Poetry 101: Iambic Tetrameter
by James Matthew Byers
Beowulf: The Midgard Epic, my debut from Stitched Smile Publications, is a different take on the ancient story. It has a distinct rhyme scheme that sets it apart from other versions. My love for old tales, myths, and folklore guided me into who I am as a poet- the enigma of being the Darque Bard. But I wasn’t always the rhymer I am today. To read my work now, you will see set forms like sonnets, villanelles, odes, ballads, and epics bursting off the page. I often stay within a fixed structure of a 4/3, 4/3 syllable count line to line with an a/b, a/b rhyme scheme. In order to craft a deeper understanding of why I chose to write this way, the answer is simple. Danny Gamble. Back in 1999, I took a British/Irish Lit course and Gamble was my professor. At the end of the semester he read some of my rhyming stories and his advice was simple. “Clean up your rhyme scheme.” And so I did. (Let me clarify- this was with much chagrin followed be several years of research and refinement.)
I’m not one to follow the rules. I often color outside of the lines. But poetry, like the laws of physics, has certain elements that must be adhered to. I’m not saying don’t experiment. I’m not saying don’t use prose. What I am saying is this: rhyming takes discipline. Like any fine art it takes practice and patience to hone your skill. Did I set out as a writer, as a poet, to get stuck in certain cogs and grooves of meter? Absolutely not. But Gamble made me realize sometimes as a poet, or a particular type of poet, I should say, you have to suck it up and follow the rules.
This might put some of you out. It did me at first. In fact, I almost stopped the pursuit of epic poetry all together. Then it hit me. I wanted to write like the classics. And in today’s pool of writers, that makes me obscure; it makes me unique. In a sea full of fish, I’m a turtle. And gladly so. My passion comes in rhyming. Which leads to my ultimate goal as a writer: to inspire others to achieve their passion. When I finally rewrote Beowulf back in 2008 (it took eight years to find a publisher due to its rhyming nature- so patience is a must), I opted to choose iambic tetrameter. But why that format? When telling a story, this method accentuates the flow and rhythm of the action. Depending on the word usage, it slows down or speeds up the reader while they engage in the rhyming tale. Iambic tetrameter becomes the soundtrack to the story, so to speak. Before you know it, your mind has looped into the rhythm’s rope, and its pulling you gracefully along for a wordy ride.
Here’s a great website that explains how this works: https://www.britannica.com/art/tetrameter
My main goal today is to familiarize you with the basics of this structure. Iambic tetrameter … A past life of poetry coming back to the modern era full throttle! Next week I’ll give some examples, and open the floor for you to share some of your own. I host a poetry prompt on Twitter. My hashtag is #BardBits. Follow me @TheDarqueBard and find the prompts at @DarqueBardBits. You can join in the daily fun, or take this prompt here and show me some magic. Craft a poem, any style or form, focused on these images: dragons, swords, and rotting kingdoms. Below, you can read an excerpt from Beowulf to get a feel of the rhyming flow. Until next week, happy writing!
Below is an excerpt from James Matthew Byers (Stitched Smile Publications, 2016) Beowulf: The Midgard Epic
Out from the marsh and rotted logs,
The misty hills and sinking bogs,
Arose the one God’s hatred clothed,
Rose Grendel, bloodlust fully posed
In hopes to catch and clip and kill
As many as would suit his thrill
In Herot, that hall on high,
Delighted, knowing men would die.
He quickly moved amid the plight
Of cloudy cover through the night,
Up from his swampy, gloomy hold
In silence to the shining gold
Of Herot to make his call
Upon the men within the hall.
So many times he’d been to slay,
Quite well he knew the well-worn way-
But never, once before nor after,
Found within such planned disaster
Waiting in the guarded post,
A harsher greeting from his host.
In joyless angst, he came for more
As eagerly he sought the door
The way he had those times before,
Thus snapped it open to procure
His heart’s intent, as angrily
He crossed the threshold readily.
With speed, he strode across the ground,
His snarling features tight and bound:
His eyes bulged out, a fearsome sight,
Embedded with an eerie light.
He stopped, then seeing war-men sleep,
All nestled snuggly in their keep.
And in his heart, fiendish delight
Set in, and he indulged the sight,
Intending to tear life and limb
From those left unaware of him
By morning’s light; the demon’s brain
Grew scorched with thoughts beyond the pain
His claws would wreak, desiring food
To fill his belly’s lustful mood.
But fate decided differently,
And Grendel was not yet to see
The present mold the die had cast,
And thus this meal would be his last.
About the Author
James Matthew Byers, the Darque Bard, is a published, award winning poet. He has been in numerous anthologizes, eZines, and magazines, such as Weirdbook, Grievous Angel eZine, and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. His debut publication, Beowulf: The Midgard Epic, was published in 2016 by Stitched Smile Publications and is a rhyming version of the ancient poem. He has also won or placed in multiple contests in the Alabama State Poetry Society. He resides in Odenville, Alabama, drifting between the forests. A bard’s work is never done.