If you love literature, or you were forced to read at some point in your life, you should know who Shakespeare is. You’ve probably read his sonnets, and have a vague idea of what iambic pentameter is. And maybe, like me, it intimidates you just a little.
For hundreds of years, nearly up until the modern era, all poetry was written by this standard. Such great poets as Milton, Cowper, and Pope wrote every line of their (sometimes epic) poems in meter. It was simply the convention of the age.
But somewhere along the way when you were reading these poems, did you ever think that they could be a good mental exercise? As a writer, I’m constantly looking for new inspiration, whether that is from my own life or from others. I also look for new ways to say things. I love new words and fresh ideas.
Last week when I got out of class early, I took a sheet of notebook paper and decided I’d try my hand at writing iambic pentameter. Other people do Sudoku or knit scarves, so why couldn’t I improve my skills by writing poetry? It’s something I’ve wanted to work on for a long time.
At some point in our lives, most of us have at least tried to write poetry. It’s an interesting art. Some lines truly come from the deepest and most inspiring parts of our soul. Poetry can be therapeutic and uplifting, reminding us why we are here. It is also frustrating when you can’t seem to find the right words.
But can you imagine writing the thoughts of your soul in meter, in ten alternating-stressed syllables per line, while making sure every other line rhymes? As soon as I began to write, I could almost immediately see something known as “linguistic determinism.” It is the idea that words, ideas, or modes of writing in a language can influence the way you think. And believe it or not, these can range wildly.
Since all English writers used to write in iambic pentameter, it makes sense that our language lends itself well to this style. They say that, as far as meter goes, iambic pentameter is one of the easiest modes to write in because it imitates the sound of your steps as you walk. That’s exactly why Shakespeare’s lines are so melodic: while there is an innate art, a pulse, to the lines, there is also measured thought behind the words that makes the magic happen.
In my sonnet, I started with an idea, but I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted it to end up. Almost immediately, I had to take my blue pen and scribble out syllables that made the line too long. I really had to think about what words were not necessary. Every other line, I would return to the word that I was supposed to rhyme, and try to think of related ideas. Sometimes it was simple, other times I was at a loss. By the time I finished, I was excited. I wrote a poem in iambic pentameter all by myself.
It’s likely that I’ll go back and revise. I have other ideas that I’d like to explore. But it got me thinking: if we approached other modes of writing with the same technique, would we allow ourselves to question our word choice? Would it make our prose writing stronger if we challenge ourselves to write more poetry? I think so. While every type of writing consists of different strategies and styles, exploring other modes can really improve your work, and help you grow as a writer and reader.
Kayla Dean is a writer with a passion for words, books, and storytelling. She loves YA and the classics, and blogs encouragement for writers at her site kayladean.com.