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Poetic Meter and Poetic Form

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Excerpts from distinctive poems illustrate the author's appreciation of the metrical and formal aspects of poetry

190 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1965

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About the author

Paul Fussell

46 books115 followers
Paul Fussell was an American cultural and literary historian, author and university professor. His writings covered a variety of topics, from scholarly works on eighteenth-century English literature to commentary on America’s class system. He was an U.S. Army Infantry officer in the European theater during World War II (103rd U.S. Infantry Division) and was awarded both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He is best known for his writings about World War I and II.

He began his teaching career at Connecticut College (1951–55) before moving to Rutgers University in 1955 and finally the University of Pennsylvania in 1983. He also taught at the University of Heidelberg (1957–58) and King’s College London (1990–92). As a teacher, he traveled widely with his family throughout Europe during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, taking Fulbright and sabbatical years in Germany, England and France.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 52 reviews
Profile Image for Shane Zimmer.
9 reviews20 followers
May 12, 2014
As a novice to the study of meter and form, I found this book interesting, accessible and illuminating. I haven't enough knowledge on the subject yet to agree or disagree with him point by point, but his passion for the study reads clear and his articulation of the ideas becomes quickly lucid. I would equate him with a professor who introduces his students to a new discipline and rather than bore them with academese, he sparks their interest with his enthusiasm and intelligence.
Profile Image for Xantha Page.
120 reviews49 followers
September 13, 2023
I've never formally studied poetry, and though I've been reading it "seriously" for about a decade now, it's only in the last couple that I feel I've begun to really understand it. I suppose I'm overdue for reading a book like this, but on the other hand, it may have been better this way, just as there's a lot to be said for reading books in the "wrong" order.

As a basic, textbook study of the technical principles of traditional English poetry, it's useful in just about all the ways I could hope for. Although I feel I've grasped many of the core ideas intuitively just from my own reading of poetry, and I doubt I'll remember all the terminology a year from now, Fussell's discussions have already helped to refine my attention to aspects of poetry that are easy to overlook. Fussell's brief discussions about the history of English prosody, and the associations certain lines and stanza forms have with tones/moods or with specific poets, are also illuminating.

The main caveat is that the book is not as useful for modern poetry that isn't Yeats, Eliot, Frost etc. Fussell admires Whitman, but can only analyze his poetry after breaking his lines down into iambic pentameter. He is dismissive of Imagism, but strangely admires William Carlos Williams if only for his line breaks. His comments on the "New American Poets," which he confuses with the Beats, are superficial (though his fiercest rancor is directed at Ginsberg, one imagines Fussell can't tell the difference between him and Olson or Ashbery). The book also (unsurprisingly, but still disappointingly) lacks any engagement with Black poetry, so no discussion of the blues stanza, the formal and prosodic influence of jazz, etc. Still, despite his critical blinkers and in some cases plain ignorance, his more general comments can be very perceptive, and helped clarify my difficulties with much of what passes for free verse.

Bearing its weaknesses in mind, it's not a bad book, though it is certainly dated and I'd only recommend it if you want a very basic guide to reading and thinking about traditional English poetry. As for the modern stuff, don't take Fussell's word for it.
Profile Image for Tiffany.
Author 3 books61 followers
January 6, 2015
Revisiting the classic! Worth the respect due our elders, who will always have worked harder than we and proceeded more responsibly in structuring knowledge.

That said, I did laugh at a number of lines--PF is quite witty, yes, but I laughed as much at some of the sheer pluck of schematic meaning assignation and then of concomitant evaluative gouging: "What he produces is very nice, but his stanza surely lacks the dense organism that attaches to a permanent poem."

What intrigues me here is the sense that a relationship to meter and form is a relationship both to PERMANENCE and meaningfulness in the world. He actually says that excellence of formal technique rescues "poems from oblivion" (154). As an amateur theologian, I find this difficult to believe.

