In freshman year English, my teacher Mr. Johnson assigned a paper on Oedipus Rex that, including its introduction, 2 body paragraphs, and conclusion, could be no longer than 500 words. And, we could not use the verb to be in any of its forms, including “is,” “are,” “am, “be,” and “was.” Undaunted, I deemed him a fool, and considered an assignment of a mere 500 words to pose no significant challenge.
To my chagrin, I found it easy to write a 1,000 4-paragraph essay, even 800 words, but 500 proved impossible! How could I get across everything I wanted to say in so short a space, and include quotes! And to not use the linguistic crutch I had leaned on for years, the verb “to be” on top of it all. O, the humanity!
Mr. Johnson, in his brilliance, recognized that students do not innately possess the ability to edit their thoughts once they pen them to paper. Rather, students (myself included) consider the assignment completed once they type their last word and rarely, if ever, go back to edit what we have written. So, writing appears haphazard and unconnected, like an archipelago of thought where the paragraphs join together somewhere deep in the mind of the author. So why do I bring up this example, aside from providing a subtle apology to my High School English teacher, since he knew what he was doing after all?
Mr. Johnson’s writing requirements forced me to learn the habits of editing, of combing through a text after I had written and (gasp!) delete things I had written, since I realized they were no longer necessary. Writing everything I wanted to say in under 500 words proved no easy feat, especially if I wanted to say everything I needed to on that topic. Then, excising the verb “to be” helped me remove unnecessary words and replace them with strong active verbs.
I have found that the same habits of careful editing are encouraged that much more so by writing, every so often, in iambic pentameter, the meter of Shakespeare’s plays and of English epic poetry. Iambic pentameter is a poetic meter that is comprised of 5 metrical “feet,” or units of poetry. Then, within each metrical foot there are two syllables, one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed syllable). So there you have it: an iamb is a type of metrical foot that has one unstressed and one stressed syllable, and there are 5 of them in such a line of poetry (hence, penta, meaning 5).
Poetry in iambic pentameter derives from the natural rhythm and flow of the English language, even from the natural rhythms of our bodies. If you place your hand over your heart, you can feel your heart beating in the same unstressed, stressed pattern as a line of Shakespearean verse (da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM).
Value of Writing in Iambic Pentameter
To write in iambic pentameter requires carefully crafting your words so that they not only convey your intended meaning, but that they fit within the well-defined structure of a line of poetry. The line has to scan, meaning that someone can read your lines and indicate the stressed and unstressed syllables in their appropriate places. Your poetry has to have the bounce and rhythm of a line worthy of Shakespeare, Spenser, or Milton, while a meaningful thought must be described within a space of 10 syllables. Certainly, no easy feat.
But, the benefits are immense as the structure of iambic pentameter forces you to scour your dictionary in search of better and better words. “Falling” would not fit the line as well as I would like, but what about “plummeting,” “crashing,” “plunging,” or “hurling”? Do I need to par this line further, so that it comes in under 10 syllables, or can I break off my thought in a meaningful way and send it hurtling into the next line? The structure forces me to edit until it is perfect, and I know it is (largely) perfect when my thought corresponds to that structure.
In crafting essays, I often find constrained by the incredible freedom I have. A short story or a novel may have an overarching structure, but little real organization at the level of paragraphs and sentences. With so much freedom, I am not entirely sure the right word to choose and why it is a better choice than others, aside from connotative meanings that this word has and the way the word sounds when read aloud. But how can I really be sure of that?
However, in writing iambic pentameter, when you have found a word that both conveys your intended meaning and fits the meter, you know that you do not look any further. The structure supports you in your word choice and sends you searching for the perfect word that fits the structure of your poem already.
The practice of writing poetry was, well practiced so long because it helps the reader concise their thoughts into a single line of smooth, rhythmic, and grammatically-correct lines that rise and fall with the rhythms of the human heart. The benefits of a Classic education, updated for the students of the 21st century.
Here is the opening soliloquy from a play I wrote on the Battle of Hampton Roads (The Virginia, available on Amazon), to give an idea of the process I am describing:
O, for a stage as wide as the ocean
To hold the waves beneath our heroes’ prows!
Tonight, like Choruses o’ancient plays,
I’m here to welcome you and introduce
The mighty objects on our stage: iron
Clad ships, the first the world had seen, whose duel
Upon the Bay of Hampton Roads we aim
To recreate upon these wooden planks!
The Virginia, the Monitor, their crew
And captains fore’er changed the way the world
Conducts its wars and rules its waves, so much
In vain do we attempt to bind Neptune
Upon our meager stage, when only Heav’n
May surround the ocean and curb its swells.
The pains to stage our play are worth the cost
If we may honor those who fought that day
The fearsome Battle o’ Hampton Roads,
Imagining the weight our stage must bear,
Under men, timber, iron, and the sea,
Do forgive our poet’s folly in daring to
Compose this noble scene, with no effects
Except your mind to make into our siege.
Now work your thoughts into a moonlight bay
As we open the curtains of our play
And steel your hearts for what we have in store,
All the arms and grandeur of our Civil War.