While traditional poetic forms sometimes get a bad wrap for being too strict, remember that rules can often help you push your creativity. The most common meter in English poetry, iambic pentameter is measured in pairs of syllables called “feet.” Each line should have five “feet,” ultimately producing ten syllables alternating unstressed and stressed. Try iambic pentameter on for size to discover something new in your own writing or to better appreciate some of the greats.
It mimics a human heartbeat.
A traditional iambic foot is made of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (ex. da DUM). The human heartbeat is much the same way. If we try to replicate it aloud, we might say something like “da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.” Now, compare that to John Keats’ Ode to Autumn:
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
It’s a comfortable, natural speaking cadence.
At first glance, iambic pentameter might seem archaic, but it’s alive and well in our everyday speech. We tend to alternate stressed and unstressed syllables in conversation. Award-winning playwright David Mamet stands by iambic pentameter to this day. “You have to write in a rhythmic way because human speech is rhythmic,” Mamet says. Playwrights reach for iambic pentameter because when people speak, they’re creating a sort of rhythmic poetry.
You can switch it up.
Strictly speaking, iambic pentameter must have five iambs in a row. However, poets have managed to vary their iambic pentameter to get creative and bring a new element to the verse. For instance, in Richard III, Shakespeare begins the play with an inversion:
Now is the winter of our discontent
This trick is kind of like a reverse Uno card. By pulling back a beat and reversing the order of the stressed and unstressed syllables, he creates a line that is far less playful and much more serious-sounding.
You can throw in some sly moves.
Anyone well-versed in iambic pentameter will have a few tricks up their sleeve. “The missing syllable” (or the headless line) is a fun one. In some cases, poets will write with only one syllable in the first foot. My Bridge is Like a Rainbow by Patrick Gillespie includes a prime example:
[ ] Still they’d come and go across my bridge
Technically, this line only has nine voiced syllables. The first, missing syllable adds emphasis to the word “still,” making this line all the more powerful.
It contrasts free-verse.
Don’t be afraid to mix poetic forms! While you may not want to write an entire poem in iambic pentameter, you can still use the style to your advantage. Iambic pentameter carries a hum-drum, repetitive rhythm. Contrasted with shorter, unpredictable lines, you can create themes of boredom versus excitement, stability versus chaos, and so on.
It can test your limits.
See how long you can write without breaking the meter. You’ll end up swapping out words, changing, and recalculating to choose the words that feel just right. Constraining your syllables may even cause you to reach for the thesaurus a few times (no shame in that!) and use words you may not have thought of to begin with.
Iambic pentameter doesn’t appear as much in modern and contemporary poetry. However, that makes it all the more valuable. When it’s done well, writing in iambic pentameter can help a poem stand out from a crowd.
Not all stresses are equal.
In iambic pentameter, there are weak, intermediate, and strong stresses. Depending on how you arrange your words, some stressed syllables can become more prominent than others. Using this to your advantage can produce an unforgettable line, like this classic one from Hamlet:
To be | or not | to be | that is | the question.
Sure, this line has 11 syllables, but Shakespeare isn’t exactly a rule-follower. And in this case, it creates a powerful effect. The word “that” stands out more than any other word in this line because of the dramatic pause that comes before it.
You can break the rules.
Shakespeare is known to throw in extra syllables, remove ones, or throw a few short lines into a longer piece. He was particularly fond of six-syllable lines, which author George T. Wright eventually called “squinting lines.” While these sorts of lines may not technically be called iambic pentameter, no one’s taking Shakespeare from the canon.
You can make it yours.
There are no iambic pentameter police who will stop you from rearranging, tinkering, or breaking the rules. While writing with constraints can be a challenge, remember that it’s also an opportunity to be creative. You can recreate a heartbeat, heartbreak, or a heart-stopping scene depending on where you choose to follow the rules and when you choose to leave them behind. So don’t be afraid to dive in and experiment with all the possibilities.