Exploring Classical Poetry Series
by Dusty Grein, ACP
Most of us enjoy poetry in one form or another. As a classical poet, my preference is for metered rhyme, and in this series I am going to attempt to lay out the basics of writing classical-style poetry in English, using standard poetry terms and references. This discussion will focus on rhyming, metered poems and poetic forms.
Who am I? I am a storyteller and novelist, but the world of classical poetry has always fascinated me. My journey as an author, and now as an ACP (Accredited Classical Poet), is one that I hope never to complete. If you are interested in learning about classical poetry styles, methods, and patterns, then join me and let’s explore. I might have to hold your hand as we go along, since some of the terms we will use are intimidating (until you learn the simple meanings of them) and they scared me for a long time.
Please keep in mind that the natural flow of poetic pronunciation and patterns will be influenced by your diction, and sometimes even your accent. This exploration will be done using the diction that comes naturally to me. I am from the Pacific Northwest in the United States, and I speak with no dialect or discernible accent (at least not to me).
In order to build a poem, and to be able to discuss, explain and look at samples of poems, we must define some terms. Some of this may sound simplistic, but there are those who struggle with the concepts and I would like to begin with some very rudimentary basics concerning words, sounds and cadence.
SYLLABLES (word building blocks)
Syllables are single sounds, and the English language is comprised of words built using these sounds. Some words, ”Cone” for example, contain only one syllable (sound burst). Other words, such as “Circle” (CIR-cle) contain two syllables. We have words built from any number of syllables – “Constitutional” has five syllables (CON-sti-TU-tion-al).
Syllables are the building blocks of sound that we use to build words, but we don’t usually talk in monotone (unless we are attempting to do an impression of a robot). Instead, we vary the pitch, volume and strength of our pronunciation, or stress, of the syllables in our words. Sometimes our meaning may be completely different, depending on how we pronounce a single word.
Classical poetry is built using these emphasized syllables in patterns that allow the words to flow in noticeable, almost melodic cadence.
This is one of the hardest parts of poetic patterns to grasp, but if you stay with me, and maybe try my tapping methods, you can learn exactly what these words mean, and how we use them to reference and build poems.
Classical poetry in English is usually composed using pairs and trios of stressed and unstressed syllables, in metered rhyming patterns. These syllable pairs and trios are known as poetic feet.
Each foot contains a combination of hard (stressed) and soft (unstressed) syllables. In English poetry, there are 5 basic poetic feet used. Here they are, with their syllable counts and patterns.
iamb (2-syllable foot)
A soft syllable, followed by a stressed one, as in the word “adjust” (ah – JUST’).
Used to create iambic lines. This was the favorite meter used by Shakespeare
trochee (2-syllable foot)
A hard syllable, followed by a soft one, as in the word “shatter” (SHAT’- ter).
Used to create trochaic lines.
spondee (2-syllable foot)
Two equally stressed syllables, as in the word “breakdown” (BRAKE – DOWN).
Used to create spondaic lines.
dactyl (3-syllable foot)
A hard syllable, followed by two soft one, as in “carefully” (KAYR’ – ful – ly).
Used to create dactylic lines.
anapest (3-syllable foot)
Two softs syllables followed by a hard one, as in “comprehend” (kom – pre – HEND’).
Used to create anapestic lines.
There are other patterns of poetic feet, but they are rarely used in classic English poetry. Here is a complete list of two and three syllable feet, with a syllable count and pattern, using ‘DUM’ for the hard syllables, and ‘dee’ for the soft ones. By tapping your finger hard on the ‘DUM’ and soft on the ‘dee’ you will get a feel for the rhythm of the sound stress patterns that can be created.
