Tradition & the Individual Sonnet, or
Listen! Iambic Verse Has Variation

By Wendy Vardaman

[The poet] is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living. —T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”
Shut up.  Shut up, shut up, shut up.  Okay? —Marilyn L. Taylor, “The Seven Very Liberal Arts:  A Crown of Sonnets”

Part I

I wrote my first clumsy sonnet more than fifteen years ago after rereading T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” That essay broke open a creative channel for me and gave me license to stop worrying about “originality”—a relief after a graduate education in postmodernism, theory, and contemporary memoir. Sonnets in particular became a lifeline for my writing as an at-home parent of three small children. After a little practice, I could hole up for an hour or so and crank out a first draft. Once when my husband was out of the country and out of contact, I set myself the task (inspired by John Berryman) of writing 77 poems in 2 weeks. My sonnets were not about an extra-marital affair but, instead,  what consumed me: children, chores, the chats I’d have had with my husband were he home. Only three of those poems have ever been published, but they kept me sane and gave me something to think about besides the kids, even though, ironically, ostensibly, I was writing about them. Since getting hooked on the sonnet, I’ve written seven different all-sonnet manuscripts, all unpublished. (Out of the hundreds, about seventy of the individual poems have appeared in various journals and anthologies.)

The wheels I reinvented during the early years, having read broadly in English and American poetry, but knowing very little about contemporary formal poetry or much about the possibilities of prosody (the study of meter and rhyme), could have outfitted a pioneer's coast-to-coast caravan. What I learned from that experience can be collapsed into two obvious, though hardly simple or easy, pieces of advice: 1) read contemporary writers of form; and 2) read historically so that you understand both the tradition and the innovation that is already possible within it: what is, in T.S. Eliot’s eloquent statement, already living.  Fortunately, there are poets among us who live both in the present, as well as in the present moment of the past, and the rest of this essay outlines some of the marvelous metrical variation that occurs in a few memorable contemporary sonnets. Although it can be a fine line, for the sake of brevity, I look only at variation that takes place in the context of regularly metered, iambic pentameter sonnets, as opposed to variation that occurs either in the context of irregular meter (e.g.,William Carlos William’s “variable feet” or Gerard Manley Hopkins’ and Robert Bridges’ “sprung rhythm”), or in the context of  boundary-stretching, is-it-really-a-sonnet? sonnets, or in hybrid sonnets that include regular lines mixed with irregular ones; that’s a fascinating topic, too, and critical to my own poetry, but it’s a different essay for another time.

For the purpose of this discussion, you need to know that a traditional sonnet usually has 14 iambic pentameter lines; these lines are typically divided into 8 and 6 (the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet), or 4, 4, 4 & 2 (the English or Shakespearian sonnet). The rhyming patterns differ; between that and the different architecture created by 2 longer or 4 rather whirlwind parts with their potentially thudding final couplet, the kind of poem you will or can write within each form differs surprisingly. You’ll know that’s true if you’ve written a few dozen sonnets that include the two types (and their variations). But it’s the sonnet’s “iambic pentameter” rhythm that I’m primarily interested in here, and, to some extent, how rhythm and rhyme can work together or be in tension with each other in the contemporary sonnet. For that, you just need to know that iambic pentameter means a five-foot line of poetry, where each usually two-syllable “foot” has a “duh-DUM” beat. When critics “scan” lines of poetry to determine their rhythm, they typically use these three marks (or similar ones): “˘”(for an unaccented syllable),“/” (for an accent), and  “|” to indicate  the end of a foot. (More complicated systems of marking and weighing accents exist, but we’ll stick to the simplest one here.) Imagine that epigraph from Marilyn L. Taylor:

   ˘    /        ˘    /       ˘    /       ˘    /   ˘    /
Shut up.| Shut up,| shut up,| shut up.|Okay?|

Perfect iambic pentameter, right? (And one of my favorite lines of iambic pentameter in contemporary poetry.) But wait. Don’t you sometimes yell at, or at least say forcefully, to your kids or barking dog, SHUT UP? And don’t you also, sometimes say angrily or sarcastically, OKAY?