And I'm not the only one bringing up theology here: on the departure from standard forms in 20th century literature, even Fussell gets almost theological: "Some kind of meaningful repetition would seem to be required to save a poem from oblivion. The challenge to contemporary poetry would seem to be a pair of unhappy alternatives; either to contrive new schemes of empirically meaningful repetition that reflects and--more importantly--transmit the color of contemporary experience; or to recover schemes that have reflected the experience of the past. To do the first would be to imply that contemporary experience has a pattern, a point that most post-Christian thinkers would deny. To do the second would be to suggest that the past can be recaptured, to suggest that the intolerable fractures and dislocations of modern history have not really occurred at all, or, what is worse, to suggest that they may have occurred but that poetry should act as if they have not. between these two demands of accuracy of registration on the one hand, and aesthetic organization, on the other, we seem to find no technique of RECONCILIATION: we yield now to the one demand, now to the other, producing at times a formless and artistically incoherent reflection--accurate in its way--of some civil or social or psychological reality, and at times a shapely and coherent work of art which is necessarily an inexact report on the state of affairs, not to mention the state of language and meaning and coherence in our time. . . .What is wanted is the sort of reconciliation between them that could be effected by another Yeats" (152-153).

I'm after reconciliation, too. Of another sort, I expect. The reader's, too.
Profile Image for Malia.
44 reviews7 followers
September 7, 2023
By turns delightful, insightful, and a knee-slapper.
Profile Image for John.
350 reviews11 followers
January 16, 2022
I have loved Paul Fussell’s writing for years. A wonderful writer. This is not the easiest of books, however, and I felt bogged down at times. I have picked up this book off and on for years and finally got through it. I would call this graduate level study and there are other handbooks on meter and form that would be better in which to start.
Profile Image for Maria.
247 reviews2 followers
July 13, 2019
This is a well-written and engaging survey. I picked up the book to develop my understanding of poetic techniques, and Fussell's organized discussion of meter and form fit the bill. His writing is clear and not overly dense, and he uses plenty of interesting examples, although most of these illustrations come from the canon of white male poets. Fussell is not afraid to offer his opinions or exercise his wit, and I found his analyses intriguing, if not always convincing. Since this book was published in the 1960s, some of its content is a bit outdated in today's scholarly conversation, but I still think it has a lot to offer. The concepts of metrical variation and poetic density, for instance, will stick with me in my future encounters with poetry.
Profile Image for Denis.
59 reviews3 followers
August 1, 2008
I don't always agree with some of Fussell's pronouncements, but on the whole he gives a very nice introduction to the principles of prosody. The book's precision is one of it's great strengths, but it can also be a weakness on occasion when it leads to black and white depictions of things that are not so clear-cut. For anyone who is able to occasionally disagree with Fussell without feeling like those points of disagreement invalidate everything else, this book can a wonderful tool for any writer or reader of poetry to learn about the role of meter in English verse.
Profile Image for Tim Covell.
Author 3 books6 followers
March 10, 2018
Years ago, it was just a required text for an English class, and I sold it or gave it away when the class was done. But I've never forgotten some of the advice, and finally replaced it. Glad I did. A classic for any reader or writer of poetry.
11 reviews3 followers
May 29, 2008
Split into two main sections, Meter and Form (per the title). The meter section was useful, but, as another reviewer here has stated, suffers from a glut of examples. It drags on a bit.
I found the form section the better of the two: discussions of line, rhyme, stanza, and a selection of standard forms, such as the sonnet (of course).
Profile Image for Dawn.
Author 4 books38 followers
February 21, 2008
Helpful but no imperative. A good explanation of prosody (without getting too lofty) and decent source for examples. I used the book to help my students scan poems better. *NOTE* The chapter on free verse is garbage.
Profile Image for Sherry Chandler.
Author 5 books27 followers
September 9, 2008
I found this book, which was first published in 1966 I think, pretty conservative, not to say stodgy. Not an easy read, but I did discover some valuable ways to look at formal poetry. I hope I will be able to internalize them.
Profile Image for Lisa.
6 reviews
October 5, 2007
Pretty good on the fixed forms (which I should know MUCH more about considering my profession). Utterly dismissive of anything innovative post-WW2. Sometimes this contempt is valid, sometimes not.
Profile Image for Julie N.
807 reviews26 followers
July 10, 2008
I never would have learned how to scan poetry without this book. Intensely boring, but lots of good information on writing and scanning poetry.
Profile Image for Talbot Hook.
548 reviews27 followers
February 24, 2022
"It should neither surprise nor distress us that most poetry in English ranges from the mediocre to the very bad and that most poets are technically incompetent. So are most waiters, physicians, carpenters, lawyers, gardeners, and teachers. The genuinely successful poems to which we return again and again constitute a tiny selection the vast and almost measureless rubbish heap of the centuries . . . A mastery of technique is rare enough in any art. But in poetry, which demands not only a superb taste in the every-shifting symbolic system of the connotations of language and an instinct for the aesthetic significance of abstract forms and patterns, but also a deep and abiding understanding of the rhythmic psychology and even physiology of readers in general, technical mastery is not so common a gift that it appears inevitably in every generation."

