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Understanding Poetry: Step 4

So you’ve determined that you’re reading a sense poem in which the author is trying to convey some meaning in the traditional sense of communicating to you in sentences.

Now, why does the poet turn the line at that point, whether or not the sentence has ended?

STEP 4: Is it a verse or free verse poem?


verse |vərs|
writing arranged with a metrical rhythm, typically having a rhyme : a lament in verse | [as adj. ] verse drama.
• a group of lines that form a unit in a poem or song; a stanza : the second verse.
• each of the short numbered divisions of a chapter in the Bible or other scripture.
• a versicle.
• archaic: a line of poetry.
• a passage in an anthem for a soloist or a small group of voices.
verb [ intrans. ] archaic
speak in or compose verse; versify.
verse•let |-lət| noun
ORIGIN Old English fers, from Latin versus ‘a turn of the plow, a furrow, a line of writing,’ from vertere ‘to turn’ ; reinforced in Middle English by Old French vers, from Latin versus.


Verse comes from the literal turning of the plow or pen, and verse is guided largely by meter, which is measured language.

First we need to review some elements of speech, for poetry in ancient times was music without instruments, in which the voice provided the rhythm.

A syllable is a vowel sound usually conjoined with a consonant.

A vowel is an open vocal-tract sound,

a consonant is a closed vocal-tract sound.

(More on these later. The definitions are simplifications, I know, but bear in mind that I teach a clear review of what should be known – establishing foundation – and then I build upward in complexity to the student’s zone of proximal development.)

Most students get this: ask “How many syllables in ‘hippopotamus’?”

“Hi po pah tah mus – five!”

As an introduction to the “curve balls” of other languages – and to highlight why the word usually shows up so often in my definitions – I talk briefly about Hawaiian observations of the different nature of pyroclastic flow and introduce aa:


aa |ˈäˌä|
noun Geology
basaltic lava forming very rough jagged masses with a light frothy texture. Often contrasted with pahoehoe .
ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: from Hawaiian ’a-‘a.


Only a brief diversion: Welsh poetry comes much later.

So, how many syllables in “Johnny kicked the ball”?

Five. Good. And at this point you are speaking the lines, right? Because poetry is meant to be spoken.

(How many of you have read a poem over and over but have never spoken it? The act of forming the sound informs the meaning. Informs your being.)

How many syllables in “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”


And in “Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

Now might be a good time to show how that excellent tool the dictionary can guide us:


temperate |ˈtemp(ə)rət|
1 of, relating to, or denoting a region or climate characterized by mild temperatures.
2 showing moderation or self-restraint : Charles was temperate in his consumption of both food and drink.
tem•per•ate•ly adverb
tem•per•ate•ness noun
ORIGIN late Middle English (in the sense [not affected by passion or emotion] ): from Latin temperatus ‘mingled, restrained,’ from the verb temperare.


And in “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May”?

Ten and ten and ten; a pattern. A measurement. Meter.

And in verse, the sentence is most often turned prematurely to fit the meter.

Why meter? Because rhythm is pleasing, and may help us to remember the history and lore and science of our people in the centuries of oral tradition that thrived before the letter and the stylus.

If it’s a free verse poem, well, that’s another story.

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