by Michael Curtis | excerpted from Occasional Poetry

Tradition grows from wisdom, from the accumulated experience of millennia; in poetic practice, our classic tradition grows from the craft of Ages. Change is slow, development slower; five-hundred, six-hundred, a thousand years might pass before language, our language, Shakespeare’s language becomes to we here listening, unintelligible. No one of us creates from nothing, we each create from what we know, from what we are: the words we speak contain fossils old before the invention of writing, before farming, before what might be named, “civilization”. Our civilization, our tradition, is Classive, is Greek, Greco-Roman, Hebraic-Christian; our wisdom is philosophically Classical, Biblical, through Greek philosophy and Roman morals. Unique of world philosophies, we in the West inherit the knowledge of creation in the pattern of God. Our crafts, this craft, poetry, grows from the body, from breath, the mouth, the structure of reason, the syllogism, and by these characteristics of body, these characteristics of mind classically conceived, we create line, stanza, and form in poetry.

Last lecture, we considered the metrical foot, the organization of syllables by those patterns natural to the human mind; we considered rhyme, the ontological reality of music sensually impressed upon the body. Now, line too is a characteristic of body, of breath, the length of breath, its speed and stop. Now, just now, take a long breath. Another. Now, let us speak fully, five iambs: dee-DUM, dee-DUM, dee-DUM, dee-DUM, dee-DUM. Notice how upon the fifth “dee-DUM” you arrived at the end of breath. Try six iambs, and you are likely to notice your breath short or strained upon that last metrical foot. Naturally, the body suggests five, iambic, metrical feet in a line of verse, a line of breath. For art, in craft, we might substitute a spondee (DUM-DUM) for an iamb, we might make pause / in the middle of a line (caesura; suh-zyur-ah), we might carry on the line into the next line (enjambment) and stop. Each metrical variation is interesting, each creates meaning; knowing when meaning is artful, when accident, is the art. Of craft, you should know a line of five iambs is, “iambic petameter”, the line of Alexander Pope and William Shakespeare, and likely, you.

When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.

Alexander Pope

There, you found meaning within the breath of a metrical line: Ajax strives “some rock’s vast weight to throw”; Camilla flies the unbending corn “and skims along the main”: you will notice the slow-heavy spondee of “rock’s vast weight” and how “skims along the main” quickly extends into a sixth metrical foot, where breath is exhausted, and ends. Those lines by Pope were crafted for color, for narrative portrait, these next Pope lines were crafted almost perfect in reason:

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 echo to the sense.

You see, you hear: the iambic pentameter line is suited well to organized thought, in story or reason, naturally, as the body gives breath, as the mind organizes thought. Other lines of metrical verse also have their use, their potentiality. By name, by line they are:

DIMETER, two metrical feet; known as, “Skeltonic”, most often quick and skipping:

Tell you I chyll,
If that ye wyll
A whyle be styll,
Of a comely gyll

John Skelton

TRIMETER, three metrical feet; known as, “Short Meter”:

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

Theodore Roethke

TETRAMETER, four metrical feet; known as, “Long Meter”:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

William Shakespeare

PENTAMETER, as mentioned, five metrical feet; here, unrhymed, “blank verse”:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat…

John Milton

HEXAMETER, six metrical feet; here, dactylic hexameter, known as “Heroic Meter” in imitation of Greek and Latin verse:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, …
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, …
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

HEPTAMETER, seven metrical feet; known as, a “Fourteener”:

The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks.
All but the youngest; she in paleness sought the secret air.
To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day:
Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard:
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.

William Blake

OCTAMETER, eight metrical feet; in English, uncommon, so, it has not a common name:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

Edgar Allan Poe

Each of these metrical lines we shall employ when considering verse for occasions; each is by nature, by intrinsic character better suited to one occasion, or another, to this love poem, to that epitaph.

In verse, lines are organized into bodies, into volumes, into stanza, little rooms containing conversations. “Stanza”, as likely you know, is Italian for, “room”, and we might consider these many rooms, these many stanza as constituting the home of a poem. Within most any book of poetry, you will find little houses of poems that resolve themselves into neighbor-hoods, a fashion of neighborly architecture; and you will find that ideas of a similar type choose similar homes; soon, by the shape of thought, by the stanzic architecture, you will learn to distinguish one stanza from another, you will know what and who to expect when entering the home of a poem. Each home, each poetic architecture, has a tradition unique to itself: the couplet, the tercet, and the quatrain are most common, and from these common rooms of ideas, forms of poems are created.

The COUPLET stanza is two lines brief:

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I’ll forgive the great big one on me.

Robert Frost

…a second couplet…

I do not like green eggs and ham,
I do not like them Sam I am.

Dr. Seuss

The TRIPLET is merely a three rhyme long, sometimes over- long, couplet:

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!

