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.