Are You All Talk and No Trochaic Tetrameter?
by Rod Miller
"Rhyme and meter."
"Rhyme and meter."
"Rhyme and meter."
The way cowboy poets throw those words around (usually preceded by "traditional") you'd think we know what we're talking about.
But if the explanations and descriptions I've heard, overheard, even read, are any indication, a lot of aspiring cowboy poets (and even some experienced ones) don't know meter from maple syrup. Reading or hearing
their poetry, unfortunately, does nothing to disabuse this notion. Many's the poet I've heard proudly proclaim adherence to "traditional rhyme and meter" only to launch a parade of stumbling feet, irregular lines, and so
many missteps that any semblance to actual "meter" is unrecognizable, if not absent.
It's a common misconception that meter amounts to nothing more than counting syllables. If one line has (pick a number) syllables, then the next line ought to have that many, too.
Well, sort of.
But not really.
Actually, not at all.
Let's spend a few minutes finding out what meter is really all about.
Warning: the mechanics of meter take some explaining and require some semi-technical-type details and textbook lingo. So screw your hat down tight, take a suicide wrap, and steel yourself for the worst.
But you ought to at least try to make a ride if you're going to lay claim to writing poems using "traditional rhyme and meter," for, as the great Buck Ramsey once wrote, "we are what we do / And not the stuff we lay claim to."
One foot at a time.
Meter, in the poetic sense, has two basic elements: the foot and the line.
A "foot" is a combination of syllables that conform to a pattern. The pattern is established by the placement of stressed and unstressed—accented and unaccented—syllables. When "scanning" for meter, it is helpful to over-emphasize the stresses syllables receive. (Good writers and reciters know not to overdo it; they let meter reveal itself. But, for these exercises, we'll exaggerate the differences.)
Let's shake out a loop to show some simple examples.
In the word "dally," the first syllable is stressed, the second unstressed: DAL-ly. The opposite action applied to lariats and saddle horns also has the opposite pattern: "un-WRAP," with a soft first syllable and the second one accented. Each of those combinations is a kind of metrical foot.
Now that we've got a loop around the general idea, let's get more specific.
Feet aren't restricted to patterns of two syllables or even to the syllables in a single word. The patterns are often created by breaking apart words, tying together more than one word, or linking pieces of one or more words. This becomes evident when you start stringing feet together in lines, and more evident when you "scan" the lines to reveal all the gory details.
Below are a few examples—all taken, by the way, from the works of deceased poets to prevent my being corrected by the authors.
Let's start with a line from Banjo Paterson's "Clancy of the Overflow":
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars
First, reveal the syllables and exaggerate the accents:
AND at NIGHT the WON-drous GLOR-y OF the EV-er-LAST-ing STARS
Note as you read the line that not all stressed accents receive equal emphasis, whether relative to each other or to the unstressed accents they partner up with. "GLOR" gets considerably more emphasis, for instance, than "y" while the difference between OF and "the" is minor, barely discernable; and "EV" gets a stronger accent than "LAST." (Again, as good writers and reciters know, these variations in emphasis contribute to the rhythm of a poem—which is related to but not the same as the meter, so let's leave rhythm for another day.)
Next, for purposes of demonstration, cut out the accent patterns and gather them into the smallest possible bunches of equal size...
AND-at / NIGHT-the / WON-drous / GLOR-y / OF-the / EV-er- / LAST-ing /STARS -
...and you can see how the accent patterns continue marching through and between and among the words. Note that the pattern Paterson created is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one, like "dally."
Equally simple, but exactly opposite (one unstressed and one stressed syllable, as in "unwrap") are the feet in these lines from "Sence Slim Got Piled" by E.A. Brinistool...
Accordin' to Slim's flossy talk
He was some cowpunch once;
...as you will see with the feet gathered and exaggerated:
ac-CORD- / in'-TO / Slim's-FLOS- / sy-TALK
he-WAS / some -COW- / punch-ONCE;
There's yet a different pattern in this line from "You Never Tell That" by Bruce Kiskaddon...
And you rode that wild outlaw that bucked off the brand
...which, with the accents emphasized and patterns cut out and gathered—again, in the smallest possible bunches of equal size—shows two soft syllables followed by one stressed syllable:
And-you-RODE / that-wild-OUT- / law-that-BUCKED / off-the-BRAND
Here's a line from Arthur Chapman's "Men In The Rough" in which still another pattern, one stressed and two unstressed syllables, appears:
MEN-in-the / ROUGH-sons-of / PRAI-rie-and / MOUN-tain -
There you have it.
Already, you know the four kinds of feet which are, I believe, most commonly used in cowboy poetry.
Here comes the fancy college-poetry-textbook name for each, so hold your nose and take your medicine.
The foot used by Banjo Paterson in "Clancy of the Overflow" (HARD-soft) is called a "trochee."
E.A. Brininstool used the "iamb" (soft-HARD) in the example we borrowed from him. The iamb is the most common foot in English language poetry, said to mirror our natural way of speaking.
"Anapest" (soft soft-HARD) is the foot Bruce Kiskaddon used in "You Never Tell That." You can hear hoofbeats in the three beats of the anapestic foot, so this is a popular one in cowboy poetry.
Finally, the "dactyl" foot waltzes through Arthur Chapman's "Men In The Rough" with its ONE-two-three (HARD-soft-soft) pattern.
Without burdening you with the details, you should know that there are eight other feet that show up from time to time, and at least twenty other obscure patterns that only college professors know or care about. You can look it up.
Generally speaking, the foot should remain consistent through the length of the line and usually repeats line after line. Often, meter varies from line to line according to a poetic form. And sometimes the initial or final syllable in a line will be missing, or an extra syllable or different accent might show up along the way—but good poets do these things deliberately to create emphasis, or sometimes to allow the meter to be felt rather than heard.
