Accentual Verse in Poetry

The Natural Rhythm of Accentual Meter

I have become a real fan of accentual meter and use it in many of my poems. Some have it called it an “easier” form than accentual-syllabic verse, but for me, there’s more to it than that. I find that the rhythm of an English poem depends almost entirely on the accented syllables. Accentual verse approximates natural language more than accentual-syllabic but still provides a musical pacing better than much free verse.

Accentual verse has its roots in the pre-Christian Teutonic tribes of Germany, Scandinavia, Iceland and Britain. This style of verse had a few basic rules. First, you only count the stressed syllables (never unstressed). You write four stresses per line and break that in half with a single caesura. This form also employed heavy use of alliteration of the stressed syllables, further reinforcing its musical quality.

I rarely use the alliteration in this way. And I will choose the number of stresses per line based on the needs of the poem (although using that choice consistently throughout). I frequently will use a pattern of accents per line, such as 3-2-3-2 (which of course is similar in its way to the ballad’s 4-3-4-3).

Constrict to Expand: Tips for Young Poetry Writers

When writing poetry, ultimately we are strive to provide something of value, something of interest, something that causes the mind to work in new ways and open up the world (whether the internal one or its external counterpart). I’ve increasingly found that setting parameters on your prosody can bring about that new angle, that happy accident, that magic. So writers of poems, I encourage you to discover new ways to shape and constrict your poems.

I think the best thing first is to just get down the first draft, knowing that this is not where you will end up. It’s quite easy to self-censor yourself in the beginning so that you often cut off the ideas that have been percolating in your subconscious before they have a chance to form. But after the first draft, it’s time to dive in and mine what’s valuable. At this stage, I like to be rather vicious with my culling. Young writers can often treat everything they write as a sort of sacred cow. It’s here that you should not only be carving away but often adding anew. It can and often should be a messy process.

After we start to see the real flesh of the poem emerge though, consider giving yourself some kind of restriction. See where it leads you. Of course, more traditional ways of doing this are meter and rhyme. The meter you impose should follow the needs of the poem, whether that be syllabic , syllabic-accentual or merely accentual. You could experiment with any of a myriad of traditional forms. Sonnets and haikus seem to be the old standbys. But there’s a whole world of forms to experiment with – from rondeau to sestina, from ghazal to the skinny.

But the restrictions you try need not be so orthodox. Perhaps, you want to place your poem in the voice of a narrator who is somehow distinctly different from you, the author. Perhaps you want to create a particular aural effect by finding words with certain qualities that emphasize your meaning. Or you might experiment with a more visual effect by playing with your line breaks and seeking out meaningful and surprising enjambment or pacing. These are just a few examples. I’m certain that you will discover many more – hopefully some that are particular to you and the poems that only you were meant to write.