Friday, April 20, 2012

The Joy of Prosody: Predomination of the Iamb

By Liz Mastin

As I study poetry, I continue to discover very helpful information I had not previously known. I enjoy sharing these discoveries with you as I believe they can help to remove some of the mystery of writing good metrical poetry.

While reading along in my book Writing Metrical Poetry by William Baer, I chanced upon this bit of knowledge. (on page 20) under the heading “The Iamb” he states “Over 90% of English verse is written in the iambic meter.” This meter consists of feet of two syllables where the strong beat falls on the “second” syllable, or da dum.

While I don’t know the percentage of American poetry written in the iambic meter, it is probably high as well. I do know that other feet can predominate (at least occasionally.) “The Song of Hiawatha,” for instance, by Longfellow, is written in the trochaic meter, with the strong beat on the “first” syllable “Should you/ ask me,/ whence these/ stories,/ Whence these/ legends/ and tra/ ditions, etc. Many American nursery rhymes also use the trochaic meter such as “Peter,/ Peter,/ pumpkin/ eater. But it seems that most metrical poems employ a predominant iambic foot.

I would like to share a few more interesting tidbits concerning poetry:

The writing of a poem
According to British poet Phillip Larken (1922-1985), the writing of a poem begins “when the poet becomes obsessed with a concept or an idea. He then proceeds to construct a verbal device that will re-produce that concept or idea; and finally the reader (as he or she reads) will set off the device, re-creating what the poet felt when he wrote it.”

He goes on to say that if the construction of the verbal device is not well done, the poem will not deliver an impact and will fizzle out in a short time.

According to William Baer, “A poem should move us in some way. It should teach us something and it should entertain!” He stresses the entertainment part by saying that “If one’s work doesn’t entertain its readers in some way, it will soon be unread and forgotten!” This is important for a poet to remember.

In my last column, I noted how the romantic poets stopped using iambic pentameter, except for form poems such as the sonnet and the sestina. They favored shorter lyrical kinds of poems, and used more varieties of feet. The lines grew shorter and substitutions (using other feet to replace the iamb) in iambic lines, became common. The pastoral was especially popular.

However, the short lyrical poem was around long before the Romantic poets. I ran across some very old charming lyrical poems in Seven Centuries of Verse (English and American) assembled by A.J.M. Smith, from Michigan State University. Here are a few verses from an old ballad entitled “JOLLY GOOD ALE AND OLD,” by author unknown, written in the middle ages.

It is written in alternating iambic tetrameter lines (having four feet) and iambic trimeter lines (having three feet) lines. If you study each line you will see that the feet are indeed all iambic as the strong emphasis falls on the second syllable of each foot.

1.I can’ 2.not eat’ 3.but lit’ 4.tle meat’,
1.My sto’ 2.mach is’ 3.not good’;
1.But sure’ 2.I think’ 3.that I’ 4.can drink
With all’ 2.the broth’ hood


I cannot eat but little meat,

My stomach is not good;
but sure I think that I can drink
With all the brotherhood.

Though I go bare, take ye no care,

I nothing am a-cold;
I stuff my skinso full within
Of jolly good ale and old.

I love no roast but a nut-brown toast,
And a crab laid by the fire;
A little bread shall do me stead;
Much bread I don’t desire.

No frost, nor snow, no wind, I vow,
Can hurt me if it would,
I am so enwrapped and thoroughly lapped
With jolly good ale and old.

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.

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. 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.


Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Thank you, Liz! I've always bit a little intimidated by poetry (thanks, sophomore English class) but your clear explanations are encouraging me to try.

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

I enjoyed this post, Liz. I especially like Larken's idea that a poem is a verbal device that a poet creates to express the poet's obsession of a particular concept or idea. Thanks for this deeper look into the structure and methods of poetry.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

Lovely post, Liz. I couldn't agree more ...a poem should move us in some way .

Jennifer Rova said...

My knowledge of poetry is "I like it" or "I don't get it." Your posts on poetry are a great source of education for me. Thanks!

Igloo said...

Larkin's idea of a three-part process, with the reader themselves being the final part of a poem's reading, is very interesting.