You’ve written your rhyming poem, and every rhyme is perfect. It zips, it sings, it wings. But then you show it to your critique group or peer editors, and they say the rhythm’s off, that something’s not working. Where do you go from here?

Rhyming poems are really difficult to write, because in our efforts to get the rhyme just right, we often mess up the rhythm or meter of our poem. And we might not see it happening.

Because I’m a good oral reader, I can take verse that doesn’t have perfect meter and read it as if it does. Without even realizing it. This, of course, gets me into big trouble, because when someone who doesn’t know the intended rhythm reads it, the tongue trips over the awkward spots, and the poem is ruined.

But before I can fix that problem, I have to identify exactly where the problem is. One thing that can help is to scan your poem. This is where you mark all the accented and unaccented beats to see the pattern (hopefully) that you’ve created.

But here’s the secret! Don’t read your poem from top to bottom, because then you’ll still give it the rhythm you know it should have, rather than the rhythm it naturally does have. Instead, try reading your poem one line at a time, starting with the last line.

Look at your last line, and read it aloud as if you are reading a note someone jotted down. Don’t read it as if it’s a poem. Read it as if it’s just part of a conversation, with the natural stresses it would have. Then mark those stressed syllables with a / over them. Put a — over the unstressed syllables. Work your way up the poem, one line at a time. Or you could even try reading the lines in random order.

When you’re finished, copy the stress marks over without the words so that you can examine the pattern.

Here’s a little scanning in action.

I had this poem about a Spanish class party, and the poem had sprinkled Spanish words throughout. Here’s my final verse:

I go down the hall for an el baño break
I could use a siesta. I’m barely awake.
I hang out and chat with mi amigo, Carlos
Until la Señora calls out, “¡Adios!”

To maintain my meter, I was counting on the all caps syllables being stressed, and that’s how I read it out loud.

i GO down the HALL for an EL baño BREAK
i could — USE a siESta. i’m BAREly aWAKE.
i HANG out and CHAT with mi aMIgo, CarLOS
unTIL la señORa calls OUT, “¡AdiOS!”

That would look like this:


See how almost all of the “feet” or rhythmic sets are –/ ? Two unstressed syllables and then one stressed one? So it’s fine. Right? Wrong.

Here was one problem:

i GO down the HALL for an EL baño BREAK

In Spanish, el baño has the emphasis on BAN, not on EL. Oops.


i HANG out and CHAT with mi aMIgo, CarLOS

The problem in this line is the emphasis on LOS. But Carlos is naturally pronounced CARlos, not CarLOS.

So the actual way this would scan is:


You can see there’s more variation in this scanning than in the previous one. That means my pattern, my meter, is not as consistent.

I would like to say I had problems because the words were Spanish. But that would be a lie. I knew the proper pronunciation long before I scanned the poem. I just conveniently ignored it and twisted the pronunciation to “work” within my meter!

I have to redo these lines so that the stresses fall where they would naturally. Maybe you’ll need to do that, too, in your poems. But with a little help in scanning, at least you’ll know which words and phrases to tackle!

Detailed Steps to Scanning Your Poem

I used to send people to a page on the University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s website. It gave specific directions, and they were the ones I followed when I was learning to scan poems. That page is no longer online, and I see the same directions in several other places, but I don’t know who originally wrote these steps up. So I’m going to summarize/rework them here, adding a bit of my own procedure, so that they don’t disappear on me again!

  • Print out your poem with double-spaced lines. Start with the last line of the poem. This fools your brain into looking at the words as words instead of letting the established rhythm influence your markings.
  • Look at every polysyllabic word–every word that has more than one syllable. Say it aloud and listen to which syllable you stress. If you can’t tell, look up the word in the dictionary. There you’ll see an accent mark either before or after the stressed syllable. On your paper, place an accent mark (/) over each stressed syllable and a horizontal line over the unstressed syllables (-).
  • Next, look at each one-syllable structure word. Those are words that don’t really mean anything on their own, but that show relationships between other words. These include articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (and, or, but), prepositions (of, in, on, to, etc.), and auxiliaries (have, may, do, will, etc.). Mark each one of these words as unstressed (-).
  • Find every one-syllable noun and verb in the line. Mark each one as stressed (/).
  • Now move up one line and repeat the steps above. Keep repeating, one line at a time, until you have scanned each line in your poem.
  • Try reading the poem aloud, carefully following your marks to guide you in your pronunciation. You might find that the rhythm of your poem isn’t nearly as consistent as you thought. That’s OK–it just means it’s time to revise. But first, see if you find any of the following patterns repeated a lot in your poem: iambic (- /), trochaic (/ -), anapestic (- — /), and dactylic (/ — -). Most English poetry that has a regular rhythm is iambic. You might see that the meter mostly matches one pattern but has a few anomalies — places where the rhythm changes from the regular pattern, as below. Ignore that for now:
    • -/–/–/–/
  • Draw vertical lines around each segment of pattern. Each segment is called a “metrical foot” or just a “foot.” For example, if the line you scanned has the markings — / — / — / — / — /, you would recognize the iambic pattern and mark the line this way: - / | - / | - / | — / | - /. Count the number of feet in each line. Often there will be the same number of feet in every line. This example has five feet. Here the terms that identify a poem by how many feet are in each line: dimeter (2 feet), trimeter (3 feet), tetrameter (4 feet), pentameter (5 feet), and hexameter (6 feet). You now have identified the overall pattern of rhythm in the poem. In the orange example in this paragraph, the rhythm is iambic pentameter.
  • Now look back at the anomalies, the places where the rhythm changes or doesn’t match the rest of the poem. A unit with two stresses is called a spondee, and a unit with two unstressed syllables is called a pyrrhic foot. Try to figure out if you are using these exceptions with purposeful intent, that’s great! Often, for instance, spondees call attention to important words or ideas. But if you have anomalies that are just happening scattershot throughout your poem, not used to make the reader pause, or pay extra attention, or mimic a sudden change in the narrative or voice, then it’s back to the drawing board to work on your meter.



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