Fussell's book is aimed primarily at the would-be-educated reader of poems. His view is that the trained eye can gather up more appreciation, more rapture, more enjoyment from a given poem if it is educated as to poetic history, meter, and form. This is a view which I certainly share, and have never agreed with Keat's assessment that to "unweave a rainbow" is somehow tantamount to destroying its majesty. Speaking very generally, knowledge in any aesthetic field can grow our sense of appreciation; poems are (or should be) intensely dense things: each element placed with economy, with significance. If the poet has done his or her job, then the reader can expect a great deal of pleasure from unweaving the poem. If the poem doesn't yield much, it either wasn't written well or is being read by a rube. Fussell's book breaks down the English tradition's major metrical and formal elements, given stunning (and plentiful) examples of how each choice the poet makes affects the necessary coherence of the final product.
Profile Image for Katrina Sark.
Author 9 books39 followers
April 1, 2018
p.3 – “Rhythm must have meaning,” Ezra Pound insisted in 1915.

p.4 – Meter is what results when the natural rhythmical movements of colloquial speech are heightened, organized, and regulated so that pattern – which means repetition – emerges.

p.16 – Purpose of meter:
1. Give pleasure
2. Give coherence
3. Demonstrate skill
4. Fir into a tradition
5. Qualify as poetry
6. Draw attention to the two words that rhyme

p.77 – free verse – despite its name – follows its own more-or-less strict imperatives. Two of these are instantly obvious to ear and eye. The free-verse poem establishes a texture without metrical regularity

p.90 – a poem stands a chance of attaining greater success and permanence the nearer it approaches absolute economy and coherence of the parts that comprise it.

p.122 – In the Petrarchan sonnet the problem is often solved by reasoned perception or by a relatively expansive and formal mediative process.
But the Shakespearean sonnet, because resolution muse take place within the tiny compass of a twenty-syllable couplet, the “solution” is more likely to be the fruit of wit, or paradox, or even a quick shaft of sophistry, logical cleverness, or outright comedy.
Profile Image for Karen.
879 reviews124 followers
April 3, 2019
I've been reading poetry for decades, but this was my first detailed view into the technical aspects. But make no mistake. This is not dry material. Challenging, yes. Boring, no. Fussell ties the mechanics of poetry to meaning and even to the body.

When I first started this book, I became hyper aware of meter everywhere. I was counting stress / unstress in everything I read, spoke, and heard (including music). He has a mix of theory and examples, which helped me understand (somewhat!) the concepts.

I'm taking a poetry class, and I tried to write a few poems with strict form. Oh, it's so hard! I have an increased respect for poets to focus on meter. (Every poetry uses meter; just some put more of the poem's "energy" there than others.)

Check out Fussell's book. It's out of print, but there are still some copies floating out there for reasonable purchase.
Profile Image for Jeffrey May.
Author 8 books33 followers
June 3, 2020
Never expected a 1965 academic, textbook assessment of poetic meter to have such excellent writing, and an incisive sense of humor.

I picked up Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Metric Form off the free table at, of all places, the technical college where I’ve been an English Comp adjunct for 15 years. Can’t imagine many “gearheads” read it.

This book is not for those interested in easy reading or beach books, but it does offer clear concise explanations of iamb, anapest, trochee, spondee, and more, along with near perfect examples of successful and not so successful attempts by famous poets.

One of my favorite passages: “…quantitative composition was a laborious academic-theoretical business, like all such nonempirical enterprises more gratifying to the self-congratulating practitioner than to the perplexed reader.”
Profile Image for John Nelson.
350 reviews4 followers
July 12, 2021
The author's introduction to this book states: "The title of this book may suggest that it is designed as a latter-day Gradus ad Parnassum to teach aspiring writers to produce passable verses. It is not. It is intended to help aspiring readers deepen their sensitivity to the rhythmical and formal properties of poetry and thus heighten their pleasure and illumination as an appropriately skilled audience of an exacting art."

