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I is for Iambic Pentameter

April 11, 2015

What better time than National Poetry Month to celebrate iambic pentameter, that most basic meter of English poetry, echoing the human heartbeat? During all my years of teaching poetry–and Shakespearean drama–I have always enjoyed the challenge of teaching the basic principles of meter.

All language, I remind students, has rhythm; it doesn’t necessarily have meter.  The drum solo in “Inna Gadda Da Vida” has rhythm.  The marching band at halftime of a football game has meter.

To try to teach that basic metrical line, as I introduced Romeo and Juliet, I would take ten volunteers–five short and five all–and line them up:  short/tall/short/tall. . . .  I then gave each one a syllable of a line. The short people had unstressed syllables; the tall ones had the stressed.  I’d have them deliver the syllables with a goal of sounding like one voice, one sentence:

“Two house-holds both a-like in dig-ni-ty / in fair Ve-ro-na where we lay our scene. . . .”

We look for other lines that fit the meter in other places.  Southern writer Roy Blount, Jr. credits W. C. Handy with what he calls the greatest line of iambic pentameter ever written:  “I hate to see that evening’ sun go down.”

Using a great little teaching too, a sonnet chart with ten columns and fourteen rows, I would have students transform the Beatles’ classic “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)” into a sonnet, since it has the ideal rhyme scheme (love/day/of/say. . .  and ending with a couplet:  glad/bad).  The problem is that the Beatles’ lines are iambic trimeter, so  they had to find a way to insert four more syllables–with appropriate stressed and unstressed syllables.   It almost always worked–even though they quickly asked permission to abandon the rhyme provided and create their own.

I’m not such a poetry traditionalist that I expect rhyme scheme and meter in most poems.  I’ve seen what can go wrong when one sacrifices everything else for pattern. I do agree, however, with a suggestion I read in Writers Digest years ago:  Want to be a better poet? Try writing a sonnet every day for a year.  More than a few are bound to capture something beautiful.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 11, 2015 6:32 pm

    I wish I had had your suggestions while I was in the classroom, Cuz!! No wonder you’re such a great teacher!

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