The Nuts & Bolts of Poetry: Rhythm, Meter, and Rhyme

Many of us write poetry, but what is it, really? What is poetry? What distinguishes it from prose? I would like to answer these questions and define a few terms specific to the genre of poetry, for those of you who truly wish to join me in digging deeper and improve our poetic writing skills.

What Is Poetry?

Poetry is a literary form that uses a distinctive style and rhythm to express emotions and ideas. It may be rhymed or unrhymed, short or long. It almost always has rhythm, but sometimes the rhythm can be measured, while at other times it seems as random and as natural as normal conversation.

The opposite of poetry is prose. Prose lacks rhythm. Short stories and novels are written in prose.

Let me ask you a question—or better yet, give you a pop quiz of sorts. Suppose we take one of the sentences from above, and perform an experiment.

Poetry is a literary form that uses a distinctive style and rhythm to express emotions and ideas.

Now, I’m going to break that sentence into shorter lines, like so….

Poetry is
a literary form 
that uses a distinctive style and rhythm 
to express emotions 
and ideas.

This sentence is obviously prose, but did I turn it into poetry by merely creating line breaks? The answer is: No. Why not? If you read it out loud, you could easily argue that it has rhythm. The line breaks give it style. So why is it not a poem? Simple. It is absolutely void of emotion. Poetry must have emotion: joy, sadness, passion, anger, fear, etc.

Consider the revision below. Do you think this definition qualifies as a poem?

Poetry is
using words with care and
choosing words with purpose,
taking the thoughts or feelings of one and
making them accessible to all.

It may not be the best poem you’ve ever seen, but yes, I do believe this qualifies as a poem. It has definite rhythm, and it also has style. Words are chosen carefully for how they fit together, for how they sound, and for what they mean. Although there is no end rhyme, there is internal rhyme. Actually, the rhyme occurs at the beginning of the lines (“using” and “choosing,” also “taking” and “making”). And there is the idea that an individual experience can be felt by the masses. This is the ripple effect, and it is what makes poetry so powerful.

What Is Rhythm?

Rhythm is the cadence of speech, the natural rising and falling of the voice, the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.

When writing poetry, we have given names to particular rhythmic patterns to help identify them. Each rhythmic pattern is called a foot and generally has either two or three syllables.

What Are the Standard Poetic Feet?

  • The common 2-syllable feet are the:

iamb —   ̆  ʹ   — “unite” (adjective form = iambic)
trochee —   ʹ  ̆   — “able” (adjective form = trochaic)

  • The common 3-syllable feet are the:

anapest —   ̆  ̆  ʹ   — “violin”
dactyl —   ʹ  ̆  ̆   — “episode”

  • Other feet, used only occasionally, are the:

spondee —   ʹ  ʹ   — “hog-wild” (adjective form = spondaic)
pyrrhic —   ̆  ̆   — “in a”
amphibrach —   ̆  ʹ  ̆   — “another” (adjective form = amphibraic)

NOTE: The amphibrach is gaining in popularity, so much so that I have seen some invented poetic forms defined by its use. For instance, the Gardenia is a decastich written in amphibraic dimeter, meaning that every line is made of two amphibrachs.

What Is Meter?

Meter in poetry is the measure of the number of feet per line. Hence…

Monometer = 1 foot per line
Dimeter = 2 feet per line
Trimeter = 3 feet per line
Tetrameter = 4 feet per line
Pentameter = 5 feet per line
Hexameter = 6 feet per line
Heptameter = 7 feet per line
Octameter = 8 feet per line

Lines with more than 8 feet are extremely rare.

What Is Rhyme?

Rhyme is the repetition of sounds, particularly of end sounds. It most often occurs at the ends of the lines of poetry, but it can also occur in the middle of a line and/or at the beginning of the line. Many poems have no rhyme at all. Some examples of non-rhyming poetry are free verse, blank verse (written in iambic pentameter), and most if not all Japanese poetry.

There are different types, or degrees, of rhymes.

