Learning Poetry: Exercise 4

It has been over a year since I last ventured into the world of poetry on this blog as I slowly make my way through The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. In each entry, I have posted my attempts at the exercises in the book and today, we'll look at Exercise 4 (Exercise 5 in the book).

If you are interested in the previous posts in this series, please check them out below:

I am not reiterating the content of the book here, merely the exercise, my attempt at it, and perhaps some notes. You may want to get your own copy of the book to follow along in more detail1.

The Exercise

Write your own verse of shorter measure. Give yourself forty-five minutes.

  • Two quatrains2 of standard, eight-syllable iambic pentameter.

  • Two quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter.

  • Two quatrains of trochaic tetrameter: one in 'pure troche' and one with docked weak endings in the second and fourth lines

 The Result

This morning we are flying home-
Detroit awaits our restless feet.
The cats await our fuss and food,
Perhaps a tasty little treat.

Some sleep would also be quite nice
to rest my weary head and dream.
An hour or two, that would suffice
between the sheets, the sandman's seam.

Tomorrow must I work all day?
I hope that I must not.
If I could only have my way
I'd dream away the lot.

Alas, I have to go to work
and concentrate on code.
Keep focused, calm, not go berserk
Till I can hit the road.

Taking flight; Atlanta's waiting,
Soon we will be landing safely,
Stepping off the plane and skating
Off to catch the next one, waiting.

Home awaits me bed and bathroom,
Nothing could mean more right now.
First, we have to drive the vroom vroom,
If I can remember how.

The Score

Unlike previous exercises, there is no scoring. However, I think I did well at this exercise. The verses seem less forced and meet the requirements laid out in the instructions.

As implied in the words, I wrote these verses while journeying back to Michigan from a vacation somewhere. I cannot recall the exact trip at all, but I think the words conjure up the hope and fatigue of travelling. What do you think? Have you tried this exercise? Post your attempts in the comments, if you'd like.

  1. Try Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor 

  2. a stanza of four lines, especially one having alternate rhymes 

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'. 

Learning Poetry: Exercise 2

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

In the last post, I explained how I was learning to be a better poet. I also included my attempts from the first exercise in Stephen Fry's book, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. Now it is time for the fruits of the second exercise. I would love to hear your thoughts on my attempts – what works, what does not, where you think I've gone wrong. Perhaps you might get a copy of the book and have a go yourself. If you do, I'd really like to see your results.

The Exercise

Write five pairs of blank iambic pentameter in which the first line of each pair is end-stopped1 and there are no caesuras2, then write five pairs of blank iambic pentameter with the same meaning, but using enjambment3 and at least two caesuras.

The topics for each of the five pairs are:

  1. Precisely what you see outside your window.
  2. Precisely what you'd like to eat, right this minute.
  3. Precisely what you last remember dreaming about.
  4. Precisely what uncompleted chores are niggling at you.
  5. Precisely what you hate about your body.

The Results


  1. The blur of trees is racing out of sight,
    As speedily the train ploughs down the line.

  2. A pack of tasty chips from in my bag.
    The ones I bought last night inside the store.

  3. A crazed outlandish woman blocked my path,
    Demanding love and drinks from all my friends.

  4. I really must repair the door and step,
    And take the time to see the naked earth.

  5. My gut has grown from laziness and food,
    It hurts to walk upon my foot as well.

Using enjambment and caesuras

  1. The trees, in blurs of green that race beside
    the train, demark the path we travel on.

  2. Some chips, perhaps a drink of something, I bought
    selections from the store last night. Thank God.

  3. So drunk, the girl accosted me, she asked
    if anyone would like a kiss. We ran.

  4. The earth is bare, it waits for seeds, we might
    sew grass or herbs. And still the door needs work.

  5. From food, my gut has grown to fill the space
    beyond my pants. Yet still my foot, it aches.

  1. A single thought that finished with the line. 

  2. Pauses, which break up the flow. 

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

Learning Poetry: Exercise 1

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

If you've been following my blog at all, you may have noticed that I have posted a poem or two. These attempts at prosody are remnants of songwriting attempts – lyrics that never gained a tune. Though I enjoy writing lyrics and, on the odd occasion pretending they're real poems, I've never taken the time to learn about the art of poetry. Because of this, much of what I write lacks the structure and care that would indicate or more learned authorship and I expect to some I may just come across as nothing but a poetaster1.

With that in mind, a couple of years ago I bought a book by Stephen Fry while I was on vacation in San Francisco. It's called The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within. Allowing for the appropriate length of procrastination, I started reading it this weekend on my trip to Chicago for St.Patrick's Day and I've really been enjoying it. Each concept is introduced with examples and analysis before the reader is given an opportunity to put their newly acquired knowledge to work in simple exercises (Fry's view is that we're each capable of poetry if we only try).

I won't recreate the book here, it would be a poor facsimile, but I would like to present my attempts from each exercise. Whatever you think of my poetic prowess (or lack thereof), I hope it will be fun to follow along as I learn and improve my prosody. I'll begin with a brief explanation of the exercise and then provide my attempts2. As I don't intend to explain the terms in detail, you may want a copy of the book or a dictionary in order to understand the exercise.

The Exercise

Write 20 lines of blank3 verse in iambic pentameter4.

The Results

When Mrs. Wilson claimed she was a bitch,
Miss Chrissy said it was not really true.

Tonight, I slept inside an apple core.

The night is young and eager for some fun,
but what to do, I'm bored and losing time.

This exercise is rather dull for me.

The driver stopped to get another fare.

His face was low, without a look of love,
yet some might say he's clearly lost in thought.

I'm learning all about iambic lines.

My friends will all be quite impressed with this,
I know a term or two about the moon.

It burns to think she left me all alone.
Where will I find a girl as bright as her?

Another dog falls foul of Sergeant Crow.
The pound is where he locks them all away.

Tomorrow takes a darker turn for me.
The crows come home to roost and bury me.

A line or two of prosody to write.

I stole a pack of mints from Mrs. Brown.

  1. A word I learned from my new poetry professor, Stephen Fry. It means 'bad poet'. 

  2. Each exercise is actually introduced with some rather detailed instructions in the book that provide additional guidance and challenges than the summary I will provide. 

  3. Non-rhyming 

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