How to Write in Iambic Pentameter
What is iambic pentameter anyway?
Writing a poem in iambic pentameter is not as difficult as it may sound. If you want to write a sonnet, you will need this skill, and many other forms require or are at least better in iambic rhythm. Iambic pentameter is a line of poetry written in alternating stressed and unstressed syllables, with a total of ten syllables to the line.
The first thing you need to understand is an iambic "foot", which is two syllables, one unstressed and the other stressed. Take the word "inform". The first syllable is unstressed and the second one is stressed, so "inFORM" is one iambic foot. There are five iambic feet in a line of iambic pentameter.
If you're unsure of exactly what a syllable is, refresh your knowledge with this video before you proceed.
Learn to Hear the Rhythm
This is where some people have difficulty - in identifying an iambic rhythm. It is because, some people have trouble "hearing" the stressed vs. the unstressed utterance. You can train yourself to hear the rhythm with a little practice. One way to do this is to study a line that is written in iambic pentameter, such as the following example:
My Lady, whisper low and hear my plea
To show the iambic rhythm, it could be written this way:
My LAdy WHISper LOW and HEAR my PLEA
The stressed syllables are in bold capital letters to show where the voice naturally stresses the words in this sentence. Notice that the first syllable is unstressed, the next stressed, the next unstressed, etc. In order to teach yourself to "hear" the stresses in a line of iambic pentameter, try beginning the line by stressing the first (unstressed) syllable instead, and going from there, like this:
MY laDY whisPER low AND hear MY plea
Say the line out loud, stressing the syllables in bold capitals and not those in regular type. It sounds wrong, doesn't it? You wouldn't say laDY or whisPER because that is simply not how those words are spoken in English. Now go back and read the first example, again stressing those syllables in bold capitals with your voice. It will sound a little awkward because you're using more stress than necessary, but you will hear that it at least makes sense - the words are spoken as they normally are in the course of conversation.
Here is the next line of the poem:
for well I know thine hand hath been secured.
If you start the sentence out loud, stressing the first syllable, FOR, it won't sound right. You wouldn't say SEcured for example, but seCURED. Use this exercise with a number of lines that you know are written in iambic pentameter, turning the stress around the opposite way. If it sounds wrong when you start by stressing the first syllable, then try putting your stressed voice on the second syllable first instead. This should sound correct to your ear.
Write Your First Line In Iambic Pentameter
Now try writing a line in iambic pentameter yourself. Remember, you will need five iambic feet, so that the total syllable count in your line will be ten. Here is one that you might come up with:
The dog needs to go outside to be walked.
This is ten syllables all right, but it's not iambic pentameter, because if you put the naturally stressed syllables in bold print, it would look like this:
The DOG NEEDS to go outSIDE to be WALKED.
It is not every other syllable that is stressed! To turn your thought into a line of iambic pentameter, you could change it to this:
I need to take the dog outside to walk.
This is a correct iambic pentameter line, because you can hear that every other syllable is stressed, like this:
I NEED to TAKE the DOG outSIDE to WALK.
Not as hard as you thought? That is because the English language is often normally spoken in a rhythm very similar to iambic pentameter. It is the most melodic way to fashion a line of poetry in English. Here is the rest of the English sonnet we have been using as an example. Listen as you read it aloud for where the stress of your voice falls on the words.
Example of a Poem in Iambic Pentameter
by Katharine L Sparrow
My Lady, whisper low and hear my plea-
for well I know thine hand hath been secured.
Thy thoughts and thy sweet heart lie not with me,
but of my love enduring, be assured.
For never have I known a gentler maid
than thee, who owns the padlock to my soul.
Temptation calls my hands, so softly laid
upon thy skin to mend my poor heart whole.
But he, the noble Earl who holds the key,
will ne'er release his right to claim his prize-
while here, the knight before thee on one knee,
professes what his public tongue denies.
My Lady, pledge my secret safe to keep!-
while I can only watch thee go, and weep.
Some people do better with graphics. Here is a little visual review of how to write in iambic pentameter.
Variations Using Iambic Rhythm
Once you get good at writing in iambic pentameter, you need not stick to the rhythm exactly all the time, as long as your words still flow for the most part in the unstressed/stressed rhythm. You will come to be able to notice if a line sounds awkward when read aloud. Then try writing in iambic tetrameter (8 syllables per line) or iambic hexameter (12 syllables per line).
If you still don't get it, don't despair. It takes a while for some people to be able to recognize the stressed vs. unstressed syllables, just don't give up! Continue to practice and you will find yourself getting better and better at writing in iambic pentameter.
© 2012 Katharine L Sparrow