Stressed? Unstressed? Attentiveness to Metre

A journey towards intentional practice

How do you scan a line of poetry? This creative-critical essay explores the faultlines opened up by this simple, but dangerous, question from the perspective of a poetry-writing practice and pedagogy. It argues for a distinction between metre and rhythm, then proposes that quarrels over scansion often come down to different assumptions about which metrical system is in use. The paper demonstrates this by examining the contradictory positions of canonical heavyweights Robert Hass and Gerard Manley Hopkins on the matter of the dactyllic foot. This paper goes on to outline a few challenges and strategies in teaching poetic metre to beginner poets. It considers the difficult task of discerning what ‘sounds right’ in a poem, using Annie Finch’s theories of metre and meaning to prompt reflective questions for the practicing poet. While an app or digital tool that could scan oral readings of poetry would be useful (both for pedagogy and practice), this essay contends that attentiveness to metre and rhythm is primarily a discipline of the body.