Monday, June 15, 2015

How to Write a Poem in Iambic Tetrameter

I think poetry is one of those elusive things I’m not super good at but I sure like to try (curse my paternal genes). Just before our AP test, my lit teacher gave us the crash course in meter, and it’s something I think would be fun to work at.

That being said, I’ve come up with a method to write metered poems, and I thought I’d share it because my ideas for Writer’s Life topics are running a little thin this week. No worries, for now we can chat about poetry! This can be adjusted for any kind of poem you want to write, but today I’m going to work with a poem in iambic tetrameter. Let us begin.

1. Turn on Those Jams (Optional)

I rarely write when I’m not playing music, so this is natural for me. I can imagine that other people would find it super distracting to be trying to write a poem while a poem is being sung to them; therefore, it’s optional.

2. Open the Fearsome Foursome

I have four sites open while I write my poem, and I use them all.—writing with meter depends on stressing the right syllables at the right time, which the site helpfully notes in its pronunciation guide—sometimes my ideal word doesn’t fit, and so instead, I have to look up for something with a similar meaning and an appropriate syllable—not all of us are Dr. Seuss and can rhyme a million words on command; this is my backup—this might be the odd one; when I put it to English/English, I can put a word through if it’s plural or conjugated to listen for the stress (as the dictionary doesn’t deal with either)

3. Create the Grid

So, for anyone who doesn’t know, an iamb is a stress pattern that goes da-DUM. And if you do it in tetrameter, you do it four times: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. For this pattern I created eight columns for the eight syllables per line, and then highlighted the stressed syllables. (The visual thing really helps me.)

4. Fill in the Grid

This part can be tricky to get used to because you’re writing in syllables, not words. Also, it can look weird if you don’t use punctuation (I always fill mine in later).

Sometimes it helps to fill in rhymes you want to use later and approach them later.

Other times, it helps me to work backwards from the rhyme to the beginning of the line.

Or, if you wanted, you could just work from the middle.

5. Edit Stuff

In the last stanza, the rhymes I was trying to make weren’t working for me, so I altered them to fit better—and I ended up liking the revisions much better.

6. Transcribe It

Now, type it all up with words, punctuation, etcetera, so that it looks like normal writing.

7. Translate It

What I like to do last is run it through Google Translate, English to English. I’m sure there are other sites that read text out loud for you, but Google Translate is right there and I’m familiar with it and everything. For this poem, I listened to one stanza at a time and kept track of the da-DUM sound throughout the lines—if you listen to it twice it slows the voice down so you can track the beat a little more easily. Alternatively, if you listen to it fast you can keep track of the rhymes better. So listen to both.

8. Touch Up

If you feel like something sounds off or you realize that the syllables are off, then you go back and figure out a new way to work the line. However, sometimes it’s up to you whether you want to choose it or not. In the second line of my first stanza, I use the phrase, “men Death meet,” which is more of a DUM-DUM-DUM sound than the traditional iamb. However, since it emphasizes the fact that people are dying, I’m willing to keep it that way, because death is super serious and all that good stuff.

9. Own It

Now you have a poem. Go stuff it in people’s faces and be like, “I WROTE A POEM, LOSERS.” But maybe not call them losers because that is mean.

This is the one I finally ended up with:


‘Twas Fate that flew o’er battle grounds
and watched with pity men Death meet.
Aghast at frames in hasty mounds,
she picked one shrouded in deceit.

The One called men from near and far,
to conquer their unwelcome guest.
With One and Fate they shone like stars,
blind to the bolt that pierced One’s chest.

“Our leader fell!” the men all cried,
and Fate smiled from her perch unseen.
Although they mourned the One who died,
quite soon they learned that Fate had lied,
and owed their triumph to a queen.

Admittedly, this is the fourth poem I’ve ever tried to write using meter so I’m aware that especially in the last stanza there’s some stuff that’s not super-perfect. Still, I think the system works, and I’m willing to try again.

Have you ever worked with meter in your poems? How do you make it work for you?


  1. Ooh, I actually just finished writing something in iambic tetrameter. Didn't make it rhyme, because I was already translating it and I cannot keep meaning, meter, and rhyme straight all at the same time. But it was super fun. I didn't think of using Excel though! I just sat there counting out the syllables, so in retrospect this would have been handier :P

    1. Oh, that's cool! I don't know any languages well enough to translate something, so I'm just impressed that you're able to do that! Will we get to see it soon? Anyway, yes. I actually used a table in my Word document, though Excel is the same principle. I actually made it because I hated counting out syllables, so I can say that I'm at least one success story!

    2. You absolutely will! Probably sometime in early July, I'm just lining up all the backgrounds and such to match it nicely :D I dislike counting out syllables too, but reading it out is somewhat therapeutic, I think. There's that comforting da DUM da DUM.

    3. Well, then I look forward to early July! I like the sound of reading out these kinds of poems, too. They just sound so right... like they fit together.

  2. Hmm, I've never tried to use grids before. Sounds like this is something I really should do, if obviously it works. And it looks fascinating easy o.O

    1. Well, you'll have to let me know how it goes! I think it certainly makes it easiER, even if writing poetry is still tricky. :)

  3. This is awesome! I loved writing poetry as a kid (for the longest time it was the only thing I would ever dare to write), but since branching out and doing other forms of writing I haven't done much of it lately. My main focus was always the rhymes, and I never really gave much thought to meter.

    I LOVE how you use a table to organize your syllables. The hardest part for me is always trying to identify which part of the syllable is stressed or not (I'm not sure why I struggle with it so much; in theory it seems so easy!). Anyways, great post, Heather! :)
    And also I am way impressed with that poem. It is amazing!

    1. Poetry is the same for me. Sometimes I can write poetry, but then it just fades off and I focus in other directions. I really like rhyming poems, so I understand that fascination. I just like meter, too. It seems so fun!

      I LOVE using the table, so if you try it, be sure to tell me how it works for you! And as for finding syllable stresses, I would definitely go to a dictionary and look at the pronunciation guide (at it's in bold). It definitely makes it easier for me!

      Thanks! :) I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  4. This is a really awesome post! I'm absolutely terrible with poetry, I won't lie, I actually get a cold sweat when I think about writing poetry...but, if I ever have to write a poem again, I'll definitely be using these tips and tricks! I particularly love the English/English Google translate idea!

    And that poem is really quite awesome! You've got quite the talent! :D

    1. Thanks! I don't think I'm good at poetry, but my grandfather is a poet, and since childhood he's managed to ingrain these ideas of writing poetry into my mind. I hope your next clash with poetry isn't so painful!

      Thanks! :)

  5. THAT WAS AWESOME. I've never been able to get the hang of the metre in poetry, but this broke it down really well :)
    And the poem you ended up with was impressive!

    1. THANKS. :D I think people treat meter like some mystery of educated people, but I think if you get someone to explain it, then it's less mysterious then it sounded before. I'm glad it was helpful for you!

      Thanks for reading!


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