How To Read Poetry:

The Neverending Saga, or, Doing What Truckey Says To Do

by Truckey (with the help of her mammoth high school AP Literature book)

When reading poetry, you must be careful, thoughtful and sympathetic to the words on the page. Poems exist as much for YOU as they do for the author who wrote them. The author’s opinion matters as much as yours. Here’s some tips on how to approach it:

1) Interact with the poem

2) Read through the poem once to get a sense of it

3) Read the poem again

4) Consider the title as a clue to the poem’s subject

5) Identify the speaker

6) Look up any words you don’t know

7) Define the setting and the situation

8) Recognize the poem’s form

9) Identify the subject, and identify the theme

10) Read the poem aloud

11) Paraphrase the poem

Word Usage

Denotation

Connotation

Syntax

Dialect

Alliteration

Quatrain

Onomatopoeia

Cacophony

Euphony

Meter

Iambic

Trochaic

Dactylic

Rhyme

Eye

Exact

Inexact

A Guide

In verse and poetry, meter is a recurring pattern of stressed (accented, or long) and unstressed (unaccented, or short) syllables in lines of a set length. For example, suppose a line contains ten syllables (set length) in which the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed, the third is unstressed, the fourth is stressed, and so on until the line reaches the tenth syllable. The line would look like the following one (the opening line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18") containing a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables.

The unstressed syllables are in blue and the stressed syllables in red.

Shall I com PARE thee TO a SUM mer’s DAY? Each pair of unstressed and stressed syllables makes up a unit called a foot.

The line contains five feet in all, as shown next:

Shall.I..|..com.PARE..|..thee.TO..|..a.SUM..|..mer’s DAY? .......

A foot containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (as above) is called an iamb. Because there are five feet in the line, all iambic, the meter of the line is iambic pentameter. The prefix pent in pentameter means five (Greek: penta, five). Pent is joined to words or word roots to form new words indicating five. For example, the Pentagon in Washington has five sides, the Pentateuch of the Bible consists of five books, and a pentathlon in a sports event has five events. Thus, poetry lines with five feet are in pentameter.

.......Some feet in verse and poetry have different stress patterns. For example, one type of foot consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one. Another type consists of a stressed one followed by an unstressed one. In all, there are six types of feet:

.

Iamb (Iambic)

Unstressed + Stressed

Two Syllables

Trochee (Trochaic)

Stressed + Unstressed

Two Syllables

Spondee (Spondaic)

Stressed + Stressed

Two Syllables

Anapest (Anapestic)

Unstressed + Unstressed + Stressed

Three Syllables

Dactyl (Dactylic

Stressed + Unstressed + Unstressed

Three Syllables

Pyrrhic

Unstressed + Unstressed

Two Syllables

.

The length of lines—and thus the meter—can also vary. Following are the types of meter and the line length:

.

 

Monometer

One Foot

Dimeter

Two Feet

Trimeter

Three Feet

Tetrameter

Four Feet

Pentameter

Five Feet

Hexameter

Six Feet

Heptameter

Seven Feet

Octameter

Eight Feet

Iambic Pentameter

From "On His Blindness," by John Milton

      1.............2............. 3...............4..............5

When I..|..con SID..|..er HOW..|..my LIFE..|..is SPENT

       1.................2.............. 3..................4...................4

Ere HALF..|..my DAYS..|..in THIS..|..dark WORLD..|..and WIDE

Mixed Meter With Iambic Feet

From "Intimations of Immortality," by William Wordsworth

 

.........1...............2.................3.....................4......................5

There WAS..|..a TIME..|..when MEAD..|..ow, GROVE,..|..and STREAM,

Iambic Pentameter

.........1................2...............3................4.

The EARTH,..|..and EV..|..ry COM..|..mon SIGHT,

Iambic Tetrameter

.....1..............2

To ME..|..did SEEM

Iambic Dimeter

......1..............2.............3...............4

Ap PAR..|..elled IN..|..cel EST..|..ial LIGHT,

Iambic Tetrameter

........1..............2.................3................4.................5

The GLOR..|..y AND..|..the FRESH..|..ness OF..|..a DREAM.

Iambic Pentameter

..1.............2.............3.............4..................5

It IS..|..not NOW..|..as IT..|..hath BEEN..|..of YORE;

Iambic Pentameter

........1....................2.............3

Turn WHERE..|..so E'ER..|..I MAY,

Iambic Trimeter

.......1..............2

By NIGHT..|..or DAY,

Iambic Dimeter

..........1...............2.................3................4................5..............6

The THINGS..|..which I..|..have SEEN..|..I NOW..|..can SEE..|..no MORE.

Iambic Hexameter

Anapestic Tetrameter

From "The Destruction of Sennacherib," by George Gordon Lord Byron

........1.......................2..........................3......................4

The As SYR..|..ian came DOWN..|..like the WOLF..|..on the FOLD,

........1.......................2..........................3....................4

And his CO..|..horts were GLEAM..|..ing in PUR..|..ple and GOLD;

.........1.........................2.............................3.......................4

And the SHEEN..|..of their SPEARS..|..was like STARS..|..on the SEA

Trochaic Tetrameter

From "The Tyger," by William Blake

IN the..|..FOR..ests..|..OF the..|..NIGHT 

These lines contain trochaic feet—consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. But the final foot of each line is incomplete, containing only a stressed syllable.

An incomplete foot at the end of a line is called catalexis, and bright and night are called catalectic feet. The meter of these lines is trochaic tetrameter—tetrameter because they each contain three complete feet and one incomplete foot, for a total of four feet. A complete foot at the end of a line is called acatalexis. The final feet in the stanza under Mixed Meter With Iambic Feet are all acatalectic.