Tackling Metrics #5 – Variation and The Meaningful Beat

Ciardi – big surprise, huh?

Vital to understanding the metrics of a poem is the balance between the regular meter, the mechanical beat, and the natural stresses of spoken English, the meaningful beat.

The stress of the mechanical beat often works against both the natural stresses of spoken English and stresses created by the poem’s syntax, structure, or meaning (all parts of the meaningful beat). Three points vital to understanding these natural, and necessary, variations:

-A line may have more or fewer meaningful than mechanical stresses.

-The stresses of the mechanical and of the meaningful scansions do not always coincide. The grammatical context, determining as it does the voice emphases of the spoken language (meaningful stress) is never entirely separable from metrics.

-The mechanical and the meaningful stresses may coincide precisely. When this happens in a poem, it is considered a smooth line or a rest line. These lines set the overall beat of the poem, and are often used to create a moment of rest or calm in a poem driven by variations in pace.

Tackling Metrics #4 – Controlling Line Speed

again, from Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?

Common Metrical Ways to Control the Speed of the Line

1. the more unstressed syllables are brought together between accents, the faster the line will tend to move

2. the more caesuras and the more stressed syllables that occur in a given passage, the slower the pace will tend to be

3. using anapestic instead of iambic unstressed syllables will speed up the line, because, in some ways, the iamb is like an eighth note, while the anapest is like a sixteenth note (Hopkins stretched this even further, setting no limits on the number of unstressed syllables in a foot, thus speeding up his lines to create his often dizzying effect)

Common Non-metric Ways to Control the Speed of the Line

1. sound patterns:
alliteration, vowel and consonant sequences, consonantal clusters, rhyme, internal rhyme, repetition of the same word or phrase
a. using all open vowels slows down a line
b. lines of equal monosyllables slow down a line
c. consonantal clusters slow down a line
d. in general the heavier and more complicated the rhymes, whether internal or at the end of the line, the more they will accelerate the pace
e. monosyllabic feet slow down a line

2. visual patterns:
the isolation of words as single lines, the separation of words from one another by unusual spacings in the line, the breaking off of lines for special effect

3. punctuation:
in one sense punctuation is a special case of visual pattern. Punctuation must be taken to include the capitalization of whole words or of their first letters, and the use of italics

4. grammatical structure:
particularly parallel constructions and balanced antitheses as devices for controlling the voice emphases of the speech rhythms.

Tackling Metrics #3 – Pattern and Variation

culled, quoted, inspired by, and paraphrased from John Ciardi’s classic How Does a Poem Mean?

The mechanical pattern of a poem is the exact, standard, normal beat, as if a metronome were counting out the beats. But poems written in strict mechanical pattern are boring and flat, as is music played strictly by the metronome. The ways the mechanical patterns is stretched, broken, surprised, are all ways that the performance of music and of poetry take on personality, emotion, and meaning.

It is useful to think of the pattern of mechanical iambic pentameter as roughly corresponding to the squares on graph paper: the variations of the drawn graph are meaningful only as they work against the fixed norm of the squares. In poetry the mechanical pattern may be thought of as an expectation. The metric performance of any line happens in the way it works its variations against the established expectation. Ciardi page 923

Common Ways to Work Against the Pattern

1. slipping in extra unaccented syllables

2. displacing an expected accent, as in the reversed foot

3. by increasing the number of stresses, primarily by the use of spondees and monosyllabic feet

4. by grouping stressed or unstressed syllables

5. by the manipulation of internal pauses (caesura), end-stops, and run-ons

Tackling Metrics #1 – getting the basics – beats

Basic Beats

iambic / iamb ta-TUM – /

natural for two syllable English words
unstressed syllable is an 8th note

trochaic / trochee TUM-ta /-
English words with suffixes often trochaic

anapestic / anapest ta-ta-TUM – – /
often preposition-article-noun combinations
unstressed syllables are 16th notes

dactylic / dactyl TUM-ta-ta / – –
reversed anapest

amphibrach ta-TUM-ta – / –
3 syllable foot, considered feminine iamb

pyrrhic ta-ta – –
a foot consisting of two unstressed syllables

spondaic / spondee TUM-TUM / /
a foot consisting of two stressed syllables

Monosyllabic foot one beat, usually TUM

whenever a monosyllabic foot occurs, an unaccented syllable that would accompany the accent in mechanical scansion may be displaced to the preceding or the following foot.

Caesura a strong pause, could take place of unaccented beat //

Distributed Stress ^
both syllables accented nearly equal, but not as strong as a spondee

How does a poem mean?

from Chapter One, John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean?

For “what does a poem mean?” is too often a self-destroying approach to poetry. A more useful way of asking the question is “how does the poem mean?” Why does it build itself into a form out of images, ideas, rhythms? How do these elements become the meaning? How are they inseparable from the meaning? As Yeats wrote:

O body swayed to music, o quickening glance,
How shall I I tell the dancer from the dance?

What the poem is, is inseparable from its own performance of itself. The dance is the dancer and the dancer is the dance. Or put in another way: where is the “dance” when no one is dancing it? and what man [sic] is a “dancer” except when he is dancing?


So for poetry. The concern is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience. There will never be a complete system for “understanding” or for “judging” poetry. Understanding and critical judgment are admirable goals, but neither can take place until the poem has been experienced, and even then there is always some part of every good work of art that can never be fully explained or categorized.


Any teaching of the poem by any other method owes the poem an apology. What greater violence can be done to the poet’s experience than to drag it into an early morning classroom and to go after it as an item on its way to a Final Examination? The apology must at least be made. It is the experience, not the Final Examination, that counts.

Henri Cole – Bees


Poured through the bees, the sunlight, like flesh

and spirit, emits a brightness pushing everything

else away except the bees’ vibrating bronze bodies

riding the air as if on strings that flex

and kick back as they circle the hive outside

my window, where they are cheerful and careful

in their work, their audible bee-voices

in solidarity with summer, as it is getting on,

and all the leaves of the forest quiver toward

nothingness on Earth, where we are all fallen

and where we sin and betray in order

to love and where the germinating seeds

of the soul are watered by tears of loneliness,

fear, and emotional revenge.

Henri Cole – Ambulance


Gentleness had come a great distance to be there,

I thought, as paramedics stanched the warm blood,

signaling one another with their eyes.

I was not as I was, and I didn’t know why,

so I was aware of a shattering, of an unbidden,

moving under the influence of a restoring force.

Like a Japanese fan folding, my spirit seem possessed

of such a simple existence, the sexual principle

no longer at its center, nor memory.

I felt like the personification of an abstraction,

like mercy. My hands were red and swollen.

A great chain, the twitch of my life, dragged against decay.

Then I heard shouts. Far off, a horse whinnied.

I blinked back tears as I was lifted forth.

Blackberry Eating

Blackberry Eating
by Galway Kinnell

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched, or broughamed
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry eating in late September.

what should have been Obama’s inaugural poem last winter

Because this poem makes me tear up every time I read it. Because I only hope to write something this good and beautiful and true. Because it didn’t get read at that damn inauguration and should have. Because if you don’t know this poem, you really ought to.

Frederick Douglass
by Robert Hayden

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.