Excerpted and adapted from A Poet's Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry by Annie Finch (University of Michigan Press, 2012).
What is Scanning?
"To scan" is both an intransitive and a transitive verb. A good metrical poem "scans," meaning that its meter follows the rules—and also, we "scan" a poem when we mark its meter.
Scanning a poem is a way of listening extremely closely to a poem's rhythm and marking what we hear. Notating the rhythm can force us to make crucial choices about the poem's music and meaning and their effect on us. Scanning teaches us to hear poems better (with the soul's ear and/or the body's ear) and is an inimitable way to appreciate poems by others on a profound level. When we are learning to write in meter, scanning is also the best way to make sure our poems are doing what we intended—that they "scan" correctly.
The Four Symbols You Will Need for Scanning
/ Wand. Marks the stronger (louder, longer, or higher pitched) syllables
u Cup. Marks the weaker (softer, shorter, or lower pitched) syllables
\ Reversed Wand. Marks syllables that are only partially accented. Should be used very rarely, if at all; save it for cases where you are completely stuck over how to mark a syllable or in group situations where there is strong disagreement over whether a syllable is stressed or not.
| Foot-Boundary. After all the syllables are marked with wands or cups, go back and add foot-boundaries to separate the repeating instances of the same pattern. Each of these repeating instances is called a "foot."
Step by Step Guide to the Scansion Process
Step 1. Mark the accents: listen to where you hear an accent and mark it with one wand over the syllable. Use a reversed wand if truly needed. Remember, your ear, not your brain, is the ultimate authority.
Step 2. The remaining syllables are unstressed. Mark them with one cup over each syllable.
Step 3. Look for repeating patterns. Mark the foot-boundaries between repeating patterns with a vertical line (if the footbreak falls in the middle of a word, put the footbreak line right through the middle of the word). Sometimes there can be two ways to hear a line's rhythm, for example, the line "I learn the way to scan cups, wands, and boundaries" could be scanned as u/|u/|u/|u/|u/|u/|or as/uu|/uu|/uu/|/uu. If you have a choice, always choose the meter that is in the same pattern as the other lines in poem.
If you think a poem is in a certain rhythm but it doesn't seem to fit, it may help to the say poem aloud while SHOUTING the syllables you think are strongest and whispering the ones you think are weaker, so the places that don't work will pop out at you and sound very strange. For example, you could test out the line "I'm learning how a poem scans" as this pattern /uu|/uu|/uu| by saying "I'M learning HOW a poEM scans," or as this pattern, u/|u/|u/|u/|, by saying "I'm LEARNing HOW a POem SCANS." Which one does your ear, or your whole body, tell you is better? (If you have trouble telling the difference, you can try pretending you're shouting the two versions to someone across a big room).
Step 4. Some scanners like to mark "promoted" syllables—places where the meter creates a stress where there would not be one in speech—with a special mark: a wand above a cup. This makes you more aware of how the line works, and you can do this if you like.
As you go, savor how the process of scanning helps you appreciate each syllable of the poem and its particular, unique weight at this spot in the poem. Feel the delicious differences between lines that scan identically but have very different words. Feel the effects of any contrasts between your expectation and the actual pattern, as you move through the lines. This is the pleasure of scansion: it helps you to feel a poem’s physical presence more attentively, more deeply.
Because English normally has a strong accent every two or three syllables, you will soon find these basic patterns in the poems you scan:
u/ Meter of Air (classical name: iamb, pronounced I-am)
/u Meter of Earth (classical name: trochee, pronounced TROW-key)
/uu Meter of Water (classical name: dactyl, pronounced DACK-till)
uu/ Meter of Fire (classical name: anapest, pronounced ANN-a-pest)
In most metrical poems, each line has the same number (usually four or five, once in a while three or six) of the same kind of feet, with maybe some variations or substitutions depending on how loose or tight the poet's style is. Lines with four feet are called tetrameters, and lines with five feet are called pentameters.
Look at the context of the poem for clues about the line-length. In an iambic pentameter poem, every line will have five feet , even if the poet has used variation so that some of those feet are not iambs. In a dactylic tetrameter poem, every line will have four feet, most of them dactyls with maybe a few trochees thrown in. As a good rule of thumb, remember that there is usually at least one accent per foot; so, if you know from the other lines that a poem is written in pentameter, your scansion of each line should have at least five accents in it.
While most lines scan quite straightforwardly, some lines are difficult to scan. There are even a few lines that critics have spent decades arguing over the correct way of scanning. So, if you get confused about a particular line, don't worry too much about it. The following advice will help with tricky lines:
- When in doubt, read the poem aloud again in a relaxed manner. The stressed syllables may seem to “pop out” at you. Listen for the swing of the meter.
- Hear the line you have doubts about in the context of the rest of the poem.
- Remind yourself that if other lines in the poem have a certain number of feet, your scansion of this line probably should have at least that number of accents (for example, in iambic pentameter, each line generally has at least five accents). Maybe you are missing a light accent that is actually supposed to be promoted (made stronger) by the meter. Or maybe there is a variation, such as a spondee (which we will discuss in the next chapter).
- If a line has more accents than other lines in the poem, remember that though every syllable in speech is somewhat accented, you only need to mark the strong accents.
- Go back and check your scansion to make sure that you marked the accents first, before bothering with cups and foot-boundaries, and that you marked the accents your ear was actually hearing. Many scansion problems come from trying to force a poem into a meter we think it should have, instead of listening to the actual rhythm. The trick of marking accents, then cups, then foot-boundaries is a huge help in keeping your ear in charge.
- Get a friend or two (or a big group!) to say the poem aloud with you. Combined voices usually decide quite clearly where the accents should fall.
- Your ear and/or your body should always be the final authority on whether a syllable is accented or not. If you are still confused about whether a syllable is accented, consider using the half-accent, marked by the reverse wand (\), a symbol that has resolved many metrical arguments.
Never forget that the ultimate aim of scansion is pleasure—to help you hear better where the rhythms of a poem lie, to distinguish between subtle degrees of emphasis that can poignantly affect meaning, and to appreciate and learn from the exquisite skill of a poet who may have spent decades perfecting the subtle art of metrical writing.
For more, see "How to Scan a Poem' video on my Youtube channel