Poetry 101: Feet and Line

by courtvanhaaren

Ah yes, more technical measurements of poetry. The only time I really recall this material in school was the Romeo and Juliet segment of my freshman year. We spend only one class period, maybe fifteen minutes tops on the idea of iambic pentameter. I didn’t really grasp it then; in fact, iambic pentameter was a lot harder for me to really grasp than actually reading Shakespeare. Maybe it was the teaching?

But I definitely recall a writing assignment we had during that segment: the students were to write to the Capulets as Romeo, explaining the rational for our decisions. There was two versions of the letter; a ‘modern’ letter, consisting of our best attempts at being romantic, and a Shakespearian letter, basically consisting of many misplaced “thous” and “thees”. Well, in truth, writing the letters were not that hard for me, not even the Shakespearian. (Is that what she called it then? I don’t really know, please don’t hold me liable for a label that was briefly mentioned almost eight years ago). Well, we were given the chance to read our letters out loud. Of course, my conceited self could not pass up the chance to read my own creation. I remember the teacher commenting afterwards about how my ‘Shakespearian” actually was wrote in iambic pentameter. 

To this day, I couldn’t tell you how I managed that. It stumped me then, it stumps me now.

But as I look over my research for poetic feet, the idea actually somewhat makes sense. Shocking, right? Well, to begin my research started with the actual poetic foot. A poetic foot is “the basic repeated sequence of meter composed of two or more accented or unaccented syllables.” -purdue OWL

To break the poetic foot down, there are four ‘primary’ poetic feet

Iambic-(unaccented/accented)

Anapestic-(unaccented/unaccented/accented)

Trochaic-(accented/unaccented)

Dactylic-(accented/unaccented/unaccented)

not only are there primary feet, but there is also substitutive feet, which are used to vary or supplement primary feet. They consist of

Spondiac-(accented/accented)

Pyrrhiac-(unaccented/unaccented) (I stared at the example for this for honestly a good five minutes. The explanation was either awful, or I was completely misinterpreting it). 

The second part of the foot/line is the line, and their terms are based off of how many feet are in that said line. They usually do not surpass eight, with the terms being:

one: monometer

two: dimeter

three: trimeter

four: tetrameter

five: pentameter

six: hexameter

seven: heptameter

eight: octameter

After reading this through, the term iambic pentameter makes a little more sense than it did when I was a freshman. I think the actual concept of poetic meter might actually make sense sooner than anticipated, which is a relief. Any much longer and I would have to get my blood pressure checked. 

Maybe in a few days I will attempt a sonnet to better understand poetic meter. It’s really worth a shot. If I could write iambic pentameter without understanding it, I should really be able to do something with some basic knowledge.

At least I really hope. 

Here’s to less whining in the poetry slam!

~C M VanHaaren

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