Sculpted Meter

Sculpted meter is accentual-syllabic meter which is organized on a scale larger than the foot. It is the natural extension of traditional English meter to more complicated base patterns than “da DUM” and “da da DUM”.

I invented sculpted meter myself, though there are historical antecedents. Many old poems can be analyzed as “sculpted” in my sense, some following loose and others strict patterns. I feel sure that others have had similar ideas.

This essay is written for people who already know a lot about English meter.


At least since Elizabethan times, English language poets have tried imitating the classical meters of the Greeks, and of the Romans who copied the Greeks. Some have tried to keep the original quantitative nature of the meters, which in my view has never felt natural in English (though occasionally the results are worth listening to). Some made the rhythms accentual, substituting stressed syllables for long and slack for short. That produces interesting and rather weird effects.

To me, the prototypical imitations are those of Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne is not very interesting as a poet, but his technical skill is outstanding and his classical imitations show what happens when you translate alien conventions more or less literally into English. In my opinion, accentual Sapphics work beautifully in English, but other transposed classical meters that I have seen are bland or are useful only for occasional special purposes.

Nevertheless, adapted classical meters fit my definition of sculpted meter.

Some poems written in conventional meter can also be analyzed as sculpted. Scan Sea Fever by John Masefield. Each stanza opens with mixed two- and three-syllable feet, repeats spondees increasingly, and ends with / / / x (a fourth epitrite, a term I had to look up). The rhythmic effect is that the stanza “piles like thunder to its close,” increasing in intensity. It is up to you whether you analyze the poem as being in logaoedic rhythm with expressive variations, as a conventional view might have it, or as being in sculpted meter.

German Antecedents

This section added in December 2012. Except for the sort of things mentioned above I’m still not aware of English-language sculpted meter before mine, but I recently learned that German-language poets experimented with classically-inspired meters of their own invention during Goethe’s lifetime. German is related to English and is prosodically very similar, and an accentual meter in one of these two languages can normally be transposed to the other with little change. So these experiments may well have influenced English-language writers.

My source is Deutsche Metrik: Eine Historische Einführung (“German Meter: A Historical Introduction”) by Christian Wagenknecht, 5th edition of 2007 (the information was supposedly added for this edition and doesn’t appear in earlier ones), pages 112-114. It’s a prosody textbook for students of Germanistik.


In the mid 1980s, I spent some time thinking about the nature of poetic form. I concluded that virtually any kind of pattern could be considered a form, and the most prominent type of pattern is repetition. Taking meter as an example, I saw that traditional English meter relies on repetition of the simplest possible units, the foot with one stressed syllable and one or two slack syllables. Can meter repeat longer units, at the level of longer feet, or lines, or stanzas? Can meter use patterns other than repetition?

The answer to both questions is that it can. In researching prior art at the time, all I found was the classical imitations I mention above. To this day, I don’t know of anyone else who has tried to invent new meters along the same line in English. If you do, let me know! It’s a straightforward idea and there are several ways to reach it, somebody must have.

Like the describer of a new species, I get to propose a name for the new idea. I call it “sculpted meter”. Unlike traditional meter, sculpted meter allows the possibility of shaping sound effects directly in the base pattern itself, rather than by varying from it.


Traditional meter is counterpointed, or expressively varied, that is, the base rhythm is varied from, and the variations are meaningful. Counterpointing is tremendously rich, subtle, flexible, and capable. It is a strong foundation for a great poetic tradition that continues today. I am only interested in using a nontraditional meter if it can be just as expressive, at least for some purposes, or if it can achieve effects that are unavailable to traditional meter.

In the 1980s my interest was mild, and I wrote only one experiment in sculpted meter, Seahorse Rocking Chair. The poem’s meter is witty but not fully successful, because the joke it makes is difficult to hear. I did learn that regularly alternating two- and three-syllable feet can give a convincing impression of informal speech rhythms (if you have a good ear, you can hear me discovering that as the poem progresses).

More recently my interest returned. See the Examples section below for short experiments showing what is possible.

