What Makes Verse Sing
by Ian Doescher
Warning: I am about to totally geek out on you…
Still with me? Here goes… occasionally in advertising copywriters will try out some simple verse. I’ve done it myself, recently, for a client preparing their holiday materials. (If I had a nickel for every parody of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” I’ve written in my life, I’d have… about 45¢.) The thing is, all verse is not created equal. Now, please bear in mind I am not talking about poetry here. Poetry is an art form and requires no rhyme, no meter, no anything—poets have bent the form in and out and all around, to wonderful results. I am not a poet.
No, I’m talking about verse. Like this:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Grateful is Dead,
Jerry is too.
Okay, I just made that up. It’s a little morbid. I’m not even a Grateful Dead fan. So it goes. Anyway, the point is that unlike poetry, verse does have meter, does have rhyme, and in my experience the more strictly you obey the rules, the better your verse is.
In my high school freshman year English class, our teacher taught us about the four most common types of poetic feet. For some reason, I found this fascinating and took to it immediately. Who knew language could be so much fun? (I warned you I would geek out.) The four common types of poetic feet are iambs, trochees, dactyls and anapests:
- An iamb is a two-syllable pattern unstressed-stressed. Re-LEASE. In-DEED.
- A trochee is an iamb’s opposite, a two-syllable pattern stressed-unstressed. PRES-sure. HARP-ist.
- A dactyl is a three-syllable pattern stressed-unstressed-unstressed. HARP-si-chord. OB-vi-ous.
- And, an anapest is a dactyl’s opposite, a three-syllable pattern unstressed-unstressed-stressed. Un-der-STAND. In-ter-RUPT.
Any of these words, if stressed on the wrong syllable, sounds incorrect. This is meter. When writing in verse, generally you have a certain number of poetic feet per line: dimeter (2), trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), pentameter (5), hexameter (6), and on and on. So, the number of syllables in a line equals the number of syllables in the foot you’re using times the number of feet you are using. Some famous examples:
- Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter—da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM (to BE or NOT to BE, that IS the QUES-tion—he has an extra syllable on that line, called a weak ending).
- Homer wrote in dactylic hexameter—DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da (so many Greek names are made for that final stressed-unstressed-unstressed ending, like O-DYS-se-us, An-TI-go-ne, PER-se-us, etc.).
- A famous example of anapestic tetrameter is my old favorite: “‘Twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas, when ALL through the HOUSE…”
Rhyme is way simpler than meter to master, but still people write bad rhymes all the time. Some examples:
- “Advice” does not rhyme with “wise” (though “advise” does).
- “Time” does not rhyme with “nine” (the –ime and –ine rhyme is a common one, but it doesn’t actually rhyme).
- “Flummox” doesn’t rhyme with “ox” because the stress in “flummox” is “flum” (because of that, though, it does rhyme with “stomachs”).
Rhymes can sometimes depend on where you are—one of my favorite unusual rhymes of all time is this, from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (fantastic lyrics by Tim Rice):
“All these things you saw in your pajamas
Are a long-range forecast for your farmers.”
In American English, that rhyme doesn’t work at all. But with a British pronunciation, it works perfectly:
“All these things you saw in your puh-jah-muz
Are a long-range forecast for your fah-muz.”
One of the best online resources for writing verse is Rhyme Zone, a site I visit frequently when I am working on rhyming verse. Like meter, the more strict you are about your rhymes the better your verse will sound.
DOING IT RIGHT
About eight years ago I made a pact with myself—the kind of pact that only nerds make with themselves. From that point forward, if I was going to write verse I was going to be a total stickler about using flawless meter and rhyme. What I realized back then is that anyone can fudge meter and rhyme, but only true artists are perfectionists about it. My exemplar in this is Dr. Seuss:
“Green eggs and ham, green eggs and ham,
I do not like green eggs and ham…”
Flawless iambic tetrameter. The verse in Dr. Seuss’ books sings as you read it because he was just about perfect when it came to meter and rhyme. If you ever want to be inspired by verse, read some Dr. Seuss. The man was brilliant—he was also a huge stickler for meter and rhyme, which is why his verse ends up sounding so simple.
WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT
If you are inspired to write some verse for your advertising copy—and it will definitely set your ads apart if you do it well—I encourage you to take the time to really do it right. Stick to the meter, make your rhymes perfect, and the verse in your ads will sing. None of us are Dr. Seuss, but if we follow the rules we can add verse to our copywriting toolkit.