Have you noticed how lines with the same number of accents can differ so much in length? There are reasons of course and poets use them to help establish a mood and urge the reader to proceed at the poet’s intended pace. This technique works in free verse, too, but we may be more aware of it in structured lines. Here are examples of essentially iambic lines with four accents.
He scratched his head and said, “How come?”
Where valiant warriors draw their swords
His name alone numbed men with fear
I’m doomed to play this horn for years
You’ve joined the Pirate Brotherhood
We swore an oath to make that clear
And blocked his freedom to the yard
“This snake belongs to me,” he said
Don’t you shake those horns at me
Who came in by the door in spring
Tomorrow I’ll fix steak and bread
Stood all day in the burning sun
Here I stand forlorn and bare
Faster! Faster! Not enough!
Even when we study madly
To signify that he’s around
He’s not exactly like a pet
Stuck together like a ball
Follow me and we will go
Every year I say I’m quit
Actually we’ve never met
No one’s ever satisfied
The first thing you notice is that I’ve arranged them from longest to shortest lines. They are long or short to suit whatever mood was being conveyed. But you need to read each one aloud before drawing conclusions. For example, the quickest line is, “I’ve gottogotothebathroom!” because I ran the words together to convey panic. Another quick line, “Faster! Faster! Not enough!” is aided by exclamation marks to hustle the reader along.
Although, “Here I stand forlorn and bare,” ranks 13th in length, it takes longer to read than many above it, such as, “‘This snake belongs to me,’ he said.”
In actual length, the longest line contains 8 words, 8 syllables, and 31 letters. The shortest contains 4 words, 7 syllables, and 19 letters. The long one, “He scratched his head and said, ‘How come?'” represents a rather slow thinking boy whose bubble gum bubble just got popped all over his head. The shortest one is a children’s lament about their parents’ thermostat war.
Long vowels help slow the pace of a line. Short vowels can give it more juice. Careful choice of words, selecting synonyms with more letters over those with fewer, creates a longer looking line that signals the reader to take his/her time. Generally speaking, serious subjects tend to want longer, more reflective lines. Lighthearted verse is usually at its best when the lines are crisp and jiffy right along.
Often these fine tunings occur during the latter phases of rewriting. That’s when the true character of a poem may reveal itself and we become aware that some perfectly good words, which we may have loved originally, may now need to be traded for those that fit better.