Put Your Feet Together: Building Meter

There really is no limit to the number of syllables that can be contained in a foot. A poet could even create a meter that has ten syllables in each foot if he or she wanted to.

Most feet, however, are made up of four or fewer syllables. Here are some of the most common feet you’re likely to see in poetry:

  • An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable as in par-TAKE.
  • A trochee is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable as in BAN-jo.
  • A dactyl is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables as in CAP-it-al.
  • An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable as in sev-en-TEEN.
  • An amphibrach is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable and then an unstressed syllable as in ar-CHA-ic.
  • A cretic is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable and then another stressed syllable as in TRAM-po-LINE.

When you put the feet together, you get meter. Different types of meter have different names. If, for example, a line in a poem has five iambs, then the meter is called iambic pentameter ("iambic" meaning it's made up of iambs, "penta" meaning there are five in each line and "meter" meaning it's a measure of meter). If there are only four iambs, it is called iambic tetrameter ("tetra" means four). Similarly, if there are five trochees in a line, it's called trochaic pentameter.

Structural Effects -- Poetic Meter

Another tool poets have is structure. Even though not all poems follow a structure, many poems do.

When you write an essay or a story, you probably structure your text in paragraphs. Poems can be broken into paragraphs, too -- these are called stanzas.

In addition, in most prose, when your text reaches the end of a line, it just continues on to the next line. In poetry, however, the breaking of text from line to line is usually planned. Sometimes a poet might choose to break a sentence in the middle of a line -- this is called enjambment, for example:

Sometimes poets put a whole sentence on one line.

Sometimes they choose to break a sentence

In the middle. Either way is fine.

In the short poem above, the second sentence is broken between the second and third lines. If you look at the third line in the poem, you'll also see that there is a period in the middle of the line. This is known as a caesura, or a pause in the middle of a line.

Another way to add structure to a poem is with a rhyme scheme, or a pattern in how the lines of a poem rhyme. In the poem above, the first line rhymes with the third line, so it has a rhyme scheme of a-b-a. If the second line rhymed with the third line instead, the rhyme scheme would be a-b-b.

Structure can even be found within each line of a poem. Meter is the poem's rhythm structure, and it is usually established by having a certain pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in the words on each line. A stressed syllable is a syllable that, when spoken aloud, may sound louder, have a longer duration or be higher in pitch than another syllable. An unstressed syllable, on the other hand, might sound softer, have a shorter length or be lower in pitch. For example, when you read aloud the phrase, "He'd like to have some pumpkin pie," you might notice that the syllables "like," "have," "pump-" and "pie" sound a bit louder or stronger than the syllables "he'd," "to," "some" and "-kin." You might also notice that the stressed and unstressed syllables alternate in a regular pattern. This creates a rhythm.

In poetry, a foot, the basic unit of rhythm, is made up of a set number of stressed and unstressed syllables. There are many types of feet that are made up of different combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables (for some examples, see the sidebar on this page).

In addition to deciding what words to use and how to use them, a poet can add some visual elements to enhance or change the meaning of the poem. Keep reading to find out how poets can make a poem actually look like something.