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How To Put One Foot In Front of the Other

How many poetic feet does it take to get to the center of a rhythmic poem?


Blurred motion of disco dancing feet at a nightclub.
"Dancing feet" by deepblue4you from Getty Images Signature. Edited on Canva.

Have you ever wondered what makes a poem catchy, or hummed an unforgettable lyric? The most likely reason for this effect is the power of the metrical foot. Keep reading to learn how to put one foot in front of the other and write poetry that wins instant appeal.


What Is A Metrical Foot In Poetry?

Just like any kind of foxtrot, a writer needs to know where to place their feet less they step on some toes. This is to say, learning how the metrical foot influences a poem’s rhythm is necessary if you want the poem to elegantly dance across the page.


“I need the seasons to live to the rhythm of rain and sun.”
—Sophie Marceau, French actress

So how does one put one foot in front of the other? Let’s start by determining what a metrical foot is.


A poem's meter is its particular pulse. Classic English poetry is separated into two metrical groups.

  1. The number of syllables in each line.

  2. Which syllables are louder than others; commonly known as accents.



We scan a line of poetry for enunciated parts. Each part is a metrical foot. A group of metrical feet is named based on how slow or fast they roll off the tongue. The image below contains the most common metrical units:


  1. Iamb: An iamb is a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable. Words like 'guitar' and phrases like 'to sleep' are iambs.

  2. Trochee: A trochee is a strong syllable followed by a weak syllable (the exact opposite of an iamb). Words like 'baseball' and phrases like ‘thank you' are trochees.

  3. Anapest: An anapest is two weak syllables followed by one strong syllable. Words like 'understand' and phrases like 'in the dark' are anapests.

  4. Dactyl: A dactyl is one strong syllable followed by two weak syllables (the exact opposite of an anapest). Words like 'camera' and phrases like 'This is a...' are dactyls.


Of course, these aren't the only metrical feet. A spondee is a foot with two strong syllables, whereas a pyrrhic is a foot with two weak syllables. Spondees and pyrrhics are uncommon in the English language because people tend to stress one syllable in a word over others.


If you want to discover other types of metrical foot, check out this video:



Phew… Thank God That’s Over.

Now that we’ve got the boring part out of the way. We want to learn to foxtrot before the turn of the next century after all. Let’s discuss how to meter to practice.


The easiest method is to listen to rap. This genre of music has a balanced rhythmic tone and is perhaps the leading example of meter. For additional support, because I know rap isn’t easy to follow, I recommend we have the lyrics at hand. YouTube Music is great for this because the lyrics are integrated into the app.


For the purpose of this article, I’ve elected to use The Old Prince Still Lives at Home performed by Shad. Keep the lyrics at hand, found here, and follow along.



Begin by simply listening to the song. Don’t try to search for meaning, or perform any other analysis. Simply let the good times roll.


Then listen to it again. This time take note of words that seem to flow well together. Whether they are rhyming words or make use of alliteration, and jot each of these words down on a separate piece of paper. Pause the music so you have time to record everything.


Once you’ve compiled your list, refer back to the diagram of metrical foot variations. Cross-reference each lyrical line and count the number of stressed and unstressed syllables there are. Do this for about eight to ten lines.


Are there any patterns in the syllabic structure of these lines? What similar sounds can we pick up on? Congratulations! You’ve just used scansion to determine the meter of this song, and you’re well on your way to putting one foot in front of the other.


“To experience a poem is to experience its patterns.”
—Mark Yakich, Author of Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide


Where To Next, Maestro?

The art of putting one foot in front of the other requires symmetry. That is to say, a poem’s ineffability – all the things that touch us on the inside but cannot be touched on the outside – must move the reader along to a repetitious pattern.


The question now is: how do we apply this traditional element of poetry to a form such as free verse? A form that is the hallmark of non-linear writing. The answer is quite simple… vary up the pace without sacrificing rhythm.


The beauty about the metrical foot is that you’re not limited to specific measures; such as in a Spenserian sonnet or the many alternates of haiku. Rhythm is fabricated through sound as well as the stress of syllables. However, knowing how to measure our poems is an invaluable asset and shouldn’t be shunned. (See what I did there?)


Thus, rhyme is the next best secret chord in our memorable song and dance.


Busta Rhyme & Reason

At some point in our lives someone had sung a song that we would instantly recognize. The rationale for this epiphany moment is more than likely caused by a rhythmic pattern that’s sunk into your subconscious and brought out like a black cat at the strike of a bell.


We are going to take a look at In a Garden by Amy Lowell, and we are going to pay close attention to how she creates rhyme through assonance.


In a Garden


Gushing from the mouths of stone men

To spread at ease under the sky

In granite-lipped basins,

Where iris dabble their feet

And rustle to a passing wind,

The water fills the garden with its rushing,

In the midst of the quiet of close-clipped lawns.


Damp smell the ferns in tunnels of stone,

Where trickle and plash the fountains,

Marble fountains, yellowed with much water.


Splashing down moss-tarnished steps

It falls, the water;

And the air is throbbing with it;

With its gurgling and running;

With its leaping, and deep, cool murmur.


And I wished for night and you.

I wanted to see you in the swimming-pool,

White and shining in the silver-flecked water.


While the moon rode over the garden,

High in the arch of night,

And the scent of the lilacs was heavy with stillness.


Night and the water, and you in your whiteness, bathing!


 

The very first line makes use of assonance through the letter “o,” and then there are the ending words “stone men” which share in a similar sounding masculine rhyme of “ne” and “en.” The alliteration creates slant rhyme – a rhyme formed by words with similar, but not identical, assonance and/or number of syllables.


Let’s take some time to pick apart Lowell’s poem for more rhyming elements before reading into the article further. Consider for a moment how these rhyming techniques juxtapose between lines, and how it affects the rhythm.


Attractive rhymes, the memorable ones, are those whose context creates unusual relationships; thus creating tension. Let’s look at the juxtaposition between the feminine and slant rhyme of “granite-lipped basins” and “close-clipped lawns.” What context do these rhymes provoke? I’m thinking of something broken or incomplete, what about you?


Leading the Black Parade

The metrical foot and rhyme structure of a poem are the two most important factors in creating harmony between our pen and the auditorium that is a piece of paper. With our new insights we can officially put one foot in front of the other without stepping on toes.


Just remember, there is more than one way to fox-the-trot, and there are a multitude of ways to busta rhyme. All it takes is a little time to listen to the patterns, and before long you’ll be leading the poetic dance.


Before we leave, however, take a moment to consider sharing any new lyrical poems you may end up composing with The Poetry Cove in the forums. We are always in pursuit of reading hot off the press poetry to warm our feet. Especially with the winter months coming right round the bend.

 

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1 Comment


Shen Friebe
Shen Friebe
Oct 26, 2022

Well... this has changed my poetic life. Bloody fantastic stuff, Ken! I'm going to refer to this article again when reviewing some of my longer rhyming poems that contain awkward rhythm. I think this article is the elixir to the issues I'm facing with these poems, etbh. Considering the 'volume' of syllables is a great way to approach and avoid these problems, and you've specified some essential features rhymes should embody (being memorable and creating tension, etc.). All worthy of keeping in mind. Great stuff!

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