Poets use a variety of speech elements and patterns to establish rhythm in poetry. Meter, feet, lines, stanzas, punctuation, and cadences are some of the most common in English poetry.
Let’s first take a gander at meter. Meter is simply the number of feet in one line.
OK. That’s all fine and good, but what is the definition of a foot?
A foot is a grouping of two or three syllables in which one or more stressed syllables and/or one or more unstressed syllables come together.
Whew! What a definition.
Let’s look at another table before we continue.
Table 2: Common Feet in English Poetry
Table 3: Other Feet
^ = unstressed syllable
/ = stressed syllable
We also see some authors added extra syllables to lines which otherwise have strict meter patterns. This is known as hypercatalectic meter.
Authors may use a wide variety of feet within their poems, use only one type of foot, or even change feet at specific points within the poem to add emotion. The more unstressed syllables are used the faster the poem is read and the more stressed syllables the slower it is read.
The most commonly used foot in English poetry is the iamb. This is because it is the closest foot pattern to spoken English.
A line is obvious. It’s a new line within the poem. Lines can be used for different purposes, though. They can be used as pauses, to give emphasis, or to simply display structure. Mostly it depends on the poet. They are multi-purpose.
A stanza is a break with one or more spaces. Stanzas are used as a reset of rhythm and a pause. A stanza is to poetry what a paragraph is to prose. It normally signifies some sort of change within the poem.
Punctuation is used to add pauses, emphasis, and as a change of rhythm. We see commas and semi-colons to cause a reset of flow. Edgar Allan Poe is probably the most well known pre-1915 author to use punctuation in such a way. He was a master of punctuation and flow.
Post-1915 we see an enormous change in how rhythm is constructed. Today, one of the most common forms of rhythm is known as cadence. It is the natural rhythm of speech and doesn’t rely on meter. However, many poets still rely on punctuation as a way to add pauses within their writings.
To look at cadence another way, it is like the poet is using feet but not in a classical way. To speed up their poetry they are using more unstressed syllables while to slow down their poetry they are using more stressed syllables, stressed words, and perhaps even longer vowels. They change their feet according to what they wish to accomplish within a specific section of writing.
Rhythm is a complicated subject for beginners. However, once you train your ear to hear the difference between the pauses and feet you will have greater respect for poetry.