The Elements of Poetry Part 1: Prosody

Over the course of April, National Poetry Month, I will give brief introductions to the four elements of poetry. These four elements are Prosody, Rhyme, Form, and Diction. An extensive study of each of these could take several weeks. I am only offering an introduction. The first in the four-part series I will discuss on the elements of poetry is Prosody. Prosody is a fancy word referring to the study of meter, rhythm, and intonation of poetry. This element has the most to offer to study. I would argue it is also the most difficult to master.

Rhythm

Rhythm refers to how the words in a poem flow when read. Every language of the world has its own rhythm when spoken. These rhythms alter between different languages. For example, English is a stress-timed language whereas Spanish is a syllable-timed language. The rhythm of a poem written in English depends on when syllables receive emphasis or not. Beats or feet refer to the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. Contemporary poetry often does not use structured rhythm. The choice of rhythm, even not having one, is something one should consider when devising a new poem. There are six types of metrical feet. The first four are the most common in poetry.

  • iamb – one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (e.g. des-cribe, in-clude, re-tract)
  • trochee—one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (e.g. pic-ture, flow-er)
  • dactyl – one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (e.g. an-no-tate, sim-i-lar)
  • anapest—two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable (e.g. com-pre-hend)
  • spondee—two stressed syllables together (e.g. heartbeat, four-teen)
  • pyrrhic—two unstressed syllables together (rare, usually used to end dactylic hexameter)

Meter

Meter determines the length of a line of poetry with a predetermined rhythm. The popular meter used by William Shakespeare, “iambic pentameter” means a line of poetry has five feet where each foot is an iamb. Tetrameter is a line with four feet and hexameter is a line with six feet. Here are some common meters used in poetry.

  • Monometer – one foot per line
  • Dimeter – two feet per line
  • Trimeter – three feet per line
  • Tetrameter – four feet per line
  • Pentameter – five feet per line
  • Hexameter – six feet per line

When choosing to write a poem with a structured rhythm and meter, it is important to decide them first. Choosing how many syllables per line and the rhythm of these syllables beforehand makes writing the poem easier. This is challenging because some words change their meaning if different syllables become stressed. For example, the word contest. CON-test refers to a competition. But, con-TEST refers to making an opposition to something someone said. Structured rhythm and meter in poetry requires more time and effort for the writer. Some do not feel creative with these restrictions. Whereas others feel more creative when given restrictions. Everyone should write how they wish. What’s important is to keep writing.

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