How to scan a poem

Despite what we’ve learned in school, there is no “correct” scan of a poem sitting in a vault somewhere for only English teachers to see.  Often, scansion relies on context, but even then, what one person hears as a stressed syllable another person hears as unstressed.  And within stressed syllables, the degree of stress can vary widely.

So it’s okay to relax.  We aren’t going to break our poems by scanning them and seeing if we can improve them through the use of metrics.  It certainly provides more technical competency than the alternative, (and what most poets do), which is to end our lines by feel or breath.  And it certainly helps us with the rhythm of our poems.

So how do we scan a poem?  Let’s start with some general ground rules (that are made to be broken):

  • Articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (but, and, or) prepositions (of, to, with, by for), pronouns (your, my, their, his), and auxiliary verbs (be, am, has, could, and dozens more) are generally unstressed.
  • Single syllable nouns, adjectives, and verbs are generally stressed.
  • In two-syllable words, there is one stressed syllable, and it’s usually the first syllable. Of course, in English, there are always exceptions (like words with prefixes), but it’s a good rule of thumb.
  • There are several patterns of stress to memorize in polysyllabic words,  but saying the word out loud will set you on the right path.
  • When in doubt, look up the word at and see the stress pattern.

Here’s a little poem of mine published published in The Muddy River Review called “Seaside Wyoming:”

Seaside Wyoming

There’s another reason for the wind.
It brings us news from the Pacific Ocean.

It travels twelve hundred miles,
the taste of sea-salt on its lips,
to whisper dreams of seashells.

Those whispers are the way of lovers
from the memory of distant shores,

longing for the mountains,
the pine air clean like sagebrush rain,
and the open, salmon skies.

Here is how the lines scan, with the total number of stresses in each line in parentheses.

Seaside Wyoming

There’s aNOTHer REASon FOR the WIND. (4)
It BRINGS us NEWS from THE PaCIFic Ocean. (5)

the TASTE of SEA-salt ON its LIPS, (4)

Those WHISPers ARE the WAY of LOVers (4)
from the MEMory of DISTant SHORES, (3)

LONGing FOR the MOUNTains, (3)
the PINE air CLEAN like SAGEbrush RAIN, (4)
and the OPen, SALmon SKIES. (3)

The poem ranges between three and five stresses per line, which was intentional. Most of the lines have four. I only allowed the poem three stresses in a few lines where I was trying to slow the poem down near the end.

Without getting into the weeds too far, we see the poem follows the rules we set out above, with an important exception, which is this: in English, which is heavily iambic in nature, we tend to read three unstressed syllables in a row with a slight stress on the second syllable.   The same is true in stressed syllables as well, but with a twist. We tend to read three stressed syllables in a row with slightly less stress on the second.  This is why the word “for” is scanned a stressed syllable in the first line and why “salt” is scanned as unstressed in the fourth.   Both exceptions to the rules are useful for a poet like me, who likes to jump in and out of iambic tetrameter and pentameter.



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