Defending Style: Shakespeare and Jazz Harmony

Somehow, the dawn crept up on me again, and it’s 6 o’clock. In these early hours I usually find myself deep into a season of some TV show, or on a binge of strangely specific documentaries- King of Kong, I’m looking at you. This morning however, after being up all night on the other side of town playing Atari and discussing the historical subtext in Studio Ghibli’s works, I was feeling a little too delusional and scattered to center on something like a computer screen. So I decided to give writing in loose iambic pentameter a try.

If stylized linguistics isn’t your thing, I’ll break it down really quick for you. The rhythm of poetry is referred to as its meter. An iamb is a group of two syllables with a weak stress followed by a strong stress; like a heartbeat. So iambic pentameter is employing this specific rhythm into every line of the piece, so each line has ten syllables or five iambs. Probably the most famous examples of this style come from our old high school buddy William Shakespeare. Now that is the most basic, strictest form of iambic pentameter that I just described, and even Shakespeare, considered a pioneer of the style, expanded and broke the rules quite often. Today, however, especially if you’re a writer, I completely understand why it would seem kind of counterintuitive to set up such specific rules on your writing. How can you flow and create while constantly counting syllables? What good can come from the tedious exercise of writing in iambic pentameter? Today’s writers are always looking for the freest way to express themselves, more rules can usually mean less expression.

I, however, completely believe writing in a specific style and playing by a totally different set of rules has serious writing benefits. As a musician, I compare it to harmony: the rules are more like guidelines, or really, just analysis of the natural tendencies in music and the human ear, and then standardized. The most interesting things happen when you play with these tendencies, when you go where its not expected. What I mean is, flowing in and out of the strict style to bending and breaking the rules and back to following strictly, can make for some excellent writing. Duke Ellington and William Shakespeare both knew that.

I am simply no Ellington, but if I’m going to pretend to know what I’m talking about at all, I better give this thing a try and see what happens.

I started with a clear idea of what I was going to write. Focusing so much on the form and style, the sound and rhythm, drew my attention away from the subject matter I think, in a good way. I was actually flowing more; words and lines were dropping into place like cement into a mold. It’s not the strictest iambic pentameter by any means, there are several lines of hexameter (which is referred to as an alexandrine) that I thought seemed to fit, and I employed a technique I picked up from Alexander Pope in which he switches the stress to the front of the iamb in the start of the verse, and moves it smoothly back over to the end. He is infinitely better at it than I am, but this is all for the pursuit of knowledge, right?

There is also a fairly large margin for interpretation of the stresses in this stuff. A great writer of the style will put together a work that has a defined pulse and very clear stresses. As an amateur, I feel my stresses could be shifted around from where I interpret them, and it sort of weakens the stylistic power. Anyway, here’s the most effort I’ve put into poetry since that one semester in grade eleven.


It was the shy sound of a cigarette

that startled her, flame engulfing tobacco.

Soft, doughy bread cooled down on a white plate,

candlelight reflected in the window,

and powerful med’cine made her eyes dilate.

She hid her disease from all who knew her.

I saw her there, from in front of the bar,

her illness so unbeknownst to me then, I grew

rooted in love with a shade from afar.

The cigarette was mine, I lit before

I wondered what hate lay beneath her skin.

To crush the soul so fev’rishly in her,

it must have taken, somehow, from this sin

its most unfathomable power o’er

her daily life. As much physical as mental,

the hate rotted her. In her work and relations

she would pass unrecognized. It hurt her.

It man’fested itself in fever, suddenly,

or appearance of some work load on any night,

keeping her from any interaction to build.

You can’t pity her though, for not caring,

a silent witness bathes in the same guilt.

Great writers other than Shakespeare that employ an iambic or rhythmic style in verse: Alexander Pope, Thomas Wyatt, John Milton, Morris Halle, John Donne, and Ben Johnson.

– Mike Kerr, Staff Writer



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