That’s a “spondee” in prosody speak. Both syllables have an accent. And what if one of those “shut ups” was murmured under your breath, preparatory to hurling a “SHUT UP” or “OKAY” at the offender? Then it might look like this:

    ˘    /      ˘    /       ˘    /     ˘     ˘       /    /
Shut up.| Shut up,| shut up,| shut up.| Okay?|

Then “shut up” in the fourth foot is a “pyrrhic”—a foot in which neither syllable is accented. A pyrrhic foot can have the effect of emphasizing what follows even more and often comes after or proceeds a spondee. It can also seem lighter and faster than a regular iamb, and certainly than a spondee. Poets have traditionally balanced their use of these two types of variations within a line.

How do you hear Taylor’s line in your head? Is it completely regular? 

˘       /      ˘      /      ˘     /     ˘    /       ˘  /
Shut up.| Shut up,| shut up,| shut up.| Okay?|

Maybe. What that suggests to me is a character, a persona, who is near hysteria, at their wit’s end and rather obsessively trying to get through to the person they’re talking to, perhaps without a lot of hope of doing that. I even picture the character’s body rocking rhythmically when she says it. But what if it’s like this:  

 ˘       /     ˘     ˘        ˘   ˘       /   /       /  /
Shut up.| Shut up,| shut up,| shut up.| Okay?|


  ˘    ˘        ˘     ˘     ˘    ˘        ˘     /    /  /
Shut up.| Shut up,| shut up,| shut up.| Okay?|

The first to me suggests a character who is talking to someone, not getting their attention, then getting really angry. The second suggests someone who is talking to herself rather quickly and working up the courage to finally blurt out at the end something that’s been bottled up, maybe for a long time. The possibilities for scanning this line are surprisingly many, if not unlimited, and each suggests a subtle, or not-so-subtle, difference in the character. How would you scan and read this line out loud? The one kind of rhythmic variation I don’t think we can attribute to this line is a trochee, SHÚT up (or Ókay). I just can’t hear that in how I imagine a real person saying these words, but maybe you can.

In any case, with the regular iamb (duh DÚM), the three possible variations with two syllables—spondee, pyrrhic, and trochee—are the basic concepts you need to know to begin scanning and understanding the nuances of writing “iambic pentameter” verse. You also need to know that no one, certainly not Shakespeare or Milton, ever wrote every line of every iambic pentameter sonnet in unvaried iambic pentameter. Carefully crafted variation is, in fact, key to the success of their poetry. This is a vast subject about which libraries of books and articles have been written. The most common of their variations is an initial trochee; the least common, a final trochee. And there are other variations they commonly use, too: an extra unstressed syllable at the end of a line (the “feminine” ending); an extra unstressed syllable at the end of a medial iamb, followed by a punctuated pause (the “epic caesura”); a six-foot line or pair of lines  (an “alexandrine”); expansion (drawing out the pronunciation of certain words for the sake of meter); elision (contracting words for the sake of meter); and, more occasionally, having fewer than five feet per line. If you want to dig into prosody, you should read a good introduction to the subject, like Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form.

We wouldn’t understand so much about the variation and the purpose of variation, in metrical verse, however, if the majority of it wasn’t regular. If you read metered sonnets by Shakespeare and Milton, you’ll see that although the majority of the lines have no variation, a surprising number include variation for a purpose. Here’s one example from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXIX to show you what I’m talking about:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state.

Imagine reading that in exactly regular, unvaried iambic pentameter, and do it out loud with some exaggeration, please. Now think about how you might read it to convey its emotional nuance. Out loud again, please! How would you scan that opening? Here’s how I said it:

  /        ˘     ˘    /         ˘    /     ˘    ˘        /      /
When, in| disgrace| with for|tune and| men’s eyes,|

˘  /    ˘   /     ˘   /       ˘   /     /      /
I all| alone|beweep| my out|cast state.|

You probably did it differently than I did, but one thing is for sure: if you take this sonnet off your shelf or read it online, even if you know where to expand and contract the words properly based on likely Elizabethan pronunciation, and you try to turn that sonnet into pure iambic pentameter, you’ll be saying silly things like feaTUR’D, wishING, hapLY, as well as emphasizing unimportant words. And you’ll miss the point entirely: Shakespeare, like many good contemporary poets, used metrical variation both so as not to put the reader to sleep and also to draw attention to the content. A trochee is disruptive: it makes you notice particular words and creates a break (there are numerous trochees in this sonnet, mostly at the beginning of lines). Spondees tend to create heaviness, to slow down a line,  and are often made out of two one-syllable words put together in a foot. Pyrrhics create speed and can help emphasize a word or pair of words that follow.

