Stress in Poetry


Stresses allow poets to focus readers’ attention on the meaning of their poetry.  We all know that poetry is different from everyday language.  A lot of that sense of difference resides in the stresses good poets manipulate in order to create meaningful experiences for readers.  I don’t expect you to start counting stresses.  Most of the poetry we’ll read is not in formal meter; however, you should become attuned to the sound of the words.

How does the poet choose to use stresses in a given line?

For what purpose does this word get used?

How does this sound?

These are all legitimate questions.  I expect you to become aware (in a general way) of the way poets use sound for their purposes.  You won’t get to these questions unless you reread the poems.  Reading aloud helps, too!

If you get the idea that stresses are relative and that poets play with patterns, you’re in good shape.  I also want you to see if the NA poets we read follow iambic patterns.  Don’t expect them to rhyme–most contemporary poets couldn’t rhyme if you paid them.  (Hah, most contemporary poets couldn’t get paid for their work, either, but that’s another story.)

Stressed Yet?

Okay: read aloud, reread, transitions.  What else is there?  Lots, actually!

Take stresses, for example.  In a heavily accented language like English, words have relative stresses.  Here’s an example:”A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.”  Not exactly poetry, but it reads the same backwards as it does forwards (it’s a palindrome).  We can give this line stresses: put / in for a stressed syllable, and U above the syllable that’s not as stressed.

U   /     U   /    U U  /    /   U   U

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama

Try an easier one, now:

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.

Where would the stresses go?

U     /    U    /       U    /    U   /   U    /

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.

That’s right!

Form and Content

Now, you might disagree with my stresses here.  It’s somewhat open to interpretation.  Words have stress patterns (just look in any dictionary).  If you wanted to give mainly two stresses in a row, you’d probably avoid stressing “on.”  Here’s a major point about reading: Change the form and you change the content.

I don’t like using all caps, but that statement above is the big deal about poetry!  Above, you changed the form (the stress pattern you saw), and that changed the content of the poem (its meaning).  Form and content–it’s all about form and content.  When you look for a change in meaning, you’ll probably also find a change in the form.

Metric Feet?  Huh?  Are we in Canada?

Poetry is all about patterns.  The unstressed-stressed pattern here is very important.

A foot is a measure of stressed.  Usually, feet have two syllables (though some have three).

An iamb is a pattern of unstressed stressed syllables.  Is the second example iambic?  (If you said “yes,” you’re right.)

A trochee is a foot where the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed.

Poetry would be pretty boring if poets didn’t vary the pattern.  Just like in soccer or hockey, where players make certain moves, poets have moves.

The second example has how many feet? (5)

The second example has ____ syllables? (10)

It’s called iambic pentameter.  Its overall pattern is iambic, and it has five feet of two syllables each.


Why would five-foot lines be a good choice in poetry?

What do ten-syllable (five-foot) lines allow poets to do?

Why would two-foot lines or ten-foot lines have major drawbacks?