I wrote Symmetry as an example of meter patterned on a principle other than repetition. The simplest kind of non-repeating pattern is progression, where some feature increases throughout the poem. Symmetry features a progression followed by a symmetrical regression. The shifting rhythm shapes the poem strongly in a way that is beyond my skill with traditional meter and reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s virtuoso rhythmic shaping.

One natural idea is to have a slow progression followed by a quick regression, shaping the poem into a conventional buildup, climax and resolution. This little test verse is an example, though it’s playing off of the structure rather than embracing it. “Forgetting”:

x / x / x x / x / x / x
/ x / x x / / / x / x
x / / / x x / / / x /
x / x / x x / x x / x /
A dazzling flash, and the lightning learns my shadow,
Then repeats to itself loud words describing
Its new-found knowledge of wet clothes, arms and legs,
And how the vision erases itself again.

Speak Now repeats double stresses at the start of the longer lines. By experiment, I found that the intermediate lines are necessary to prevent the effect from being deafening. The shorter intermediate lines that I chose keep the feeling of insistence; longer intermediate lines create a more narrative feel, like having a pounding headache on your journey through Dante’s Hell. The effect of the repeated double stresses is so constantly forceful that I broke the pattern near the end to emphasize the final joke.


Traditional meter and sculpted meter are not opposed. They are adjacent provinces on the map of English poetic rhythms, and the only reason a border is drawn between them is that traditional meter is so familiar. Together they form the country of accentual-syllabic meters, and the border between them is not visible in the countryside, only on the map. Outside of both traditional meter and sculpted meter are the land of purely accentual meter, the poorly-defined region of loose forms like the dolnik, the foreign countries of non-accentual metric systems, and the vast territory of free verse, often drawn as a single nation though it has many internal borders.

Traditional meter favors counterpointing. Because the base rhythm is is so well-established, counterpointing is possible, and because it is so simple, counterpointing is important to provide variety. Sculpted meter requires less counterpointing—sometimes none, when the base rhythm is interesting enough in itself. It allows counterpointing whenever the base rhythm is well-established, whether by convention or by repetition in a single poem. The same principles are at work in both; there is no categorical difference between them.

A pattern can be strict or loose. There is no sharp line between them. A pattern is established by the reader perceiving it as established, and readers vary. They vary by background, expectations, and speech intuitions. Whether a deviation from a pattern is meaningful or incidental is a matter of feeling. It can be subtle and hard to explain. The borders on the map are fuzzy or ambiguous—and usually both.

Consider Symmetry. Of the ten lines, four are traditional, dactylic or trochaic. Each of the six other lines, taken individually, could be seen as a line in traditional meter with fully conventional substitutions. It is only the poem as a whole that can be called sculpted. The same conclusion holds for Speak Now.

Slack Notation

As I continue to work with sculpted meter, I’m finding it awkward to write out the slacks and stresses explicitly. Detailed notation is too bulky for quick notes and comparisons. I invented slack notation to write down sculpted meters compactly.

In slack notation, or slack-counting notation, you write only the number of slacks between stresses. For example, the meter of Tsiolkovsky Outbound is / x x / x / /, which in slack notation is 210: 2 slacks between the first two stresses, 1 between the next two, 0 between the last two, 210. With four stresses, you get three digits of notation.

It’s not good for everything. The advantage is that it’s simple and compact; the disadvantage is that you have to think a bit to see what it means.

I usually ignore leading and trailing slacks in the notation because I consider them either variable or unimportant in the poem. If they are important, you can add initial and final digits marked off like this: x x / x x / x / / x is 2]210[1. Also, if a given position allows different numbers of slacks, you can write the allowed numbers vertically, one above the other. I’ve used that in my notebook, but it’s a little hard to show on a web page.

I wrote out the slack notation along with the full notation in the Examples section below.


Here is a selection of experiments from my notebooks. These verses aren’t written to say anything, but to find out how different rhythms sound. Some of them are studies for specific poems, like the small studies painters make in preparation for a larger painting.

The scansions on the left give the poem’s ideal meter, the pattern it is adhering to or deviating from. They are ideal, not actual, scansions.

