English verse is qualitative. The quality in question being the alternating patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables.
I went downtown to buy a loaf of bread.
Perfect iambic pentameter. If you put your hand facing palm-down under your chin and say that sentence out loud, you might be able to feel your jaw extending a bit more where the italicized, stressed syllables fall. We give them a little bit more oomph. I won't go into all the different patterns today, but we play around with those patterns in English poetry, and we have fun. You can play around with these different stresses more with jazz chants, a curious little tool I learned about while making ESL lesson plans.
Certain other languages have poetry that is called quantitative. The quantity here is the number of vowels. They base their poetry around a number and pattern of vowel sounds. These languages can have two (sometimes three) vowel sounds in a row making long and short vowels (not to be confused with long/short vowels as we native English speakers may have learned in kindergarten, more on that in minute). So the patterns of Ancient Greek, Classical Persian, or Japanese poetry aren't concerned with stressed / unstressed syllables, but how many vowels occur, creating long or short syllable patterns. They have certain set patterns that they play around with, too.
English is a bit hard to write quantitative verse in because our vowel sounds stretch and shrink depending on regional accents and emotional tones. It's not common for two vowel sounds to come one right after the other in English. Usually when this occurs they get smooshed together into a special kind of vowel called a diphthong. As I read the poems of Hafiz, I thought of the long and short vowel patterns of Classical Persian, and whether or not a poem could be written in quantitative English verse. Through my research I discovered that some poets had already written some. I also got hung up on what I learned as "long" and "short" vowels in school. As a matter of fact those are not long or short now, but they used to be back in the days of Middle English. We only use the terms long/short as a matter of tradition these days, but they used to be short --a single vowel-- and long -- a doubled vowel. Now, of course, these are totally different vowel sounds.
That's when I decided to research a little linguistics. Thanks to the amazing wonders of science we can record and playback recordings of people saying things. This has allowed linguists the opportunity to measure vowel length and organize our vowel sounds accordingly. There are even different lists for different accents. In a very roundabout way I accidentally taught myself some of the International Phonetic Alphabet and set to writing a poem that used alternating, linguistically long and short patterns.
The pattern I chose is long/short/short where six long syllables make up a line, and 12 lines make up the poem. I've included the IPA below the poem to help you along. I wrote this in my very own General American accent, so if you speak a different dialect or have a different accent things probably won't match up. I compiled my list of long vowels from this IPA chart for GenAm. My memory's struggling a little know since I wrote this a few weeks ago, but I think I decided all diphthongs are long and the American "r (as in bird)" is long, too.
And now. A quantitative poem, brought to you by linguistic science!
Moving from a Small Town to a City
Leaving this home was not hard and yet these flat hot days will break a man.
Staying with these rough sad faces any more would kill stone dead the good in him.
So this departure to fairer lands where jobs and schools sure can grow among
Hard rich concrete the best soil that will raise his cut soul above those stagnant
Beams of yellow sun in a dusty barn that can't hold his big dreams of the
Future. In the here present now a sting. Heat and sweat for the big brown boxes.
Merciless gaze of the beating sun burns on the boiling black wheel. Plastic
Gear shift melts. Old Busted groans, belches smoke and just barely runs these heavy
Broken shelves, old books and plates from this place among wheezing dead dreams and puts
Each up in a city where one and all of them bloom in the new living
Space. The hot spider web town that sought to tangle, gone such that now he can
Breathe! His head he can put down in a new soft bed cool and with light and rest.
ˈlivɪŋ ðɪs hoʊm wʌz nɑt hɑrd ænd jɛt ðiz flæt hɑt deɪzwɪl breɪk ə mən.
ˈsteɪɪŋ wɪð ðiz rʌf sæd ˈfeɪsəz ˈɛni mɔr wʊd kɪl stoʊndɛd ðə gʊd ɪn hɪm.
soʊ ðɪs dɪˈpɑrʧər tu ˈfɛrər lændz wɛr ʤɑbz ænd skulzʃʊr kæn groʊ əˈmʌŋ
hɑrd rɪʧ ˈkɑnkrit ðə bɛst sɔɪl ðæt wɪl reɪz hɪz kʌt soʊləˈbʌv ðoʊz ˈstægnənt
bimz ʌv ˈjɛloʊ sʌn ɪn ə ˈdʌsti bɑrn ðæt kænt hoʊld hɪzbɪg drimz ʌv ði
ˈfjuʧər. ɪn ðə hir ˈprɛzənt naʊ ə stɪŋ. hit ænd swɛt fɔrðə bɪg braʊn ˈbɑksəz.
ˈmɜrsələs geɪz ʌv ðə ˈbitɪŋ sʌn bɜrnz ɑn ðə ˈbɔɪlɪŋblæk wil. ˈplæstɪk
gɪr ʃɪft mɛlts. oʊld ˈbʌstɪd groʊnz, ˈbɛlʧɪz smoʊk ændʤʌst ˈbɛrli rʌnz ðiz ˈhɛvi
ˈbroʊkən ʃɛlvz, oʊld bʊks ænd pleɪts frʌm ðɪs pleɪsəˈmʌŋ ˈwizɪŋ dɛd drimz ænd pʊts
iʧ ʌp ɪn ə ˈsɪti wɛr wʌn ænd ɔl ʌv ðɛm blum ɪn ðə nuˈlɪvɪŋ
speɪs. ðə hɑt ˈspaɪdər wɛb taʊn ðæt sɔt tuˈtæŋgəl, gɔn sʌʧ ðæt naʊ hi kæn
brið! hɪz hɛd hi kæn pʊt daʊn ɪn ə nu sɑft bɛd kulænd wɪð laɪt ænd rɛst.
And there you go. I don't reckon it the best poem by far, but a poem it is and not too shabby.
I highly recommend Elizabeth Gray's translation of the poems of Hafiz. It's a beautiful, informative and readable collection. The intro gave me the inspiration to write this poem.