Actually, in my view, it is well worth studying for both aspiring writers and readers of poetry. It is an enjoyable and insightful short book on some of the major aspects of poetry.
Profile Image for Jacob Hurley.
Author 1 book32 followers
January 16, 2022
This is a pretty good guide, covers all the technical details of meter I could've asked for, plus a solid discussion of form, and it overflows with good examples from a wide variety of sources. It's also adorned with a number of (I suppose then-trendy) quasi-scientific speculations about the appeal of meter, form, etc, mostly cited from IA Richards. The only complaint I might have is that its loyalty to formalism borders on the normative, and this guide might not be helpful for approaching any but the most canonically established free verse or experimental poets; but with those you always have to rely on the particular dogmas and theories of their practitioners, anyways. Recommended.
June 13, 2021
Very helpful in learning about poetic devices. Not exactly for the beginner, but if you have a familiarity with meter, this is a great exploration of metric variation and stanza forms, with plenty of examples. Fussell claims at the start that it is not designed to teach poets to write better poetry, but rather to help readers to better enjoy the works they read. I have found it to serve both purposes, and would highly recommend.
Profile Image for Mike Crowley.
49 reviews
August 23, 2022
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A bit more intensive than I expected - less of an introduction for the uninitiated in poetry but more of a refresher for the formerly familiar. The author's tastes are apparent and appreciated - rather than try to "find the good in" what he does not like, Fussell is quick to outright call a poem bad. If you can tell your iamb from your spondee and have found your way through Frost, this book is for you.
Profile Image for Yazzy.
68 reviews1 follower
November 1, 2021
Great introduction to reading (and understanding/appreciating) poetry for a complete newcomer. It does a good job explaining the core elements required to begin appreciating poetry at a deeper or more technical level. By using many examples of "good" versus "bad" poetry and explaining what makes each the way it is, it further drives home the explanations provided.
740 reviews4 followers
March 25, 2022
Thick with info that goes well beyond a definition of "iambic pentameter." Fussell is very much writing out of the tradition of close readers and New Critics, so he includes plenty of analyses of poems throughout the book.
Profile Image for Robin Helweg-Larsen.
Author 15 books10 followers
February 21, 2023
Excellent discussion and analysis of the use of poetic metre and form - its historical origins, its successful and unsuccessful innovations, its inherent nature in poetry.
17 reviews
June 16, 2023
I just wish that there was an updated text for postmodernist poetry and that Fussel was a little more tolerant towards the unconventional
Profile Image for Joel Zartman.
545 reviews24 followers
June 19, 2013
Fussell explains in this book the effects achieved with meter both with forms and with free verse. He wants to help us understand how the poetry that we return to works upon us. The sentence, he reminds us, forms the basis of prose; the sentence and the line form the basis of poetry, and he explains how meter is the way the line’s length is determined. This determination is not arbitrary, but has to do with how modern English sounds—how our words are emphasized and the possibilities the language itself provides. What he does is very sensible and very clear.

Fussell neither dismisses free verse nor denigrates formal verse. What he does is understand. He understands how both work, why both work and then explores some of the limitations and possibilities of each. Obviously he spends more time explaining formal verse because free verse is, in a way, one of the forms—perhaps the most casual of them. He sums up: “Poetry is form, and permanent poetry is permanent form. And by ‘form’ here we mean that pattern which works on the reader and is recognized by him, no matter how unconsciously or irrationally to constitute a significant abstract repetitive frame.”

He has made, by this point in the book, an investigation of the historical development of forms which is informed by more than just the bare knowledge of which poet succeeds each other. It is also informed by a broader understanding of history and the history of ideas. What he achieves (besides heightening the attentive reader’s capacity to read and appreciate English poetry) is a clear picture of the state of our poetry around 1976; and it is a state from which I do not think it can be said we have yet emerged, if we ever shall. But it is interesting for dealing with the contemporary milieu.

Here is how he puts it:

"The challenge to contemporary poetry would seem to be a pair of unhappy alternatives; either to contrive new schemes of empirically meaningful repetition that reflect and—more importantly—transmit the color of contemporary experience; or to recover schemes that have reflected the experience of the past. To do the first would be to imply that contemporary experience has a pattern, a point that most post-Christian thinkers would deny. To do the second would be to suggest that the past can be recaptured, to suggest the intolerable fractures and dislocations of modern history have not really occurred at all, or, what is worse, to suggest that they may have occurred but that poetry should act as if they have not."

That paragraph is one of the more culminating conclusions he draws. These are things one has read in other places, but he puts it in terms which cannot just be shrugged off. He has led the reader to the point at which the observation soaks in thoroughly by explaining in this case, for example, how forms have been patterns of experience in our language and during our civilization.

