ABOUT SCANSION . . .
As a poetry lover, witch, or an explorer of the magical territory in-between—am I right in guessing this describes you ? — you may be surprised to learn that i consider the scansion of poetry (recognizing and marking its metrical patterns) to be, not only a deep sensual pleasure, but also a sacred art.
The oft-misunderstood activity of scansion is (along with dancing) one of the most attentive and reverent ways with which to open ourselves to the magical energy patterns that weave throughout poetry. It can also reveal hidden dimensions to the most urgent and necessary words we speak in our daily lives.
Until the advent of free verse about a hundred years ago, poetic rhythm was so familiar in our bodies that scansion may not have been necessary. But —as I’ve learned over thousands of hours teaching meter—it’s a central tool for those of us who are serious about reclaiming the power of rhythmic language in our current world. Scansion can be a first step to navigating our way back into the body familiarity that guides much of the wisdom of oral-based, earth-centered societies. So scansion matters to the themes of this Spellsletter—poetry, magic, meter, feminism, and witchcraft. And some of my posts (such as this one on Yeats) will go into detail about meter and scansion.
For the huge numbers of us who were never taught scansion—or for those who were but not by me, and so are not familiar with my scansion terms— I offer this key. The six terms used here are my own inventions, developed through decades of scanning and teaching meter. Having invented these words due to the sore need for resonant, concrete nouns for basic scansion tools, I offer them freely to all who would like to adopt them (thought I would appreciate the courtesy of giving me credit for them—here’s looking at you, Masterclass!).
More on scansion, and metrical poems too, may be found on my Youtube channel. And I’m happy to announce that I have finally completed a long-dreamed-of goal, a complete scansion workbook: How to Scan a Poem!
DEFINITION: “SCANSION,” “TO SCAN”
To mark the rhythmic patterns in a piece of writing (or spoken language). To reveal, recognize, understand, and experience metrical words in body and heart as well as mind. A magical tool to move deeper into the energy of language.
THE 3 BASIC SCANSION TOOLS
Marked above a stressed syllable—one that is louder, longer, and/or higher pitched than those immediately adjacent to it.
Marked above an unstressed syllable—one that is softer, shorter, and/or lower pitched than those immediately adjacent to it.
Marked between (not above) groups of syllables. It indicates a footbreak—a division between repeating rhythmic units (commonly called “feet”), that are built on the same basic pattern of wands and cups.
ANNIE’S 3-STEP SCANSION METHOD
Mark the wands
Mark the cups
Look for repeating patterns (“feet”) and mark the boundaries between them with edges
Name the line.
The sentence “It’s evening, and I call your name” would be scanned this way:
STEP 1 Mark the wands
/ / / /
It’s evening, and I call your name.
(Note: “I” may feel like a stronger syllable than “and,” but if you SAY IT ALOUD (the first rule of scansion!) you will notice that “and” needs to be spoken more strongly than “I.” Imagine shouting it to someone across a room to feel the difference. (Note 1: On a deeper level, if you are wondering how a small word like “and” can sound strong enough for a wand, the answer is that stress is relative: we hear a stress’s power relative to what’s around it. Because of the strength of the verb “call,” the “I” gets softer by comparison, and the “and” ends up being stronger than the two syllables next to it. Note 2: If you are wondering, “but what if I want to emphasize it differently? What if I want to stress the “I” because it is I, and not another person, who is calling?,” the answer is yes, you can do that (it’s called “performative stress”), but a reader seeing it on the page would not know you were doing it unless you changed the meter to make it happen. If you’d like to learn more about this, you’ll find it discussed in my book A Poet’s Ear.)
STEP 2 Next, add the cups
u / u / u / u /
I see you and I call your name.
Usually, a cup goes over each unwanded sylllable.
STEP 3 Finally, listen for repeating patterns and mark the edges
u / | u / | u / | u /
I see you and I call your name.
Looking for patterns, you will notice repetition: cup-wand-cup-wand-cup-wand etc.. Add the edges between them. If you are using a pen and paper, it helps to extend the edge right down between or through the words as needed. An edge is not used at the end of a line of poetry, because the linebreak serves the same purpose. For more complex lines, such as the ones I sometimes scan on this blog and discuss in the podcast, a scansion needs to show the variations in the basic meter.
STEP 4 To finish, name the pattern
The line has four feet with a u/ pattern, so it is an iambic tetrameter.
HOW TO NAME LINES Name the pattern you have revealed by combining the type of foot and the number of feet. The most common types of feet are the anapest (cup-cup-wand), iamb (cup-wand), trochee (wand-cup), and dactyl (wand-cup-cup. 2 feet is dimeter, 3 is trimeter, 4 is tetrameter, 5 is pentameter, 6 is hexameter. So lines are named things like anapestic tetrameter, dactylic hexameter, iambic pentameter, trochaic trimeter, and so on.
If a line has a significant variation, it is best to add that in the name as well (if the sample line above went
/ u | u / | u / | u /
Looking at you, I call your name
you would name it an “iambic tetrameter with a trochee in the first foot.”
ABOUT THE 3-STEP SCANSION METHOD: It forestalls the mind’s habit of imposing an expected pattern, forcing us to stay in our bodies and listen freshly for wands and cups each time we scan. [Learned in 1978 from my teacher, Penelope Laurans of Yale University, who adapted it from a method taught by her husband the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald.] A video demonstration of the 3-step scansion method may be found on my Youtube channel.
3 LESS COMMON SCANSION TOOLS
\ HALF- WAND
Optional mark to indicate a stress whose intensity falls between a wand and a cup. Can be useful in resolving conflicts and moving forward, and in acknowledging special rhythmic effects. Use sparingly.
(u) GHOST CUP
Used to indicate something at the beginning or end of a line that doesn’t fit the expected pattern: either a missing cup at the beginning or end of a line, or an extra cup at the beginning or end of a line.
/ u | / u | / u | / (u )
Tyger, tyger, burning bright
If two syllables are missing, use a double ghost cup (uu).
Used to indicate a missing cup— a pause— in the middle of a line, where a ghost cup would be hard to see among the scansion marks.
Now you know all you need to follow any of my posts or podcasts that involve scansion and meter!
Also feel free to check out my books including A Poet’s Craft, Calendars (which includes a free downloadable scansion guide ) and many other books on meter and form. Videos about meter and scansion may be found on my youtube channel. For a behind-the-scenes look at living in meter, check out my Patreon. See my upcoming classes, workshops, retreats and events here.