Learning Poetry: Exercise 3

This is the third part in a series of posts documenting my efforts learning more about prosody:

It has been a while since I posted about learning poetry through Stephen Fry's excellent The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. I'm not trying to recreate his book, so you may want to get your own copy to follow along in more detail, but as with previous posts in this series, I will try to outline the intent of the exercise before my attempts and any discussion thereof.

The Exercise

The third exercise I have attempted (the fourth exercise in the book) brings together all the different elements of iambic pentameter1 learned so far: pyrrhic2 and trochaic3 substitutions, weak/feminine endings4, enjambment5 and caesura6. The challenge is to write 16 lines of iambic pentameter using these variations without losing the iambic rhythm with points being awarded accordingly; five points for the substitutions and two points for enjambment or weak endings. I'll deduct points where the iambic rhythm is left wanting.

The Result

Brilliant lights are shining down on me
tonight, but I believe I might be high.
Perhaps I'll take a chance on this young lady,
if she will take a chance on this young man.

Although she is my wife I know my chances
are not as good as I had hoped they'd be.
It seems she may have spotted my intentions,
I may have blown my shot when I burned lunch.

I'll post the words I've written on my blog,
so you can judge if I followed the rules.
I'm watching Talladega Nights on Crackle,
trying to get this up to sixteen lines.

A knife will soon be sticking into Ricky
Bobby, his screams will curdle blood for some.
Barry the cat is eating food and drinking
water, while I am watching from afar.

The Score

Of course, as with most arty things, the analysis is subjective. You may disagree with my scansion and therefore the points I awarded myself. Please, leave a comment on how you might score my effort. Also, have a try yourself and post your own attempts for this exercise.

In order to score this, we first must determine where the stresses are in each line and mark the various substitutions and such. I will highlight the stresses that I feel are there above the text using / for stressed syllables and – for unstressed.

The first line starts with a trochee (tum-ti), that's five points and there is an enjambment too for an additional two. No loss of the iambic rhythm so no points docked here.

Here we have a hendecasyllabic line (a weak ending) but nothing else interesting. Just two points.

There's a phyrric substitution, weak ending and enjambment going on here.

I like the first of these two lines. At first glance, one is tempted to put stress on "my", but I think you'll agree that it flows much better if there's a phyrric substition here. Add that five points to the two for the weak ending and we have seven points. The second line left me in a quandry as one could read it in so many different ways. Is "when I" phyrric or iambic? Is "burned lunch" an iamb or a spondee7? I think it's a spondaic substitution and have marked it as such. Unfortunately, there is no prize for spondees in this exercise so I have docked myself two points here (I didn't dock 5 as I feel that the iambic metre remains intact, despite the errant spondee).

These lines are both straightforward with a single phyrric substitution in each for a total of 10 points.

The first line here is hendecasyllabic for two points and the second line starts with a trochaic substitution for another five. However, I'm fairly confident that the second line ends with a spondaic substution as in "to sixteen lines". It does seem to be written rather emphatically as though exasperated at the size of the challenge. For this, I docked myself two points as spondees are not part of the challenge. What do you think? Was I too harsh on myself? Should I not have docked points for a spondee?

For the closing verse, we have a weak ending in the first line, a trochaic substitution at the start of the second and the third with another weak ending and two enjambments, and that's all before the final line. The last line starts with two trochaic substitutions before returning to the familiar iambic measure. I feel that this actually works without losing the overall rhythm, so I've given myself 10 points for the two substitutions.

Adding that all up, I get 66 points. Do you agree with how I scored myself? Did you try this exercise for yourself? If so, please post your efforts in the comments and don't forget to let me know if you're following along in the book.


  1. Verse with the metre 'ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum', also known as the Heroic Line. 

  2. A phyrrus is two weak syllables together as in 'ti ti'. 

  3. A trochee is a strong syllable followed by a weak one as in 'tum-ti'. 

  4. An extra, weak syllable is added to the end of a line; 'ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti'. Also known as hendecasyllabic. 

  5. Where the meaning runs on from one line to the next. 

  6. Pauses, which break up the flow. 

  7. A spondee is two stressed syllables together as in 'tum tum'. 

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