Blank Verse

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Blank Verse is any verse comprised of unrhymed lines all in the same meter, usually iambic pentameter. It was developed in Italy and became widely used during the Renaissance because it resembled classical, unrhymed poetry. Marlowe's "mighty line," which demonstrated blank verse's range and flexibility, made blank verse the standard for many English writers, including both Shakespeare and Milton, and it remained a very practiced form up until the twentieth century when Modernism rebelled and openly experimented with the tradition. Regardless, blank verse was embraced by Yeats, Pound, Frost, and Stevens who skillfully brought the tradition through this century. While it may not be as common as open form, it retains an important role in the world of poetry.

Blank verse can be composed in any meter and with any amount of feet per line (any line length), though the iamb is generally the predominant foot. Along with the iamb are 3 other standard feet and a number of variations that can be employed in a blank verse poem. It is difficult--almost impossible--to write a blank verse poem consisting of all iambs, and other types of feet get used more often than one may think. These are:

  1. Iamb- two syllables, unstressed-stressed, as in "today".
  2. Trochee- two syllables, stressed-unstressed, as in "standard".
  3. Anapest- three syllables, unstressed-unstressed-stressed, as in "disengage"
  4. Dactyl- three syllables, stressed-unstressed-unstressed, as in "probably".
Variations include:
  1. Headless Iamb or Tailess Trochee- one stressed syllable. Labeling the foot depends on where it is located in the line.
  2. Spondee- two stressed syllables, as in "hot dog"
  3. Amphibrach- three syllables, unstressed-stressed-unstressed, as in "forgetful"
  4. Double Iamb- four sylalbles, unstressed-unstressed-stressed-stressed, as in "will you eat it?" A double iamb is counted as two feet.

Blank verse can be written with any combination of the above feet. The name of the dominant foot coupled with the number of feet in the line provide the name of a poem's meter. For example, the dominant foot in Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" is the iamb, and there are five feet per line. Thus, the poem is written in iambic pentameter. Notice, however, that not each foot is an iamb, but Frost mixes up the feet, as in the first few lines of the poem.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun

When you read the words, the natural rhythm is not de-dum, de-dum, de-dum--it is not strictly iambic. The first line, for example, scans as a trochee and four iambs. Scansion, by the way is how poets demonstrate the meter of a poem using accents to show the stressed syllables. With scanning, one can tell if a poem is metered or not and, if so, what kind of meter is present, as in "Mending Wall:"

Sómething there ís that dóesn't lóve a wáll.

Of course, how a person scans a single line or an entire poem depends on the reader's natural rhythms and inclinations, and, while there may be better ways to scan a poem, there is not always a single correct scan. In the first line of "Mending Wall", for instance, the first iamb could be read as a trochee, with the stress falling on "there" instead of "is."

How to and Examples
One way to write in blank verse is to take an old poem and turn the existing lines into ten-syllable lines. Then, modify the diction and the syntax (be careful not Yoda always try to sound) in such a way that the iamb becomes the predominant foot. Remember, the poem should be read naturally without forcing the meter onto the rhythm. Each line does not need to read "de-dum, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum" but, rather, that that meter can be over-imposed onto the natural rhythm of the line. As well, the poem should be read in sentences, not by line break. Line breaks should be determined by the meter. Allow the meter of the poem to drive you as you write it. Let it decide where the line length and line breaks should be without imposing your own natural habits.

This can be very difficult to do if you have never tried writing blank verse before, and I have found the above method does not work best for me. A second way is to simply write in pentameter by using roughly ten syllable lines, then, going back and changing syntax and diction to emphasize the iamb. With a little practice the meter will soon be controlling the way the line moves and sounds, and it will modify your natural rhytms to adhere with the pattern.

What does blank verse do to the line? It lengthens it, of course, but the meter also pushes the line into the next line and so on, giving blank verse a strong, narrative pull. I find blank verse makes my own poems long winded, the meter drives me to keep writing, and I feel a narrative voice emerging that I don't feel in a shorter-lined poem. Blank verse can be very helpful in that way, particularly if you feel you don't know what to write. The meter and long line demand words to fulfill its requirements, which makes blank verse a decent exercise for escaping writer's block.

Examples of blank verse include:

  • "Mending Wall"- Robert Frost (almost anything by Frost will be a solid example)
Online Examples and Resources:

-- Damon McLaughlin

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Last Updated 8/23/99