Robert Herrick

The TERCET is three lines, alike a link of chain, rhymes linking each stanza, each link tightly together:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Dylan Thomas

The QUATRAIN is four lines, sometimes of two couplets, sometimes, rhyming ABAB or xAxA:

The King sits in Dunferline toun,
Drinkin the blude-reid wine
‘O whaur will A get a skeely skipper
Tae sail this new ship o mine?’

O up and spak an eldern knight,
Sat at the king’s richt knee;
‘Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That ever sailt the sea.’

Scottish, author unknown

Our verse form tradition, in English, begins, for the most part, with Chaucer who looked to friendly Italy, rather than to ruling France for precedent, if not flourish, and through Chaucer, the ballad, et cetera. For our purpose, the practice of composing poems for any occasion, we shall dilate upon the three stanza forms that alone or in combination constitute most all English, poetic forms: again, the couplet, the tercet, the quatrain are here considered.

In COUPLET, the stinging epigram, and its cousin, the mournful epitaph,

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

…forms an ending,

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

Alexander Pope

Here lies the body of Thomas Proctor
Who lived and died without a doctor.

author unknown

In TERZA RIMA, the intense emotion, romantic or persona, a manner of wedding:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

Percy Bysshe Shelley

In narrative, QUATRAIN ballad, the story builds toward agreement or conclusion, toward rising summit or tumbling fall:

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost

Here, let us consider stanzic form, stanzic structure, let us see the construction so that you might learn the craft of building a poetic room. As the United States Capitol Building is constructed in the tradition of the Parthenon, the English stanza grows from antiquity, from late antiquity, from hymn, from Church-Latin, the Norse, and the Troubadours. For fourteen hundred years we have built our poems of rhyme in line, and shall do, God-willing, for another fourteen hundred years, and more: and here is how:

CAPITALIZE each line’s first word, that dramatic “first step” of the “foot”, that first breath for the breadth of the line;

INDENT so that rhyme lines might couple like-to-like.

These, the simple rules. As we proceed, in notation, in scansion, we shall consider independent and subordinate rhyme; lines of variable feet, et cetera. Now, below, as you shall see, the first line is the, “Foundation Line”, the model line for construction in meter and rhyme, and breath, and breadth. And you shall see how verses employ couplet, tercet, quatrain.

The letters (your left) represent rhyming words; the numbers (your right) represent feet: “spent – bent” = A / “wide – hide” = B; “5” is the number of feet, dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM (five). The first example, below, the Petrarchan Sonnet, has two quatrains (composing an octet), two tercets (composing a sestet), and two (three, if you like) couplets; the second, the Shakespearean Sonnet, is formed of three quatrains which conclude with a couplet; notice that one-sonnet-to-the next, a unity, an architectural similarity, and a difference, a variety:


Did you notice how Milton’s Italian, “Petrarchan” sonnet developed in octet the question, to turn in answer to the sestet, to conclude in the resolving line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” If so, likely you noticed how Shakespeare’s English sonnet, named, “Shakespearean”, in the first quatrain opened the argument, how in the second quatrain the argument was deepened, how the third quatrain turned the argument, and how the concluding couplet, “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.“ closed the case. We all love God, or men, or women, or someone, or many someones, and we all attempt persuasion into love; sometimes a soft-sell is best, though, usually, we prefer the argument which emphatically concludes, “Yes!”. Soon, we shall invest some little time in love, in sonnets, but next, Lyric and Song.

Read the next chapter at Expansive Poetry Online here. Or purchase the entire book at The Studio Press here:



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3 Responses

  1. James Sale

    Hi Michael – an excellent account of form and meter, and how things develop in poetry. A very useful work to consult from time to time. Well done. The more we explain and insist on form the more chance there is we’ll get it! Also, the more we need to expose beauty by creating it.

  2. Jonathan Kinsman

    I am all for form and smooth meter, but, all poets of any value for the Canon break the iamb, stub the foot, eclipse the line and jar the rhythm to knock us on our assonance.

    Too often, and I am new here, we poets tend to over stress the formality and tend towards the formaldehyde.

    Frost and Edwards showed that the Tradition need not hand over the ” ere’s and o’er’s and ’til’s” of past poets trimming the line.

    I love this site but let’s not lose sight that we fall into cliche, and not make it new (Remember what Auden said when asked about a young poet’s reason for wanting to write poetry: “I wish he said he wanted to play with words.”)

    Shakespeare is the classic example: he could, and did, traipse iambs with the best of his fellow Catholic poets, but to get the effect he wants, the turn [volta] he takes, he will plop a trochee where he thinks fit. And that’s cat!

    Remember: every new form was at one time considered an affront to the Art.

    Jonathan Kinsman, a proud Republican poet in a crazy Pandemocratic World.

    • The Society

      Indeed, you are absolutely right. However, the vast majority of published poetry today gives no or very little regard to meter. People can get nitpicky, but it is often refreshing and helpful. If you feel it is overboard, just ignore them.
      -Evan Mantyk, website editor


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