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Thread: Iambus

  1. #1
    Then dawns the Invisible Psycheinaboat's Avatar
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    Sep 2005
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    Red face Iambus

    This may sound like a silly problem, but I have had trouble hearing the iamb since first discovering forms of poetry like sonnets and villanelle in middle school. I can not hear the stresses, so any form of poetry calling for this structure is nearly impossible for me to create.

    I live in the southern US, and a friend of mine even went so far as to say that perhaps my accent was affecting my ear.

    Any suggestions on how I can make this easier? Is there a way I could learn to more clearly hear the stresses?
    If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal.
    - Emma Goldman

  2. #2
    Registered User quasimodo1's Avatar
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    3,267 To Psycheinaboat: This link should give you more than adequate explanation of iambic pentameter and other metric formats. If you can't get the drift from this site, let me know. quasimodo1

  3. #3
    I think the problem Psycheinaboat is trying to describe is not that she can't figure out what pattern of stresses makes an iambic pentameter line, but rather that, given a passage of text, she can't hear the pattern of stresses. So, for example, perhaps she has trouble recognizing that the line

    "I sing the Man who Judahs scepter bore"

    has the pattern

    weak STRONG weak STRONG weak STRONG weak STRONG weak STRONG

    rather than some other pattern, like

    STRONG weak weak STRONG STRONG STRONG weak STRONG weak weak.

    If my understanding of the problem is correct, the website that quasimodo1 linked to wouldn't be of much help because it doesn't explain how to tell which syllables are weak and which syllables are strong.

    I don't know what the best way would be to develop this skill. It sounds like English is your native language, so it probably wouldn't take much effort to figure out how to hear where the accents are in your speech. I guess you can practice by trying to guess which syllables are accented for randomly selected words, and then look in a dictionary to check. You'd probably get the hang of it before long.

    Maybe you can make quizzes for yourself. For example, which of the following words are iambs (weak STRONG), and which are trochees (STRONG weak)?

    1.) again
    2.) very
    3.) stresses
    4.) befriend
    5.) poem
    Optima dies ... prima fugit

  4. #4
    Registered User quasimodo1's Avatar
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    To Bluevictim: Your insight about a more basic problem is correct; that's the trouble with givens and assumptions. Perhaps a way to address this issue for Psycheinaboat would be to visit some urls which have audio of poetry or even purchase tapes which would give answers by example. Thanks for the necessary clarification...bluvic. quasi

  5. #5
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    Dec 2005
    One of the best ways of determining the rhythm of a line of poetry is by looking at the polysyllabic words in the line (as bluevictim mentioned in his post.) Take this line of Shakespeare's:

    My words fly up, my thoughts remain below
    (- Claudius, in Hamlet)

    10 syllables, 8 words, 5 stresses. But two of the words have two syllables, and those two words tell you exactly how to say the line. Those words must be read as follows:

    reMAIN beLOW

    So by looking at the polysyllabic words, we already have 4 of the 10 syllables, 2 of the 5 stresses, accounted for. It's almost impossible to read the first 6 syllables in a way that contradicts the iambic rhythm of the last two words. So we have a line of iambic pentameter.

    What if a line does not have many polysyllabic words? Well, let's try Shakespeare again:

    You take my house when you do take the prop
    That doth sustain my house. You take my life
    When you do take the means by which I live.
    (- Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice)

    30 syllables and 29 words. Only 1 polysyllabic word. It might seem that these lines could be read almost any way. But not really. Speak the lines as you would speak them normally (remember, poetry written in rhythm is meant to approximate normal speech). It would probably sound something like this:

    You TAKE my HOUSE when you do take the PROP that doth suSTAIN my house. You TAKE my LIFE when you do take the MEANS by WHICH i LIVE.

    It would probably sound something like that, and every single stress falls into the iambic rhythm; it lands on one of the even-numbered syllables. Or try looking at these three lines another way. Take only every second syllable and say those words:


    Even using only every other word, the line almost makes perfect sense. That's what often happens with rhythm in poetry. In poetry, as in regular speech, you stress the most important words. In the three lines above, all of the important words that you would stress, the ones that would get stressed in the proper context of the sentence, fall into the iambic rhythm. (That is after all why the iambic rhythm is the most common in English language poetry. Because it's the rhythm that most closely approximates our natural speech patterns.)
    Try saying the above sentence in a trochaic rhythm. It's nearly impossible to say. Or again, take only every other word but starting with the first syllable, the odd-numbered syllables of the trochaic rhythm, and you have:


    It's nonsense. You would really stress none of those words when reading those three lines. You're left with a bunch of articles and other words that don't get you any closer to the meaning of the sentence. All of the words that you would stress and that help you understand the meaning of the sentence fall into the iambic rhythm. (By the way, go back to my first example and try this method of treating the monosyllabic words in that line. It still holds true: WORDS, UP and THOUGHTS are the important words that would be stressed, while the other words are MY, FLY and MY.)

    A word of caution. Don't fool yourself by being too exacting. Shakespeare one last time:

    Now is the winter of our discontent
    Made glorious summer by this sun of York.
    (The opening lines of Richard III)

    Iambic pentameter lines, these. But you might say, "No, I would emphasize the word 'Now' in my natural speech. So how can it be iambic?" I would emphasize the word 'Now' as well, but after the first two words, the remainder of the two lines fall perfectly into iambic rhythm. That happens often. (Remember, it's hard to begin a line, yet alone the opening line of the entire play, without stressing that first word a little bit.) Don't be too much of a stickler and don't throw 18 of 20 syllables away because the first two don't exactly fit. Some allowances must be granted. We wouldn't expect (nor should we want) Shakespeare to scrap these two wonderful lines just because the first two words don't fit exactly into an iambic rhythm.

    So, those are a few tips.
    - Check the polysyllabic words
    - Say the line normally (Which words do you stress and which rhythm does that fit?)
    - Use the context of the line - the meaning of the words themselves - to help you.
    - Don't be a stickler, and over-analyze. If you have to stress the opening syllable of a line, or if a line runs over into eleven syllables, you may still be reading a line of iambic pentameter.

    I would say that you should take your time and try this with some of the more popular poems in the language, and with some of the more popular poets that you know used rhythm and meter: Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Frost, etc... Go slow and take your time at first, but the more you do it, the more natural it will become to you.

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