Ashley Lister’s Exercise at the ERWA blog – the kyrielle

Ashley Lister has his exercise up. He posts at the ERWA blog on the sixth of each month.  This month he introduces the Kyrielle.  I’d also add that the only additional commentary from Turco’s The Book of Forms (University Press of New England, Hanover & London, Third Edition, 2000, pp. 197-198)9781611680355

is a French normative syllabic poem form written in quatrains.  All lines are octosyllabic (in English meters, tetrameter)…

is that reference to tetrameter.  Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms doesn’t have the form, neither does Bob’s Byway,, etc. This article out of Arizona State University expands even further than Lister’s article with a reference to the Encyclopedia Britannica.  More importantly, I think, it specifically notes the use of quatrains which both Lister and Turco show in their rhyme scheme, but don’t specifically spell out.  It also goes into greater detail about the refrain:

characterized by a refrain that is sometimes a single word and sometimes the full second line of the couplet or the full fourth line of the quatrain.  (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Enough with quoting today, time to go write.

Let me introduce you

to Timothy Steele. His book, all the fun’s in how you say the thing was one of the first books on  prosody I ever read.   “Prosody is the study of the meter, rhythm, and intonation of a poem.”  I was taught how to scan (determine the metrical “character” of a line of poetry”) from friends I met on the internet in the “earlier” days of the bulletin board system.  There was one specifically who took the time to take me to a “black area” off a private bulletin board and run me through Alexander Pope, and spent the time to break down the confusion I suffered from too many badly taught English classes compounded by my very tin ear.

My approach to scansion is quite mechanical.  I have “friends” on the internet who are much more natural than I am in their approach to prosody.  Still, I have no reputation to uphold.  I make no scholarly claims.  The only claims I do make is that I occasionally attempt to write a good critique.  So, in the interest of sharing information from people who know much, much more than I dbroccoli braino, I’d like to introduce the interested student to Mr. Timothy Steele.  Wikipedia him.  Google him. him.  He’s an accessible instructor and there’s a lot of his technical information littering the web.  They’re well worth reading.

Here are two of his technical pieces:  one on rhyme and stanza and this piece on meter.  If you’re going to do some broccoli reading (reading which is good for your head), this stuff won’t put you to sleep.

I also ran across this old document, notes really, from my “early days” of trying to figure this stuff out:

Basics of accentual-syllabic prosody

Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms,

1st count all syllables
2nd count stressed syllables
3rd count verse feet


  1. Every word in English two syllables in length or longer will have one strongly stressed syllable.
  2. The general rule for stressing words of a single syllable is this: Verbs and nouns generally take a stress: action words, subjects, or objects.
  3. Exceptions:
    1. verbs that we generally elide: “Have” (I’ve), “are” (you’re), “am” (I’m)
    2. articles (a, the)
    3. prepositions (of, to, on, in, etc.)
    4. coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for)
    5. certain pronouns such as “I” and sometimes “you,” which we tend either to use in an elision or merely to slide over
  4. In any series of 3 unstressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through promotion and will be counted as a stressed syllable.
  5. In any series of 3 stressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through demotion and will be counted as an unstressed syllable.
  6. Any syllable may be rhetorically stressed by means of italics or some other typographical ploy.


There are FOUR standard feet in English prosody:
(u = unstressed, / = stressed)

  • iamb – 2 syllables – u /
  • anapest – 3 syllables – u u /
  • trochee – 2 syllables – / u
  • dactyl – 3 syllables – / u u

minor feet:

  • headless iamb – foot of 1 stressed syllable (/)
  • tailless trochee – same

One can tell these two feet apart only from their position in a line of verse. They occur, for instance when the unstressed first syllable of an iamb is dropped in order to vary the rhythm of a line of verse, or when the unstressed 2nd syllable of a trochee is dropped for the same reason.

(For the most part, besides the double iamb, I have ignored the “minor” feet which have more than a single strong stress.  At that point, I resolve to one of the more common feet.)