A study for Speak Now. In slack notation, it is 0122 / 1111 / 0122 / 1111.

/ / x / x x / x x /
x / x / x / x / x /
/ / x / x x / x x /
x / x / x / x / x /
Spam crams the window from bottom to top.
Ads surround it like a crowd of whores.
Spam filters fail in the furious onslaught.
This computer is no longer yours.

Another study for Speak Now. Slack notation 0122 / 11 / 0122 / 11. The short intermediate lines work much better for my purpose.

/ / x / x x / x x /
x / x / x /
/ / x / x x / x x /
x / x / x /
Spam crams the window from bottom to top,
With crowded ads like whores.
Spam filters fail in the furious onslaught.
Nothing here is yours.

Repeated spondees at the line ends are less powerful than at the line beginnings. I find that counterintuitive.


x / x / x x / x / / Now at last we attain the end days.
A third of waters are turned to wormwood.
The great fire gathers its flames to burn all
The sin and righteousness from the whole world.


x / x / x / x / / x If Alexander Pope were here list’ning,
I think he’d be appalled at how I am
Reversing the last foot of each line, and
Repeating the effect again, dammit.

011 / 101 / 110:

/ / x / x /
x / x / / x /
x / x / x / /
Hold tight as morning comes
Then swing through bright day until
It’s time to rest at night fall.

If iambic is the norm, then double stresses are a deviation in one direction and double slacks are a deviation in the opposite direction. There are two simple, regular ways to mix iambs with anapests: Alternate them, as in Seahorse Rocking Chair, or shift from one to the other over the line, as in the next two examples. Slack notation 1]122:

x / x / x x / x x / If only I were as small and obscure
As God in hiding: As hard to explain,
As hard to know, as exciting to find,
As smart, as old, and at least as insane.

Interestingly, lines with the long feet first seemed to work only if I allowed some extra stresses as substitutions. Again, line beginnings are more salient than line endings. The slowing rhythm of the line creates a gentle sense of extra weight toward the end. Slack notation 2211:

x / x x / x x / x / x / Once in a while in the long, long days of Earth
There floats to the top of the ocean something odd—
Something that people believe should be preserved,
Like bubbles of foam or the long brown strands of kelp.

This stanza with the AABCCB rhyme is good for silly topics. But it doesn’t stand out; similar stanzas are just as good. I think it should still work well if the meter is handled loosely. The verse could be called “Why We Stay Together”. Slack notation 121 / 11 / 212 / 11. (See how the compactness of slack notation makes the pattern easier to read?)

x / x / x x / x /
x / x / x /
x / x x / x / x x /
x / x / x /
If only I were another guy,
  And not the one you know,
I’d dazzle your brain with legerdemain
  And then you’d make me go.

Lines opening x / x x / / strike me as particularly rich. They can be inlaid into stanzas with different effects. This is a study for Instructions from the Clan Chief. Slack notation 2011 / 11 / 2011 / 11 / 1201.

x / x x / / x / x /
  x / x / x /
x / x x / / x / x /
  x / x /
x / x / x x / / x /
Nobody dares know or tell your name,
  Even those who could
Will turn to the blank wall, refusing knowledge
  Of any kind,
Even knowledge of how much you love.

This prosaic verse is an early study for “Deep Time” (working title of a poem that has never come together). Slack notation 2011 / 111 / 2011 / 111 / 1201.

x / x x / / x / x /
  x / x / x / x /
x / x x / / x / x /
  x / x / x / x /
x / x / x x / / x /
Building a beanstalk is done in stages.
  First, from orbit you unspool
A leader that runs down to touch the ground
  And a counterweight the other way
So the center of mass stays in orbit.

Then, from the ground, hoist a thicker cable
  Up the leader into orbit.
This is the new leader. Repeat until
  You have a cable strong enough
To carry cargo and pay back your costs.

This essay first posted 18 August 2007. The Examples section and “Forgetting” were added September 2007. The Slack Notation section was added October 2015. Smaller adjustments since then.