Line and Meter

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The line is the "bottom line." The sine qua non. If you ain't got line, you ain't got that swing. Swing being POETRY. Or at least verse.

Verse is cadenced language cut up into lines, and poetry is profound verse -- verse with layered multi-meanings as well as accumulated mega-meanings.

One of the differences between the modes of prose and verse is that the first doesn't break into lines and the second does. And that's a pretty profound thing in itself.

When you combine or intersect the idea of lines with the notion of meaning, you end up with two kinds of lines: the enjambed line and the endstopped line.

Look at it this way: there are sentences and there are lines. One way to write a poem would be to break lines every time a sentence ended. But that's kind of a one-trick zebra, don't you think?

But suppose you were to pit the movement of the sentence against the movement of the line? Then you could make ebb and flow. Come and go. Catch and throw.

Think back to science class: two sine waves of different frequencies -- sometimes they enhance each other, sometimes cancel. But together they create a new wave with an exciting shape. Make sense?

An endstopped line is where the movement of the sentence works with the movement of the line. For example, from Maura Stanton's poem "Childhood" (Strong Measures 346):

I must have turned down the wrong hall,
Or opened a door that locked shut behind me,
For I live on the ceiling now, not the floor.
See how there's a punctuation mark at the end of each line? The zones of the sentence are in sync with the line break. Whenever you see punctuation at a line break, almost always you've got endstop.

An enjambed line, on the other hand, happens when the sentence movement conflicts with the line movement. It's probably more accurate to say that the line's intentions interrupt those of the sentence. From Stanton again, same poem, opening lines:

I used to lie on my back, imagining
A reverse house on the ceiling of my house
Or the closing lines:
The floor so far away I can't determine
Which room I'm in, which year, which life.
In both of these examples, the first line in the pair seems unfinished, leaves you up in the air until the second line enters.

You can imagine that the reader is forced by the enjambment to read fast from one line to the next, almost as if the line break isn't there. Or you can alternately imagine that there's a kind of suspense at the end of the enjambed line, a moment of tension. Both are true.

Pay close attention here, now. The juggling of enjambment and endstop can be used to modulate emotion in a poem, to create tension and then ease it, to create pace by speeding up and slowing down language. Okay?

Now on to meter. When you think about poetry as arising from oral traditions, it's pretty easy to see that an original purpose of lines was to break up language -- a story, usually -- into easily recalled and recallable chunks. Especially if you break it up into chunks that are the same length, identical duration maybe.

Here's how the Old English did it. They got BOOM into their lines. Four of them to be exact. BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM. The irreverent saying "Wham Bam ... " works the same way. (Sorry about the sexist example, but it's a good one rhythm-wise.)

Actually the Old English thought four BOOMs was probably too much all the time, so quite often they would back off one of them. They would also put in a pause, now called a "caesura." Look at the opening lines of Richard Wilbur's poem "Junk" (Strong Measures 399):

An axe angles
                 from my neighbor's ashcan;
It is hell's handiwork, 
                           the wood not hickory.
The flow of the grain
                         not faithfully followed.
The shivered shaft
                      rises from a shellheap
Of plastic playthings,
                          paper plates.
You can find the BOOMs by ... wait, let's call the BOOMs "stresses," okay?

You can find the stresses by listening for the heavy words, where the shoe comes down hard. But you can also look for a repeated sound at the beginnings of words, called "alliteration."

See how in the first line the word "axe," "angle," and "ashcan" start with a short "a"? The stressed syllable which is the BOOM backed off is "neighbor's" (it's fun to note that the first vowel sound in this word is a long "a" though that wouldn't matter to the Old English bards).

Again, note the "h" sounds in "it is HELL's HANDiwork, the WOOD not HICKory. Or the "p" in "of PLAStic PLAYthing, PAper PLATES." What's interesting about that last one is that you have three "pl" stresses and one "p" -- again backed off.

This is called "accentual verse" -- to be more precise, "accentual alliterative verse." Four stresses, end the line. Don't worry about the unstressed syllables; you can have as many as you want.

Later poets developed a system which also counted the unstressed syllables, noting that in English each stress typically comes with one or two "unstresses." Happy Birthday = HAPpy | BIRTHday. For the moment, I'll bite = for the MO | ment, i'll BITE. Each chunk with one stress is called a "foot." The overall system is called "accentual syllabic."

Suppose you were to make up line after line with repeated patterns, the same foot over and over? Maybe da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. Like "I got it now -- it's easy -- yeah!" Or DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da. As in "Hey there, buddy, got a quarter?"

Both of these sentences have four stresses. But the first one is made of da DUM's and the second one is made of DUM da's. A "da DUM" is called an iamb. A "DUM da" is called a trochee. Couple those names with the stress count, and you have iambic tetrameter (first example) and trochaic tetrameter (second example). Yes, "tetra" is Greek for "four."

It's all GREEK to me. A one-stress line is monometer. Two: dimeter. Three: trimeter. Four, well you know. Five, pentameter (remember that one from high school?) Six, hexameter. And so on. And so on.

Besides the iamb and the trochee, you might also note "da da DUM" (called an anapest) and "DUM da da" (a dactyl). The second one is called that because DUM da da looks like a finger. Yes, in Greek "dactyl" means "finger"; for example, "pterodactyl" means "wing-finger." You knew that "ptero" thing, right? It's at the end of "helicopter" (twisting wing).

Let's look back at Stanton's "Childhood" for some examples:

  x   /     x    /     x  /     x   /    x    /
Where I | could walk | around | in emp | ty rooms.
Here we've got five iambs, hence iambic pentameter. (Oh, the "x" stands for unstressed syllable, and the "/" represents a stressed one. Sometimes when people do this, they use a little symbol that looks like a bowl, like a half circle opening up, but I don't know how to get that symbol into a webpage. By the way, this procedure of marking syllables is called "scanning.")

If we look at other lines, we can see how Stanton uses other feet to break up the rhythm.

x  /     x   /    x  x   /      x /    x /
I used | to lie | on my back, | imag | ining

x  x  /       /   x     x   /      x  /    x    /
A reverse | house on | the ceil | ing of | my house
In the first line she sticks an anapest in the middle of four iambs. In the second she begins with an anapest, then switches to a trochee, and ends up with the iambic rhythm again. This not only breaks up the rhythm, it calls attention to certain words like "back" or "reverse house" -- in both of these cases, there's something going BACKward. Hmm.

This is getting too long, so I'll try to wind down.

The third kind of well-known meter is "syllabic." Here you don't care whether the syllables are stressed or unstressed, you just count them. Same number of syllables in each line. For example, from the opening of Philip Levine's "Animals Are Passing From Our Lives" (Strong Measures 200):

It's wonderful how I jog
on four honed-down ivory toes
my massive buttocks slipping
like oiled parts with each light step.
Seven syllables each time. Not as easy as Levine makes it seem.

Okay, I'll stop. For real.

Meter is all about rhythm. The rhythms of the lines are measured (yup, "meter" comes from the Greek "metron" for "measure"). All of this is covered in more depth in Appendix A of our textbook Strong Measures. I hope this gives you a good start, though.

-- Vince Gotera

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Last Updated 8/23/99