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, the one we still speak and write.

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 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 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 5 beats in a line. Tap the line with your foot, and you’ll find 5 good thumps in the rhythm of each line.

You’ll find examples of 5 beat lines in my poem ‘On the Train’. The first 2 verses are written in iambic pentameter. Verse 3 loses the rhythm, breaking into 3 shorter, stuttering lines, but picks it up again for the last 3 lines. In the 4th, final verse, the iambic pentameter is lost again.

I chose iambic pentameter instinctively for the first part of the poem. It is a dignified rhythm, and it suited the tragedy of the story. I let the rhythm break as the poem moved from the story into the grief. It’s as if at first I am a story teller, and as if gradually I become a traveller involved in the event, or a grieving partner waiting at home. I let broken rhythms into the poem because I felt they suggested a struggle to speak and breathe.