Exact rhyme — where the vowel sound, particularly at the end of the word, is an exact match (lay and day or attainable and explainable)

Slant rhyme — also called half, imperfect, or near rhyme; where either the vowel sounds or the consonants are identical (stink and steam or year and your)

Sight rhyme — also called eye rhyme; where the words look the same but are not pronounced the same (have and grave)

Assonance and consonance are related to rhyme, for they also provide a repetition of sounds within a poem. Assonance is a repetition of vowel sounds (resident president or apples and avocados). Consonance is a repetition of consonant sounds (wicked warbling whistler).

What Is Rhyme Scheme?

Rhyme scheme is the particular pattern of rhyming sounds in the poem. It may follow a prescribed pattern, such as that of an English sonnet, or it may be unique to the individual poet. Also, the same rhyming pattern may be repeated from stanza to stanza, or each stanza may have its own rhyming pattern. This too is generally at the discretion of the poet, unless he is following a prescribed pattern. But even then, who says you can’t bend the rules now and again?

What Is Scansion?

Scansion is studying the structure of a poem to determine its rhythm, line length, rhyme scheme, stanza structure, etc. In other words, scansion is learning how the poem was put together. I love studying the scansion of a poem. I do this to my own old poems quite frequently, and to other people’s poems as well. I like to know more than simply what words were used but also how they were put together. To me, a poem is like a verbal jigsaw puzzle, and the more poetic elements that are utilized, the more complex the puzzle. Puzzles are meant to be constructed, appreciated as a work of art, and then deconstructed. Poems, in my opinion, are much the same.

To illustrate scansion, let’s examine this poem.

I Think of You

I think of you in moments of repose,
When peace prevails, and troubles disappear.
Some days are stressful. Yes, I too have those;
But even then your presence lends its cheer,
Though present only in the dreamer’s sphere.
You’ve now become my heart’s forever-guest,
For not a day goes by when you’re not here.
Your friendship true has made me richly blessed!
Nor could I say it better, I suppose,
If I exchanged my poetry for prose.

© 2017 Abigail Gronway – All Rights Reserved

Here it is rewritten and divided into feet, and the stressed syllables are marked….

I thinkʹ | of youʹ | in moʹ | ments ofʹ | re-poseʹ,  — a
When peaceʹ | pre-vailsʹ, | and trouʹ | bles disʹ | ap-pear.ʹ — b
Some daysʹ | are stressʹ | ful. Yes,ʹ | I tooʹ | have those;ʹ — a
But eʹ | ven thenʹ | your preʹ | sence lendsʹ | its cheer,ʹ — b
Though preʹ | sent onʹ | ly inʹ | the dreaʹ | mer’s sphere.ʹ — b
You’ve nowʹ | be-comeʹ | my heart’sʹ | for-eʹ | ver-guest,ʹ — c
For notʹ | a dayʹ | goes byʹ | when you’reʹ | not here.ʹ — b
Your friendʹ | ship trueʹ | has madeʹ | me richʹ | ly blessed!ʹ — c
Nor couldʹ | I sayʹ | it betʹ | ter, Iʹ | sup-pose,ʹ — a
If Iʹ | ex-changedʹ | my poʹ | e-tryʹ | for prose.ʹ — a

As you can see, each line has exactly five iambic feet, so this poem would be classified as iambic pentameter.

The rhyme scheme is denoted with a lower-case letter of the alphabet, beginning with a and proceeding with a new letter each time you come across a new rhyming sound. Thus, the rhyme scheme of this poem is ababbcbcaa. If there were a stanza break, you would indicate it by putting a space in the rhyme scheme. For instance, if the poem were divided into two quatrains and with a couplet at the end, the rhyme scheme would be written as follows: abab bcbc aa, with the spaces indicating the breaks between the stanzas.

Not all poems are so neatly arranged, but I figured I’d give you a simple one to start with.

Does Free Verse Have Rhythm?

Yes! It is not measurable in the traditional sense, for it cannot be neatly divided into feet. But free verse has cadence. In other words, it mimics the natural rise and fall of the spoken language.

Another technique that may be used to give a poem rhythm is anaphora. This is the repetition of words and phrases, particularly at the beginning of lines.

“A little while ago I barely knew you,
A little while ago I little cared….” (from “Kindred Spirits”)

Did you learn something new about writing poetry? Did you find this article helpful? If so, please tell me. I’d like to know. And by all means, keep writing!

Also, be looking soon for my video demonstration of how I wrote one of my decastich poems…..

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