Thursday, December 4, 2008

Some thoughts on Meter

I'm talking about poetic meter. You know, what we learned when we learned Shakespeare, mostly iambic pentameter, but also spondaic tetrameter or trochaic hexameter or any of those other bizarrely named things.

Here's a brief review of a few terms, with examples.

foot: a set of grouped syllables that form the most basic unit of a metrical pattern.
iamb: a foot with one weak syllable followed by one strong syllable. x X "She comes."= 1 iamb
trochee: a foot with one strong syllable followed by one weak syllable. X x "Hit her." = 1 trochee
spondee: a foot with two stressed syllables. X X "Bob Smith" = 1 spondee
anapest: a foot with two weak syllables followed by one strong one. x x X "He has gone to the edge of the road."= 3 anapests
dactyl: a foot with one strong syllable followed by two weak ones. X x x "Gone are the days of the foresters."= 3 dactyls

Meter is not just for poetry and Shakespearean plays.

Whether in poetry or prose, meter is all about flow - the feel of the language as it streams by. I read a discussion on the Absolute Write forum recently which concerned the difference between "on" and "upon" and which should be used in a particular context. My own sense came far more from an instinctive desire to align the meter of the sentence in question than from a general preference for "upon" versus "on."

It is often said that the natural meter of English is iambic. This is because we generally like our sentences to have an alternating pattern of strong and weak syllables. I have a character I'm working on who speaks entirely in iambic pentameter, and while he does sound archaic at times, my goal is not to have any of his lines come across as ta-TUM-tee-UM-tee-UM-tee-UM-tee-UM. Fortunately, there is some flexibility in the metrical rules which allows for the occasional foot with reversed stress, and the occasional extra syllable.

Here's a random couplet of iambic pentameter (totally unrelated to my novel!) which doesn't sound much like poetry to me:

"In utero, the baby undergoes a lengthy process of uneven growth."

By altering this natural rhythm, you can achieve effects that act a lot like onomatopoeia. In action and situations of stress you can use strong syllables to break flow intentionally: a few trochees and spondees can go a long way. This is one of the things that can help you create the effect of a regional accent, for example, without requiring extensive alterations of spelling.

When I'm looking for a voice for an alien, I make sure to consider the meter of his or her speech, even if I don't use that meter strictly in the alien viewpoint. The gecko-girl Allayo (Let the Word Take Me) spoke in an unmeasured meter that I based on the intonation of sacred readings, because that fit well with the fact that she considered her language to be sacred. When I thought about designing a wolf alien, I tried to use anapests to influence the dialogue so that the speech would come across in a loping rhythm.

All right, that's enough for now. I'll let you go have fun with it.


  1. Found this elsewhere:

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Metrical Feet, a Lesson for a Boy":

    Trochee trips from long to short;
    / v / v / v /
    From long to long in solemn sort.
    v / v / v / v /
    Slow Spondee stalks, strong foot!, yet ill able
    / / / / / / / / / v
    Ever to come up with Dactyl’s trisyllable.
    / v v / v v / v v / v v
    Iambics march from short to long.
    v / v / v / v /
    With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.
    v v / v v / v v / v v /

    And from Alexander Pope, on why prosody matters–having a little fun as he illustrates how meter makes a difference:

    But most by Numbers judge a Poet's Song,
    And smooth or rough, with them, is right or wrong;
    In the bright Muse tho' thousand Charms conspire,
    Her Voice is all these tuneful Fools admire.
    . . .
    True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
    As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,
    'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
    The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
    Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
    And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
    But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
    The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.
    When Ajax strives, some Rocks' vast Weight to throw,
    The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
    Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
    Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.

  2. AS I'm sure you all know, Leonard Bernstein once demonstrated on a radio broadcast that Shakespeare (he used lines from the scottish play) with its iambic pentameter fits perfectly into the twelve bar blues form.