Some Useful Ideas for Those Writing Poetry (Part 4)
I am no expert in rhythms that are set out for the poet to work within-like Iambic Pentameter. Indeed I think it must be very hard to try to write a good poem and keep to the restrictions of the form at the same time. I know that great poets in the past have used this kind of set structure but to me it is very limiting. Listening to more modern poets who read their poems which have been written in complex set rhyming schemes, I just don’t get much sense of rhythm. I think these set structures can hamper the search for meaning and also the search for rhythm. When you read your own poems feel for the tiny rhythms that are already there. Build up a relationship with the rhythms of your poems and yourself. Trust your poem and your instincts!
In prose or poetry two connected beats that consist of an unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat are jointly called an iamb. This relationship between beats can be described in various ways: the most used example being ti-tum. If there are five iambs in a line or phrase (ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum) the line is called iambic pentameter. Penta means five.
Blank verse consists, to a large degree, of unrhymed iambic pentameter
If we consider Shakespeare’s line from Hamlet, To be, or not to be, that is the ques[tion.] The beat is said to be ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, tum-ti, ti-tum, ti. So looked at closely, the line is almost iambic pentameter (five iambs). However, there is an extra syllable [tion.] He could have done without the extra syllable and had Hamlet say, To be, or not to be, that is the point. The line is so famous that it is hard to judge what Shakespeare gained from the extra syllable. Also, the fourth double beat is reversed and is tum-ti instead of ti-tum. The tum-ti (technically called a trochee) brings attention to bear on the fourth double beat, that is.
You are either a fan of Shakespeare’s plays or you are not. I am not. But every word is placed there exactly. He was not loose with the sound of his words.
Without the speaker consciously intending it, spoken English in ordinary conversation quite often follows a pattern of iambs. We instinctively find it easy to use.
One type of rhyme used to be called masculine rhyme-and this is where the two rhyming syllables are the last syllables in the line. The rhyme is now said to be a strong rhyme. Calling a rhyme “masculine” is now deemed to be outdated and sexist.
Another type of rhyme was called, feminine rhyme and this is where the rhyming syllables are the second last syllables in the line. This rhyme is now said to be called a weak rhyme.
Dylan Thomas often used a molossus. Whenever I listened to Dylan Thomas reading his poetry (on CD) I could hear that that he often used a triple rhythm i.e. three strong stresses in the same phrase. Sometimes the stressed words were also alliterated. Occasionally, one molossus would be followed by another, after a short break of perhaps one word. It is an interesting rhythm and people enjoy its short rhythmic “interruption” in the flow of a poem
Two worthwhile books to read are:
The Poetry Handbook by John Lennard. It has lots in it but is heavy going. There is also, An Introduction to English Poetry, by James Fenton. This is short but interesting.
Another book which teaches less but has more poems in it is, The Secret Life of Poems by Tom Paulin.