Last week we talked about using rhyme in poetry. This week we will talk about another technique poets use to enrich their poetry—meter. Most of the poetry that you will read from the 18th and 19th centuries used both rhyme and meter. But many poets used meter in their poetry without making it rhyme. Here’s an example of metered, unrhymed poetry, also called blank verse:
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Metered poetry refers to poetry that repeats a particular rhythm in each line. The most commonly used meter in poetry is called iambic pentameter. It is probably the most widely used meter because it is very close to natural speech, and as we said last week, a more natural-sounding poetry is a good thing. William Shakespeare actually wrote all of his plays using iambic pentameter. This a good example of using meter without using rhyme. Here’s an example of iambic pentameter in a line from one of Shakespeare’s plays:
If music be the food of love, play on.
(from Twelfth Night)
As you can see, the words of these lines follow a rhythmic pattern which goes Da DUM Da DUM Da DUM Da DUM Da DUM. The Da’s and the DUM’S are called iambs, or beats, and because there are five sets of them (penta referring to five like the five sides of a pentagon), that makes iambic pentameter. And speaking of Shakespeare, if you really want to enrich your own writing, make yourself very familiar with William Shakespeare. He is considered the greatest writer in the English language. Or get yourself into the habit that Francie Nolan had. She was the main character of the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Every night before bed, she read one page of Shakespeare and one page of the Bible. If you do this also, it will greatly enrich your knowledge of language, and so enrich your writing. Speaking of bibles, I recommend reading one based on the King James Version. It’s full of beautiful writing. I started reading Shakespeare and the Bible when I was a teenager, but unfortunately I started with a bible I was given in Catholic school. Boooring. I didn’t even know there was a difference between bibles. There is. Once I started reading the Revised English Bible, I could see why reading the bible to become a good writer was good advice.
I would love to see some examples of iambic pentameter, or any other regular meter that you have used in your poetry. And if you have a favorite line of Shakespeare, or a favorite Bible verse, please share that with us as well. Until next time, I wish you richer writing.