Stressed or Unstressed? No Stress
It’s a kind of academic rite of passage to get confused about scanning a line of poetry. It can feel maddening to figure out what syllable gets a stress and what syllable doesn’t. I remember trying to awkwardly sing-read the poem with a forced, unnatural beat to see if I could find the iambic pentameter knocking around somewhere inside the sentences.
To get my students interested in a rather jargon-filled pursuit, I compared it to filmmaking: we don’t watch a scene and think about how a director establishes suspense by shining a light in a dark room at a certain angle to cast shadows, we simply watch the events unfold and feel scared.
The poet hides away from our conscious minds until we reread and take some time to analyze all the techniques, or to put it another way, to soak in the poet’s playfulness with language. We try to keep track of where they follow the rules and conventions of traditional poetry and where they break the rules. The greatest musicians, filmmakers, and painters know how and when to break the rules. A broken rule grabs our attention and makes us think about the rules and why they are rules.
So, when a poet establishes a rhythm and then breaks that rhythm, it gets our attention. These variations in rhythm, might makes us think about how life is predictable but also contains surprises, or how an image rises or falls, like trees or water, or even how a character ascends or descends. In this same way, trochees, anapests, or dactyls might come to be symbolic of a speaker’s assertiveness and confidence or uncertainty and fear.
I didn’t really appreciate the beauty of rhythm and prosody until I read The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody by Alfred Corn. Corn’s method of scanning poetry involves a system of 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s. This actually makes it easier for students, because if they are not sure about a syllable, they can label it a 2 and then use the 2 as a stressed or unstressed syllable later, when they want to see iambs or trochees, and then label a line trimeter or tetrameter, for instance. In addition to this, there are easy rules of thumb to follow that help students argue whether they think a syllable gets a stress or not.
While these terms can seem intimidating for students, the reality is that we all constantly long for rhythm all around us. We listen to music whenever we get the chance, revel in the sounds of waves crashing, and look for it in sports where we hope the timing works out for the team we cheer on, that one thing easily leads to another. The study of rhythm is not about arbitrary literary technicalities. When we make choices about how to read poems out loud, we do it to pay homage to the emotions behind the story: the anger, the embarrassment, the regret, the wonder, the grief, or the joy.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers