Resources on poetry by the poets themselves

Iambic Pentameter

This is Shakespeare’s favourite metre, or rhythm:

‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.’

We often still use it when we speak. Once you get the hang of it you’ll hear it 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 an-y-body like a cup of tea?’ Those examples all have exactly the same tune as Shakespeare used in his plays and in his sonnets.

The word ‘iambic’ describes a line where the stressed beat falls on, usually, the second of two syllables. Pentameter means 5 beats in a line.

PRESENTATION

The term for this rhythm sounds alarming, but the children will be proud of discovering and understanding what it means. One of the poems chosen to illustrate iambic pentameter is about saving the lives of new-born twin lambs which had fallen into a shallow, ice-cold stream. Gillian Clarke used her hairdryer to warm the lambs, while the mother ewe used her own warm tongue and breath. While the hairdryer hummed, the poet was writing the poem in her head.

Read the poem aloud to the class. You may find you need to practise - the stressed syllables are not entirely predictable. The poem ‘A Very Cold Lamb’, is printed twice, first as it would appear in a book, and then with the stressed syllables in bold type. Read it out loud.

A Very Cold Lamb

With a book to finish and umpteen things to do
here I am kneeling in straw with a young ewe
fussing and mothering about me, drying the lambs
she slithered from her hot womb into the stream
where we found them, took them for frozen or drowned.
Working together, my hair-drier and her breath,
we warm two shivering lambs from the brink of death.
One is so cold it can’t open its mouth to cry
for shaking, shaking hungry death by the throat -
that fox with a taste for soft tissue, that bird of doom
after each intricate beautiful brain, each eye.
We work for an hour, the drier humming, the ewe
licking their syrups with her passionate tongue,
calling the blood to their limbs, liver, lungs,
each womb as small as a nut. The two lambs strive.
They’re warming to the idea of staying alive.

Gillian Clarke

Then pause, make sure everyone understands the story. Then read it again, tapping the beat. Count the five beats with your fingers. You may prefer to stress different syllables from those in bold. Experiment.

A Very Cold Lamb

With a book to finish and umpteen things to do
here I am kneeling in straw with a young ewe
fussing and mothering about me, drying the lambs
she slithered from her hot womb into the stream
where we found them, took them for frozen or drowned.
Working together, my hair-drier and her breath,
we warm two shivering lambs from the brink of death.
One is so cold it can’t open its mouth to cry
for shaking, shaking hungry death by the throat -
that fox with a taste for soft tissue, that bird of doom
after each intricate beautiful brain, each eye.
We work for an hour, the drier humming, the ewe
licking their syrups with her passionate tongue,
calling the blood to their limbs, liver, lungs,
each womb as small as a nut. The two lambs strive.
They’re warming to the idea of staying alive.

DISCUSSION

1. This poem may puzzle children not used to all the goings-on in the countryside. A poet is not a poet all the time. Sometimes she is housewife, mother, teacher. Sometimes she must act as shepherd. She has ‘umpteen things to do’.

2. The poem is challenging to read because it has several very long sentences. The first sentence runs over 5 lines and comes to a full stop after ‘frozen or drowned.’ Another sentence runs from line 8 to line 11. (see the essay on enjambment)

3. Look, and listen, for the rhythm. Look and listen for the rhyme. How does the poem rhyme? Some lines rhyme and some do not. Does it matter that the rhyme is irregular? Consider this statement by Gillian Clarke: ‘Rhyme can sometimes spoil a poem.’ Do you agree?

4. Pick out unusual words, or words used in an unusual way. Words like ‘umpteen’, ‘mothering’, ‘slithered’, ‘hungry death’.

5. Spot the personification in the lines 9 and 10. Note also the two metaphors for death in those lines. Are they appropriate metaphors? There is one simile towards the end of the poem, as well as other poetry tricks. How do they affect the poem? Do they help the description, and the story?

6. What about the mood of the poem. Is it sad? Funny?

7. How much does the mother ewe care about the lambs, and how much does the poet-shepherd care? Quote the evidence for your opinion.

ACTIVITIES

1. Find poems by other writers about the births of animals. Ted Hughes often wrote wonderfully on this subject.

2. Ask the children to write their own poem about the birth or death of an animal. They might write from a personal experience. Maybe they have seen the death of a wild creature. Maybe they could imagine it. How might a hunted creature feel, for example?

3. Help the class to listen to the sound of iambic pentameter. Tap the rhythm. Read them a sonnet. It is not always necessary for children to understand every word of what they hear. They love the sound of words, and the music words can make.(see essay on the sonnet)

4. Arrange the children into groups of four. Ask each group to choose an animal. They should each write one line of iambic pentameter about that animal. Put the four lines together to make a group poem. Read them aloud. Ask them to listen for the rhythm. If some of the lines don’t quite scan, discuss how they can be improved by adding, taking away or changing a word. Some children will do this easily. Some will find it difficult. This is not a measure of their intelligence, but of their individual instinct and ear for rhythm. That is why group work on this is a good idea.