Jim Roth’s Website
A Primer on Poetic Feet
All poems have structure, which can be divided roughly into rhythm and rhyme.
Just as the music we listen to has rhythm or beat, so, too, does language and, therefore, poetry. The terminology we use to identify certain rhythm patterns is a bit strange but not difficult to understand.
We first start with what is called a “poetic foot,” which is usually made of two or three syllables.
Here are the two-syllable feet:
The iamb has this beat: È − or È /. This means that the second syllable is accented or stressed, but the first syllable is not. The word “today” is iambic because we stress the “DAY” syllable, but not the “to” syllable.
Here’s a whole line of iambs (Stress syllables written in capital letters):
i WANT to RUN and JUMP and SING/ i WILL not REST for AN-y-THING.
A trochee is the opposite of the iamb. It has this rhythm pattern: − È or / È. Notice that the first syllable is accented or stressed, but the second syllable is not. A good trochaic word is “daily” because the “day” gets the stress, but the “ly” does not.
How’s this for a line of trochees:
TELL me NOT in MOURN-ful NUM-bers
or, to quote Shakespeare . . .
DOU-ble, DOU-ble TOIL and TROU-ble
Now on to the three-syllable poetic feet.
First is the anapest with this rhythm pattern: È È − or È È /.
An example is the word intervene. Say it aloud and you’ll hear stress on the last syllable but not the first two (in-ter-VENE).
An anapestic line?
i am MAS-ter of ALL i pos-SESS
A bit of irony? The word “anapest” is an example of a dactyl. Go figure.
The opposite of the anapest is the dactyl. Far from dinosaur ancestry, this poetic foot has this rhythm pattern: − È È or / È È.
A good example of a dactyl is yesterday because the accent is on the first syllable only (YES-ter-day).
A whole line of dactyls is difficult to write, but here’s a start:
TEN-der-ly, TEN-der-ly SPOKE the crazed SHOE salesman
Now on to measuring poetic feet. A long time ago, the word meter meant “measure of.”
Penta is Greek for “five.” If we add “meter” to the end of penta, we get “pentameter” which means “measure of five.” If we have five iambs in a row, we have “iambic pentameter.”
Back to Shakespeare:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (depends on the weather!)
Say the line aloud and try to exaggerate the accents. This is the rhythm pattern you can uncover:
shall I com-PARE thee TO a SUM-mer’s DAY?
Five iambs, right? Thus, hence, ergo Iambic pentameter.
Here are other measure words:
dimeter (two feet), trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), pentameter (5), hexameter (6), heptameter (7), octameter (8)
Let’s talk about rhyme and rhyme scheme for a bit.
Most poems have rhyme. Usually rhyme occurs when poetic lines end with similar sounds, a quality somehow pleasing to our ear. Music and song employ rhyme most of the time. Take, for example, these lines from a Johnny Rivers song:
People say I’m the life of the party
Because I tell a joke or two.
Although I may be laughin’ loud and hardy,
Deep inside I’m blue.
Check out the end rhyme. We have party rhyming with hardy as well as two rhyming with blue.
We mark the rhyme scheme of a poem by using the alphabet. The first line’s ending sound is given the letter “A.” Any similar ending sounds in that poem also are given the letter “A.” The next new end-of-the-line sound is given the letter “B,” the next “C,” and so on.
Johnny Rivers’ lines would have the rhyme scheme of A,B,A,B. See?
Try to determine the rhyme scheme of the following:
In literature class we toss and turn
To understand the great unknown
Throughout the class, some seeds are sown
That grow to plants that we can learn.
Quizzes come and quizzes go
But the lectures just go on and on
We watch the clock and wait till dawn
Or at least until we think it’s so.
Not great poetry but definitely the rhyme scheme of A,B,B,A C,D,D,C.
How about this one?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter’s flaw!
Did you get A, A, B, B?