These are some of the most basic tools to create rhythmic effects within a sonnet (or any other metered form or line of verse). Complex interplay among rhythm, sounds, repetition of sounds and words, and diction create even more advanced effects. While formal innovation within the sonnet and among sonnets is certainly possible, I would encourage sonneteers to explore the enormous variation and effects that a deeper knowledge of prosody make available already. These possibilities have fascinated English-language poets for over 500 years—it’s the “already living” in our poetry.

Part II

Marilyn L. Taylor is known for her mixture of traditional forms with contemporary, often surprising, and frequently humorous content. Here for instance is “Aunt Eudora’s Harlequin Romance” (from Taylor’s Subject to Change) a loosely rhymed English sonnet whose slant and inexact rhymes (open/elope, reads/words, cheek/neck, hair/clear, flash/breath, hang/legs) operate in tension with the more regular rhythm of the poem up until the resolution of the final couplet:

Aunt Eudora’s Harlequin Romance

She turns the bedlamp on. The book falls open
in her mottled hands, and while she reads
her mouth begins to quiver, forming words
like Breathless. Promises. Elope.
As she turns the leaves, Eudora’s cheek
takes on a bit of bloom. Her frowzy hair
thickens and turns gold, her dim eyes clear,
the wattles vanish from her slender neck.

Her waist, emerging from its ring of flesh,
bends to the side. Breasts that used to hang
like pockets rise and ripen; her long legs
tremble. Her eyes close, she holds her breath—
the steamy pages flutter by, unread,
as lover after lover finds her bed.

Although there are many subtle effects with pyrrhics and an initial one-syllable, accented foot (or “headless” iamb), I’d like to draw your attention to line 4: “like Breathless. Promises. Elope,” which has eight, not ten, syllables. And where do the stresses fall? 

  ˘      /      ˘      /     ˘ ˘     ˘   /
like Breathless. Promises. Elope.

(Or maybe ÉLÓPE, if we imagine Aunt Eudora lingering over that word.) And look at the punctuation—a full-stopped pause in three places, turning the feet into something like this:

  ˘       /    ˘           /  ˘ ˘       /  /
like Breathless.| Promises. |Elope.|

with two epic caesuras in the line that really force you, whether you read out loud or in your own head, to pause while Aunt Eudora hijacks your inner ear and you imagine what it’s like to be her. And the two “missing” feet? (For this line really has three, not four, feet.) They’re the pauses that Aunt Eudora makes as she regroups from the heat of her passion after the words Breathless. and  Promises.

Now look at the end of the poem:

 ˘       /         ˘   /     ˘    /       ˘      /      ˘    /
Her waist,| emerg| es, firm| her slend| er neck|
   /     ˘       ˘    /            /         ˘      /      ˘    /
bends to | the side.|  Breasts| that tend| to hang|
 ˘       /      ˘    /       ˘    /      ˘   ˘       /   /
like pock| ets rise| and rip| en; her| long legs|
  /   ˘          ˘    /        /         ˘    /         ˘    /
tremble.| Her eyes| close,| she holds| her breath.|

The second and fourth lines of the quatrain both have nine syllables, rather than ten, and the natural place to mark as the single-syllable foot is in each case the middle, rather than the initial one. In the case of “Breasts” that happens right after a pause, and “close” occurs right before one; we can hear just the echo there of Aunt Eudora’s former excitement, before she settles back into sleep and old age, her passion spent. Note that both those lines also begin with an initial trochee that marks the continued rhythmic disruption, which itself marks Aunt Eudora’s continued excitement and change. I read “long legs” as a spondee rather than an iamb because of the two words’ similar sounds: the alliterative l- and the final g-, which I imagine the poet (and Aunt Eudora) lingering over for emphasis. The final couplet, on the other hand, is completely regular rhythmically and heightens the irregularity, including the pyrrhics and spondees, that came before. It all works, coupled with the delicate and subtle rhyme scheme, to characterize Aunt Eudora beautifully. Taylor makes her both humorous and sympathetic. Think what a different and more unrelieved comic effect the metrical regularity would have had paired with an exact set of rhymes.

