"Rules for the Dance: a Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse"
Mary Oliver
(New York: A Mariner Original - Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998)



I HAD THREE REASONS for writing this book on metrical poetry.
   The First was to create for myself the opportunity to think about metrical prosody, which is an endlessly fertile subject for any working poet. By “working poet” I include those who write the modern non-rhyming, non-metrical form of lyric (which includes myself) – for the foundation of every poem is not only its words but its formality of motion, whether it be metrical altogether, or only at the occasional rhapsodic moment. Which is to say that I believe all poems are metrical to some extent, though they follow no predetermined pattern … [this last statement sounds self-contradictory to me.]
   My second purpose was to develop an informational and thoughtful text giving the basic rules of scansion, along with a collection of metrical poems for immediate example and pleasure, to writers who actually want to write metrical verse.
   My Third purpose – and this is by no means the least of the three – was to offer to readers of poetry a text and a commentary which would help them understand the metrical process: that is, not only how the metrical poem should be written, but how it should be read, or received, by the reader. On every page that follows, I consider the reader equal in importance to the writer, if not more important. Metrical poetry belongs to a certain era – a few centuries – and with every passing year that contained time grows more distant. Its methods more estranged from our own. The reader of modern poetry feels at ease with the cadences of conversation. To read Chaucer’s poems, now, requires, indeed, a diligent and even extraordinary effort; it requires, indeed, a specialized knowledge of the language and the versification of Chaucer’s time. The same thing, in our age, is happening to metrical poetry. It is no longer a safe bet that students will have been prepared for meter by having heard, over and over, the rhythms of Mother Goose. In schools, students are urged to follow their own unpatterned expressions, and little if any memorization of metrical poems is now required. [too bad …]
   As a result, students and other readers of Milton, of Shakespeare, of Wordsworth, of Wilfred Owen, even of Frost, come to the poems, frankly, with tin ears. They cannot scan. They don’t know an iamb from an anapest. They read for comprehension and hear little if anything of the interwoven pleasures of the sound and the pattern of the poem, which are also deeply instructive concerning the statement of the poem, along with the meanings of the words themselves. Not knowing how to listen, they read the poem but they do not hear it sing, or slide, or slow down, or crush with the heel of sound, or leap off the line, or hurry, or sob, or refuse to move from the self-pride of the calm pentameter no matter what fire is rustling through it.
   Every poem is a statement.
   Every poem is music – a determined, persuasive, reliable, enthusiastic, and crafted music.
   Without and understanding of this music, Shakespeare is only the sense we can make of him; he is the wisdom without the shapeliness, which is one half of the poem.
   So, most of all, I wrote this book to help readers of metrical poems enter the thudding deeps and the rippling shallows of sound-pleasure and rhythm-pleasure. I hope their understanding and pleasure of metric poetry will be deepened and complicated, so much so that their response to the poems becomes not only comprehension, but comprehension accompanied by a felt experience [emphasis added].
   Why is it important for students – for any of us, in fact – to have this experience?
   Poems speak of the mortal condition; in poems we muse (as we say) about the tragic and glorious issues of our fragile and brief lives: our passions, our dreams, our failures. Our wonderings about heaven and hell – these, too, are in poems. Life, death; mystery, and meaning. Five hundred years and more of such labor, such choice thought within choice expression [emphasis added], lies within the realm of metrical poetry. Without it, one is uneducated, and one is mentally poor.



METRICAL POETRY is about: breath [emphasis added]. Breath as an intake and a flow. Breath as a pattern. Breath as an indicator, perhapse the most vital one, of mood. Breath as our ouwn personal tie with all the rhythms of the natural world, of which we are a part, from which we can never break apart while we live. Breath as our first language.
   A cardinal attribute of breath (or breathing) is, of course, its repetition. The galloping footbeats of the heart, that spell fear. Or the slow and relaxed stretch of breath of the sleeping child. In either case, by their repetition, they make a pattern. Truly this pattern is as good as language. It reveals a great deal: the depth of sleep, the stress or the ease of the breather. If the pattern changes, we know it reflects something important -- mood has plunged, or health has been touched by crisis, or the inner life, without being seen externally, has pressed upon the heart, has tightened or lossened the lungs. It is as good as a language. We sigh. We pant. We reveal ourselves.
   All of this just said about breathing pertains also to the design of the metrical poem, which is composed of rhyme, and line length, and a metrical pattern in a construct of repetition." [emphasis added] pp. 3-4

The poem is only sixteen lines long. It doesn't take a lot of time, therefore, to explain what it is saying. Anyway, design says it better. We begin by reading it, as we would any poem, using natural expression and common sense. Immediately we feel that each line is built to be struck, heavily, four times [bold for emphasis added]. The length of each line gives us

"Said Frost, "For my part I should be satisfied to play tennis with the net down as to write verse with no verse form to stay me." p. 5


More About Patterns

"IAMBIC METER gives a graceful, motional sense of balance and unexcited progress. It is the most common meter in English metrical poetry -- one might even say that it is the meter of English verse. Certainly it is the mainstay. All other meters offer useful and necessary variety; also they are the means to vivid but "unreal" acrobatics. Iambic meter, in comparison with the other patterns, is the least obviously composed.
   Shakespeare uses the iambic meter, in the pentameter line, in both the plays and the sonnets." p. 19

"... there is no foot without a heavy stress" p. 27


"In the employment of each of these embellishments and opportunities, the inflection of the lines always follows the pattern of natural speech -- it never, never betrays the correct pronunciation of any word. This we can count on. But, also, we must remember that the pitch and tone of the human voice is multi-dimensional, while in the mechanics of scansion we have only three indicators: the heavy stress, the light stress, and the spondee. The heavy stresses in any line are not apt to be equal, therefore, though they will be heavier than any of the light stresses. One must remember, always, the two forces that rule here: sense and pattern." [bold and underline added for emphasis]. p. 28

Design: Line Length

Release of Energy Along the Line

Design: Rhyme

Design: Traditional Forms

Words on a String

Mutes and Other Sounds

The Use of Meter in Non-Metric Verse

The Ohs and the Ahs





Scansion: Reading the Metrical Poem

Scansion: Writing the Metrical Poem

Yourself Dancing: The Actual Work


Then and Now