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.
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.
“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.