Tetrameter?

27. “Which of the following lines is written in tetrameter?”

I shook my head. I was reading a test written by a high-stakes test-making conglomerate when I stumbled upon this question. This is the type of test kids taking advanced English classes in the US must pass to receive college credit while in high school. The type of test I would give as a semester exam—as a practice test for the real deal in May. “That’s one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever heard,” I said to myself.

I suppose, if students knew that any poetry term ending in “meter” had to do with rhythms and syllables, they might have a fighting chance at the answer. If they counted the syllables of all five answer choices and realized that four of the choices had ten syllables and one choice had eight syllables, they might realize that one of these things is not like the other. As an English teacher of twenty plus years, I had never used the word tetrameter in my classroom. Pentameter. Yes. Iambic pentameter.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy about Julius Caesar, Mark Antony looks upon Caesar’s fresh corpse and says,

“Oh, par | don me, | thou bleed | ing piece | of earth…”

We could discuss the apostrophe, the personification, the metaphor, and the perfect iambic pentameter. We could divide the line into five feet, each two syllables, also called an iamb. An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. If I put my hand under my chin and say the words aloud, my chin will drop on the stressed syllable. “Oh” is unstressed. The “par” in pardon is stressed. The rest of the line follows the same pattern. Anything beyond iambic pentameter, I must look up and study.  

And so, in preparation for the semester exam, I gave my students my best iambic pentameter lesson as a quick segue into what the test wanted them to know about tetrameter. We haven’t studied Shakespeare yet. “If penta in Greek means five, what does tetra mean?”

“Four,” they said.

“Good!”  I gestured to the line from Julius Caesar written on my white board, “So, if iambic pentameter is five feet of two syllables, equaling ten syllables total, how many syllables do you think tetrameter would be?”

“Four,” they said.

I slapped my own forehead. “No. Eight,” I said, trying not to sound frustrated over a misunderstood mini-lesson and a stupid test question. “If you see a question on your test asking about tetrameter, count the syllables and look for eight.” I paused to make sure they were listening. “I have no doubt there are exceptions to this rule, and we’ll discuss a few later. On your semester exam, tetrameter means eight syllables.” That was the best I could do aside from saying, “The answer to number 27 is C.”

They nodded their heads up and down, and I tried very hard not to tell my students this question was ridiculous. I might have anyway.

***

Flash forward to exam day. I actively monitored, walking up and down the aisles, when a book on my shelf caught my eye. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I grabbed it. The subtitle—How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose—called my name. The teacher before me had left it behind.

“For the writer or wannabe, Sin and Syntax is an urgently needed, updated, and hip guide to modern language and writing.” —Jon Katz, author of Geeks

I opened the book and thumbed through the pages about words and sentences and stopped at Part 3—Music. “When you get your grammar down, when you simplify your syntax, you are halfway to mastering the craft of writing,” Hale says. “Appreciate music in prose, and develop your ear for it. Devour novels. Cue up recordings of famous speeches. Fall in love with poetry. Go to the video store and check out all those Shakespeare movies. Read your writing aloud.”

“Nice advice,” I thought and flipped further.

In the last chapter on “Rhythm,” Hale says, “Metric feet can have up to five syllables, but the most common have two or three.” And that’s why a question on tetrameter twists my panties. Tetrameter could be any number of syllables. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

I don’t know Richard Lederer, but I think he’s genius.

“As a prose stylist, you don’t really need to memorize the names of metric feet,” Hale says, “but you do need to appreciate their effect….When we listen carefully to our writing and reshape its rhythms to our liking, prose can become music.” She says the verses of the Bible, especially the King James, “are so easily received, remembered, and recited because of their rhythms.”

Hale cites the iambic pentameter of playwright, David Mamet, the rhythms of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, the repetitions of Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the musicality of Virginia Woolf and Martin Luther King, Jr. She writes about parallelism and a Jell-O commercial, rap and Grandmaster Flash.

