First, try clapping along as you read each syllable. You may be able to hear a rhythm and a beat. The most prominent beats are the accented syllables. You can also try holding your hand under your chin, palms down and fingers closed but outstretched. Place your hand so that it is just barely brushing the skin on your chin. Say the poem out loud, but read naturally. You will feel your chin drop down further on the accented syllables.
Count the Feet
Once you have established which type of feet are being repeated in a line of poetry, count how many feet the line contains. If the line contains one foot, it is considered “monometer;” two feet: “dimeter;” three feet: “trimeter;” four feet: tetrameter;” and five feet: “pentameter.” If those five feet are iambic, it is considered iambic pentameter, which happens to be very common in English poetry, simply because the English language is naturally iambic.