Kirk Astroth, Director of the Montana 4-H Center for Youth Development, has created a youth guide and an accompanying leader's guide, each with a CD with 13 tracks of classic and contemporary poetry recited by and commented upon by Mike Logan, Gwen Petersen, and Paul Zarzyski (www.paulzarzyski.com). The content of the guides is similar, with teaching aids in the Leader's Guide and workbook areas in the Youth Guide.
As we've editorialized elsewhere, we think Spurrin' the Words belongs in every Cowboy Poetry library. Whether you work with kids, write poetry, or are a fan of Cowboy Poetry, you'll come away with valuable information from this excellent resource. See our feature on the guides here.
The following articles are © 2004, MSU Extension Service, reprinted from Spurrin' the Words, a Cowboy Poetry Project from the Montana 4-H Center for Youth Development, with thanks to Kirk Astroth.
Counting Beats, or "Feet" in Poetry
The combination of an accented syllable and one or more unaccented syllables is called a poetic FOOT. Hence, a foot is a unit of rhythm. Sometimes it's easier to think in terms of numbers of beats in a line of poetry rather than feet.
The other part of rhythm is the total number of feet per line of poetry. Four feet to a line, tetrameter, is a popular length. Four feet, alternating with three feet (trimeter), is a classic form. For example, take a look at this example (stressed syllables are underlined):
The little toy dog is covered with dust
But sturdy and staunch he stands.
Much of cowboy poetry has--
four feet (beats) in the first line
three feet in the second line
four feet in the third line
three feet in the fourth line
And the second and fourth lines rhyme!
Look at this example (stressed syllables are underlined):
Behind the house and barn it stood
A half a mile or more
And hurrying feet a path had trod
Straight to its swinging door.
Excerpted from "The Outhouse" by James Whitcomb Riley.
Or you can rhyme the first and second lines, and then the third and fourth lines. Notice that they are four feet in each line (stressed syllables are underlined):
I got my new boots and they fit me just right
Of course all the other hands sez they're too tight
Some sez they're too small, and some sez that they figger
They're shore big enough, but my feet's a heap bigger.
Excerpt from "New Boots" by Bruce Kisskaddon
Shakespeare wrote five feet to the line, called pentameter, which is often considered a more "dignified" but less "singable" form of poetry:
To be, or not to be, that is the question.
Excerpt from "Hamlet"
Types of Meter
The beat most resembling regular speech in the English language is a combination of one unaccented syllable followed by one accented syllable. For example, look at the accented syllables (underlined) in this well-known verse:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
The "foot" in the above example is called an iamb, or an iambic foot because of the specific pattern it uses. It is illustrated like this: (./)
The opposite of iambic foot, an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable, is called a trochee, or trochaic foot and is illustrated like this: (/.)
Now, let's look at a common poem and analyze its rhyme pattern:
Twinkle, twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are.
In this poem, where is the stress or accent? On the first syllable. It is followed by one unaccented or unstressed syllable as illustrated here: Twinkle, twinkle little star
Since the stress comes first, followed by one unstressed syllable, what kind of poetic meter does this represent? Trochee.
Notice that the last foot of each line consists solely of an accented syllable without an unaccented one following it. This doesn't affect the meter of the verse. Often the first or last foot of a line is shortened.
How many beats are there in this line of poetry? Four-- making it Trochaic tetrameter.
Two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one is called an anapest and is illustrated like this: (../)
A common verse that uses anapest is our own "Star Spangled Banner":
Oh say can you see, by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming.
Unaccented syllables are not as important as accented ones and can often be added or left out without disturbing the beat:
Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.
Dactyl is the reverse of anapest: an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables. (/..)
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey.
Again, the end-of-the-line feet are shorter, but we don't care. The shortened foot becomes part
of the rhythm.
Don't Worry, Be Poetic!
It isn't too important to remember the names of these poetic feet, since no one ever gets into a discussion about them-especially at a Cowboy Poetry gathering! Just remember the diagrams used to represent each of the styles. The dot indicates an unaccented syllable and the slash an accented one:
(an unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable)
(a stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable)
(two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable)
(a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables)
It's also completely possible to mix poetic feet, using more in one line than another, varying the line length. Here's a common example that is a tetrameter (four poetic feet per line) and trimeter (three poetic feet per line):
Mary had a little lamb (trochaic tetrameter)
Its fleece was white as snow. (iambic trimeter)
You can have any number of feet in a line, and you can even mix types (iambic, trochaic, dactylic, anapest) BUT the rhyme scheme (pattern) needs to be consistent. (e.g. aabb, or abab, or abcb, etc.). You cannot have seven feet in one line, two in the next, eleven in the next and hope that just because the end words
rhyme that it's okay. It isn't. Establish a rhyme scheme. Work on it until you make the lines fit your rhyme scheme.
Tips About Meter
If you're going to write a poem about a certain subject, choose a meter that will fit. For instance, chokecherries is a dactyl because of the accent pattern on its three syllables. There's no use trying to fit it into any other meter. But telephone can be a dactyl, or it can have a secondary accent on the last syllable, so it fits into several meters.
Don't add useless words just to fill in a meter. Rearrange the whole line instead. Poetry has to be chiseled a little bit. It takes time and a lot of effort to make it sound effortless.
Watch those accented beats! If you get them in the wrong place or put in too many or leave them out, you will have an awkward poem. Check back every once in a while to be sure you haven't changed the meter mid-poem, putting an extra FOOT or leaving one out. This can be done to a point, but it should sound as though you meant to do it, and weren't just being careless.
All above articles are © 2004, MSU Extension Service, reprinted from Spurrin' the Words, a Cowboy Poetry Project from the Montana 4-H Center for Youth Development, with thanks to Kirk Astroth.
More about the Montana 4-H Spurrin' the Words guides
Each book is available for just $10 postpaid from the Montana 4-H Center for Youth Development, MSU, 210 Taylor Hall, Bozeman, MT 59717. Specify whether you are ordering the leader's guide or the youth guide. Every poet would benefit from reading the leader's guide. You can preview the youth guide on the Montana 4-H Center for Youth Development web site.
The project was supported in part by the Montana Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, and made possible with the assistance of many others.
See our expanded feature about the guides here.
In October, 2005, the Montana 4-H Cowboy Poetry Project and Spurrin' the Words, by Kirk Astroth, received the prestigious American Folklore Society's Dorothy Howard Folklore and Education Prize, bestowed on works that encourage the study and use of folklore in education.
In a feature story, "Award-winning cowboy poetry curriculum by MSU author spurs culture in kids," from the Montana State University news service, Director Astroth tells that he hoped the project would go beyond helping youths with writing, thinking and public speaking skills. He is quoted, "I had seen research that shows kids in rural areas experience lower self confidence and are made to feel that their lives aren't as meaningful as people who live in urban areas. I wanted to help kids come to the realization that their experiences are as valuable as anyone else's." Read the entire article and view some photos here.
photo courtesy Montana State University
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