And Hale’s last chapter reminded me of my last MFA class, Topics and Genres. A study of mentor texts with a focus on opening lines. Dr. Boyleston said, “Your story is only as good as your command of the language.” And he wrote Isak Denison’s first sentence from Out of Africa on the whiteboard:

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” 

Our class discussed. I took notes. The first six words of the novel are iambic, and the “had” emphasizes the past tense conflict. The narrator no longer has the farm. The prepositional phrases, “in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” reveal a general location—Africa—and a specific location—the Ngong Hills. The repeating anapestic rhythm connects the music of language and beauty of landscape. In this simple sentence, there are only two polysyllabic words. The rest are monosyllabic, which slow you down and lend a sense of gravity. It’s almost Biblical. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” This lesson on rhythms was one of my favorites of my MFA at HBU.

And still, who cares if I can identify a dactyl or trochee by name? Uh, not me. Tetrameter. Shrameter. The technicality makes no difference. But the musicality? Now that’s another story.  

45 thoughts on “Tetrameter?

  1. Yes! I majored in English Lit in undergrad and at one time knew the definitions of the various meters, but now it’s all about the rhythm of language, written and spoken. Couldn’t tell you one meter from another, don’t care that I can’t. I just write on, happily.

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  2. Thank you, Crystal. You make me want to be a better writer. There are famous musicians who don’t know one note from another. Yet they create masterpieces. I suspect it’s the same with writing?

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      1. My point was, if you immerse yourself in something you will become better at it—whether you understand it or not. But knowing the how and why is always helpful. BTW, I am on my third read of your post. Such good stuff!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This post shows me what an amazing teacher you are. You care about what’s real and dismiss the unnecessary. Yet you still want your students to succeed, even when asked stupid questions on exams. Thanks for this insightful post. It was interesting, as I was not familiar with much of what you talked about.

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  4. I told my daughter to read her papers out loud as an edit. When you hear the words it can make all the difference. Being able to fix the cadence takes you from a good writer to a great writer

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  5. Crystal, thanks for this informative and interesting post. I know next to nothing about meters in poetry and prose. I enjoy reading poetry and, hopefully, the rhythm and musicality of verse will make my writing better.

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  6. After reading the first paragraph or two, I dismissed questions of meter, pacing, and stress points. Beside the point, I reckoned, and those who pursue these notions risk being lost forever in the high weeds. Much the same applies to proofs in math and to diagramming sentences in grammar. Diversions all.

    Yet, Crystal, you brought me around (for the first time in my life, actually) when you explained how recognizing these techniques and using them advantageously makes the language sing. Much more so than does, by itself, choosing the “right” word or phrase. It fosters a whole appreciation for what unifies great writing from various sources. Consider me educated now, which is kind of what you do.

    Oh, and I agree with you completely about the “farm in Africa” line. Completely riveting. That also was the first line in “Out of Africa” (the movie), and I recall it being the last sentence too. I could be wrong, as it’s been nearly twenty years since I saw the movie. Still, I want it to be true, and that counts for something, right?

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    1. Thanks so much! If only I didn’t have to teach toward tests. Maybe one day.

      No one has ever explained to me why meter matters. I think it’s about the tradition, and now we’ve left much of the tradition behind. More than anything (except word choice which is everything 😂), think about the rhythms and the flow.

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      1. Yes writing is an art form, but a highly used communication tool to express something a thought and feeling. They took it serious. and I agree word choice is everything. Crystal have a wonderful week and thank you for conversing with me!

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    1. It seems worth a reread, right? Speaking of greatness, I read it a handful of years ago after Paula McLain’s historical fiction Circling the Sun, which includes the character Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen.

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  7. Meter and rhythm – concepts which are way too subtle for me. I can’t even read Shakespeare out loud the way it’s meant to be heard. That’s one reason I dropped out of my Shakespeare Outloud Group, on top of the fact that it’s nowhere near as fun to participate in remotely. Also a reason to have others critique my work if I ever want to publish it for greater consumption and hopefully enjoyment.

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  8. Damn, I wish you were my teacher! You’re amazing and your students are blessed! I don’t know the terminology but I write by ear, like my Dad used to play the piano. It just has to sound right but regardless, knowing the basics about structure would be helpful! Great post! 💕C

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    1. Sometimes I do okay. I was just telling my husband…sometimes I make it to my last class and the seventh time I’ve taught the same thing, and suddenly I’m scattered and unfocused (and just tired I suppose). Just when you would think I have it all down. And then I remind myself of my word of the year—grace—including grace for myself. And then I receive such a kind note from a friend. Thank you, Cheryl!

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