Big changes are in the air for yeah write.

That’s why I want to get back to the basics this month. The basics of poetry, that is.

It’s been almost two years since we first delved into blank verse for a poetry slam, and while I’d like to pretend all the new folks go back through our writing help section regularly, even I don’t do that. But blank verse (not free verse, we’ll talk about the difference in a sec) is one of the building blocks of great poetry, and even if it’s not your favorite form there’s tremendous value in learning to do it well. So this month we’re going back to the blank page to write some blank verse.

what’s the difference between blank verse and free verse?

While both blank and free verse are relatively relaxed forms of poetry, blank verse has one rule that free verse doesn’t: the poem must scan.

If you’ve been a wonderful person and read through that other blank verse post (it’s got Shakespeare!), you can go ahead and skip the next bit about how to scan a poem. Be sure to come back, though, because I’m going to tear apart the poem I wrote for the tutorial and explain the difference between it and a good poem in blank verse.

Okay. I forget. How do you scan a poem?

Let’s start with the basics: What’s “scanning” anyway? Well, poems have “meter” and scansion is the way we talk about and represent that meter visually.

Meter is the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line of a poem. Meter is usually talked about in two-syllable chunks called “feet” and feet have all kinds of fascinating and intimidating names like “trochee” and “iamb” and “anapest” and “dactyl.” For blank verse you get to play with any and all of these feet, in any order you like, so long as you stay consistent from line to line.

scansion and notation

When you talk, you naturally emphasize certain syllables in your words. To scan a sentence of phrase, you just write it down and put a “/” over the syllables that are stressed, and a “u” over the unstressed syllables.  Because this is a blog post and who even knows how it will line up on your screen, I’m going to just write it in the correct order and you can pretend it’s on top of the syllables. It’ll be our secret. Let’s try it:

u / u u / u u / u
There was an old mathematician,

u / u u / u u / u
Who had a profound intuition;

u / u u / u
A smart operation

u / u u / u
Called multiplication

u / u u / u u / u
Would speed up the task of addition.

Hey, wouldja look at that? We just scanned a limerick. Now check out the pattern of the stressed and unstressed syllables: the three long lines match perfectly and so do the two short ones. That’s one of the rules of limerick construction (we’ll look at the other one in a second).

feet (in a series of inches)

Okay. Now that we know how to write stressed and unstressed syllables, let’s talk about the different kinds of feet. This is mostly just for fun, don’t be intimidated. You don’t have to know the names of the different types of feet to write in blank verse; all you need to do is be able to look at the scansion annotation for each line of your poem and see that it’s consistent from one line to the next.

Generally a foot is two or three syllables. For those of you who read a little music, if a two syllable foot is represented by two quarter notes, a three-syllable foot would be expressed in a quarter note and two eighth notes or a triplet of eighth notes. For those of you who don’t read music, it takes about the same amount of time to say a three syllable foot as a two syllable foot, so some of the syllables are a little rushed or pushed together.

Some metric styles have names, too. To figure out the metric style, mark off the feet and count them. Like this:

A bitter draught: this stone, your name, my mead.

If you were to write this out like you say it, you would write:

a BIT ter DRAUGHT this STONE your NAME my MEAD

Or, in metric annotation:

u/ u/ u/ u/ u/

This is a very regular metric scheme, so it probably has a name. Check out the chart above, and you’ll see that’s five iambs. That means iambic pentameter! Just take the foot style name (iambic), add the counting prefix (uni, bi, tri, etc) and the word “meter” and you’re done! That’s great for discussing poetry forms like the sonnet, which is always in iambic pentameter but has several rhyme scheme variations. We’ve even used a couple of them for poetry slams here.

But what about our limerick?

u / u u / u u / u
There was an old mathematician

Let’s break that into feet. Using the natural pauses (and, ok, because no poet is perfect, the way that the final syllable goes almost unvoiced), you have an iamb and two anapests, roughly. The rules for the limerick say that the first two and last lines must have this pattern, and the third and fourth lines are one iamb and one anapest each. Using these rules you can write a recognizable limerick that doesn’t even rhyme:

There was an old man of St. Bees
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp.
When they asked, “Does it hurt?”
He replied, “No, it doesn’t,
But I’m sure glad it wasn’t a hornet.”
(Sir William S. Gilbert) 

In fact, that’s what we’re about to do with blank verse.

so how do I blank verse?

step 1: your first line

You might have a meter in mind for your poem. I like to do that first, because then I know the general shape of what I’m trying to write. One of our editors (not me) just looooooves iambic pentameter. But let’s try writing a poem when we don’t know what the meter will be. I’m going to go ahead and steal a line from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, although my poem will be vastly different from Eliot’s when I’m done:

In the mountains, there you feel free.

