I'm trying to create textbook-perfect iambic pentameter.

I may be wrong in my assumption of there being such a thing as a 'secondary stressed syllable', but in the word 'poetry', the rhythm of it seems to be this: STRESSED, unstressed, secondary stressed. Right? PO-uh-Tri.

And with the word 'politician', it's: secondary stressed, unstressed, STRESSED, unstressed. Po-luh-TISH-uhn.

Since iambic pentameter is a strict unstressed/STRESSED, how can you use words like poetry and politician (and stay within the rules)?

I'll give the example that's stumping me:

Here's two variations of a line:

  1. In poetry, it's true, it can be changed,
  2. It's true, in poetry, it can be changed,

See how the second one doesn't sound acceptable (the 'try' in poetry just sounds wrongly placed)? But the first does? Is the first one definitely ok, or are both breaking rules?

The fact there's a difference between the two (if one right and one wrong) makes me also think: is there a conglomerate 'overall' stress pattern/arch that can apply within a line? It seems the second syllable (the first stressed syllable) can work as the PEAK stress of the phrase, after which the rest declines from that. Maybe it just depends on the sentence, and how you make it clear, using punctuation if effective, and by context of the words themselves themselves, for how it is to be read.

So if I'm right in all my judgements so far, how can I know how to use a word like 'poetry' in iambic pentameter, with its problematic little third syllable?

Thanks. :)

  • btw, there were several tags which would have been great to add but I don't have 150 reputation so I can't add them: iambic-pentamater, rhythm, stress, syllable. if poetry is something you intend to be seriously represented here, it'd be great, mods/150+'s!
    – user5000
    Apr 22, 2013 at 14:58
  • 1
    Currently poetry is not represented enough to grant a tag for specific metres, but a generic 'metre' tag should be helpful.
    – SF.
    Apr 22, 2013 at 15:08

5 Answers 5


At its strictest, iambic pentameter is just as rigid as you've described. "Poetry" is a dactyl (X-/-/), not an iamb (/-X), hence it shouldn't fit anywhere in an iamb-only sequence. Likewise, by the "strictest" definition, each word has a single primary stress, making the use of many polysyllabic words impossible by definition.

That said, "stress" seems to be loosely enough defined that you can allow yourself to go with a verse that "feels" as though it gets the metre right. Shakespeare's most famous sonnet, the eternal paragon of iambic pentameter, begins:

Shall I / com PARE/ thee TO / a SUM / mer’s DAY?
Thou ART / more LOVE / ly AND / more TEM / per ATE

...and what's "temperate" if not a dactyl with secondary stress on the last syllable?

To my ears, both your "poetry" lines sound fine. I understand your concern, since the middle iamb does seem to naturally get a little extra stress. But I can easily read or recite it very naturally, without sounding "off." Again, look at Shakespeare - if you deliberately stress all the "stressed" syllables, he sounds off, too ("Shall I compare thee TO a summ-er day?"). But if you read it "straight," then the iambic meter is firmly felt.

  • And, interestingly, I always read that last word as "tem'prate," not "tem-per-ate" as I would normally say it. Apr 23, 2013 at 12:22
  • PERFECT answer, thank you! Indeed, IF you read my second line in a certain way (e.g. extra stress on 'po-', and a pause after '-try') you can hide the otherwise unnaturally overstressed third iamb (though I'd have issues not making this clear in text, maybe I'd italicise 'poetry' but I'm not an expert there). After all I don't think iambic pentameter, in artistic practice, is intended to always be the 'duh 1 duh 2 duh 3 duh 4 duh 5.' rhythmic arch anyway. So it seems that in assessing someone's iambic pentameter, it's not black and white, but instead quite subjective/complex after all :).
    – user5000
    Apr 23, 2013 at 15:05

Secondary stress in poetic meter gets promoted (or emphasized) when surrounded by non-stressed syllables:

His po e try was bad


His po etry hurt

Linguistically speaking the English language has 3 or 4 levels of stress (depending on who you ask). Poetic meter only has two however - thus it is the relative level of stress that matters.

  • 2
    This is really interesting; I'm not very well-versed in poetry, but I'd never heard that before. Do you have any references that go into more detail? I think that would make this answer even clearer and more helpful.
    – Standback
    Jul 5, 2014 at 19:17

Cheat. Drop some letters/syllables.

It's true, in po'try, it cannae be changed

(Feels like "can" needs another unstressed after it, doesn't it?)

  • 1
    po'try, interesting solution, but there will be other cases where it just crosses the line of word compressing, so this does not answer the question in general...
    – user5000
    Apr 22, 2013 at 22:20

I'm not really good with poetry, and so I won't give you one solid firm answer you probably desire - maybe someone else will. Still, if you're writing humorously, you may enjoy a trick Edward Lear applied to the word "rheumatism" in the two last verses of this strophe of his "The Duck and the Kangaroo"

Said the Kangaroo to the Duck,
'This requires some little reflection;
Perhaps on the whole it might bring me luck,
And there seems but one objection,
Which is, if you'll let me speak so bold,
Your feet are unpleasantly wet and cold,
And would probably give me the roo-
Matiz!' said the Kangaroo.

That's a horrible violation of the flow of poetry but applied like this, gives a good humorous effect.


I should warn that I'm actually not really qualified to answer this question since I neither know too much about a poetry nor am I even a native English speaker. However I'm answering anyway because I've made an observation which might adequately explain why the first version sounds fine and the second doesn't.

Looking at your first version,

In poetry, it's true, it can be changed,

I notice there to be a second rhythm on top of the "stressed-unstressed" pattern: The stressed syllables alternate between "strongly stressed" and "lightly stressed". Let me make it explicit by making the strongly stressed syllables bold and the slightly stressed ones italics:

"In po-e-try it's true, it can be changed"

As you see, "secondary stressed" syllable of "poetry" ends up in a lightly stressed slot.

Now for your second version:

It's true, in poetry, it can be changed,

Adding the very same pattern here results in

"It's true, in po-e-try, it can be changed"

As you see, now the "secondary stressed" syllable goes into a strongly stressed slot. And I think that is what makes it sound wrong.


Looking at the Shakespeare lines quoted by Standback, they also seem to follow an alternating pattern of strongly/lightly stressed syllables, except they start with the lightly stressed one:

Shall I com-pare thee to a sum-mer's day?
Thou art more love-ly and more tem-per-ate

Note how, again, the "secondary stressed" syllable of "temperate" goes to a lightly stressed one.

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