  • spondee – 2 syllables – / /
  • amphibrach – 3 syllables – u / u
  • double iamb- 4 syllables – u u / / – equals 2 iambs in a line of verse. (Oliver, Rules, p. 27: There is something called the pyrrhic foot, which is composed of two light stresses. The pyrrhic foot appears in Greek and Roman poetry; in English verse it occurs only when immediately followed by a spondee, and the two feet together are called a double ionic.)
  • double trochee – 4 syllables – / / u u
  • amphimacer – 3 syllables – / u / – does not exist in English. It is either a headless iamb and an iamb, or a trochee and a tailless trochee.
  • antispast – 4 syllables – u / / u – iamb followed by a trochee
  • tribrach – 3 syllables – u u u – 3 unstressed syllables does not exist in English
  • molossus – 3 syllables – / / / – 3 stressed syllables does not exist in English
  • bacchic – 3 syllables – u / / – iamb & tailess trochee
  • antibacchius (antibacchic) – 3 syllables – / / u – headless iamb & a trochee
  • choriamb – 4 syllables – / u u / – trochee (choree) followed by iamb
  • paeon – 4 syllables – in the following of 1 stressed, 3 unstressed combinations:
    • / u u u
    • u / u u
    • u u / u
    • u u u /
  • epitrite – 4 syllables – in the following of 1 unstressed, 3 stressed combinations
    • / / / u
    • u / / /
    • / u / /
    • / / u /


Ashley Lister’s monthly exercise at the ERWA Blog is for limericks.  I, personally, suck at writing limericks because of the rhyme scheme, but not as bad as I suck at writing sestinas.  The sestina depends upon knowing the end before you start, imo.  But more on that form later.  Writing a limerick, to me, is like patting my head and rubbing my stomach simultaneously.  It’s a five line form with strict rhyming and rhythmic structures.  There is nothing sadder than a limerick which just goes “da dum da dum da dum da dum” instead of “da dum da da dum da da dum.” Both lines have 8 syllables, however the pattern of light stress, light stress, heavy stress in the first two lines is what gives the limerick its “bounce”.  The other line with 8 syllables, the four feet of iambs, is what makes the beginning for ballad meter.  It’s much more predictable, less bouncy, than the anapests.

Ashley keeps the form simple with a syllable count, but I’d have to add you need to pay attention to the stresses as well because 8 syllables could easily be a 4 foot iambic line instead of a 3 foot anapestic line.  Bob’s Byway has a more technical description of how a limerick is built and I’d strongly suggest because that extra foot makes for a “thump-ish” kind of feel, like a misstep to the piece.  Lewis Turco’s,  The Book of Forms,  adds to the details:


The limerick is a quantitative accentual-syllabic quintet turning on two rhymes: aabba.  Lines one, two, and five have an iamb and two anapests, in that order; lines three and four have either an iamb and an anapest , in that order, or two anapests.  Line five can be merely a modified repetition of line I (AabbA)…

(p.213, Third Ed.  University Press of New England)

Stressing about stress

I failed in understanding the rules for metrical stress when discussing poetry in high school or college.  I thought trying to evaluate metrical works an insurmountable obstacle based upon a rhythmic deficit which runs through my family.  I inherited my father’s singing voice.   I have a tin ear, and couldn’t carry a tune if I you gave me a bucket. When I tap my foot, I sound like a heart attack.  Not even my husband wants to dance with me.  So, it was a surprise to me that when I was studying in the posh halls of the early internet bulletin boards, I found people who could break rhythm and stress down for me to evaluate.  They showed me an almost mechanical approach to evaluating or drafting works for stress.  I don’t see that as an insult.  I’m an engineer, so of course I love mechanics.

I’ve found these little cheats, little ways of looking for, writing with, or evaluating rhythm work for the most part workable.  The variances though, would fall down along the lines of any dispute about literature.  And since I ain’t an English teacher, I doan worry ’bout it.  If you’ve already got a sense of rhythm, maybe this will help explain what you do unconsciously.  I couldn’t carry a rhythm through an entire poem without conscious evaluation to save my life.  This is just how I do it.

To demonstrate the steps of evaluating for stress in a line of poetry, I’m going to use a stanza of mine from an exercise.  I wrote the poem with 3 lines for each stanza unit (technically, this is called a tercet because there is a rhyme scheme as well) and I wanted each line to have four stresses.   Here is the stanza we will use for evaluation.  It comes from the muzdawidj I wrote called, “Spring Melt”.

He goes to her in the darkness found
in midwinter; slips between the down-
filled duvet and her body, warm

In my simple brain, there are basically 4 steps in the evaluation, with the fifth step being an “excuse”.

To start:

Step 1)  For multi-syllabic words, break the words into their phonetic syllables.

he goes to her in the dark ness found
in mid win ter; slips be tween the down
filled du vet and her bod y, warm

Step 2)  Show the primary & secondary stress on those multi-syllabic words by ALL CAPS the syllable.  When I write stuff by hand, I underline.  When I type, it’s the CAPS.  In an English class you would use the accent mark (‘) to show a stressed syllable and a little curled thingy above an unstressed/less stressed syllable.  This is not an English class.  This is the internet.  For all I care, you could highlight in lipstick.  But if you would like feedback from me, using this email system – just indicate stress using ALL CAPS.

