Learning Meter #3: Reading for Meter — The Poetry Place (2023)

This article is for: Beginning and Intermediate poets

So far in this series on Learning Meter, we’ve thought about stressed and unstressed syllables in words and in sentences, outside of poetry.

Now we’re going to look at stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry, and specifically in poetry that has meter.

The next article will cover how you yourself can start to use meter in your poems.

But, as always, good writing comes from good reading!

If you can recognize meter in the poetry that you read, that will help you enormously when you come to write it yourself.

(And in fact it’s essential in order to work out if you really are making your own meter accurate!)

So let’s dive in. We’re going to cover:

  • What meter is (and what metrical feet are)

  • The four main kinds of meter in English-language poetry

  • How you can identify meter in a piece of poetry.

What is meter?

This starts off easy:

Meter in poetry is a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, creating a rhythm.

In other words, in a line of metered poetry, you will see a arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables that gets repeated.

Here’s an example, the first line of Megan Grumbling’s “Booker’s Point,” from her book of the same name:

Old Booker’s out there shirtless and knee-deep

When you read this, you might get an intuitive sense that these words are working on you with power, more power than their meaning alone should create. What’s going on?

You’re responding to the meter! There’s a regular pattern of stresses and unstresses in the line, and that pattern is acting on you with all the force that rhythm can have. Just think how hit records used to get you on the dance floor (and perhaps still do!).

Here’s the pattern, with the stressed syllables in bold underline:

Old Booker’s out there shirtless and knee-deep

Hopefully you can see it: there’s an unstressed syllable, then a stressed one, then an unstressed, then a stressed—and so on to the end of the line.

That’s meter!

Specifically, it’s iambic meter, which I’ll discuss in a moment. But before we get there, let’s define one other term too: the foot.

One metrical foot is one “unit” of the repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.

So in the line from Megan Grumbling, the foot is this:

  • unstressed – stressed

because that’s the pattern that gets repeated 5 times. (We say the line has 5 feet.)

And one other thing you might need to know:

Meters are named using two factors: the type of foot they use, and the number of feet per line.

In this case, the unstressed – stressed pattern (foot) is repeated five times, so it’s called pentameter because “penta” means “five” in Greek.

So this line is in the famous iambic pentameter!

Before we move on to the four basic kinds of meter, I’ll just mention the names of the other lengths of line. YOU DON’T NEED TO KNOW THESE—so if they’re too much, just ignore them! But I know some people (like me) like to get geeky about terminology, so here they are:

  • monometer—one foot in the line

  • dimeter—two feet

  • trimeter—three feet

  • tetrameter—four feet

  • pentameter—five feet

  • hexameter—six feet

  • heptameter—seven feet (though you almost never see this).

Kinds of meter


Iambic meter is the most common meter in English poetry. It was used by Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Dickinson, and every other poet you’ve ever heard of who wrote before 1900 (apart from Walt Whitman), as well as thousands upon thousands you’ve never heard of.

The iambic foot, as I said above, is this:

  • unstressed – stressed

Seems too simple to be the bedrock of nearly all classic English poetry? Actually, iambic is hugely variable, fitting any kind of mood or feeling you can think of.

For example, here are two iambic bits, one from Shakespeare, then one from Wordsworth:

lust / Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame” (Sonnet 129)

the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world (“Tintern Abbey”)

Do they sound the same? I don’t think so, even though they are both based on iambic pentameter.

The first one is full of passion, anger, and disgust, and the rhythm thumps and stuns.

But the second one is much gentler—yearning, wistful, and reflective.

Same meter, entirely different feelings—and that’s only scratching the surface of what iambic can do.

Which is why contemporary poets are still using it. I’ll end with a line from Alison Brackenbury’s “Honeycomb”:

I am a god. I lick the spoon. (iambic tetrameter)

Anapaestic (or anapestic)

I know, I know, these names are a mouthful. I wish we had straightforward English words to call each type, but we’re stuck with the Greek ones.

Anyway, anapaestic meter is based on a foot like this:

  • unstressed – unstressed – stressed

Compared to the iambic foot, this is of course longer: we get two unstressed syllables for each stressed one. And this leads to a kind of rocking, flowing motion and a very musical, sing-song effect.

For this reason, it is used a lot (and very expertly) by Dr. Seuss!

Here it is used seriously, from Thomas Hardy’s “Thoughts of Phena”:

Not a line of her writing have I,

Not a thread of her hair

Anapaestic meter ranks second in the all-time English poetry stakes—though a long, long way behind iambic! And it does still get used by serious poets, but not as much as iambic. However, if you want to go for a sing-song effect, it’s the meter for you.


Trochaic meter is the mirror-image of iambic. Its pattern is:

  • stressed – unstressed

It’s rarely used in English, because it’s phenomenally hard to write in (I know, I’ve tried), and because it tends to create a jerky, uncomfortable rhythm—rather like tripping and falling again and again, as you go from the stressed to the unstressed syllable.