Now I have to figure out the meter. One easy way to do this is to record myself saying the line, and then listen to it. This video (Caution: Audio is very loud) does a pretty good job showing how to scan using that technique.  I find that when I read silently I can move stresses around and put them in awkward places, and reading aloud prevents that.

The line scans like this:

u u / u / u u /

When I listen to my voice again, I rush some of the syllables together and not others:

uu/ u/ uu/

Looking at my chart again, that’s an anapest, an iamb, and another anapest. Well, that’s going to be interesting.

To be honest, if this were my poem and I weren’t writing it for an example I’d quit now and go write something in iambic tetrameter, which feels really natural to me. (I blame Tolkien and my childhood.) But let’s press on.

step 2: keep going!

Since my first line has the pattern uu/ u/ uu/ the easiest way to write this poem will be to follow that same pattern in every line. Let’s see if I can write something like that.

On a day like this I could soar.

Does it work? Well, my reading-aloud test says it does.

step 3: no, really, keep going.

So really all I have to do now is keep adding lines that make sense and have the same scansion as the lines that came before them. Let’s quit after six lines, though, because I have laundry to do today and honestly this is a throwaway poem for a tutorial.

In the mountains, there you feel free
On a day like this I could soar
There’s a place I’ve made in these stones
Where I keep my heart when I’m far
from the trees I once lived between
and the sky hemmed round by the crags.

And that’s pretty much it.

so why was that wrong?

If you got your scansion lesson from the other post, this is where you rejoin us.

The poem I wrote is wrong because it’s a genuinely crappy poem. It follows the rules for blank verse, but mere rule-following doesn’t make a poem good. It just makes it a recognizable poem. Let’s look at a good poem that scans (it’s my week to pick on Christine) to see what the difference is.

I tend to write my stories on the fly
with wind and rain and potholes to avoid.
I wrestle with my words; I tumble them
like pebbles, hoping something will emerge:
a thing worth saving. Sometimes it’s just dust—
the slag and shavings of my scattered mind.
But sometimes I find gemstones, treasures worth
their weight in words, and lacking paper, left
without a pen, I memorize their shapes.
I trace each curve, each corner with my tongue,
and only when I stop I write them down.

Now, is this one of the world’s greatest poems? Nah. I mean, it’s a poem about how hard it is to write a poem when all your good ideas come to you when you’re on a bike with nothing to write with. But it’s pretty darn good, and it’s because of something that happens in the last five lines. Check this out:

But sometimes I find gemstones, treasures worth
their weight in words, and lacking paper, left
without a pen, I memorize their shapes.

Compare those three lines to

In the mountains, there you feel free
On a day like this I could soar
There’s a place I’ve made in these stones

See how the first three lines flow together into a sentence without ever disturbing the pattern of the scansion? Whereas mine are three discrete lines, fragments that don’t fit together well at all and require a full stop at the end of every line. Really good blank verse often uses a combination of these two techniques. I never managed that in my poem, which is why it feels choppy and awkward instead of flowing together.

When you’re writing lines for your blank verse poem, sometimes it’s useful to write them much longer than they’ll be in their finished form and then break them up. If you do that, however, remember that the line break functions like punctuation. Even if it’s not a full pause it’s a partial pause for breath, a sort of heavy comma. Balancing the need for line breaks with the need for the poem to keep flowing is one of the ways you’ll write good – not just technically adequate – blank verse.

is that it?

Technically, yes, that’s it. Write an unrhyming poem that scans.

If you want to do better than that, write an unrhyming poem that scans, but pay attention to your line breaks and sentence structure. Don’t rearrange words into tortured orders that make no sense just to get the poem to scan; rewrite the line. It’s permissible to change up your scansion by creating a scanning scheme rather than making each line exactly the same. One way to do this is by writing couplets with matching scansion that don’t match the couplets around them.

Above all, make your poem sound like you. Just a you with rhythm. Who could ask for anything more?