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Iambs at Heart, Dactyls at Hand

Iambs at Heart, Dactyls at Hand

All authors should dabble in poetry. With metres. And rhyme schemes. Sure, poems which lack either or both those things are perfectly valid as literary works. Yes, metre can be kind of a hassle (insert terror-dactyl pun here). But working within those restrictions will improve your overall writing ability — even if the poems themselves just end up gathering dust in a drawer or on your hard drive.

Poetry forces you to consider every single word. With prose, we instinctively slip in all sorts of filler. For example, I probably didn’t need “single” in the first sentence of this paragraph. Nor did I really need “instinctively” in the second sentence, “probably” in the third sentence, or “really” in this one. Such filler might serve a purpose at times, to create a casual, chatty style. But in other cases the prose would be stronger without it. Unless an editor or reader draws your attention to detrimental filler words or repeated words in your prose, you may not even notice you’re putting them in. With poetry, however, the medium forces you to confront them.

When you work with metre, every syllable contributes to the integrity of the line. Your iambs, trochees, or whatever else, won’t withstand filler as easily as a paragraph of prose. Each iambic pentameter gives you just ten syllables to work with. You have to pack light and only take what you need.

Poetry also makes you ponder the weight, texture, and flavour of each word / syllable. A sentence in a novel can usually endure a badly chosen word, but it might completely wreck the rhythm and impact of a line of poetry.

So, play with poems, mess with metres, ramble with rhyme schemes. Learn to think about every syllable. That habit will carry back over into your prose.

(If you’re completely new to the concept of iambs, dactyls, and other such things, Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within provides a superb introduction.)

Image: The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The painting was inspired by Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott, one of my favourites. Loreena McKennitt’s musical adaptation of the poem is also fantastic.

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Ibrahim S. Amin was educated at the Manchester Grammar School, the University of Newcastle, and the University of Manchester. He wallowed in education for as long as he could, earning his PhD in Classics & Ancient History. At that point he ran out of excuses and joined the real world — where he now writes to support his unhealthy takeaway addiction.

1 Comment

  1. I so agree!
    I am a poet, but also write fiction. I firmly believe that my poetry strengthens my writing.

    Thank you for a great post.


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