Poetry Boot Camp: I Don’t Know What I’ve Been Told, Shakespeare’s Plays Are Mighty Old

Alex Cabal
by Alex Cabal

Posted February 14th, 2008 • 16 comments

It’s easy to think of poetry as a method of totally free expression, as just a few lines of whatever’s on your mind or in your heart. Write a few sentences, pop in a few line breaks, and presto, you’ve got a poem, right? Wrong. Drop and give me twenty.

A rulerWhen you do that, all you’ve got is a few sentences with some line breaks, and maybe a few rhymes if you’re lucky. Poetry is something much more complicated and detailed than that. Poetry is knowing how rules and sounds of the language work together to create a particular emotion. Poetry is carefully shaping each and every line, each and every syllable, to make the reader feel what the poet’s feeling. The emotion in a poem is just half of the equation. What lots of people don’t know, and don’t want to know, is that poetry is all about rules.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But why can’t I just write poetry however I feel like? Only I know how to convey my deep and powerful feelings. No silly ‘rules’ can contain the raw emotion in my poetry!” I know that’s what you’re thinking because I used to think the same thing.

I’m here to tell you that any old shmuck can write a few lines about how their heart’s broken and how their soul is black and how it will be forever midnight in their hearts. But it’s the true poet who knows how to use the rules of poetry to make the reader feel like it’s their heart that’s been broken. And part of knowing how to do that means knowing the basics.

Luckily, the basics are pretty simple. So, with that in mind, this post is the first part of Poetry Boot Camp. Get your writin’ boots on, your pen ready, and your poet’s crew-cut nice and trim, recruit, because we’re going to start off by learning about meter!


First of all: what the heck is meter? It’s not that stick your teacher used to point to in class, and it’s definitely not the 70’s funk band. Meter is how you measure the syllables in your lines. You know how your English teacher used to tell you that Shakespeare wrote in something called iambic pentameter? That’s a kind of meter. Meter is the pattern that the beats in a sentence make.

You measure meter by looking at the words in your poem. If you can read and clap, then congratulations! You can also read meter. Look at this line from Romeo and Juliet:

Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Try clapping whenever you reach a syllable that’s emphasized. You’ll probably clap something like this:

good NIGHT, good NIGHT! PARTing is SUCH SWEET SORRow.

That’s all it takes—the beats are on the capitalized letters. Sometimes it’s a little tricky to find the beats, but most of the time it’s as straightforward as you think it is. Now that we know where the beats are, how do we analyze them?

In modern English, we group beats into units called feet. A foot is a sequence of beats, and there are lots of different kinds of feet. The most popular one, as Shakespeare probably taught you, is called the iamb (think Popeye: “Iamb what iamb!”). Here are a few iambs:

beyond attract enlist aghast

Can you see what these words have in common? Let’s look at them again, this time with the beats marked:

beYOND atTRACT enLIST aGHAST

See how the first syllable is always UNstressed and the second syllable is always stressed? That’s an iamb! An iamb is a group of two syllables, with the first unstressed and the second stressed. Each of these words is a single iamb. Easy, huh?

So know you know half of Shakespeare’s favorite meter. But what’s “pentameter?” Pentameter just means that there are exactly five feet (or iambs) in a line. Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, so that means that his lines were all a series of five iambs. That’s all there is to it!

Want me to prove it? Here are some famous Shakespeare quotes, with the stresses and feet marked:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.

my WORDS | fly UP, | my THOUGHTS | reMAIN | beLOW

We should be woo’d and were not made to woo

we SHOULD | be WOO’D | and WERE | not MADE | to WOO

A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!

a HORSE, | a HORSE! | my KING | dom FOR | a HORSE!

See? All “iambic pentameter” means is that there are just five iambs per line, with an iamb being a pair of syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed. Simple as that, and you’re already on your way to being a better poet.

Now that you know what iambs are, they’ll start jumping out at you as you’re reading poetry. In the next installment, we’ll cover some different kinds of feet (there’s more than just the humble iamb), and why meter even matters!

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