Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The joy of prosody: iambic pentameter

Today we have a guest post from Coeur d'Alene poet Elizabeth Mastin. Elizabeth's passion is learning about the great poets and studying the craft of writing good metrical poetry. For the past several years she has shared her love of all things poetic with the members of the Coeur d'Alene Chapter of the Idaho Writer's League through their monthly newsletter.

Liz has two poems published in an anthology entitled Empty Shoes, a book assembled to raise money for the hungry and homeless in Wisconsin. She also has a poem published in The New England Waldorf School Literary Review, a poem in Parchment and Quill and another in the Montana Writers League’s Holiday Anthology.

The joy of prosody: iambic pentameter
by Liz Mastin

Just what is prosody? "
An interest in metrics is crucial for the conscientious poet": William Bauer

In his book: all the fun’s in how you say a thing, Timothy Steel defines prosody as “the study of meter,” but, he continues, “it also has a broader application than just metrics. The word prosody comes from the Greek word prosoidia, (tone or accent, modulation of voice, song sung to music). The random house dictionary of the English Language describes meter as the science or study of poetic meters and versification. This suggests, says Steele, that prosody not only includes the topic of meter, but also such related topics as stanzaic structure and rhyme.

According to William Bauer in his book writing metrical poetry, “the fundamental nature of every language determines its meter (the underlying rhythmic structure of language). The purpose of meter is to create a comforting sense of structural order and, if possible, a recognizable up-and-down or back-and-forth rhythm or beat. Poets and literary theorists have generally assumed that the natural pleasure derived from this underlying rhythm relates to the rhythms found in the natural world such as waves of the ocean, the in and out of breathing, and, most significantly, the human heartbeat.”

Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub, goes the heart, comforting and steady. It only follows that our language would be highly influenced by this rhythmic beat. Our heart beat could be considered to be a continuous iambic beat. Iamb is the name given to one particular arrangement of soft and hard beats that make up the meter of iambic metered poems. According to William Bauer, the iambic beat is the basis of our language, so the carefully placed iambs within our poems should not prevent the language from sounding natural.

Iambic pentameter is a steady Lub Dub across the line five times, penta meaning five. It is generally notated this way: 1. _ / 2. _ / 3. _ / 4. _ / 5. _ / Each set of lub dubs constitutes one metrical foot. The steady two beat pattern in iambic pentameter goes: 1. short long, 2. short long, 3. short long, 4. short long, 5. Short long --syllabic accents.

An example of the iambic pentameter line could be Shakespeare’s line:

But, soft! What light through yon- der win- dow breaks?
_ / _ / _ / _ / _ /
Notice that the second syllables: soft, light, yon, win and breaks, receive a hard accent. A good practice is to write your own lines trying to stay true to the iambic beat. To demonstrate:

“I’d love / to write / a bright / and thought / ful poem.”
_ / _ / _ / _ / _ /
Liz Mastin Bio
Liz Mastin is a poet who lives in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho during the summer and Bullhead City, Arizona in winter. She thrives on the study of the great poets, their biographies, the schools of poetry to which they adhered, and the poetic conventions of the times in which they lived.

Her overriding quest is to accurately learn the craft of writing good metrical poetry. Helping her to accomplish this is both her ongoing study of the great metrical poets, and the study of many books on how to write metrical poetry. She advocates gaining a greater proficiency in grammatical skills and encourages vocabulary building and at least a passing knowledge of Greek Mythology.

While she enjoys free verse as well as metrical poetry, her main interest lies in prosody. She notices that most of the enduring poems are those we can remember and recite. Liz enjoys poetry forms such as the sonnet, the sestina, the couplet, blank verse, simple quatrains, etc. and she hopes to see modern poets regain interest in studied metrical poetry.

She looks forward to sharing with others the important rules to proper metrical poetry that some may not have realized. For example, a poet should not rhyme a plural end word (of a line) with a singular end word. Rhyming words may be feminine or masculine. Techniques such as enjambment can add much interest. A good working knowledge of foot and meter is important. Other techniques such as withheld image, similes and metaphors, the importance of the last line, are all a part of writing good metrical poetry.

Liz is currently putting together her first collection of poems which should be completed this winter. The poems are a mixture of metrical and free verse poems.

What a Plan
What a plan, that at night,
All grows silent until light,
Then from trees to which they cling,
Birds open their mouths and sing.

Next seabirds, break the peace,
Piping up on gull-white wings.
They’re off to search the rolling seas
For swimming schools of bright sardines.

Soon hearty workmen, tough as nails,
Bring to shipyards gray lunch pails.
They’re thankful for the coming day
And for the work that genders pay.

As bright sun shines, the day moves on.
Congenial workers form a bond:
Talk and laughter is agreed upon,
All begun with birds at dawn.
by Liz Mastin


Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thank you Liz for this informative post on poetry craft. Your explanation of iambic pentameter is clear and your poem that follows is a beautiful example. Iambic pentameter is a term that is sometimes easy to forget, and it is nice to be reminded of the metric and method of traditional poetry. When I lived in Alaska we had a poetry study group we called the Iambic Moose. Fun! Thanks for being a WNI guest and I look forward to more of your posts.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Wonderful post, Liz ! As someone who enjoys reading, and writing poetry too, I found your explanation about iambric pentameter interesting,and helpful. I especially liked the examples you gave, both Shakespeare's & your own :)