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A Poetic Look At: How Iambic Pentameter Isn’t Terrifying (Nor Is Any Other Meter)

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(c) 2013 Windy Johansen

Ack! Meter AGAIN?

I-I know. I kind of messed it up before. Also, it helps to revisit things like this every now and again.

But it’s boring! And lame! Did I mention it was boring?
Yeah, it kind of is. It’s one of those fussy things. But it helps give your writing better…flow, you might call it.

O-Oh. Okay. Why?

There’s an inherent musicality in words, in the interplay of different stresses. If you put them together in the right way, you can mold your words to flow sweetly and calmly…or you can purposefully make them very jarring. (If you’re writing a scary scene, think of how it might help to have your words assisted by a jarring sort of rhythm. Conversely, think of how two lovers might speak to one another, and how you can show us their love for one another without relying entirely on just the words they speak.)

So I..hm. So how does this work?

I think that if we start by explaining more about meter, then you may find your own answers. What’s jarring to one, may be very sweet to another. However, I will try to give some examples later of what seems jarring or sweet to me.

It’ll be sort of fussy, but it’ll be rewarding in the end.

Rewarding is good.

It is. :D

Meter: The Second (and slightly fussy) Adventure

Let’s start with the idea of feet. An iamb is one kind of foot, but lets talk about the others.

Feet

In poetry, you measure feet by the fall of stressed syllables. There are disyllabic feet, trisyllabic feet, and tetrasyllabic feet. Feet don’t have to be limited to just words, although they can be. Feet are something akin to measures/bars in music, being stress/emphasis-based groupings, with the words being like notes (notes being able to stretch across barlines).

Disyllabic feet are:
spondee (DA-DA)
trochee/choree/choreus (DA-da)
iamb (da-DA)
pyrrhus/dibrach (da-da)

Trisyllabic feet are:
molossus (DA-DA-DA)
cretic/amphimacer (DA-da-DA)
bacchius (da-DA-DA)
antibacchius (DA-DA-da)
dactyl (DA-da-da)
amphibrach (da-DA-da)
anapest/antidactylus (da-da-DA)
tribrach (da-da-da)

Tetrasyllabic feet are:

dispondee (DA-DA-DA-DA)
ditrochee (DA-da-DA-da)
major ionic/triple trochee (DA-DA-da-da)
minor ionic/double iamb (da-da-DA-DA)
diiamb (da-DA-da-DA)
antispast (da-DA-DA-da)
choriamb (DA-da-da-DA)
tetrabrach/proceleusmatic (da-da-da-da)
primus paeon (DA-da-da-da)
secundus paeon (da-DA-da-da)
tertius paeon (da-da-DA-da)
quartus paeon (da-da-da-DA)
first epitrite (da-DA-DA-DA)
second epitrite (DA-da-DA-DA)
third epitrite(DA-DA-da-DA)
fourth epitrite (DA-DA-DA-da)

Identification

It might be very difficult to identify where the stresses are. It might be hard to see the boundaries between the feet. Be patient.

It took me a long. long time to see even stresses, and I’m still not sure I’d be able to see the foot boundaries perfectly.

Different accents and speaking styles can change stresses. Also, foot boundaries change based on the way the words are placed in lines and phrases.

Patience will give you the space to see exactly where the stresses and feet are.

Kind of Foot + Number of Feet Per Line = Meter

The reason iambic pentameter isn’t scary is because it is just five iambs to each line. In much the same way, we get all the other types of meters.

If we snag the iamb, and use it as an example of how this works, this should make more sense.

da-DA = iambic monometer
da-DA da-DA = iambic dimeter
da-DA da-DA da-DA = iambic trimeter
da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA = iambic tetrameter
da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA = iambic pentameter (there it is!)
da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA = iambic hexameter
da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA = iambic heptameter
da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA = iambic octameter

That’s how every meter works (just replace iambs with the poetic foot you want to). Of course, when you go to write, there are variations and adjustments made to benefit the poem or song. But now you know more about how meter works.

<3

About rootedphoenix

I am the owner and blogger on this site. Hi! :D I like sparkles, sweets, and being nice. But I also laugh at snarky things. So I'm a work in progress.
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