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Rhythm in Poetry – I Am the “Iamb”

William Shakespeare

When poets write rhyming, metrical poems, they usually count “feet” instead of syllables. A foot is a group of syllables that, most of the time, contains a single stressed syllable. (Read Rhythm in Poetry – The Basics, and You Can Scan, Man for more information about stressed syllables and poetic feet.)

Meet the Iamb

The most common poetic foot in the English language is known as the “iamb.” An iamb is two syllables, where the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed. For example, the word “today” is an iamb because the stress falls on the second syllable, like this:

- /
today

When a poems is written using iambs, we say that it is “iambic.” For example, the following line is iambic.

- /   - /   - /  -   /
Today I had a rotten day.

You’ll notice that an iamb does not have to be a whole word; it can be made up of syllables from two different words, such as “I had.”

One easy way to remember that this kind of foot is called an “iamb” is to think of the words “I am.” If you were to say the words “I am” over and over, they would be in iambic. That is, the stresses would fall on the same syllables as in an iambic poem, like this:

- /   - /   - /   - /
I am, I am, I am, I am.

When you decide on a rhythm for your poem, it’s a good idea to choose a pattern and stick with it. That doesn’t mean that every line needs to have the exact same number of feet, or even the exact same rhythm. But it is helpful to practice writing poems this way until you get good at it. For example, the poem “Today I Had a Rotten Day” has four iambs in every line. Here’s how it starts:

-  /  - /   - /  -   /
Today I had a rotten day.
-  / -   /  -   /  -    /
As I was coming in from play,
- / - /     -  /       -  /
I accidentally stubbed my toes
-   /       -   /    -   /       -  /
and tripped and fell and whacked my nose.

You can write your lines as long or as short as you like. For example, the poem “My Lunch” contains just two iambs per line, beginning like this:

- /  -  /
A candy bar.
- /     -  /
A piece of cake.
- /  - /
A lollipop.
- /    -    /
A chocolate shake.

Introducing Common Measure

One of the most common rhythms in English-language poetry is called “common measure.” Poems written in common measure have four-line stanzas with alternating lines of four and three iambic feet, and rhymes on every other line. Here’s an example of common measure from the poem “My Puppy Punched Me in the Eye:”

-  /  -  /       -  /  -   /
My puppy punched me in the eye.
-  /  -   /       -  /
My rabbit whacked my ear.
-  /  -   /    - /     -   /
My ferret gave a frightful cry
-   /    -     /      -  /
and roundhouse kicked my rear.

Notice how the first and third lines of this stanza have four iambs, while the second and fourth lines have three iambs. Also notice that the first line rhymes with the third line, and the second line rhymes with the fourth. This is common measure with an ABAB rhyme scheme.

Common measure can also be written with an ABCB rhyme scheme. (Click here for more information about rhyme schemes.) This means that only the second and fourth lines rhyme, while the first and third lines do not. And common measure poems are sometimes written as couplets (pairs of rhymed lines) with seven iambs.

Here are a couple of examples of poems written in ABCB common measure:

A Word About Line Length

Sometimes when people talk about studying poetry, they will mention “iambic pentameter.” You already know what “iambic” means so allow me to explain “pentameter.” In English, we have different prefixes for indicating numbers. For example, “uni-” and “mono-” mean “one,” “bi” and “di” mean “two,” “tri-“ means “three,” and so on.

In poetry, we refer to the number of feet in each line by adding one of these prefixes to the word “meter.” For example, if a poem has just one foot per line, we say it is “monometer.” (By the way, that’s pronounced “muh-NAH-muh-tur” and not “MAH-no-MEE-tur.”) Here’s a list of the names for each line length:

Number of Feet

Prefix Name Pronunciation

1

Mono- Monometer muh-NAH-muh-ter

2

Di- Dimeter DIH-muh-ter

3

Tri- Trimeter TRIH-muh-ter

4

Tetra- Tetrameter teh-TRA-muh-ter

5

Pent- Pentameter pen-TA-muh-ter

6

Hex- Hexameter hex-A-muh-ter

7

Sept- Septameter sept-A-muh-ter

So, if a poem has five iambs in each line, we call that “iambic pentameter.” My poem “My Dog is Not the Smartest Dog” is an example of iambic pentameter. Hundreds of years ago, most English poems were written this way. For example, William Shakespeare wrote most of his poems in iambic pentameter.

If a poem has four iambs per line, as in the poem “Today I Had a Rotten Day,” we call that “iambic tetrameter.”

Now you know everything you need to know about the iamb. Why don’t you see if you can write a short iambic poem yourself?

In upcoming lessons, I will teach you about other types of feet that are commonly used in poetry and show you how these different rhythms can give your poems different sounds, and feelings.