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A study of Metrical Writing, Part 19: The Weight of Syllables.

Published by OJB in the blog OJB's blog. Views: 153

Hello, and welcome to part 19 of my study on Metrical writing, today we will be looking at the weight of Syllables.

There are two things that determine the weight of a Syllable: 1. The degree of stress it has (The numbering system) and 2. The sounds that make up the syllable. Since this is a study of Metrical writing, we will only be looking at the stress degree, but please be aware that sound plays a huge impact on Syllable weight (I'll be doing a study on Sound in the far future.)

Why is this important?

The 'heavier' a line, the longer it takes for a person to read it. This is important when crafting a poem. If you wanted a light-hearted and joyful line, you'd try to make the line as light as possible. If the line was dealing with pain or death, you might want to make the line as heavy as possible.

There are two other factors that determine the 'weight' of a line outside of syllable.

1. Rather or not a line ends with a piece of punctuation, or if you use enjambment to carry the reader over to the next line. Enjambment can create a forward movement and speed up the reading of the poem. There are dozens of ways to use Enjambment to create effects -and it is outside the scope of this study to go into them all- but I wanted to give you one way that is used in Metrical poetry (and I am sure as well as Free Verse.)

When you end the line with a subject in need of a predicate.

...The Man (Subject)
Jumped off the Bridge and swam away.

See how the Enjambment creates a forward movement that matches the action of the man? This is a common device used in poetry and can cause a reader to speed up his or her reading of a line.

2. The second thing that determines the speed of a line are the Caesural pauses. A Caesural pause is a pause that occurs that the end of a phrase (Next post, we will go into poetic Phrasing). It is often -but not always- marked with a punctuation mark. It is important to note that how Caseural pauses work in Blank verse are not the same as how they work in Jazz or Blue poems. In some forms, the pause can act as a virtual beat; however, in Iambic Pentameter, all beats MUST be actual beats.

In any case, Pauses can slow down a line considerable.


I wanted to end today's post by scanning a poem to see how each line 'weighs.' How the sake of conversation, we will say Enjambment likes a line '2' points lighter, and for pauses that don't occur at the END of a line

slight pauses = +1
Comma Pauses = +2
Other punctuation marks = +3.

Inpatient, by Jane Kenyon

The young attendants wrapped him in a red
Velour Blanket, and pulled him strapping taut.
Sedated on a stretcher and outside
for the last time, he raised his head and sniffed
the air like an animal. A wedge of geese
flew honking over us. The sky leaned close;
a drop of rain fell on his upturned face.
I stood aside, steward of Grandma's red-
Letter New Testament and an empty vase.
The nurse went with him through the sliding door.
Without having to speak of it we left
the suitcase with his streetclothes in the car.


The (1) young (4)/ at(1)-ten(4)/dants (1) wrapped(4)/ him (1) in (2)/ a (1) red (4) [Enjambment]
This line has a syllable weight of 21. The fourth foot is also a great example of Promotion. Also, this line is pure Iambic and makes use of Enjambment.

Ve(1) lour(4)/ Blank(4)et(1),(II)/ and (1) pulled (4) /him (1) strapp(4)/ing(1) taut(4).

This line has a syllable weight of 27 due to the pause after the second foot. It takes longer than the first line to say.

Se(1) dat(4)/ed(1) on (2) /a (1) stretch(4)/er(1) (II) and(2)/ out(3)side(4) [Enjambment]

This line has a syllable weight of 22. It has a slight pause at the 'and' but uses Enjambment. Also, Outside -when used as a noun- both syllables are stressed.

for (2) the (1)/ last (3) time(4),/ (II) he(1) raised(4) his(1) head (4)/ and (1) sniffed (4) [Enjambment.]

This line has a Syllable weight of 25. While it has a pause, it is canceled out by the Enjambment.

the(1) air(4)(II)/ like(2) an(1)/ an(4)imal(1).(II) A(1) wedge(4)/ of(1) geese(4) [Enjambment.]

This line has a syllable weight of 25. This line has a slight pause and a heavy pause after animal. The line also makes use of Enjambment.

flew(3) honk(4)/ing(1) ov(4)/er(1) us(2). (II)/ The(1) sky(4)/ leaned(3) close(4);

This line has a syllable weight of 30! Due to the heavy Iambs and the strong pause in the middle of the line. This line also has a great example of a demotion in the 5th foot.

a(1) drop (4)/ of (1) rain (4)/ fell (3) on (4)/ his (1) up(4)/turned(1) face(4).
This line has a syllable weight of 27.

I(1) stood(4) /a(1)side(4),/ (II) stew(4)ard(1) /of (2) Grand(4)/ma's(1) red(3)-
This line has a syllable weight of 25.

Lett(4)er(1)/ New(2) Test(4)/ament(1) and(2) /an(1) emp(4)/ty(1) vase(4).

This line has a syllable weight of 24.

The(1) nurse(4)/ went(3) with(4)/ him(1) through(2)/ the(1) slid(4)/ing(1) door(4).
This line has a syllable weight of 25.

With(1)out(4)/ hav(4)ing(1)/ to(2) speak(4) of(1) it(2) (II) we(1) left(4) [Enjambment.)
This line has a syllable weight of 23.

the (1) suit(4)/case(1) with(2)/ his(1) street(4)/clothes(1) in(2)/ the(1) car(4).

This line has a syllable weight of 21.

So, our weights look like this.

A few ideas can be found by looking at this. Notice that the poem's 6-7 lines (the middle) is the heaviest part of the poem? Also look how the first and last lines are both 'light.' It is as if the beginning and end are mirroring each other to show that this poem has gone full circle.

You might be asking, 'Do poets really design their poems this way?' I would argue that when a poet is starting out, they might pay careful attention to the weight of a line, but as years go on, and they continue perfecting their craft, they do things like this second nature. I am also sure that not every poem out there is going to have a 'heavy' middle, and matching start and end lines; but these are interesting concepts to keep in the back of your mind. After all, some poets do have a Rhythmic style that is their own. This poet uses very little rising and falling Rhythms, and all of her words are one or two syllables (expectation is the few words she is eluding.) Her Rhythmic variations come from her playing with Enjambment, pauses, and the use of promotion and demotion. And she seems to like using Trochees before pauses. Lots of things can be learned from studying a poet (which is why I do these studies.)


This ends my look at Syllable weight. Also, we only have two more blog posts in this series! If you have questions or thoughts, please leave a comment or a like!

Previous Post: https://www.writingforums.org/entry/a-study-of-metrical-writing-part-18-ambiguous-syllables.64033/

Next Post: https://www.writingforums.org/entry/a-study-of-metrical-writing-part-20-syntax-and-phrasing.64051/
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