A Literary Series
I’ll give a hundred bucks to the first person who correctly names the inventor of iambic pentameter. You can use the comment box below to send your answer, but you have to do it now.
No, it wasn’t Shakespeare.
And no, not Chaucer either, though I’ve heard it said that he brought it back from Italy along with a copy of The Decameron and some horrible verse forms like the sestina.
I learned the answer years ago from an Irish poet named Jim McAuley. I was in Spokane, taking classes in what used to be a bank. One classroom was actually the former vault, the huge door left there on its hinges. Crazy. And McAuley told us that iambic pentameter was just another thing the English stole from the Irish, which had my attention even before he got to the origin story, which was this: It came from the blacksmiths’ shops. It was the practice of the master smith to use a smaller hammer—tap—to show his apprentice where the heavier blow should go—bang. It took five of these tap-bangs to shape a sword (tap BANG, tap BANG, tap BANG, tap BANG, tap BANG), which was a plausible explanation. More importantly, though, it was a perfect story because it also explains couplet rhymes: two sides to a sword (one side; flip; then the other), then back again with the metal to heat in the forge.
As for the specific Irish poet… well, by then I’d forgotten to care. I didn’t ask. And given the Irish tendency toward music, conversation, and storytelling as art rather than scribbling-down-on-paper, determining which poet first took that ten-stress rhyming system from the blacksmith shop to the page is impossible. So I’ll just say the inventor is Jim McAuley.
I bring this up because of the piece I wrote back in May. In it I said my friend Rick invented the “translation” exercise I mentioned, and afterwards he told me that others probably used it before him. In fact, Tom Holmes wrote me to say that Chris Howell gives that assignment to his students (Andy Gottlieb wrote me also to say, “My new favorite line of all time is, ‘Wine is rain in translation’”; thanks, Andy!), but I’m sticking with Rick as the originator because the Story of it matters to me more than the Who.
Think about it, we can trace a lot of things precisely to their source, and then yawn. For instance, whoever invented Velcro probably has a load of boring specifics on Wikipedia, but I don’t care enough to spend five seconds now and see. I’m much more interested in this question of invention, of originality. What does it mean?
Take me: I’m a writer, I’m originally from the Northwest, and I’m imprinted by place. So it’s possible I’ve written things that were already “said” a thousand years ago in the carving of a totem pole, and it’s possible those things were said a hundred years before that—by the wind, back when that future totem pole was still a sapling.
And where did the wind first hear those phrases?
And where did that wind originate?
For another $200, you can tell me your guesses, but the answer is Washington or Ireland. Two fine places for stories, and the twins of green.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.
Photo of Irish countryside by Christian Birkholz, courtesy Pixabay.