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Identifying Forms in American Poetry

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  • 0:01 Identifying Forms in…
  • 0:28 Meter
  • 3:20 Rhyme
  • 5:02 Free Verse
  • 5:47 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.

There is more to poetry than symbolism and imagery. This lesson will help you figure out meter and rhyme schemes in poetry, with some classic American poems as examples.

Identifying Forms in American Poetry

When you read poetry, you may find yourself getting caught up in what the poem means and in the symbols and metaphors used by the poet. You may find yourself wondering, for example, what that dead tree means. Or why that guy takes the one road and not the other.

But as you learn to read poems, there are additional aspects to consider beyond what the words express. Poetic form refers to the structure of a poem. When we study forms in poetry, we think about how poems are put together and what patterns they use.

Meter

The meter of a poem is its rhythm. Lines in poems typically follow patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. Each unit of rhythm in a line of a poem is called a foot. There are a few different types of feet, but we'll take a look at a couple that involve two syllables. If you have a line of poetry in which each foot contains two syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed, then you have an iamb, or iambic foot. When we discuss whether a syllable is stressed or unstressed, we're talking about whether we emphasize that syllable when we say the word aloud.

An example of a poem featuring iambic feet is 'Aunt Jennifer's Tigers' by Adrienne Rich. Here are the last two lines of the poem:

'The tigers in the panel that she made

Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.'

Each two-syllable foot, or unit of rhythm, is an iamb because it follows an unstressed-stressed pattern. Listen again (in the video at 01:30), starting with the unstressed first syllable, 'The:'

'The tigers in the panel that she made

Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.'

The reverse of an iamb is a trochee, or trochaic foot. A trochee occurs when, in a line of a poem, each foot contains two syllables, the first of which is stressed and the second of which is unstressed.

Here's an example of a trochaic pattern, from the first two lines of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven':

'Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore--'

You can hear (in the video starting at 02:13) the stressed-unstressed pattern in each pair of syllables, beginning with the stressed first syllable, 'Once:'

'Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.'

There are additional types of feet, some of which are more than two syllables in length. But once you get the hang of listening for the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables, you should be able to detect other patterns, as well.

An additional consideration when studying a poem's form is the length of each line. In other words, how many feet are in a particular line? Let's look again at one of the lines from 'Aunt Jennifer's Tigers.' Count the syllables in the line, 'The tigers in the panel that she made.' There are ten syllables total. We noted earlier that each foot in this poem is an iamb containing two syllables, so that means that there are five iambs in that line.

This line, therefore, is written in iambic pentameter, which is the term for a line of poetry with five feet in which each foot follows an unstressed-stressed pattern. In this particular poem, some of the lines are in iambic pentameter, but not all of them. Again, there are a number of different rhythm patterns in poetry like this, but they're all essentially dependent upon two things: the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables and the number of syllables in a particular line.

Rhyme

You've probably noticed that many poems rhyme. You may not have noticed that they don't all rhyme in the same ways. The rhyme scheme of a poem refers to the rhyming pattern at the end of the lines of that poem. There are a variety of rhyme schemes that poems that do rhyme may follow. These rhyming patterns revolve around stanzas. A stanza is a group of lines in a poem. A stanza is usually four lines or more, but can sometimes be as few as two lines.

Let's take a look at the first stanza from 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' by the poet Robert Frost:

'Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.'

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