April 13, 2014 by KWills
Hands up if that post title invoked nightmares of studying Shakespeare at school. “Iambic pentameter” is synonymous with “unfunny jokes and weird talk” for many people; scarred for life by being plunged head first into The Tempest at fourteen with no idea what was going on. Blank verse? Blank faces more like. Well, don’t panic – I’ll try to clear things up a bit.
(You can put your hands down now, by the way.)
The English language is “stress-timed”, meaning that we emphasise some parts of words over others. If you’ve every played “The Sims”, you’ll notice that the characters “talk” in gibberish, but the rhythm of their speech sounds like English, because of the way the stresses fall.
When using English in poetry, then, these stresses must be taken into account. To help poets talk to each other about that, the different patterns of stress in a word or phrase have been given names. For a full and detailed explanation of the six main patterns, see this article.
Meter: the pattern of stresses used in a poem. Often described in terms of the number and type of…
Foot: a unit of poetic measurement; a small grouping of stressed and unstressed syllables.
Iamb: a type of foot. Two syllables, rising from weak (unstressed) to strong (stressed). Today, New York, like so.
Trochee: the opposite of an iamb, a trochee has two syllables going from strong to weak. Know-how, hair-do, Bible.
Spondee: two stressed syllables together. Rare, but useful for emphasis. Top dog, high noon, get lost.
Pyrrhic: two unstressed syllables together. Even rarer, to the point where some poets argue that there is no such thing as a pyrrhic foot, and that there must be some stress, however light, when syllables come together.
Anapaest: a three-syllable foot, of two weak syllables rising to one strong. At the time, in a way, never mind, Robin Hood. Only in Britain, of course. In America, the famous outlaw’s name is a…
Dactyl: the opposite of an anapaest, one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones. Verity, Christopher, happiness.
When describing a poem’s meter, work out how many feet are in a line, and what type they are. Sometimes the strict rhythm is broken up with a few changes (known as “substitutions”), but you can usually tell if the overall pattern is “da-DUM”, “DUM-da”, “da-da-DUM”, or whatever. The type of foot used gives you the first part of the meter (iambic, trochic, anapaestic, etc.) and the number of feet in a line gives you the second part of the name (tetrameter = four feet per line, pentameter = five, hexameter = six, and so on).
So iambic pentameter isn’t scary at all – it simply means lines of five iambs each:
da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.
Voilà! Blank verse.
There’s a lot more to talk about with meter, but since I’m already behind I’m going to push that forward to next week and the letter ‘M’. Meanwhile, here is my poem for the day, written in iambic tetrameter.
In such a lengthy post (and late)
I’d better keep this poem short
Besides which, I am running low
On subjects for upcoming verse
This unrhymed doggerel will suffice
Until tomorrow’s post arrives.