Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thus Far, Part 1 (or really, part 1b)

I want to put together some thoughts , over the next few posts, on the Workshop work that you've all been posting thus far. Some of this is reiteration of what I've been posting to the Workshop as replies, but I thought it might be good to pull some of it together.

By the way -- are you opening and reading all my replies to other student's posts? Essentially, those are becoming the ongoing lectures (Ihadn't intended it that way at the start; remember, this course is an experiment). So, try to get in the habit of reading my posts, because I'm directing my replies to everyone -- not everything is meant only as a comment on the particular poem or story I'm "replying" to.

For now, I'll stay with a discussion of poetic form; we've had some brief fiction work, but I'll get to that a little later.

One point I've made in several posts has to do with the poetic line. Other than breaking the line before the right margin, what makes a poem a poem?

The most noticeable thing is end rhyme, perhaps. But my observation in many comments has been that an end-rhyme isn't enough to create the integrity of the verse line (to put it in yet another phrasing). More important, I think, is whatI've called the cadence or meter of the line.

Many poets over the past century or so have written free-verse poetry, which doesn't mean "unrhymed" so much as unmetered. However, free verse poetry still, usually, has a cadence. What is that? I think of it as some way of creating a pattern of sounds that is pleasing and that guides the reader, beyond the sense of the words themselves -- through stress patterns that are not necessarily metrical, but also through grammar, rhetoric, or what can be referred to as "sound symbolism" or "phonetic symbolism," or some other way of drawing more attention to the language than we might expect in prose.

It's very hard to make a clear definition of "poetry" vs. "prose." There are prose poems, for example. So, which are they? Prose, of poetry? We often like things to fit neatly into categories, but often, they don't. Perhaps an artist, or a creative person generally, is someone who doesn't mind, or actually enjoys, confusions of identity, meaning, form, etc. Boundary zones are fruitful places.

So, I am attempting operative definitions here: not absolute ones.

But back to my point: when writing a line of poetry, rhymed or not, try to discover what qualities of language will give energy to the line; and how that will create a pattern, an integrity (something that earns its way, perhaps), a sense of wholeness or rightness.

Metered verse, in the English-language tradition, is "accentual-syllabic," primarily (but not exclusively). That means: verse in which the poet has created a line of a certain number of syllables (usually eight or ten) and a certain number and pattern of accents.  The most common pattern, traditionally, has been "iambic pentameter" -- something like this:

That time of year thou may'st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang:

(Shakespeare's Sonnet 28)

If I use capitals to point out the stress pattern, it looks like:

That TIME of YEAR thou MAY'ST in ME beHOLD
When YELow leaves, or NONE, or FEW do HANG
UpON those BOUGHS which SHAKE aGAINST the COLD...

You'll notice, by the way, that the pattern is not consistent. A poem that was perfectly metrical (da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH) would sound mechanical. So, the poet sets up a recognizable pattern, then avails himself of inversions, ellisions, additions, and truncations along the way -- often to draw attention to something connected to meaning in the poem. many sound effects are mimetic of meanings, or so people often feel. But other effects are far more subjective, and draw connection to meaning through context, or from a long-held association common among speakers of a language. "K" sounds sound hard; "s" sounds (sibilance) sound soft, or weak; "aye" and "ei" sounds are bright, "oooh" and "oh" sounds are dark, and so forth -- depending on context.

Anyway, an iamb is two syllables, unstressed followed by a stressed; pentameter means five pairs, making a ten-syllable line. Tetrameter would be four pairs. If you're interested in learning more about traditional prosody, Google "meter" or prosody"; here is the Wikipedia page:

It isn't necessary to write metered verse. But it is a good idea to practice it as a way of improving your ear and your command of a free-verse line, which still needs that "integrity" -- something that makes every syllable earn its way, something that justifies every sound and every word in the poem. And that is one operative definition, for me, of a poem: a text in which every mark, every sound, counts -- nothing unneeded is allowed in, and yet it might seem conversational or casual.

I encourage everyone to read a lot more poetry in the "Anthologies" post below. Reading a lot of poetry will greatly improve your ear, and your sense of what's possible.

I'll do more in another post on other issues, and say more about meter and cadence and other sound elements as well. For now, consider the above; and regarding rhyme, try leaving it out, and find the elements in the line itself that give your line its integrity; don't just work your way out to a rhyme with whatever words and sounds get you there. Also, consider other patterns of rhyme besides couplet rhyme. it's often to chiming, too close to allow some of the more pleasing effects of rhyme. Consider quatrain patterns (such as abab, abba, abcb, and so forth) as well as other patterns, and random rhyming.

More later...


  1. I hardly ever rhyme in my poetry and when I do it's by accident. I envy the ability of some people to put rhymes in and make them sound like they aren't forced. I was passed over when someone gave out that gift. I try to make each line meaningful. The way it sounds and how much breath it takes to say it often determines my line structure, but more than that I try to have each line either have a striking image or purpose. I try to get out all the unnecessary words and just put what really needs to be there.

  2. My biggest goal when writing poetry is to creat a melody in the verse, a beat, a pattern when read aloud. Often I do this by using movement words or moving color words and descriptive imagry of rythm and movement. I find my poems sometimes rather "sing-songy". This is probably from much inspiration from Edgar Allen Poe, Sylvia Plath and Robert Frost. It also makes it easier to remember my poems when quoting them at open mic nights so that I can really emphasize the beat.

  3. My grandmother loved to write poetry and I have found since enrolling into this creative writing class is that I love to write poetry asd well. I tend to write ones that do rhyme and I would like to continue sharpening my poetry skills to make them flow better. Poetry that does not rhyme is something that I struggle with because I feel it is not poetry. I know that is not the case and I need to broaden my perspective more to understand that poetry can be just as beautiful even when it doesn't rhyme.

  4. I find it very difficult to write and think about the cadence of the verse. One exception is when I write a song while playing the guitar. When I have a tune in my head and in my hands, the words seem to fit more readily. I wonder if there is a way to hear by seeing. I assume the better poets do this naturally. I cannot now do it all.