A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

My way of celebrating National Poetry Month

For National Poetry Month, I’m reading A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver and finding some delightful words to share for Wondrous Words Wednesday. Last week, the words were about the sounds that letters make. This week, I learned (and re-learned) the words that describe the rhythm of a poem.

I remember the term iambic pentameter but wouldn’t have done well if requested to supply a definition. First, we need to understand the words foot and feet. A line of metrical verse is divided into feet depending on how the stresses fall. One common foot in English, the iamb, is a light stress followed by a heavy stress.

The length of the line determines how many feet will fit. In the case of iambic pentameter, there are five feet. So in a pure line of iambic pentameter, there are ten syllables. The first syllable has a light stress and the second a heavy one and that pattern continues through the whole line.

Why is iambic pentameter so common in English? The pentameter’s line…

…length matches the breath capacity of our lungs. The iambic foot has wide currency for a similar “natural” reason. It is the paramount sound in any string of English words, thus it is the most fluid, the most uncontrived sounding meter. Phrases falling naturally into the iambic pattern are noticeable in every kind of writing. Compared to it, any other meter, in fact, sounds “composed”–not unlike one of those snapping flourishes of the drums. (p. 47)

If I ever learned the names for the other types of feet, I long since forgot them. Here they are:

trochee: two syllables, first heavy and second light. Here’s a whole line of trochee feet from Shakespeare’s MacBeth:
Double, double, toil and trouble.

dactyl: three syllables, first heavy and two light. Some words that are natural dactyls: happiness, beautiful, elephant.

anapest: three syllables, two light and last heavy. A famous example comes from Edgar Allen Poe’s Annabel Lee:
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee
So, even though I said that beautiful was a dactyl, the way it’s placed in this line changes it. The first syllable of beautiful is the heavy stress at the end of the first anapest foot. The second two syllables are the light stresses at the beginning of the second foot.

spondee: two equal stresses. Compound words often form a spondee foot (sometimes in an otherwise iambic line) — think chalkboard or bookcase.

Did you remember these terms? Or ever learn them in the first place?

button for Wondrous Words Wednesday memeWondrous Words Wednesday is hosted by Bermudaonion’s Weblog. Kathy says: “Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading.”

Signature of Joy Weese Moll


Iambic Pentameter and Other Terms #WondrousWordsWednesday — 9 Comments

  1. Only iambic pentameter was familiar. I am glad I just like poetry and don’t often have to analyze it. Maybe reading out loud helps to understand the light and heavy stresses in a certain line of poetry.

  2. Hi Joy,

    Unfortunately, poetry was not part of the English Literature syllabus when I was studying, so none of your terminology was known to me.

    Whilst I don’t typically read non-fiction, I always have a few poetry books around the house and will often browse them as the mood takes me.

    I have of course, noticed the stress beats in the poems I have read and thanks to your excellent post, now know exactly how to interpret them, although I shall still tend to simply enjoy a poem for the emotion it evokes, rather than the technicalities of the way it sounds.

    This sounds like a great book for the more serious poetry aficionado, but does throw up some excellent words for a WWW post. Thanks for sharing,


  3. Pingback: What Am I Reading? A Monday Reading post because I’ve lost track | Joy's Book Blog

  4. This is another great review, Joy. Like Kathy, I know iambic pentameter because of Shakespeare, particularly his sonnets. (The couplets and quatrains come in there, too.) I’ve studied these words before, but lots of the meanings were lost. Thanks. Pinning!!

  5. Pingback: A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver #BookReview | Joy's Book Blog

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