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Formalism: Dances and Beats

If you are interested in learning more about formal poetry, be sure to pick up a copy of this excellent and comprehensive recommended textbook:

Putnam Turco, Lewis. The Book of Forms. 4th ed. University Press of New England, 2011. ISBN: 9781611680355

Meanwhile, the following resource will help you identify the most common elements formal poetry, which is just as useful when you're reading poetry as it is when you're writing it.

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FORMAL POETRY


When poems are written to fit a special "form" we refer to them as "formal poetry."  Poems, or "verse," can also be free of form, which is why we call them "free verse" (or, in the French, vers libre). An analogy can be found in dance:  when specific dance steps must be learned (regardless of whether they involve a partner or are traditional), they are "formal dance"; when dancing is more intuitively expressive series of movement, we call it "free-style." This doesn't mean that "free-style dance" lacks identifiable structure. Even though you may be making it up as you go along, you're still following an internal rhythm and style of your own, and you're allowing outside influences— the music; your partner(s); the occasion; your mood—to guide the direction of your movements.  So it goes with vers libre, too. 

This page is largely devoted to discussing the elements of formal poetry, but, whether it is written to be formal or free-verse, the success of a poem's "music" and movement is evaluated in two distinct ways:  syllabically and rhetorically.

 

Syllables

Syllables are the most basic unit of measurement in poetry because they're a way to portion-out the rhythm of a line.  Almost all formal poetry depends on some sort of syllabic pattern, and many free-verse poems also subliminally develop a loose syllabic pattern that can influence the regularity of line breaks and create rhythms internal to the poem.   Whether it's formal or non- rhyming, any poem that uses the same number of syllables per line is, by definition, syllabic.

 

Common Syllabic Forms

Count the number of stressed syllables per line.

  1. monometer = one strong beat per line
  2. dimeter = two strong beats per line
  3. trimeter = three strong beats per line
  4. tetrameter = four strong beats per line
  5. pentameter = five strong beats per line
  6. hexameter = six strong beats per line
  7. heptameter = seven strong beats per line
  8. octameter = eight strong beats per line

 

The Foot

Just as in formal dance, the style, elegance and timing of a formal poem always comes down to the foot-work.  That's why, just like formal dance, writing formal poetry takes practice.  Just as one's feet learn to perform certain steps automatically through a combination of muscle memory and musicality, the poet's brain eventually learns to express itself through the rhythms of specific steps:  syllabic combinations with regularly occurring stresses or "beats."  When a combination of two or three syllables and their
stressed beats sets a precedent, it's called a "foot."  (Just as it is in music.)

 

Common Feet (Syllabic Rhythms)


IAMB
2 syllables: unstressed+stressed [—  /] [dee-DUM]
return (re-TURN); undo (un-DO); belong (be-LONG)
iambic tetrameter: that stink of creosote and soot;
iambic pentameter: the chink and thump of wheels on iron bands 

TROCHEE
2 syllables: stressed+unstressed [/   —]: [DUM-dee]
reason (REA-son); careless (CARE-less); fever (FE-ver); apple (AP-ple)
trochaic pentameter: tang of sausage roll in plastic wrapper

DACTYL
3 syllables: stressed+unstressed+unstressed [/ —  —] [DUM-dee-dee]
totally (TO-tal-ly); aggravate (AG-gra-vate)
dactylic trimeter: leather and velveteen suitcases

ANAPEST (anapestic):
3 syllables: unstressed+unstressed+stressed [—  —  /] [dee-dee-DUM]
if she minds (if she MINDS); unsurpassed (un-sur-PASSED)
anapestic hexameter: a young Russian is stiffened by khaki and frost in the
corridor's chill

SPONDEE (spondaic):
2 syllables: stressed+stressed  [/    /] [DUM-DUM]
renew (RE-NEW); uphold (UP-HOLD); downtown (DOWN-TOWN)
spondaic, six syllables: wet, tired, we still hope [WET-TIRED yet-we STILL-HOPE]

PYRRHIC*:
2 syllables: unstressed+unstressed  [—   —] [dee-dee]
unto (un-to); the end (the-end); at once (at-once); and so (and-so)
pyrrhic, six syllables: live without a purpose [live-with out-a PUR-pose]

 

Scansion

Meter is noted by placing an ictic (an accent mark) over the stressed syllable, and a non-ictic ("—" or "x") over the unstressed syllable.  Here are some examples:

trochaic pentameter  [DUM-dee x 5]
/ — / — / — / — / —
tang of saus- age roll in plas- tic wrap- er

dactylic trimeter  [DUM-dee-dee x 3]
/ — — / — — / — —
leath- er and vel- vet- een suit- cas- es

anapestic hexameter [dee-dee-DUM x 6]
—   — / — —   / — — / — — / — — / — — /
a  young Russ-   ian   is stiff- ened   by kha- ki and frost in the cor- rid- or's chill

ambic pentameter  [dee-DUM x 5]
— / — / — / — / — /
the chink and thump of wheels on ir- on bands

iambic tetrameter  [dee-DUM x 4]
— / — / — / — /
that stink of cre- o- sote and soot

trochaic pentameter  [DUM-dee x 5]
/ — / — / — / — / —
tang of saus- age roll in plas- tic wrap- er

dactylic trimeter  [DUM-dee-dee x 3]
/ — — / — — / — —
leath- er and vel- vet- een suit- cas- es

spondaic  [DUM-DUM] and pyrrhic feet [dee-dee]
/ / x x / /
Wet, tired, but with hope still