Ronald Wallace tends to employ more variation at the macro level than Taylor, writing some sonnets in iambic pentameter, some not. “In Van Diemen’s Land” (from For A Limited Time Only) is a traditional sonnet with a combination of English and Italian rhyme schemes whose first two quatrains employ slant rhyme to look like an octet:

In Van Diemen’s Land    

And when they hit the wallaby, the thud   
reverberated through his hands as if 
they’d blown a tire. But then he saw the blood   
splay out behind the car, and then the whiff   
of death leapt up on its hind legs and kick
him, hard, his wife’s intake of breath, Oh God,
transforming the mundane into the exotic.   
Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.    

They stopped—what had they done?—surveyed the damage,   
the carcass smeared so far along the road   
no passerby would ever guess its lineage,   
though history, settling in with its old load,   
try and convict them, and stars begin to spark   
the whites of their eyes in the aboriginal dark.

In terms of metrical variation, Wallace deftly uses pyrrhics and spondees to pace the poem. Note the lines in which this variation first, and appropriately, enters the poem:

/       /        ˘  /        ˘  /      ˘      ˘       ˘    /
splay out| behind| the car| and then| the whiff|
˘       /        /    /   ˘   ˘     /      /       ˘   /
of death| leap up| on its| hind legs| and kick
   /     /          ˘    /        ˘  /       ˘    /         ˘   /
him, hard,| his wife’s| intake| of breath| Oh God,

So  we have these spondees: “splay out,” “leap up,” “hind legs,” “him, hard,” and depending on how you read that first “Oh God,” a fifth. It’s important to watch for clues in diction, repeated sounds, and the overall significance of words, as well as punctuation and enjambment,  when scanning. Note how diction and sound contribute to the effect and also help suggest where to place stress: the predominance of one-syllable, Anglo-Saxon words, and the repetition of sounds, like p- (in splay, leap, up); mostly final d- (in behind, death, hind, hard, God); k- (car, kick, intake); and h- (behind, death, hind, him, hard, breath). All of these choices work toward conveying powerfully and rhythmically the disruption that has just occurred, that terrible sensation, visceral in this poem, of traveling down a road, all well, and then boom—the kick of the kangaroo—life happens. What do you do with that “Oh God” line that comes next? It’s much like Taylor’s “Shut up,” but the variation is even wider, as individual “Oh Gods” could be scanned as an iambic Oh GOD, a trochaic OH God, a pyrrhic Oh God, or a spondaic OH GOD. Depending oh how you imagine her, you might hear a rhythmic sobbing in iambic pentameter

    ˘    /     ˘     /       ˘      /       ˘      /     ˘    /
Oh God,| Oh God, | Oh God, | Oh God,|Oh God.

or, the wild swings characteristic of hysteria:

  /      /      ˘       /      ˘     ˘         ˘      /      /       /
OH GOD, | Oh GOD, | Oh God, | Oh GOD, | OH GOD.

The variations are many and subtle. Mathematically, there are potentially 1024 individually distinct ways to scan this line—not infinite, obviously, not equally good or distinct from one another, and not equally performable, but still a huge and varied number poetically and dramatically. The different possibilities allow us to envision the character as real and nuanced, experiencing a variety of ways she might act and feel at this moment.

Also notable in the poem is the first line immediately following the turn—and quite a turn it is:

  ˘         /            /      /      /       /         ˘    /        ˘    /     ˘
They stopped—|what had| they done?—|surveyed| the damage|

You could read “what had they done?” as iambic, but why would you? Picture yourself in the situation: “WHAT HAD THEY DONE?” Although I could also imagine it being read, “WHAT had| they DONE?|,” iambic definitely doesn’t cut it.