Here is another refreshing and illuminating (both about Fussell and about the world; and yes, I do seem to be overindulging in quotation, but the guy knows how to word things) statement:

"It should neither surprise nor distress us that most poetry in English ranges from the mediocre to the very bad and that most poets are technically incompetent. So are most waiters, physicians, carpenters, layers, gardeners and teachers. The genuinely successful poems to which we return again and again constitute a tiny selection from the vast and almost measureless rubbish heap of the centuries."

It is greatly to the credit of Fussell that by the time you read that sentence at the beginning of the penultimate chapter you understand exactly why what he is saying about poetry is so. He has imparted discernment, in this book: true criticism.

And we need it. Emily Dickinson’s experience, so intelligently put, the stanzas divided by the logic of effect and cause distinguished (as Fussell points out) needs to be ours.

It Dropped So Low in My Regard

It dropped so low — in my Regard –
I heard it hit the Ground –
And go to pieces on the Stones
At bottom of my Mind –

Yet blamed the Fate that flung it — less
Than I denounced Myself,
For entertaining Plated Wares
Upon My Silver Shelf –

I think this book is better than Understanding Poetry. Not as thorough, not as big, never so basic or full of all the stuff you already got in High School. Just full of all the stuff you didn’t.
Profile Image for Leisha Wharfield.
127 reviews5 followers
August 6, 2008
"What is wanted is the closest possible approximation of absolute density. For the texture of a poem must be dense: when old-fashioned critics assert that in a poem every vein must be rifted with ore, that is what, in their quaint way, they mean."

Urban density is what our exalted elders decided upon for Eugene: establishment of an urban growth boundary to salvage the farmlands, wetlands, wild places beyond. But the Amazon headwaters fall within the urban growth boundary, so now--how to save them? Capitalists encroach upon the wild mystery, demanding their pound of flesh, catch of fish, corrupting industry. Maybe a hospital, a prison, a place for human beings to work or live, make enough money to buy the next thing, already obsolete, long ago planned that way, to deflect radicalism arising naturally from working-class leisure. Lane County Commissioners budget in herbicides to kill weeds
rodent houses, insect nests
feed reptiles, raptors, and their flighted, leathery cousins--bats.

I saw three eagles at the headwaters lately: two mature, one juvenile, gliding above the slough where herons rest lazily, visiting Canada geese assemble, mallards splash down noisily. I think of Central Park, a place carved out of concrete misery . . .

there must be space for wildness in the density. Is it given by Fussell, or neglected? Does he nod to nature in his caveat: "the closest possible approximation?" Let's give him that.

"the texture of a poem must be dense." Perhaps poetry is a weaving. Allow this weaving to be a dense one, multi-layered, warming. But suppose a semi-permeable membrane is wanted, substance that allows breath like a tea towel resting on rising bread or employed to filter coffee. I may not enjoy as much my unleavened bread with coffee-stained water as I love my wine, must racked time and time through holy cheesecloth, erasing bitterness from the flow of rich juice.

Take, and drink. This is my blood dense as water, 'cause that's what I'm made of. Mostly water, but also a fragrant summer breeze, making my breath after it flows over spiked leaves of flowering mimosa--how fine and insubstantial their brilliant petals, like strokes from my pen.

In fact it's so hot this summer, I prefer my clothing linen-light, loose-weaved, so coastal wind softly meets the sweat of my skin. Why density? Why this, only this dogma, with no other way to be?

If I strip in my yard, my breasts and belly sway gently; invisible particles bind my body, draw soft boundaries as they careen through empty spaces--space makes me, yet Fussell commands I make artful density. Hard cheese, not Swiss or a spreadable brie. Only one sharp flavor may please his critical palate.

PRAISE GOD I'm still a redneck, nobody woman. I'll spread triple-cream Camembert on my flat crackers, sip champagne full of fun, empty bubbles, & give you the finger while I surrender to frothy, indulgent excess.

"old-fashioned critics . . . quaint." Kinda like old-school chauvinism that praises only male poets and invokes a male reader? Mattie Peterson expends all her energy on rhyme, Emily belongs solidly (having been refined), Tess Gallagher for her opening, and Marianne Moore, the novelty who may demonstrate her superficial, feminine syllablism just to entertain jaded males--so far, these are my women, shyly inviting masculine criticism. So glad I'm here to amuse you, really. Can't think of anything else but that you might want and use me.
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