 

Stanza Forms


# lines = stanza name 

2 = Couplet
3 = Tercet (a.k.a. "triplet")
4 = Quartet (a.k.a. "quatrain")
5 = Quintet
6 = Sestet
7 = Septet
8 = Octet (a.k.a. "octave")
9 = Spenserian Stanza
10 = Décima
Envoy = short closing stanza (2 - 4 lines)

 

Rhyme Scheme

End rhymes are assigned letters ("a", "b", "c", etc.) to identify line endings with common sounds; anything sharing a common sound is identified by the same letter.  Here's an example, using Kim Addonizio's "Half-Hearted Sonnet"; note what makes it "half-hearted":


He'd left his belt. She                a
followed him and                      b
threw it in the street.                a
Wine: kisses: snake: end          b

of their story. Be-                    c
gin again, under-                    d
stand what happened; de-       c
spite that battered                  d

feeling, it will have been          e
worth it; better to                   f   
have etc…                              e      . . . [assumed rhyme]
(—not to have been born         f      \      [slant rhyme]

at all— Schopenhauer.)          g
But, soft! Enter tears.            g

Rhetorical Form in Formal Poetry

Explaining how and why different forms of poetry have different rhetorical intentions is too complex for the brief and sketchy guidelines on this page. It's perhaps sufficient to understand that the organization and development of a formal poem in stanzas often follows the organization and development of an argument or idea:  in other words, the form of the argument takes the form of the poem.  Some kinds of arguments are sometimes better suited to certain forms.  You learn this in any English composition class from an early age, which is why it's good to know how to write a comparison-contrast essay differently from a definition essay or a process analysis essay.  Studying a variety of forms and examples of them will help you to appreciate how poets "think through" their premises and conclusions using the stanzaic form as a rhetorical model.  Once again, this is exactly what happens in formal dance: different dances dramatize different styles and arguments on themes ranging from the ubiquitous courtship dance (whether it's a waltz or a sandwich dance), to hunting re-enactments, to military conquests.  In this sense, poetical form is perhaps more versatile in that it explores a great many more themes with a great deal more subtlety.

However, the principle is inherently the same:  formal poetry "formalizes" an idea or argument in its rhetorical design.  That's why so many poetry forms end in a special stanza— the sonnet's couplet or the sestina's envoy—to drive home a formal conclusion.

The most common formal poetry


Types

  • Ballad
  • Elegy, a poem written as a lament, often for the dead
  • Epic, a Narrative poem with a longer epic storyline, often an account of a hero or heroine's journey
  • Epigram
  • Lyric, a poem of a lyrical nature that expresses the poet's feelings (as opposed to a narrative poem)
  • Narrative, a poem that tells a story, with characters and settings
  • Ode 

 

Forms

dramatic monologues and duologues
haiku
ottova rima
pantoum
rondeau
sonnet

English sonnet, three quatrains + a couplet
Italian sonnet, an octave (two quatrains) + a sextet (two tercets)

terca rima
villanelle, nineteen-line poem made up of five triplets with a closing quatrain

In the following song written by Sting, listen for the predominant monometer pattern in the way the song is sung. How is it achieved?  What tricks of diction, syntax and rhetoric help the lyrics to achieve this effect?  Without the benefit of the music, would you still read this "poem" in monometer?  If not, what kind of foot is most common in it as a "poem on the page"?

"Island Of Souls"
(Sting, from Soul Cages)

Billy was born within sight of the shipyard
First son of a riveter's son
And Billy was raised as the ship grew a shadow
Her great hull would blot out the light of the sun

And six days a week he would watch his poor father
A working man live like a slave
He'd drink every night and he'd dream of a future,
Of money he never would save
And Billy would cry when he thought of the future

Soon came a day when the bottle was broken
They launched the great ship out to sea
He felt he'd been left on a desolate shore
To a future he desperately wanted to flee
What else was there for a shipbuilder's son
A new ship to be built, new work to be done

One day he dreamed of the ship in the world
It would carry his father and he
To a place they would never be found
To a place far away from this town.

Trapped in the cage of the skeleton ship
All the workmen suspended like flies
Caught in the flare of acetylene light
A working man works till the industry dies
And Billy would cry when he thought if the future

Then what they call an industrial accident
Crushed those it couldn't forgive
They brought Billy's father back home in an ambulance
A brass watch, a cheque, maybe three weeks to live,
And what else was there for a riveter's son
A new ship to be built, new work to be done

That night, he dreamed of the ship in the world
It would carry his father and he
To a place they could never be found
To a place far away from this town,
A Newcastle ship without coals
They would sail to the island of souls.

How about this poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Gwendolyn Books?  What effect is Brooks trying to achieve metrically?

We Real Cool
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Last Updated: 03/02/2017

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