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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Scan a poem. Catch the beat. Change the rhythm as you revise.

Scansion sounds scary to some poets, but scanning a poem just means seeing how to measure each line.

Across many centuries and continents, poets have found various methods of measurement such as counting syllables or accents or a combination of the two. Often, a well-tuned ear hears the beat as a poem is being written, but most of us count on fine-tuning the rhythm as we revise.

Practice will perfect the accuracy of your ear, but your eyes can also help you to catch the beat. How? As you scan a poem, you find feet to use for measuring or to discard as you would any footwear that doesn’t quite fit.

So let's get on our toes, poetically, and take a look at our feet:

In traditional, metered English verse, the most common feet come nicely shaped in pairs. With two syllables each, you find the upbeat iamb (ta-DAH), downbeat trochee (HO hum), stress-free pyrrhic (blah-blah), and double-stress spondee (ALL RIGHT!)

Once you recognize those simple two-syllable foot patterns, you’re ready to play with three-syllable feet such as the dactyl (HEAV-en-ly) and anapest (as-we-SEE.)

You might also look at those classical styles as having these designs:

Iamb = no stress then stress = _ X

Trochee = accent then no accent = X _

Pyrrhic = no stress or accent = _ _

Spondee = accent on both syllables = XX

Dactyl = accent followed by two unstressed syllables = X _ _

Anapest = two unstressed syllables ending on an accent = _ _ X

What does that info do for you? It puts your whole body to work!

Those common feet train your eyes to see what your ears hear as your mouth emphasizes each accented syllable and your hand thumps out each beat.

You then put that information to use as you revise a poem, changing words around or reworking lines until you have the number of feet needed for the particular pattern of your choice.

Say, for example, you want to write a classically patterned sonnet in iambic pentameter. To do this, you traditionally need five feet of iambs on each line:

_ X | _ X | _ X | _ X | _ X |

As you can see, the same old beat looks as boring as it sounds! So now, to help you vary the rhythm, your mind and eye can show you where to replace at least one iambic foot with a trochee or spondee. As you scan the poem and see a good spot to substitute one foot for another, you do not totally rely on your poetic ear but on other senses as well.

But what if you don’t want to write traditional metered poetry? What if you want to write free verse where line breaks make or break the poem? Will scansion help you then? It can.

Scanning the lines to find the feet (or lack thereof!) can show you where to change the beat if the rhythm seems “off” in almost any type of poem. For example, scansion can be helpful in revising a prose poem, even though your main method of measuring consists of those same little blocks or paragraphs you use in writing prose. You can also use scansion to see where the rhythm got off-beat in your free verse. For that style of poetry, most poets just keep experimenting and breaking lines in various places until they like the look and sound and feel of the poem, but scansion can help too.

Look at this line, for example, then read the words aloud:

His VOICE/ HELD SAD/ness = _ X | X X | _

See how the accents huddle together in the middle with no beat at either end? That could give you the sound effect you want, but if not, mix it up at bit. For example:

SADness/ HUGGED his/ VOICE = X _ | X _ | X

See the difference? If you read both versions aloud, you will hear a rhythmic difference too, but either way can work in a poem, depending on the sound effect you want.

Typically, a poetic ear prefers one sound or rhythm over another, but your eye can help you to discern what needs to be changed and where. So, inform all of your senses instead of relying on just one. Scan your poems. Play with meter. Order the reader-friendly e-books shown below.

(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.


  1. Great article. There is so much more to poetry than simply rhyme. Rhyme without rhythm us just words, not poetry. Rhythm is more importance than rhyme, but it's hard to get that point through to some ardent rhymers, but we can only keep showing how attention to rhythm and scansion can lead to great poetry.

  2. Thanks, Carolyn. The musicality of a poem matters more to me too. Every aspect of poetry can be useful though, depending on the effect wanted. For instance, rhyme can help us remember a poem or put a point across. Hopefully, we'll have a chance to talk about poetic traits or devices and their uses soon.

  3. Thank you, Mary, for the education. I have always felt a natural ability to study poetry. I remember that in eighth grade in the early "80's", English class was all about poetry. I was in heaven. I also studied music after high school, obtained an associate in music, and did some semi-professional classical singing. I believe that musicality has helped formed my poetic thoughts.

    1. I'm sure it has, Forrest. Thanks for reading and responding. God bless.