Susan Tichy
George Mason

Bouncing Off Walls

W o r k i n g  w i t h  L i n e


Measuring the Line / Alfred Corn's Iambic Pentameter Exercise / Jason & Lefcowitz' Iambic Exercise
Quantitative Slyllabics /
Counterpointed Free Verse / Bounce Back
Fair Flow'r Among the Weeds / Metrical Preverse

Measuring the Line
This exercise explores the relationship among various types of poetic line: accentual, syllabic, accentual-syllabic, and unmeasured.

a) Write several lines that are each 9-11 syllables long. Pay no attention to where stresses fall, but do examine the lines for other features, such as placement of ceasura, nature of the line-ending and line-turn, roughness or smoothness, pace, and so forth.

b) Rewrite these lines in at least three ways:

1) to achieve a strict syllable count per line
2) to achieve four strong stresses per line, with a fifth lighter stress optional
3) to iambic pentameter
4) to 'headless' or balanced lines of four or five stresses, each line both beginning and ending with a stress

c) You may do the same exercise with shorter lines, rewriting to two or three stress lines, and then to either iambic trimeter or iambic tetrameter.

d) You may do the same exercise on someone else's lines. Choose some fairly prose-like free verse lines to begin with.

Alfred Corn's Iambic Exercise.
This was invented by the poet Alfred Corn. Its purpose is to help you write a more sophisticated iambic pentameter by distributing the five stresses among words differing in number of syllables and placement of stress. Here are two extremes of IP lines.

Unsanitarily extornionate         UNsan  iTAR  iLY  exTOR  tioNATE

And I shall see the snow go all down hill.      And I shall SEE the SNOW go ALL down HILL

The first has polysyllabic Latinate diction, mid-range vowel sounds, and lots of t’s and s’s. Its stresses are light, and the whole line seems to take place at the tip of the tongue, the front of the mouth. The second has monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon diction, several vowels from the high and low ends of the scale, and soft consonant sounds: sh, w, all. Its stresses are heavy. We say this line farther back in the mouth.

Try to write ten lines of blank verse in which no sequence of syllable distribution among words is duplicated--don’t, for example, write more than one line containing five words. Do include one ten-word line, and try for one two-word line.

Jason & Lefcowitz' Iambic Exercise: Wind it in or wind it out
Here's another approach to increasing the flexibility of your IP lines.

1. Write a short passage in strict iambic lines.
2. Rewrite it with an overload of stressed syllables.
3. Finally, rewrite it with many unstressed syllables.

Here’s an example:

Unlike the other nudes, she stands at ease
and watches. Paint in hand, he strokes a breast
with quickness. Black, the lines relax the splash
of pink--her feathered hat. Undaunted
and ready, Barbra breaks her silent stance
and laughs until he puts his paints away.

Unlike other nudes, she stands, slouches, smiles
from the door, winks and watches. Black strokes
curve to breasts, pink splashes feather a hat.
Playful, he paints her unposed. Teasing, she flings
pink her hat, spills blue paint slick on the tile floors,
slips into the room laughing, and leaves footprints.

So at ease, she’s a bit unlike the other nudes.
She stands with her hands on her hips, as if
impatient for him to finish. Her lips tilt in a
smile as he hurries to capture her. With a dab
of paint he attacks the canvas with a clutter of pink
hat, and black brushstrokes below match her stance.

Exercise from Creative Writer’s Handbook by Philip K. Jason & Allan B. Lefcowitz.  Prentice Hall, 1999 [1990]. Example poems by Lisa Schenkel, a student  of the authors.

Quantitative Syllabics Exercise
An imitation of Marianne Moore’s “The Fish.” 

If you have a rhyming dictionary, you may want to use it for this exercise.

a) Write a 4-word sentence in which the 1st & 4th words rhyme.
    Write a 12-word sentence in which the 8th & 12th words rhyme.


    Write one 12-word sentence in which words 1 & 4 rhyme with each other and words 8 & 12 rhyme with each other.

b) Write these two sentences out so that the rhyme words all fall at the ends of lines. Revise them until you like what you have, keeping the rhymes in position. You may change the words, but not the pattern. You may add or subtract words, but you must keep the relative proportion--that is, a one-word first line, a short second line, a long third line, and a shorter 4th line.

c) Begin a new sentence on line 5. The end of this line will not rhyme with anything you have written so far, but the sentence must run over into line 6. Line 6 will be the first line of the second stanza and it must be the same number of syllables as line 1 of the first stanza.