2 Syllable Poetic Feet pyrrhus: dee – dee iamb: dee – DUM trochee: DUM – dee spondee: DUM – DUM 3 Syllable Poetic Fee tribrach: dee – dee – dee dactyl: DUM – dee – dee amphibrach: dee – DUM – dee anapest: dee – dee – DUM bacchius: dee – DUM – DUM antibacchius: DUM – DUM – dee cretic: DUM – dee – DUM molossus: DUM – DUM – DUM
Poetic meter is a count of the number of poetic feet in a line. Most poems are written with between 1 and 8 poetic feet per line. This creates the following poetic metric line types, based on how many feet are in the line:
Number of Feet: Meter 1: monometer 2: dimeter 3: trimeter 4: tetrameter 5: pentameter 6: hexameter 7: heptameter 8: octameter
So when we refer to a poem’s meter, we use the type of FOOT and the METER used. Perhaps the most famous type of line is that used by Shakespeare in many of his works, both prosaic and poetic: iambic pentameter – or five pairs of iambs, for a total of 10 syllables.
Often, poets will use a line with a missing first or last syllable, for emphasis and strength in their pattern. These lines are referred to as ACEPHALIC (“headless”) or CATALECTIC (“tailless”).
Rhyme Pattern / STANZAS
The final ingredient in the creation of the classic rhyming poem is the number and pattern of rhyming lines. The final syllable or syllables in the metered lines are set to rhyme with each other in many different patterns, and the number of these lines determines the stanza length.
Stanzas are generally sets of lines that are separated by a blank line. The most common of these are stanzas containing 4 lines, also known as a quatrain, but there are many varied types of stanzas and they are used to create many structures or forms, ranging from the simple two-line couplet, to complex forms like the sonnet or sestina.
Lines: Stanza Type 2: couplet 3: triplet 4: quatrain 5: quintrain, quintet 6: sestet 7: septet 8: octet, octave
In order to show the rhyming pattern in poetic stanzas, I will use a common labeling method of describing the rhyming lines, using letters. This way all lines identified with the same letter rhyme with each other (X lines rhyme with X lines).
Now that we have a vocabulary, we can examine poetry with a common language. Probably the most common form of poetry, that we learn very young, is the quatrain, in an A B C B pattern. These poems may consist of different meters and feet counts, even having them mixed, as long as the second and fourth line rhyme.
(a) I loved you before,
(b) I love you still,
(c) I always have and
(b) I always will.
This is a simplistic form of poetry and is not truly metered. It is still a valuable form of poetry, and the greeting card industry would be lost without it. For our purposes of exploration however, we will leave this simplistic approach behind, and look at more organized and structured poems.
** in the following samples, the HARD syllables will be capitalized, and the feet will be shown with the vertical bar symbol | as a separator
One of the simplest structured poems ever written is a couplet of two rhyming lines titled “Fleas,” written in trochaic monometer (a single trochee per line)
(a) HAD ‘em.
Another very popular poem, A Visit From St. Nick, was written in anapestic tetrameter quatrains (four anapests per line, four lines per stanza) in an A A B B pattern, with the B lines missing the first syllable (catalectic)
(a) ‘Twas the NIGHT | before CHRIST | mas and ALL | through the HOUSE,
(a) Not a CREA | ture was STIR | ring, not EV | en a MOUSE.
(b) __ The STOCK | ings were HUNG | by the CHIM | ney with CARE
(b) __ In HOPES | that Saint NICH | olas SOON | would be THERE.
The last sample lines we’ll look at for now are from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This epic play contains many iambic pentameter quatrains (four-line stanzas, with five iambs per line) in A A B B pattern:
(a) And I | do LOVE | thee: THERE | fore, GO | with ME;
(a) I’ll GIVE | thee FAIR | ies TO | atTEND | on THEE,
(b) And THEY | shall FETCH | thee JEW | els FROM | the DEEP,
(b) And SING | while THOU | on PRESSED | flowERS | dost SLEEP;
With this information, we have a basic grasp of classic poetry terms and forms. Next time we will begin our exploration of poetry forms, starting with the classic sonnet.
Until then, word warriors – Write On!
Dusty Grein is the Director of Production and Design and a Managing Editor for RhetAskew Publishing. He is also a novelist, ACP accredited poet, and regular writer for the Society of Classical Poets website. Some of his favorite messages can also be found on his personal blog, From Grandpa’s Heart…