But there are exceptions to that rule, and it very unusualness can make it very striking and effective. If you want to create an effect that’s startling and uncomfortable, then it might be ideal!

Here it is in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” by W. H. Auden:

In the nightmare of the dark

All the dogs of Europe bark

And notice that the fact there’s no unstressed syllable after the last stressed one doesn’t rule it out as trochaic meter—it’s not enough to disrupt the pattern overall.


Finally, the one that gets used least.

In the same way that trochaic meter swaps around the stresses in iambic, dactylic meter is like a mirror image of anapaestic, with the stressed syllable coming first:

  • stressed – unstressed – unstressed

Like anapaestic, it creates a fluid, sing-song sort of rhythm, but it’s even harder to write than trochaic!

Some of the best uses of it are sad and mournful, like Hardy’s “The Voice,” or this one, “The Lost Leader” by Robery Browning:

Just for a handful of silver he left us,

Just for a riband to stick in his coat

How to find the meter in poetry you read

If you’re reading an older piece of poetry, or a modern one that seems to have a regular rhythm, then you can start to figure out its meter by using the same steps as I gave in Article #2, which are:

  1. Look for strong stresses

  2. Find the stressed syllable in any multi-syllable words

  3. See if you need extra stresses

But we will need to tweak this a bit, as I’ll show you.

Let’s practice on a line from Seamus Heaney’s sonnet, “When all the others were away at Mass” from “Clearances.”

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron

Step 1: find strong stresses.

I hear these on “sold,” and “weep”:

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron

Step 2: multi-syllable words

Two of these I’ve already dealt with: solder and weeping.

That leaves “soldering.” Listening to this, or looking it up in the dictionary, I work out that its stress is on the first syllable, sold.

So now I’ve got:

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron

Step 3: add extra stresses

So now we’re on to listening for other syllables that are getting some stress as well.

But this time, we’re looking for a repeating pattern—so if we see places where a pattern might be emerging, we can use that as a guide to where the extra stresses might go.

In this case, the first four syllables have made an iambic pattern of unstressed – stressed:

Like sold — er weep

We wouldn’t say it like that, separating the “sold” and the “er”, but the pattern is there nonetheless.

So what other syllables would end up stressed, if that pattern continued?

First of all, “off”:

Like sold — er weep — ing off

And we’ve already got one other iambic foot, in “the sold”:

Like sold — er weep — ing off — the sold

But what are we going to do with “ering iron”? This can’t follow the unstressed – stressed pattern, because it has three syllables. So now we need:

Meter Hack 1: tweak words to make the meter work

If you’re a poet, you’ll probably know that the following statement is true:

Poets love to cheat.

It’s part of being creative, and it leads to better results, so I’m I favor of it!

In this case, Heaney is “cheating” by treating “ering,” which is two syllables, as if they were one syllable.

He’s also pushing the boat out a bit by treating “iron” as one syllable, which not everyone would say it is.

But put those two hacks together, and we get:

Like sold — er weep — ing off — the sold — (er)ing irn

And hey presto, iambic all the way!

Now, a part of Heaney’s genius was using iambic pentameter in ways that sounded like natural speech, so it’s actually very important that he manipulated the end of the line a bit to make the meter sound natural, not mechanical.

But for our purposes right now, we’ve found the meter.

Meter Hack 2: make the multi-syllable words work for you

I’ll just mention one other tweak that’s important, and then we’ll be done for this article.

You may have noticed the way I read the word “unintelligible” in the lines from Wordsworth. Instead of giving it just one stress, as I suggested you do in Article 1, I actually gave it three:


Now, I don’t think we actually say the word that way. In ordinary speech, I would say that “tell” is always stressed, and maybe the “un” as well, if we want to emphasize this word. But not “gib,” not ever!

But for sake of the meter, I am going to say that this syllable is stressed, to make the pattern work.

And in fact, this stressed-syllable-that-isn’t-actually-stressed is one of the reasons why that line sounds gentle and calm: it’s lacking a stress, even though technically the iambic pattern is maintained.

So, sometimes the meter makes it look as though a syllable is stressed, even though it’s really not.

And that’s an accepted part of how all this works.

Next Steps

In the next article, I’ll go over how you can start to write with meter.

But for now, it’s a great idea to read as much metrical verse as you can, find the stresses, and see how the poets do their stuff!

Be aware that there will be many lines that don’t follow the meter exactly. That’s a part of making meter work too, and I’ll explain why in the last article.

(You may have noticed, for example, that the end of the Megan Grumbling line doesn’t actually do what I fibbed that it does:

Old Booker’s out there shirtless and knee-deep

In reality, “knee” is stressed too, so the line isn’t quite iambic. Gold star for you if you saw that!)

So don’t expect every single set of syllables to obey the rules, but do look for the overall pattern.

Pick up your Heaney, your Philip Larkin, your Derek Walcott, your Alison Brackenbury, your Megan Grumbling, and get hunting for stresses.

I think it’s rather addictive—so have fun!


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