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How-To: Iambic Pentameter

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Mon Oct 03, 2011 10:41 pm
Lumi says...

For anyone who has survived a High School English class, there will be a certain bite to the title of this thread. That bite will either hurt or tickle, all depending on how well you grasp Iambic Pentameter. There's a worry that comes with reading Iambic Pentameter, and that worry grows even stronger when writing it. But Iambic Pentameter is really nothing to be afraid of. It's constructed in a way that strongly mirrors how we speak English--in fact, Shakespeare employed Iambic Pentameter in his plays not only because he was a poet, but because it made it easier for the actors to remember their lines because of the rhythm.

But it's a different century, and you won't find Natalie Portman speaking in Iambic Pentameter any time soon; but we still write in this form because it's a heavily established form of poetry. So let's take this in as writers and poets. And the question often arises after reading or writing in this common old-English style:

Is it the poet's job to make the syllables fit?

Making the syllables fit is actually the hardest part about writing in Iambic Pentameter because it demands that the words flow naturally within and between themselves. To figure this out, you have to know a little bit about language mechanics, particularly the invisible parts of English.

As far as this is concerned, though, let's just learn about the invisible beats. Iambic Pentameter is constructed with ten syllables. Those ten syllables are broken into five feet*, or pairs of syllables. And the way we read those ten syllables can be constructed as:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

with each da DUM being a single iambic foot. To reiterate: there are five of these iambic feet in each line of Iambic Pentameter.

So imagine you have the following line in Iambic Pentameter:

The wolf disguised himself to fool the girl.

Notice that there's no strain on any of the words with a single syllable--the, wolf, to, fool, the, girl. That's because there's only one place you can put emphasis in these words, and there's no way to really botch them up. However, if you look at the remaining two words--disguised, himself, you'll notice that the emphasis still comes naturally, though it's only on one beat of the word. This is because of accents, which are invisible in English. Let me mark this up for you.


See how natural it is? But watch what happens to the flow when you change it up with emphasis:

The boy understood the power of please.

See how it's suddenly clunky? It's because you still have ten syllables, but if you read it in I.P. (Iambic Pentameter), it falls apart because you place the emphasis on the wrong syllable. To see it marked up:

The BOY unDERstood THE powER of PLEASE.

That's all wrong, right? That's because, naturally, understood is emphatically underSTOOD, and not unDERstood as it was coined. We're not taught to read it that way, so it doesn't come off naturally.

So, to answer the question, it is completely the poet's job to write the iambs correctly! If you don't, then your reader will stumble, and it won't be smiled upon. So, in a nutshell, just have a firm understanding of English mechanics, especially in emphatic accents, because it's greatly necessary in I.P. poetry.

I hope this helps and isn't too technical or hard to understand. Post any questions or additional advice below.


*: A foot is a measure of meter. You can figure out the way you're supposed to read poetry based on the structure of the feet, and by the number of feet in the line. In this case, "Iambic" describes the structure of the feet, and "Pentameter" describes the number of feet in each line.
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Sun Jan 22, 2012 1:24 am
AlfredSymon says...

Hey Lumi! Thanks for the facts! I've been writing poetry for a long time now, and I always had a hard time writing English Sonnets.

Thanks for the short guide!
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