In the past few weeks, I’ve embarked on a new project: the creation of a practical workbook for metrical exploration. The words “iambic pentameter” can be terrifying to students at all levels, and the process of scanning lines to squeeze meaning out of them like juice from an orange isn’t always easy. Even in graduate school, some of my classmates had a rougher time getting the hang of it. We even held a “scansion boot camp” at a friend’s house one day, with the more experienced walking the less confident through the paces of pentameter. In that same spirit, I’m hoping to create a resource that will lead the uninitiated through a process that will not only tell them what meter is, but also what an actor can do with it. The first half of the book will focus on mechanics; the second, on application.
When I started outlining the project, I realized I was going to have to be very careful and deliberate about how I scaffold the information. It’s a very different sort of book than the study guides I’ve produced before, and it’s making me think about the human brain’s processes of learning in new ways. I can’t assume anything about what a reader might know, so the first sections are all about the most basic building blocks: what a syllable is, what makes something stressed or unstressed, how beats make feet. Even with those simple boundaries, there’s a definitely a danger of going too far with the explanations. I learned a lot in a college linguistics class about how our mouths shape sounds, why some consonant combinations are more common than others, where the twists of tongue and cheek happen that turn a short vowel into a sliding dipthong. That isn’t all necessary information here, but since some of it is useful for finding stressed beats, knowing where to draw the line can be a challenge. Tough, too, to know what order to put the information in. Is it more important to know about caesuras before or after feminine endings? Should I talk about stressed pronouns before or after stressed conjunctions? These questions don’t have clear answers, leaving me with a lot to negotiate.
The other big challenge has been finding examples from the play texts.
You wouldn’t think that’d be tough, with 38 plays and 154 sonnets to choose from (more if I decide to throw in some Marlowe, just for spice). But it’s been a lot harder than I reckoned to find examples of totally regular iambic pentameter lines – particularly ones that are self-contained and make some degree of grammatical sense removed from the rest of the speech. So many lines have some kind of variation – an elision, or a trochaic opening, or a mid-line caesura, or a feminine ending. I’ll get to discussing all of those eventually, but in that spirit of scaffolding, I want to start out with the most basic lines I can find. That seemingly simple pattern of ten beats in an unstressed-stressed pattern is more elusive than I’d assumed it would be. It reminds me of just how good Shakespeare was at this – even his irregularities typically strike the ear so normally that we still hear them as regular.