If you are studying poetry you will have come across discussion of rhyme and metre: perhaps you have carefully noted down a rhyme scheme by pencilling A or B at the end of each line; perhaps you have clapped out the rhythm of a poem as your teacher has read it. Identifying the structural elements of a poem is important but it is only part of the process. We’re going to look at why it can matter and how we can use it in our written work but first, here’s how to spot what is going on.
What do to when you first read a poem
To begin with, you need to look at the poem on the page. Some poems are written purely to be read aloud, some have a shape that reflects the mood or purpose of the poem. Either way, a quick glance will immediately give you some idea of what you are about to read. Take a look at https://brianbilston.com/ to see what I mean. Bilston writes lots of poems that are shaped in a particular way: take a look in particular at Eye Chart for the Optically Deluded and Needles. Think about your reaction to a poem’s shape. Short stanzas may seem more readable; long dense stanzas (or just a single stanza) may feel intimidating. What does this suggest about the writers’ intentions?
Identifying rhyme scheme
Once you’ve read it through, look for a rhyme scheme. At the end of each line, add a letter, starting with A, then B for the next line that doesn’t rhyme, then C, etc. When you find a line that rhymes with line A, put A at the end of that. You should end up with a pattern such as ABAB or AABBCC. If there are no rhymes, make a note of that too.
(Note: sometimes poets may not have rhyme until the very last two lines when they may have a rhyming couplet. This is also worth noting).
Here’s an example of what I mean.
This is a bit trickier and you’ll probably want to read the poem out loud to do this. When identifying rhythm we are looking for two things: the number of syllables in each line, and where the “stress” (or emphasis) is placed as you read.
Look at London by William Blake for example.
I wandered through each chartered street,
Here the emphasis is on every other syllable. When the emphasis is like this, it is described as iambic. Other types are:
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
This time the emphasis is on the first syllable and then every other one after that.
Here we have two syllables and then a stress, as below.
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
‘Twas the Night before Christmas, when all through the house
Whereas this starts with the stress, followed by two unstressed syllables.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
If you’ve counted up the number of syllables in the lines, you may now be able to establish if the poem belongs to a particular form.
For example: ten syllables in a line will probably be pentameter, either iambic or trochaic. Sonnets are generally written in iambic pentameter as is blank verse. If there are 14 lines then it is likely to be a sonnet. Here’s one from Shakespeare:
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see, A
For all the day they view things unrespected; B
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee, A
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed. B
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright, C
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show D
To the clear day with thy much clearer light, C
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so! D
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made E
By looking on thee in the living day, F
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade E
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay! F
All days are nights to see till I see thee, G
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me. G
So what does all this matter? If you write an essay that states: “the poem is written in iambic pentameter” or “the poem is a sonnet” you won’t get any extra marks. But knowing these things (and judiciously inserting the terminology into your writing) can help you analyse the meaning of the poem in more depth which is what we will talk about next time.
If you want to read more about particular types of poems, have a look at the links below.