Writing in iambic pentameter is a fun challenge that will lead you to catchy, impactful, poems or songs. How do you do it?
Iambic Pentameter Basics
Iambic pentameter is among the most widely-used meters in English-language poetry. If you’ve never heard of it before, don’t worry — a common-sense concept hides behind the fancy name. An “iamb” is simply an unstressed (and therefore short, when spoken) syllable followed by a free-flowing, long one.
“Meter” refers to the melodic, and audible, pattern in poetry, and “penta” means “five”. Therefore, poetry written in iambic pentameter consists of 10-syllable lines of iambs.
Does that sound wholly unnatural and incredibly intimidating so far? It would — language described in abstract terms always does. The beauty of this kind of poetry, however, lies precisely in the fact that it closely resembles the most powerful organically-emerging speech patterns. That’s to say, you could almost just write whatever you wanted to and somehow end up with iambic pentameter.
Look, here’s Shakespeare in Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Read that aloud, and you’ll roughly get: shall I com-PARE thee TO a SUM-mer’s DAY?
Here’s another: well it was Gatlinburg in mid July — and I’d just hit town and my throat was dry
Or — well It was GAT-lin Burg in Mid Ju-LY – and I’D just HIT town AND my THROAT was DRY
(Yes, that one’s much more modern, as it comes from Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue!)
Once you get into its swing, you’ll find iambic pentameter everywhere.
Why Is Iambic Pentameter Important?
Poetry and music touch the human soul for many of the same reasons — and neither compares to words written on a page and read in your mind, as performing them aloud amplifies their power manifold. Iambic pentameter initially soared in popularity, and remains beloved to this very day, precisely because it so closely mimics natural speech — in the English language, at least — at its very finest.
Unstressed and stressed syllables almost take on the rhythm of a heartbeat. Iambic pentameter is the beating life force of the English language, expressed in its most powerful state. William Shakespeare, who sought to touch the common people and not only the educated elite, was fond of it for this reason. You can find your “beat” in iambic pentameter for the very same purpose.
How to Write in Iambic Pentameter
Writing in iambic pentameter may sound daunting, but we promise that it is easier than taking on a Horatian ode. You can find your way to this unique, and simultaneously universal, form of poetry in a few easy steps. When we say “easy”, we mean that you will find your creative flow quite naturally — because iambic pentameter has an organic rhythm. You will still need to put in hard work and invest a considerable amount of time, but if you love the process, it will be a lot of fun.
Lost? Fret not. Simply follow along on this journey.
1. Read Poems That You Know to Be in Iambic Pentameter
Yes, we’ll dive into some handy examples in a little while, but pay attention to the “how”. Once you find poems written in iambic pentameter, first read them silently, in the peace of your own mind. You will likely find nothing unremarkable about them, and once you discount the fact that many famous poems written in iambic pentameter were penned centuries ago and therefore contain their fair share of “dated” or “flowery” vocabulary (depending what side you fall on), they essentially appear as natural speech.
Now read those same lines aloud, in a theatrical voice, and watch the magic come to life. Impressive, right?
2. Practice and Learn How to Hear the Rhythm
Keep reading aloud. Head over to YouTube. Look up the rhythm of a human heart and pulse, and immerse yourself in the familiar, comforting, sound for a while. Hear the beat. Let it sink in. Return to your poems (or songs!) written in iambic pentameter, and read them aloud once more.
Do you hear the beat? baBOOM. baBOOM. BaBOOM. baBOOM. baBOOM. baBOOM!
There you have it. See how natural iambic pentameter is? Soon, you’ll be able to identify the same pattern, should it occur, in your mother’s whiny pleas to clean your room, the President’s speech, or your favorite pop song.
3. Create Your Own Iambic Pentameter
Are we all natural-born poets, or is poetry an acquired taste and a skill? That’s something human beings could argue about for a very long time, but one thing is clear to all — taking yourself from poetry novice to poetry pro takes time and practice.
That’s why you will want to start off “freewriting”, to check if you really have the rhythm down. As you prepare to create your very own iambic pentameter, try:
- Deciding on the subject of your poem, or the particular things you wish to address therein.
