24. Poetry Essentials Part 2: Syllables and Stress

Author: Nola Published: over 2 years ago.
Tags: syllables, stress, accents, metre, poetry Category: Writing tips

The girl next door came and said, ‘Hello!
Do you have some sugar I can borrow?
I’m baking a cake with a complicated recipe
And I’m finding the instructions a bit tricky.’

This poem is truly woeful, but I want to focus specifically on the metre or rhythmic pattern of the poem. It doesn’t flow well due to problems with syllables and stress. These are the building blocks of metre in traditional poetry and can trip up both beginners and seasoned poets. Here are some suggestions for avoiding the pitfalls.

Syllables – Syllables are the small units of vowel sounds within a word. For example, zombie has two syllables (zom-bie). The poem above has a different number of syllables in each line (9, 10, 14 and 12). You don’t always need uniformity. For example, the humble limerick has a syllabic pattern of 8 8 5 5 8 (or similar). However, having a different number of syllables in every line can be jarring and affect the natural flow of the piece.

While it’s usually easy to count syllables, some words can be difficult depending on pronunciation. For example, does ‘everything’ contain three or four syllables? The online syllable counter can help in such situations, though it may not always reflect the nuances of different languages.

Having the ‘right’ number of syllables isn’t the only issue. We also need to consider that vowels can have long or short sounds. ‘The breeze blew through the trees’ has the same number of syllables as ‘the cat sat on the mat’, but the first expression takes longer to say. Sometimes a different number of syllables will actually work better.

Stress – In words of two or more syllables, we tend to put more stress on one of the syllables than the others. In the sample poem, the stresses or accents in each word are adversely affecting the rhyme. Lines 1 and 2 both end with an ‘oh’ sound, but ‘hello’ has the stress on the second syllable, while ‘borrow’ has the stress on the first syllable. Sometimes this can be done on purpose to soften the rhyme. More often than not though, it’s a sign that the poet hasn’t thought about the natural accents in the words.

Even though I know the guidelines about stress, I sometimes miss a problem because I read a poem the way I intend it to sound rather than the way it actually is. National or regional differences can also complicate the situation. For example, Australians say ‘oregano’ with the stress on the third syllable (o-re-GAR-no), while Americans place the stress on the second syllable (o-REG-an- o).

Confused? Don’t be. Here’s a quick tip. Read your poem out loud, or better still, ask someone who hasn’t seen it before to read it to you. If either of you stumbles over a phrase or line, check the syllables and accents.

Can the sample poem above be salvaged? I’d be interested in your solutions.

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