I do is work with a dictionary (heresy!  heresy alert!).  My favorite is  It is American Standard English, so other English variants will not be reflected here.  I love this site because it shows stress with the use of underline & BOLD on the characters in the syllables.  The syllable with the most stress will be underlined and bolded, other syllables which might have stress, but a “lesser” amount (secondary stress) will simply be bolded.  Simple.  Easy to read.  Easy to understand what the heck is going on with the word.  You don’t need a legend.  It’s also got a great thesaurus function.

So, CAPs the multi-syllabic words showing their stressed syllables:

he goes to her in the DARK ness found
in mid WIN ter; slips be TWEEN the down
filled DU vet and her BOD y, warm

Step 3)  Stress is given to parts of speech in progression:  verbs, nouns, prepositions, modifiers, pronouns, articles and so on. So, my next step in evaluating my tercet is to evaluate for verbs and nouns.  I’m starting with just the verbs and nouns and after that will make another pass for the other parts of speech.

he GOES to her in the DARK ness FOUND
in mid WIN ter; SLIPS be TWEEN the DOWN
FILLED DU vet and her BOD y, warm

Evaluate the lines at this point to check if “they’re complete”:

he GOES to her in the DARK ness FOUND
This line evaluation is NOT complete b/c there are only 3 primary stresses and at least three syllables in a row which are the same level of stress – i.e., no 3 unstressed together, no 3 stressed together. Those are: “to her in the”

in mid WIN ter; SLIPS be TWEEN the DOWN
This line is complete b/c there are 4 primary stresses on the line and no 3 syllables in succession with the same “level” of stress shown- i.e., no 3 unstressed together, no 3 stressed together.

FILLED DU vet and her BOD y, warm
Line evaluation NOT complete b/c there are 3 syllables left with the same “level” of stress shown.  Those are “vet and her”

Step 4)  Here’s where the rules start to get sticky.  I have what I call (and others, but not as pithily as I phrase), “The Rule of Three”.  When I was being taught scansion, the guy who was teaching me told me that in English there was difficulty in holding the same level of stress for three words in a row.  So, the quick way to look at a cheat, was three unstressed syllables in a row, middle one gets “promoted”.  Three stressed syllables in a row, middle one gets “demoted.”  So, I just call out Rule of Three in my head when I’m faced with certain choices.

he GOES to HER in the DARK ness FOUND
*** I promote “her” because it is a pronoun and because of the Rule of Three. This finishes the evaluation because there are no further syllables left with the same “level” of stress.

in mid WIN ter; SLIPS be TWEEN the DOWN.
** already completed, so not evaluating

FILLED DU vet and her BOD y, warm
** This is an interesting line. We cannot ignore the stress of the primary syllable “DU” in the word “duvet”, but then we have a lot of light syllables in the middle “vet and her”. I would argue that the word “Filled” should be demoted while the word “and” be promoted because of the Rule of Three. There are a variety of levels of stress here. Often times, you’d see exercises numbering the levels into 1, 2, or 3 instead of the simple (binary) “unstressed” / “stressed” version I’m introducing here. The discussions surrounding the stress levels can be quite heated. Me, I’m not a dogmatist. So, yes, I would agree that “filled” does have “some level” of stress, but I’m really about keeping my scansion simple. So, I’m going to show a demotion on “filled” because the word “and” gets more stress to my mind because of its relative position. I also promote “warm” because it is an adjective.

So, the line looks like this to me now:

filled DU vet AND her BOD y, WARM

One last final “rule” to consider:
Step 5)  You can have fewer than 8 syllables on a line with four strong beats.  That’s because a missing syllable at either the begin or the end of the line could be “counted” as an unstressed syllable.

So, to summarize (bends over, puts hands on her knees, takes a breath)…

To analyze your metrical works:

  • The basic unit is a line
  • Break all your words into their phonetic syllables
  • Show the primary (and if it exists, secondary) stress on all multi-syllabic words
  • Show stress on your verbs and nouns
  • The “Rule of Three” – begin evaluating the remaining syllables based upon three unstressed syllables or three stressed syllables in succession.  Promote first based upon parts of speech, but also, commonly, the word in the middle is either promoted or demoted.