- Now, get yourself online. While you create a brainstorming checklist of words that appeal to you (ideally in a pen-and-paper notebook), look some synonyms up on the internet as well. If any strike you as a potential candidate for inclusion, write those down, too.
- Do not even think about rhyming, especially at first. It’s not necessary, can limit your word choices significantly, and generally take your focus off iambic pentameter.
- Write words. Check if they follow the formula. Make changes if they don’t. Give yourself breaks when you need them.
You will mess up (more than) a few times. Expect failure. It’s only normal. Keep going anyway. After a while, actually decent poems are bound to emerge.
Once you do, you could also try your hand at more advanced poems written in iambic pentameter:
- To create a Shakespearean sonnet in iambic pentameter, write a poem that follows this same structure by penning 14 lines, and just one stanza, in iambic pentameter. Try to follow the rhyming scheme seen in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
- To write a villanelle in iambic pentameter, craft a total of 19 lines. You are aiming for five shorter stanzas of three lines, and want to end your poem with a “quatrain” of four lines. Make sure the rhythm checks out, but rhyming is optional.
- If you’re writing in iambic pentameter without rhyming, you’re already penning blank verse poetry. Congrats!
- Couplets are two lines of poetry that belong together in one stanza. They can be surrounded by longer stanzas. These, too, are perfectly suited to iambic pentameter.
Examples of Poems Written in Iambic Pentameter
Before you get writing — or, of course, any time after you start your writing process — you may want to check out some novel examples of excellent and famous poems written in iambic pentameter. If you find a poem on this list that you have not seen yet, go check it out!
- The Miller’s Tale — Geoffrey Chaucer
- Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night — Dylan Thomas
- To Be or Not to Be — William Shakespeare (Hamlet)
- Paradise Lost — John Milton
- An Essay on Man — Alexander Pope
- Twelfth Night — William Shakespeare
- Tintern Abbey — William Wordsworth
- Ulysses — Alfred, Lord Tennyson
- My Last Duchess — Robert Browning
Tips for Creating Your Own Iambic Pentameter
If you want to try writing in iambic pentameter for yourself, you are likely going to welcome all the help you can get. Although iambic pentameter often falls within the parameters of natural speech, after all, that is not always the case — and it is likely that you will find yourself in need of some extra tools.
Help yourself to any of these tips as you create poems in iambic pentameter:
- To find equally good, or even better, substitutes for words you want to use that happen to not fall into iambic pentameter, use an online thesaurus. All modern internet dictionaries feature these helpful tools to generate synonyms. Just pick wisely, because there will be subtle differences in meaning and tone.
- Have you already composed a poem that you are happy with? Are you “pretty sure” that it matches iambic pentameter, but not 100 percent confident? Turn to an iambic pentameter checker for confirmation. Or, as the case may be, denial, in which case you’ll have slightly more work to do.
- Need some inspiration to get you started? Do you have a few lines but need more ideas? An online iambic pentameter generator can help you out.
- If you already know what you want to say, but it’s not quite in iambic pentameter, an internet iambic pentameter converter will help assist you in your journey to your destination.
These are only tools. You’ll still have to do the hard work yourself, but they’ll make it easier for you.
Do we speak in iambic pentameter?
We often follow the same rhythmic structure found in poems written in iambic pentameter, but speaking in 10-syllable lines is slightly harder and more intentional. Iambic pentameter is designed to give you the feel of normal speech, but on a grader scale.
How can you identify iambic pentameter?
Listen out for that heartbeat sound — five baBOOMs. Once you do, you will start to hear iambic pentameter everywhere.
Is writing in iambic pentameter difficult?
It depends on your personal writing style, but writing in iambic pentameter will certainly take some practice.
What is the easiest way to write in iambic pentameter?
To make writing in iambic pentameter, get your speech in tune with your writing to find the rhythm.
Did Shakespeare always write in iambic pentameter?
Even Shakespeare did not exclusively write in iambic pentameter, but he did make it famous.