Furry Writers' Guild Forum

Session #1: Footwork

You might suppose that sword-fighting and poetry are fundamentally dissimilar, and be correct in so thinking. However, the place in which the two converge might surprise you: it all begins with footwork.

English is a stressed language. This means that certain key words are given more vocal emphasis than others. Take, for example, the following very common sentence:
He struck the clown.
A practiced speaker of English will read this, “He STRUCK the CLOWN.” This is a line with two stresses. Another example:
The weeping Russian stroked his pony toy.
This would be read, “The WEEPing RUSsian STROKED his PONy TOY.” This line has five stresses.

In English poetry, the arrangement of stresses in a line is referred to as its meter. The analysis and categorization of meter is called scansion. In scansion, a stressed syllable is referred to as a foot. See what I did there? I’m sorry. -.-

Meter is a fundamental quality of English poetry, but its science can be applied to prose as well. Through careful arrangement of stresses within a line, in combination with the other properties of words chosen, one can influence the “feel” of a piece in the subtlest ways. A thorough understanding of poetry should improve your writing across the board.

The different types of meter have their own names, which you aren’t going to find yourself using much outside of academia. Like in the line above, “The WEEPing RUSsian STROKED his PONy TOY.”

It’s the same as “But SOFT, what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS!”

That’s the ol’ iambic pentameter, famous because English tends towards iambic movement, and, that being so, ten-syllable lines will tend to have five stresses. While iambic pentameter is a staple of English poetry, you shouldn’t feel compelled to use it. Rather, you should experiment with different forms and learn the use of them.

If you’re interested in the technical terminology, have a look here: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/meter.html

My go-to example for the way meter influences the reading of a line (and a good general summation of the “trick” to poetry) is “Sound and Sense” by Alexander Pope, the same poem for which the textbook I suggested is named. Study this, listen to what it says and what it’s saying!

“True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance,
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense:
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou’d like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rock’s vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o’er th’unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus’ vary’d Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!”

Some things to keep in mind…

  1. Scansion will sometimes be up for debate. Not very often, but it does happen.
  2. You’ll probably find it easier to use many one and two-syllable words at first. There’s nothing wrong with that.
  3. Holding your hand under your chin and feeling where your chin bobs the most as you read a line can help you determine where the stresses fall.
  4. If you’re unsure which syllables in a word are stressed, you can try consulting a dictionary.
  5. Any deviation from an established metrical scheme makes that line stick out from the rest. Make sure you have a good reason for doing so!
  6. At the same time, keeping the meter too regular can be boring after a while.

Suggested exercises:

Write a metered poem of eight to twenty lines in length. Perform scansion. (Your biggest enemy in learning meter is reading in an unnatural way to trick yourself into thinking your meter is correct, when in fact, it is not. Be careful of this pitfall.)

Read some poetry by A.E. Housman, or someone comparable, so long as they employ meter. If you aren’t sure whether a poet does, perform scansion and find out! I suggest Housman because his meter is usually easy to pick out, but feel free to look elsewhere if his work isn’t to your taste.

Alright, folks, the thread is now open to questions and discussion. You may also contact me privately if you prefer.

So I’m reading Sonnet 19 by Shakespeare. I had memorized it back in the 8th grade and never forgot it, but I figured it would be easier having it in front of me. I seem to be struggling to read it in meter though. I wonder if it’s simply my over-familiarity with the sonnet and having not been taught meter when I learned it, and thus might be reading it to a rhythm it was never intended to. Might you have a look, just as an example please?

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-liv’d Phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one more heinous crime:
O, carve not with the hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen!
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet do thy worst, old Time! Despite thy wrong
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

Tell you what, I’ll do the first four.

DeVOURing TIME, BLUNT thou the LIon’s PAWS,
PLUCK the KEEN TEETH from the FIERCE TIger’s JAWS, (unsure if “keen” is meant to be stressed, but I’m reading it so)
And BURN the LONG-LIV’D PHOEnix in her BLOOD;

I’m such a grouch concerning poetry:
And Pope? I swear, he makes me grind my teeth!
He trips the meter sideways, spills its tea,
Upsets the stress, and kicks it underneath!

The thing for me? The smooth and steady flow,
Refined and sweet as chocolate on the tongue.
Too regular is boring, yes, I know,
But how I love a song correctly sung!

Saluting you for this, I’m gonna try
To crack my aging skull and mind and heart.
Embrace the new! Or just identify
The things I’ve missed in studying the art.

And if you’re reading Housman, I’ll suggest
Ol’ Sixty-Two. That poem’s just the best!



Maybe I’ll stumble across something you’ve forgotten.

Here’s a nice simple one: Longfellow’s Hiawatha. It just goes DUM dee DUM dee DUM dee DUM dee / DUM dee DUM dee DUM dee DUM dee, forever and ever :slight_smile:


It’s so easy that Lewis Carroll wrote a pastiche of it: http://people.virginia.edu/~ds8s/carroll/hia.html

Bird Song

The swallow lines her nest with down
and plays the bird when man’s around.
She tweets and blinks for every eye
when little children stop to spy.
But when the human backs are turned
her manner is distinctly learned.
She chatters with the passing dove
On war and politics and love.
Or has the muskrat in for tea,
Or argues ethics with a bee.
She frets on poverty and death
And utters not a wasted breath.
This little hen has things to say
when judging man has stepped away.
For never lived a wiser bird
than one that he has never heard.

My only criticism of this piece is that the rhythm’s a bit on the monotonous side. You obviously know what you’re doing, though.

REMINDER: The next session is coming up soon, so if you have pieces to share, you might want to go ahead and post them.

I only have four lines because I’m pathetic. Also apparently I can’t not alliterate.

The weasel loops his belly low
And flickers through a crack.
His fur is fire against the snow
His tailtip bobbing black.

LOL Now you know why I was forbidden to write rhyming verse in university poetry class! :slight_smile:

“We’ll do the one that goes, tum tum tum tee tum tum.”

The WEAsel LOOPS his BELly LOW

In compound words like that, both words are stressed. 4/3/4/4

EDIT: I mean, if that’s what you meant to do, then good job. Kinda hard to tell from only one stanza.

Poetry seems to be escaping me at the moment -.- I think my muse feels betrayed for some reason. All I currently have is this:

An old man dreams of polar bears
Forgotten long ago
Abandoned by his fellow man
In melting ice and snow

It’s frustrating, because it’s loosely based on thoughts of my dad (he’s always had a love for polar bears and always wanted to do something to help save them but never really knew how), and it feels like it could lead to something pretty darn good, but I just don’t know where to take it x.x I think I have the meter okay though?

I did not know that - I was going by how I would stress it in a sentence.

This exercise has really brought home to me how much of a metre cheater I usually am. And your terminology link has made a lot of things clear that I only half-understood, if at all.

Yep. It can be hard to wrap one’s head around, but sometimes an unstressed syllable reads heavier than a stressed one.

Alas, dear friend, we mortals have but little control of our inspiration, and this doesn’t often include a convenient schedule.


ABANDoned BY his FELlow MAN
in MELTing ICE and SNOW

(Usually a “by” right after a meatier word wouldn’t be stressed, but it’s immediately preceded by an unstressed syllable, AND there’s consonance with the B in “abandoned,” so it’s reading like a stress. The fact that lines 2 to 4 are iambic reinforces this.)

Let’s give it a try :slight_smile:

Snow is falling, hits the ground
Peaceful, silent, not a sound
Dressed in red white sorrow

Slient souls gone still this night
wonder what a greather might
Took away tomorrow