Writing Non-Fiction posted September 13, 2012

This work has reached the exceptional level
or; Word Wrestling for the Uninitiated

Iambic Meter: How To

by Fleedleflump

Ever been told your 'scansion' is off? If so, this is the place for you. Don't be scared of that word; it's just the practice of analysing the sound patterns a poem makes when you read it. If you've ever written a poem, you've done it without thinking. Let's beat that scansion. Let's show it who the boss is.

Poetry straddles all things: culture, creed, time, even imperial and metric. That's right; it's the perfect anglo-american harmoniser, because poetry is measured in meters and feet. If I haven't put you off with my groan-inducing punnery, or if anything with the word iambic in it sounds like a gymnastic event, do read on.

Meter describes the way a poem sounds when we read it - either aloud or mentally. It's a way to define the rhythm of your words. When we look at meter, we talk in terms of syllables. That's because each syllable is an individual sound, and the melody of a poem is built on their whims.

What is Iambic Meter?

Iambic meter is a rhythm of words whereby syllables are structured in pairs, each pair consisting of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable (I'll get to stresses and how to recognise them later).


ASIDE: There are several other recognised types of meter, for example:

Trochaic (pairs of syllables with a stressed then an unstressed element)
Anapestic (groups of three syllables in the format of unstressed, unstressed, STRESSED)
Dactylic (three syllables in the format of STRESSED, unstressed, unstressed)
Pyrrhic (pairs of unstressed syllables)
Spondaic (pairs of STRESSED syllables)

There are more, but I'm trying to keep this tangent contained!


Iambic, though, is in pairs of syllables, unstressed then stressed. Master this, and the more esoteric meters will look more like foothills than mountains.

Tripping Over One's Feet

These pairs of syllables are referred to as feet (this is true for the syllable groups in any meter, so anapaestic or dactylic feet have three syllables, as described above). When you see a word after 'iambic', it's referring to the number of feet required per line of verse. So, iambic trimeter would have three feet (six syllables in total) per line. Tetrameter has four, and pentameter five.

It was the sonnet that caused me to write this article, because it's a well-recognised form many aspiring poets want to try. So, for the purposes of this article, we'll stick to iambic pentameter, because the vast majority of sonnets are written this way. So, that's five iambic feet (totalling ten alternating unstressed and stressed syllables) per line.

Getting Stressed

As annoying English teachers like to put it, Iambic pentameter is:

da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM

So, we arrive at iambic stresses. The key thing here is there are NO FIRM RULES on how words and the syllables within them are stressed. If there were, anapestic and other, longer meters wouldn't exist. Some words can be stressed or unstressed, some can work in either order, and others will only work one way. That might seem like it complicates matters, but really it opens them up, giving the poet inside freedom to make music with words.


ASIDE: The reason for this ambiguity is that we're trying to count and define sounds in a visual medium (written words). Sounds are affected by what precedes and follows them, dialect, atmosphere, and the accent of the speaker. Hence, we can get into arguments over how many syllables a word has, never mind how each of those syllables might be stressed. If it sounds hard, that's because we're trying to define it in words here, when meter is all about rhythm, and that comes from the sounds your words make when you read them.


MOST words, though, will have a natural way in which we stress their syllables when we speak them. Working that into poetry boils down to instinct, practice, and a willingness to rearrange your lines. I'll do some examples.

Making an Example (of a Bastard)

Let's take the word Bastard. Firstly, we can establish it's formed of two syllables (I'll spell them phonetically to show sounds more clearly);


Now, to test where the stresses naturally fall, imagine shouting one or other of the syllables. The shouted one naturally draws emphasis, hence acting as our stressed syllable. We might try:


By placing the emphasis on the second syllable we sound like a bad impression of a Frenchman, or someone who's had a couple too many whiskeys. The other way around, though...


...is far closer to how we naturally say the word. Hence, we establish that Bastard is emphasized on the first syllable. In other words, it's a Dum-da word. That means you can never use Bastard at the start of a line of iambic meter.


ASIDE: Indeed, the opening word of an iambic line is one of the most important, because multi-syllable words that start with an unstressed syllable are generally not natural sentence-beginners. You should build a collection of good ones, like en-TWINED, and keep them in mind.


Putting Stress in Its Place

If we want to use Bastard, it needs something before it. Let's keep it simple:

A bastard lives under clouds forever

Bastard now stresses correctly, and there are ten syllables in the line, but there's a problem. If you read it, it feels flat and a little awkward. It's fine for prose, but lacks that lyrical elegance that poetry needs. We can see what's wrong by writing out the words the way we naturally pronounce them:

a BAAS-tard LIVES UN-der CLOUDS for-EV-er

da DUM da DUM DUM da DUM da DUM da

The line falls over at 'Under' (excuse the pun), because we naturally pronounce UNder with the stress on the UN (remember to shout the capitalised syllable to get the effect), but its position in the line above wants us to stress it the other way (unDER). Otherwise, we get two DUMs together, which is what spoils the line.

If we switch the words around, we can fix it:

A bastard lives forever under clouds

a BAAS-tard LIVES for-EV-er UN-der CLOUDS

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

Stressed and Single

Hang on a minute. You can avoid all this stress by writing with single syllable words, right? Wrong. You may think stresses are irrelevant to monosyllabic sonneteers, but that's not true. Some single-syllable words will naturally draw emphasis, others won't. The secret is where you put them:

Light; a lack of it plays with mens' mad minds

Sounds like prose, doesn't it? That's down to the way we emphasize words:

LIGHT, a LACK of it PLAYS with MENS' mad MINDS
DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da DUM

Let's try rephrasing the line, still with single syllables:

With minds of men, a lack of light will play

It flows better now. That's because we don't naturally emphasize conjunctions or very short words. There are historical and linguistic reasons for this (in greek, for example, meter is measured by length instead of emphases), but what matters is how the line as a whole sounds in your head.

Applying Fleedleflump's Verbal Diarrhoea

There's a cardinal rule when writing with meter; if it feels awkward to read, then it's probably off somewhere. You don't need to over-analyse each word and line, you just need to let the words flow they way they want to. When a line feels awkward, slap it out on the desk and rearrange it. You might need to substitute a couple of words, or even make changes to the lines around, but there is ALWAYS A WAY. It might help to read a few sonnets first, just to get your mental narrator into an iambic gear, but you'll get there.

I really hope this helps. Please ask questions if I've been unclear or you want clarification, and I'll come up with other examples and ways of explaining it. I know you can do it. It's just a matter of finding that 'click' catalyst; the example or explanation that shifts your thoughts into the appropriate gear. Before long, it's difficult to write without iambic meter, which can get really annoying in its own right!

Good luck, and I look forward to reading your sonnets.


If you find this helpful, please let me know. I'm considering writing some more one-off articles about other aspects of our varied craft.

I don't claim to be the world's most accomplished writer of sonnets, but I do know what helped me learn to write them, and this is my attempt to share that.

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