Resources on poetry by the poets themselves

Iambic Pentameter


Look up ‘metre’ in a book of poetry terms, and you’ll find too much to take in, so I’ve chosen the important one, Shakespeare’s favourite, and the one you’ll often hear in every day speech. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll hear iambic pentameter everywhere. In the weather forecast: ‘A deep depression moving from the west’. In the street: ‘Diana dyes her hair I’m sure she does.’ In the ordinary things people say: ‘Would anybody like a cup of tea?’ Those examples echo the tune Shakespeare used in his plays and in his sonnets.

The word ‘iambic’ describes a line where the stressed beat falls on the second of two syllables. (When the stress falls on the first syllable, as in ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’, it’s called ‘trochaic’ metre.) Pentameter means five beats in a line. Tap the line with your foot, and you’ll find five good thumps in the rhythm of each line. Of course, poets can do what they like, and even Shakespeare varied it whenever he fancied.

In my (Gillian Clarke) poem On the Train, you’ll find examples of five-beat lines. The first two verses are written in this way, five beats to a line, chosen instinctively, setting the scene that leads to the tragic moment of the train crash. Verse three, when the automatic Vodafone voice speaks, the rhythm breaks into short, stuttering lines, then picks up again for the last three lines. In verse four, the iambic pentameter is lost again. It is a solemn rhythm and it suits the story. The story, and the rhythm, give way to grief. Maybe this suggests that I begin as the storyteller, and gradually imagine I am the traveller involved in the event, or a grieving partner at home. The break in rhythm suggests a struggle to speak and breathe.

Seamus Heaney  also lets this rhythm come and go in his poems. You can hear it surface in five of the eight Anthology poems. In Storm on the Island it is maintained in every line. (You may stress the line slightly differently, but you should still come up with five stressed beats): ‘We are prepared: we build our houses squat’. You can hear it in lines from Death of a Naturalist: ‘All year the flax-dam festered in the heart’, and line 4: ‘Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.’ In those lines the familiar beat also draws attention to words which connect with assonant and alliterative sounds, words like: ‘festered’ and ‘sweltered’, and ‘punishing sun’.

Carol Ann Duffy uses very little iambic pentameter in her Anthology selection, choosing other rhythms, a different heartbeat. The poem Anne Hathaway is the one exception, and she chooses the rhythm here for a good reason. The poem is a typical Shakespearean sonnet, spoken as if in the voice of Shakespeare’s widow. All the way through you should be able to hear the five beats in every line. Read it  aloud to find where to put the stressed beats.

Simon Armitage is listening to other rhythms in his eight poems included in the Anthology. Compare the rhythms used in his poems with those illustrated above.