I’m gonna say something, and I want you to relax before I do.
Bear with me.
It’ll be okay.
Everything will be fine.
I’m going to talk about Shakespeare now.
Aw, crap. Now you’re all tense again. It’s okay. I promise. No sonnets. No sonnets. We already did sonnets.
What I want to talk about right now is Shakespeare’s plays. If you’ve ever listened to – not read, but heard – a Shakespearean play, you know that even though it’s not really a poem and there are few rhymes (although the dirty plays on words are terrific), the sound of the words and the way they’re strung together is entrancing and a little soothing.
If you’ve never heard a Shakespearean play read aloud, get thee to YouTube or something. I’ll wait.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator color=”grey”][vc_column_text]Okay. Now that you’ve re-familiarized yourself with Shakespeare, I’ll explain why the sound of his plays in particular is so soothing: it’s actually poetry. Remember when we talked about iambic pentameter? That’s exactly what Shakespeare, who we’re going to call Will from here on in because I’m tired of typing that, is doing. He’s writing each line in iambic pentameter. Sometimes he even gets sneaky and passes that line back and forth between characters, like so:
He shall not live.
See what Will did there? That’s totally iambic as heck. (If you’re counting iambs and you wonder where the unaccented first syllable is, it’s a one-word line immediately preceding which makes no sense out of context.)
Now, the reason you’ve probably never thought of Shakespeare’s plays as actual poems, although they’re poetic, is that they’re written in blank verse.
What the ______ is blank verse, anyway?
Gee, I’m glad you asked, because that’s the whole subject of this post.
Blank verse is verse (poetry which scans) that is blank (doesn’t rhyme). Yeah. That’s it. That’s the entire requirement. There’s no specific length, no specific scansion pattern – although most blank verse is written in iambic pentameter for reasons we’ll discuss in a second – and not a single rhyme is harmed in writing it.
Important note: DO NOT confuse blank verse with free verse. Blank verse doesn’t rhyme but must scan, whereas free verse neither rhymes nor scans.
Okay. I forget. How do you scan a poem?
Let’s start with the basics: What’s “scanning” anyway? Well, poems have “meter” and scansion is the way we talk about and represent that meter visually.
Meter is the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line of a poem. Meter is usually talked about in two-syllable chunks called “feet” and feet have all kinds of fascinating and intimidating names like “trochee” and “iamb” and “anapest” and “dactyl.” For blank verse you get to play with any and all of these feet, in any order you like, so long as you stay consistent from line to line.
scansion and notation
When you talk, you naturally emphasize certain syllables in your words. To scan a sentence of phrase, you just write it down and put a “/” over the syllables that are stressed, and a “u” over the unstressed syllables. Because this is a blog post and who even knows how it will line up on your screen, I’m going to just write it in the correct order and you can pretend it’s on top of the syllables. It’ll be our secret. Let’s try it:
u / u u / u u / u
There was an old mathematician,
u / u u / u u / u
Who had a profound intuition;
u / u u / u
A smart operation
u / u u / u
u / u u / u u / u
Would speed up the task of addition.
Hey, wouldja look at that? We just scanned a limerick. Now check out the pattern of the stressed and unstressed syllables: the three long lines match perfectly and so do the two short ones. That’s how you know that this limerick scans properly.
feet (in a series of inches)
Okay. Now that we know how to write stressed and unstressed syllables, let’s talk about the different kinds of feet. This is mostly just for fun, don’t be intimidated. You don’t have to know the names of the different types of feet to write in blank verse; all you need to do is be able to look at the scansion annotation for each line of your poem and see that it’s consistent from one line to the next.
Generally a foot is two or three syllables. For those of you who read a little music, if a two syllable foot is represented by two quarter notes, a three-syllable foot would be expressed in a quarter note and two eighth notes or a triplet of eighth notes. For those of you who don’t read music, it takes about the same amount of time to say a three syllable foot as a two syllable foot, so some of the syllables are a little rushed or pushed together. Once you know the style name for your feet (or for the vast majority of your feet, at least, because you’re generally allowed to substitute one foot for another occasionally unless you’re writing something super-strict like a Shakespearean sonnet), you know the name for the metric style of your poem.
To figure out the metric style, mark off the feet and count them. Like this:
If you were to write this out like you say it, you would write:
a BIT ter DRAUGHT this STONE your NAME my MEAD
Or, in metric annotation:
u/ u/ u/ u/ u/
Check out the chart above, and you’ll see that’s five iambs. That means iambic pentameter! Just take the foot style name (iambic), add the counting prefix (uni, bi, tri, etc) and the word “meter” and you’re done!
Cool. Now how do I do that?
Writing a poem in blank verse seems easy at first, but the longer the poem the harder it gets. Why? Because every line needs to have the same pattern of syllables, even if it doesn’t have to rhyme with the lines around it. Let’s see what writing a poem in blank verse looks like:
step 1: your first line
You might have a meter in mind for your poem. I like to do that first, because then I know the general shape of what I’m trying to write. One of our editors (not me) just looooooves iambic pentameter. But let’s try writing a poem when we don’t know what the meter will be. I’m going to go ahead and steal a line from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, although my poem will be vastly different from Eliot’s when I’m done:
In the mountains, there you feel free.
Now I have to figure out the meter. One easy way to do this is to record myself saying the line, and then listen to it. I find that when I read silently I can move stresses around and put them in awkward places. So I get this annotation for that line:
u u / u / u u /
When I listen to my voice again, I rush some of the syllables together and not others:
uu/ u/ uu/
Looking at my chart again, that’s an anapest, an iamb, and another anapest. Well, that’s going to be interesting.
To be honest, if this were my poem and I weren’t writing it for an example I’d quit now and go write something in iambic tetrameter, which feels really natural to me. But let’s press on.
step 2: keep going!
Since my first line has the pattern uu/ u/ uu/ all my other lines need to follow that same pattern. Let’s see if I can write something like that.
On a day like this I could soar.
Does it work? Well, my reading-aloud test says it does.
step 3: no, really, keep going.
So really all I have to do now is keep adding lines that make sense and have the same scansion as the lines that came before them. Let’s quit after six lines, though, because I have laundry to do today.
In the mountains, there you feel free
On a day like this I could soar
There’s a place I’ve made in these stones
Where I keep my heart when I’m far
from the trees I once lived between
and the sky hemmed round by the crags.
And that’s pretty much it. The thing I like about blank verse is that it’s simultaneously prosaic and poetic. The rhythm of the meter keeps you rolling along through the poem but you don’t have to use strained grammar to make a rhyme happen at the end of each line.