Oh you KNEW I would jump at this one, Andrew...
The way that you can tell if a syllable is stressed or unstressed is all in the way that the words are said. Take a simple word like "walking." Say it out loud to yourself. You naturally stress the first syllable of it, to say, "WALK-ing." Now try stressing the last syllable. "walk-ING." See how much different it sounds? Of course the correct pronounciation of the word is the prior. Syllable stress is all a matter of how a word is properly pronounced.
Well there are many different kinds of meter, but there are a few basic "feet" that are primarily used... like the iamb (iambic), the trochee (trochaic), the anapest (anapestic), the dactyl (dactylic) and, to a lesser extent, the pyrric and the spondee (spondaic).
The common notation for meter is a / symbolizing a stressed syllable, and a flat u-shape that I can't make with my keyboard, symbolizing an unstressed syllable. I'll just use ~ for an unstressed.
The differences in the feet is the amount of syllables, and which ones are stressed and unstressed.
There are many different kinds of feet... I've got about twenty listed on my website, but I'm sure there could be more out there... it's all a matter of inventive poetry. Here are the common examples that I mentioned above:
Iamb: ~/ (example: "Create")
Trochee: /~ (example: "Harvest")
Dactyl: /~~ (example: "Heavenly")
The type of meter refers to the amount of feet used in a line. ie: Iambic pentameter, five iambs per line. Anapestic trimeter, three anapests per line. Commonly, in many forms of meter, it is necessary to extend or trim some of the feet over the course of a poem. Take the example from the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty: "All the king's horses and all the king's men." This is clear dactylic meter, however, the last foot is trimmed down to a single stressed syllable. This is helpful to the flow of the poem by inciting a pause between lines.
There's a lot about meter to be learned, but most of it comes from use. Play around with different forms, try some new feet (I find that anapests are a good place to start), and see what you come up with.
If you're still having any confusion as to what constitutes a stressed and unstressed syllable, raise your index finger and follow the syllables up and down as you read it through to yourself. Try and exaggerate the bounce in your tone and see if it still sounds plausable.
Eventually meter will just become second nature to you and you'll probably rarely write without it.
Hope that helps.
Learn to place poetry before people
Before you place your poetry before the people.
[This message has been edited by Local Parasite (10-15-2002 09:38 AM).]