Saturday, February 16, 2013

Poetry - Rhythm and Meter One Two Three

If you get the joyous privilege of studying a poem with rhythm and metre, you need to understand what rhythm and metre mean.  No matter how many times Nardvark’s teacher explains it, no matter how many diagrams and Powerpoints she uses and how many times she claps her hands, Nardvark just doesn’t get it.  And that’s NOT because he is sitting in the back of the classroom reading his friends’ tweets from math class, honest!


George and Ira Gershwin had rhythm.  Alan Jackson's got rhythm.  Enrique Iglesias's got Rhythm Divine.    Rhythm is beat.  Poetry can have a beat?  Yes.  Listen to Snoop Dogg if you don’t believe me.  Lyrics need to fit the beat, and that’s part of the skill of freestyling, making the words fit the beat without sounding stupid, right?  Same with poetry.  If a poem is written in a particular rhythm, it means the words are arranged in a way that creates a beat.

Eg: Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow.

In the well-known nursery rhyme, the syllables that your voice stresses when you say them are bold.  The syllables you don’t stress are not bold.  Make sure nobody is in the room with you.  Say the line slowly, accentuating the naturally stressed syllables.  Clap on the stressed syllables.  Clap, clap, clap, clap.  It’s a rhythm.

Eg: I've got the moves like Jagger.

In the well-known song lyric above, every second syllable is stressed.  This is what is known as “Iambic.”
OH! NOW THAT’S STARTING TO RING A BELL!  Shakespeare, that old dude we all get acquainted with in English class from time to time, seemed to love something called “Iambic Pentameter.”
So where does the “Pentameter” part come in?

Ok, we’re getting to that.

There are other rhythms besides iambic.  The combination of stressed and unstressed syllables together make up a “foot.”  
Nice try, Nard...
not that kind of foot.

We can also think of the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in terms of delightful nonsense words such as “da” and “DUM,” or by writing x for unstressed and / for stressed.

Meters with two-syllable feet are:
  • IAMBIC (da-DUM, or  x /) eg: I've got the moves like Jagger. (Maroon 5)
  • TROCHAIC (DUM-da, or / x) eg: Oppan Gangnam Style,(pause) Gangnam Style (PSY)
  • SPONDAIC (DUM-DUM,  or / /) eg: Hey, ho! Let’s go! (The Ramones)
Meters with three-syllable feet are
  • ANAPESTIC (da-da-DUM, or x x /) eg: You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. (Dr. Seuss)
  • DACTYLIC (DUM-da-da, or / x x) eg: So won't the real slim Shady please stand up, please stand up, please stand up? (Eminem)
Now for the “Pentameter” part.

It’s simply telling you how many feet there are!  “Penta” is Greek for five.  The Greeks loaned us their cool counting words so we could count metrical feet and sound all knowledgeable when writing about poetry on an exam.

One foot = monometer
Two feet = dimeter
Three feet = trimeter
Four feet =  tetrameter
Five feet = pentameter
Six feet =  hexameter
Seven feet = heptameter
Eight feet = octameter

Kinda sounds mathematical, doesn’t it?  Why do poets use mathematical formulas for writing poetry?  Well, Shakespeare used a lot of iambic pentameter because, as Eminem knows, the rhythm sounded good on stage, and it also made it easier for the actors to remember their lines.  

Ooh, iambic pentameter...
There are a lot of effects of rhythm and meter in poetry, too.  Poets can employ a song-like effect, can use the metrical pattern to emphasise certain words, can emphasise words by straying from the rhythm, can create a specific tone by following a certain style such as a sonnet or ballad; the beat might be used as a sound effect to echo or imitate the subject of the poem; the rhythm might emphasise the tone or atmosphere of the poem, or might even contrast it to create paradox.  When you study a rhythmic or metered poem, try to figure out why the poet used a rhythm and/or metre.

Now, let's get real... here's the prologue to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  A famous sonnet, written in iambic pentameter.  You know you love Shakespeare: when you're finished enjoying the fun below, click "exit" for more.

[Enter] CHORUS.
  1    Two households, both alike in dignity,
  2    In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
  3    From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
  4    Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
  5    From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
  6    A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
  7    Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
  8    Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
  9    The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
 10    And the continuance of their parents' rage,
 11    Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
 12    Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
 13    The which if you with patient ears attend,
 14    What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoy my blog, please check out my website,  Have a rhythmic day.

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