Although his first book, Up Jump the Boogie, does not contain a large number of traditional formal poems, John Murillo clearly knows his way around form. His crown of seven linked sonnets, “Renegades of Funk,” in contrast to the sonnet experiments of many younger poets, sticks incredibly close rhythmically to traditional iambic pentameter. But in contrast to less experienced sonneteers, the variation that he uses works to a clear and clever, though subtle, purpose. Scan the opening poem for rhythmic variation:

When we were twelve, we taught ourselves to fly,
To tuck the sky beneath our feet, to spin
The world on fingertips. To pirouette
On elbows, heads, and backs, to run away
While standing still. So when Miss Jefferson—
Her eyebrows shaved then painted black, the spot
Of lipstick on her one good tooth—would praise
The genius Newton, I knew then to keep
Her close, to trust her like a chicken hawk
At Colonel Sanders’. I refute your laws,
Oppressor! I’m the truth you cannot stop!
Busting headspins on her desk, a moonwalk
Out the door. Referred to Mr. Brown’s
Detention. All them try’na keep us down!

Where and why does variation occur?
Take a look:

  ˘     /      ˘    /        ˘    /        ˘     /       ˘   /
Oppres| sor! I’m|  the truth|  you can| not stop!|
 /   ˘         /    ˘        /   ˘       /  ˘        /    ˘
Busting| headspins| on her| desk a| moon walk|
   /     ˘      /         ˘   /        ˘    /        ˘     /
Out| the door.| Referred| to M[is]|[te]r Brown’s|

After eleven lines with no variation, there it suddenly, powerfully appears. And that line, or pair of lines, is a brilliant example of rhythmic variation married to meaning: it’s written in trochaic pentameter, but you almost don’t even notice because of the headless iamb “OUT” that begins the next line. We could go back and scan “Oppressor! I’m the truth you cannot stop!” a little differently in this light, too:

   ˘    /    ˘     /     ˘       /     ˘     /  ˘       /
Oppressor!| I’m the| truth you| cannot| stop!|

That variation acknowledges the epic caesura that occurs after “Oppressor!” and makes “stop!” a single-syllable foot that signals what’s to come, that orders the reader to pay attention. We could also alternately locate the single-syllable foot in “Out the door. Referred to Mr. Brown’s” in different places: “door,”or “Brown’s,”instead of “Out,” scanning, for example:

  /     ˘        /     ˘       /      ˘      /   ˘        /
Out the| door. Re| ferred to| M[iste]r| Brown’s|


   /    ˘     /          ˘    /       ˘   /       ˘        /
Out the| door.| Referred| to M[is| te]r Brown’s|

Each of these possibilities has arguments for and against, and maybe it’s the variability itself that is the point. If you know that rap lyrics often scan as trochaic, and that there is always a “flow” of talk riding over and around—sometimes with, sometimes against—the beat of the music, it seems to me that Murillo is skillfully playing the rhythms off each other, causing the poetry itself to moonwalk through these lines, reversing course from iambic to trochaic and back again, or appearing iambic when it is really trochaic, accomplishing rhythmically what “busting headspins” do in Miss Jefferson’s classroom. The entire poem becomes a marvelous example of signifying in and through formal verse, or remixing it, a major theme of the crown, which is also consciously about prosody:  “We studied master poets—Kane, not Keats;/ Rakim, not Rilke. “Raw,” “I Ain’t No Joke,”/Our Nightingales and Orpheus. And few/ there were among us couldn’t ride a beat/ in strict tetrameter. Impromptu odes/ And elegies—instead of slanting rhymes/ We ganster leaned them” (V).

The possibilities for new effects within traditional sonnets are hardly exhausted or even exhaustible: rhythmic variation within the context of regularity could, it seems to me, extend as far as changes in English, as variation in diction and style, and as the individual ear, knowledge, and skill of a good poet, and we haven’t even begun to explore the variation possible within the context of irregular rhythms, or non-traditional sonnets, or hybrid poems. Listen for variation when you read verse: think about its use and meaning for your own work.

More Reading (not exhaustive, just suggestions of where to begin):

I gratefully acknowledge the overall influence of Richard DiPrima, Director/Founder of The Young Shakespeare Players, Madison, WI, and author of The Actor’s (and Intelligent Reader’s) Guide to the Language of Shakespeare (2010) on my overall knowledge and understanding of prosody, most especially the relationship of verse as it is written and performed.