Keeping your feet in line.
The next step in creating meter is to assemble a number of feet into a line. Lines have names derived from the number of feet they contain, including—but not limited to—trimeter (three feet), tetrameter (four feet), and so on through pentameter, hexameter, heptameter, octameter, and beyond and before.
It's the number of feet—not the number of syllables—that counts. (Hang on tight—here comes some fancy textbook jargon) A line of hexameter (six feet), for instance, has twelve syllables if the foot is iambic; eighteen syllables if anapestic. And, of course, those syllables must fall into the required accent patterns.
Looking back at our examples, the line from "Clancy of the Overflow" holds eight trochees, called (hang on for more textbook talk) "trochaic octameter." Bruce Kiskaddon's line is "anapestic tetrameter," while "Men in the Rough" uses "dactylic tetrameter."
Meter can be based on the whim of the poet, the feel of the words and phrases, or the requirements of the poetic form. Formal poetry can be very demanding, and the poet must follow strict patterns of meter and rhyme.
The "sonnet" is, perhaps, the form we hear the most about—Shakespeare is famous for sonnets, and wrote them by the score. A Shakespearean sonnet consists of exactly fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. No more, no less. (There's also a specified pattern of end rhymes and other requirements, but, for fear of overdosing on poetry, let's let all that lie.) Hundreds of poetic forms are available for the adventurous poet, each with its own requirements.
Cowboy poetry, while considerably more informal than most formal poetry, is not without form. "Folk" poetry tends to the narrative style more than it does the lyrical, and the "ballad" form is the one most often heard.
Strictly speaking, the ballad form consists of four-line stanzas, the first and third lines being unrhymed iambic tetrameter; the second and fourth lines iambic trimeter with end rhymes. Our two-line fragment from E.A. Brininstool fits the dictionary definition perfectly, shifting from iambic tetrameter in the first line to iambic trimeter in the second:
ac-CORD- / in'-TO / Slim's-FLOS- / sy-TALK
he-WAS / some -COW- / punch-ONCE;
But that's strictly speaking. Generally speaking, the four line stanzas with abcb, aabb, abab rhyme patterns and various meters common in cowboy poetry are lumped into the "ballad" category by uneducated louts like me.
Variations on a theme.
Note that while the meter sometimes shifts—often by dropping a foot—in alternating lines or in the final line of a stanza, the pattern, once established, remains fairly consistent.
Some poets drop in a refrain of a different meter between certain stanzas, like the chorus in a song. Or, sometimes a poem has alternating stanzas of a different length, meter, and rhyme scheme altogether. Study the work of Charles Badger Clark and you'll see that he used this technique often. But beware—in order to be effective, such complex forms require a poet approaching Clark's talent, or what amounts to a lifetime of rewriting for those of us of lesser skill.
While poetic meter is virtually synonymous with consistency, it is well to remember (sometimes) Ralph Waldo Emerson's advice: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
The consistency of meter is sometimes compared to a metronome, supplying the beat for a poem just as it does for a song. And, just as the notes in a song drift away from the beat when they must, a word or phrase in a poem might drift from the meter when necessary. But, like notes, the words always return to the beat.
However, when you choose to drift from the meter, you had better know where you are going and why, and know how and when to get back. There are good excuses for violating meter; ignorance, apathy, sloppiness, and laziness are not among them.
That said, meter requires a gentle touch or it can be—and often is—overdone. Give it too much emphasis in recitation, especially, but also in writing, and the result is sing-songy and monotonous and overwhelming. Good meter is subtle, revealing itself gently and unobtrusively. Like the beat underlying a beautiful song, well-made meter moves a poem along and carries the reader or listener with it as the words, sounds, rhythms, rhymes, images, and story sing and ring in the ear.
Meter in the real world.
So, should cowboy poets get tangled up in their underwear learning the difference between meter and maple syrup?
Only if you want to be as good as the best.
Baxter Black talks about how, in poetry, the meter must be right. He says songwriters can fake it by vocally extending a syllable or letting accompaniment fill a gap or using other musical tricks to compensate for
lapses in meter. But for poets, he says, there is nothing to hide behind—the meter is right or it's not.
It may not be necessary to know and throw around technical terms like "trochaic tetrameter" to use meter properly. Understanding how it works is more important than knowing what to call it. For some poets—the fortunate few—meter may even come naturally, intuitively.
But most poets have to work at it.
I once saw on display an early version of Wallace McRae's "Reincarnation," perhaps the most famous of all modern-day cowboy poems. The words were scratched out in pencil on an unassuming steno pad, and beside each line he'd charted a row of symbols tracking the pattern of stressed and unstressed
Like most worthwhile things, effective meter requires effort. It's just one more piece of a well-made poem that demands attention. It nests itself among the other characteristics of poetry, inextricably tangled and knotted, shifting and changing with rewrites and revision as it seeks its proper place. Getting it right requires tearing apart and rebuilding syllables and words and phrases and lines and stanzas, then tossing them on the dung heap to try again. And again.
But, with all our expounding about "rhyme and meter," we had better be willing to put in the time.
Because, as the cliché says, "If you're going to talk the talk..."
© 2006, Rod Miller, All rights reserved
This article may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.
See our separate feature about Rod Miller here, which includes some of his poetry.
What's New | Poems | Search
Features | Events
The BAR-D Roundup | Cowboy Poetry Week
Subscribe | Newsletter | Contact Us
Authors retain copyright to their work; obtain an author's
permission before using a poem in any form.
CowboyPoetry.com is a project of the Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry, Inc., a Federal and California tax-exempt non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization.
Site copyright information