It should look something like this:

is more gut-
wrenching than this winter light, striped through trees
to slice an unappeas-
ing consciousness


Yes, you may hyphenate words at line-ends, but no you do not have to.

d) Count the syllables in lines 1-5 (the first stanza) and you now have your stanza pattern.
In this case it is 1 / 3 / 8 / 6 / 4.

e) Write at least three more stanzas on this pattern. You may revise the stanza pattern as you work on the poem, but whatever pattern you decide on you have to stick to it. The only variation allowed is to devise two stanza patterns and alternate them.

Here is a sample poem written to this exercise. Its first, third, and fifth stanzas conform to the initial pattern of the exercise; its second and fourth stanzas follow a slightly different pattern. Also, its rhymes interlock from stanza to stanza, which yours need not do. Why do you think the last line is short by one syllable?

is more gut-
wrenching than this winter light, striped through trees
to slice an unappeas-
ing consciousness

of yes-
no, light-dark, live-
die into our naturally lazy, passive
way of undertaking what
should be a joyful, but

often is a bor-
ing journey, what we like to call a life
story, more like half-life,
some big fucking

winding down but
not arriving, rumored to be dangerous, yet
hard to understand. Forget
about it. Light

no business
in the business of the morning. It
will blind you if you let
it--stop. Don’t.

This exercise forces you to think about rhymes as part of sentences and increases your skill in placing rhymes wherever you want them. And, because syllabics don’t create a line whose length or line-break we can hear, this exercise also makes you work with the rhythm of the sentence, a rhythm governed by punctuation and speaking rhythm. If you don’t particularly like the poem you produce with this exercise, try rewriting it in different lineation, but keeping the rhymes. Where do they fall? Are they now internal rhymes? What affects can you create with them?

Counterpointed Lines

This exercise gives you the feel of writing run-on, counterpointed lines, the feel of how line-break, caesura, and the occasional end-stopped line can control the pace and feeling of a poem. If I have assigned this exercise, you need only do one of the two versions presented. If you are already writing in run-on lines, choose the version that pushes you to write differently.

**These exercises are designed for the writing of free verse. They can be adapted, however, to limber up your line in metrical verse.

Version One:

1. Your poem must be between 10 & 30 lines long.

2. You must use normal punctuation and capitalization and complete sentences. One of the formal gains of the run-on line is the tension and counterpoint possible between the line as a rhythmic unit and the sentence as a sense unit. This effect is not necessarily lost when the force & structure of the sentence is altered, but for now, while learning, keep your sentences strong.

3. Your subject should be something you feel strongly about, but do not tell us what you feel, don’t name it. The purpose is to use your lines to convey emotion.

4. Your poem should not use end-rhyme.

5. Do not use very short or very long lines--5 to 12 syllables, or 3 to 5 beats, is about right. Your lines can be the same length, or varied. They can be metrical or nonmetrical.

6. Your line and sentence may end together no less than two and no more than four times.

7. At least one sentence must be exactly one line long.

8. At least one sentence must be shorter than one line long and must be contained completely within one line.

9. Your poem must be in continuous form (no breaks).

Notice how momentum is created in this form, which pulls us vertically down through the poem, not allowing us to stop or rest except where it dictates.

Version Two:

1. Your poem must be between 12 & 30 lines long.

2. You must use normal punctuation, capitalization, & complete sentences.

3. Your subject should be something you wish to present very clearly, so each of its details of image or thought can be considered without confusion or too much momentum. This should be so even if your subject is one on which it is difficult to be clear.

4. Your poem should not use end-rhyme.

5. Do not use very short or very long lines--5 to 12 syllables, or 3 to 5 beats, is about right. Your lines can be the same length, or varied. They can be metrical or nonmetrical.

6. Your poem must be divided in stanzas of three lines each.

7. Your line and sentence may end together no less than two and no more than four times--no more than three if your poem is short.

8. Your stanza and your sentence may end together no more than twice, counting the end.

Note that this form tends to slow down the poem’s movement, make us consider each line, image and word more slowly. The more the line breaks fragment the sentences the more this slow, careful mood--with layers of meaning created by line and phrase--is created.

See also
Syntax Exercise on the Imitation & Homage Page