Friday, April 25, 2008

Poetry Friday: Iambic tetrameter and you

Because I love iambic tetrameter: Poem 126 by Emily Dickinson

The brain is wider than the sky,

For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include

With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea

For, hold them, blue to blue

The one the other will absorb

As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God

For, lift them, pound for pound,

And they will differ, if they do

As syllable, from sound.


I know when most people think of meter and poetry, the default setting is iambic pentameter, because that's what we study the most of in school. But twelve years of percussion study make me focus on the rhythm of poetry (sometimes to the detriment of not getting the poem itself because I'm so fascinated with the auditory quality) and I find iambic tetrameter far more interesting. Observe:
  • Nearly all of Emily Dickinson's poetry is in iambic tetrameter.
  • Although we don't much talk about poetry meter when we compose music, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "The Yellow Rose of Texas" are also in iambic tetrameter.
  • The Sorting Hat songs in the Harry Potter series are in iambic tetrameter. That means you can sing all of them to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Want to impress people? Recite the entirety of the Sorting Hat song from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It's much easier than it looks because everything is easier to memorize when set to music.
  • Iambic tetrameter fits the natural movement of our bodies. Try this: Walk as you say the poem above, with your right foot landing on the stressed syllable (this means you'll say the first syllable of the poem standing still; it's like a pickup note). As you read, if you don't stop walking on the silent syllable, you'll always land on your right foot at the end of the phrase. Now, this works with iambic pentameter, too, but what I find more interesting in tetrameter is that you'll walk in phrases of eight counts. You know what else is done in counts of eight? Dancing. (Well, not dances in 3/4 time, but you get the picture.)
  • Iambic tetrameter is easy to read in rhythm, especially the way Emily Dickinson employs it. Read the above poem aloud. Because most of Dickinson's poetry (and the Sorting Hat song) pauses on every eighth count, you have a natural place to take a breath. Taking that breath means you can keep up the reading pace.
And so ends today's lesson. Happy Friday!


Rachel said...

When I was in high school, someone pointed out that most Emily Dickinson songs can be sung to the tune of the Gilligan's Island theme song. I never made the connection between that and iambic tetrameter. I'm really glad you posted this, though - if my brain must sing Dickinson, I'd rather it sing to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" than Gilligan's Island!

Anonymous said...

Not to be too nitpicky, but Emily really writes in hymn metre - alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four feet, or 8 syllables) and iambic trimeter (three feet, or six syllables).

Like you, I love the shorter lines. There's a true musicality to them, I think.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

After reading your thoughts on the beauty of iambic tetrameter I went back and read the poem aloud. My 5 year old Buddy was eating oatmeal in the background and sneezed suddenly. He spoke:

"I sneeza deeza deeza do
Today that's all I want to do."


Carlie Webber said...

Kelly, thank you for your nitpick! As I mentioned, I'm a musician by training, not a writer/poet/other things English majors study, so I appreciate the New Thing I Learned Today.

Cloudscome, that is too funny!

Jess said...

Now I have the Battle Hymn of the Republic stuck in my head. Glory glory hallelujah...

Mary Lee said...

...and I'm headed back to HP to sing the sorting hat song -- Glory, Glory Hallelujah!

Great post! Interesting to see poetry through a musician's eyes.

Anonymous said...

Cloudscome's son is a genius - that is too funny!

Caroline said...

I recently wrote a poem in iambic tetrameter and have completely fallen in love with the form...I agree, as a musician, it's far more interesting to read poetry with rhythm.

Anyone know of any "irregular" or "asymmetrical" forms in regard to rhythm? Besides for free verse? Just wondering if there's such a thing...say, seven syllables with an extra unstressed syllable at the end or something. And how would that sound? Would rhythm still be apparent? Just some thoughts.