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What Is Versification?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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Versification refers to “the making of verse.” It is another name for prosody and deals with the mechanics of actually writing a poem and the technical issues involved in poetic structures. It also refers to the study and analysis of poetic forms and structures used by poets in their work.

Verse is a metrical line of writing and is the core of a poem. A series of metrical lines make up a stanza in a poem, in much the same way that sentences make up a paragraph in prose. Most traditional poetry, particularly English poetry, is based on meter. For this reason, versification involves to a large degree the understanding of the meter used in a metrical line of poetry. Rhyme is related to meter, but it is not exclusively what identifies writing as poetry.

There are many types of meter. Every line of poetry can be divided into metrical units called “feet.” A foot of poetry is made up of syllables, generally from one to three in number, arranged in a fixed pattern. In English poetry, the type of meter is determined by the number of accented and unaccented, or stressed and unstressed syllables.

A common form of meter in poetry, and also thought to be one of the best, is iambic pentameter. An iambic foot consists of an iamb, which is one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. A metric line of five iambic feet creates the meter of iambic pentameter. A line from Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” demonstrates its use. “She héars, /upón/that ẃa/ter ẃith/out soúnd/.”

Most meters are associated with a particular rhyme scheme, but Iambic pentameter is often used in “blank verse,” which does not employ rhyme. Rhyme and meter can often reinforce one another, and rhyme also can create a rhythm and lyrical quality in a poem. Blank verse creates a versification issue of how to achieve the same or similar effects when constructing a poem without rhyme.

When writing in blank verse, poets often use alliteration, a series of words which begin with the same sound to achieve a rhythmic quality and a sense of rhyme. Slant rhyme, sometimes called imperfect rhyme, can also be used for the same effects. Slant rhyme uses words that contain the same sounds, such as “soul” and “all” but do not perfectly rhyme, as do words like “time” and “dime.”

Modern “free verse” poetry may present the greatest versification challenges. Free verse, from the French “vers libre,” originated in France in the late 19th century. It sought to free poetry from the constraints of meter and set rhyme schemes. It thus does not follow any of the conventions of traditional poetry.

Among its proponents were French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Jules LaForge. American expatriate poet Ezra Pound believed that the poet should write in a sequence of musical phrases and not in predetermined meters. Writing poems in the natural cadences of speech rather than metrical schemes would eliminate artificiality in poetry. Some poets began to construct poems modeled on ancient Hebrew poems in the Bible that relied solely on the sounds of the words to achieve poetic effect.

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