It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing


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If you’re confused (given that you care at all) about the difference between blank verse and free verse, here’s the thing:

Blank verse was an invention on the way to free verse; i.e., Blank verse is so many lines of iambic pentameter. Free verse doesn’t give a (BLEEP) about the type of feet in a line, and really doesn’t care about the number of feet in a line, either (although  some free verse sticks to five feet per line.

Just so you’ll know, a line such as this old chestnut:

“In Xanadu did Kublai Khan” consists of four iambs (feet). If you were to diagram it according to stresses, with “^” indicating a strong emphasis and “-” indicating a lesser stress that line could be diagrammed thusly: – ^ – ^ – ^ – ^ or if this doesn’t make sense,  (I’ll capitalize the most emphasized syllables): “in XAN a DU did KU blai KHAN”

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But there are other types of feet (impress your English prof with these  – and they have names!):

Feet of two syllables:

Iamb    – ^  de LIGHT

Trochee   ^ -SPLEN did

Spondee   ^ ^ DROP DEAD!

Feet of three syllables

Anapest   – – ^  in ter TWINE

Dactyl   ^ – –    SPLEN did ly

Amphibrach  – ^ –   de LIGHT ful

Feet of four syllables

1st Paeon   ^ – – –   NOT  ed is a

2nd Paeon   – ^ – –  de LIGHT ful ly

3rd Paeon   – – ^ –  in the TWI light

4th Paeon  – – – ^   out of the OAK

Okay, big deal, right? These fancy feet look like a combination of the simpler, shorter feet. Right?

But here’s a subtle thing that can mean a lot when it comes to stretching iambic pentameter. Let’s suppose you had a combination of some of these example words and phrases above.

Splendid doesn’t mean delight

And as we sit here in the twilight…

We might diagram these with stresses thusly, according to our names feet:

^ – ^ – ^ – ^   SPLEN did DOES n’t MEAN de LIGHT

– ^ – ^ – – – ^ –   and AS we SIT here in the TWI light…

But read that last line aloud: when you get to the word “in” the temptation is to stress it as “IN,”

– ^ – ^ – ^ – ^ –   and AS we SIT here IN the TWI light

What you’re doing there is changing the rhythm when you get to  “…in the twilight…” but something in you – and in the reader’s ear – makes you want to keep accenting as if this were a string of iambs, but ending with a “feminine” or unaccented syllable. This is the way we in modern free verse make music with our words. Being aware of this, you can make the music!

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