Friday, August 18, 2006

Writing Poetry

By C.S. Thompson

When a lot of people say that they don't like poetry, what they really mean is that they don't like bad poetry. And most poetry, after all, is bad. It's not an easy art to do well, and especially not for those attempting free verse, despite the apparent simplicity of that formless form.

Poetry is language concentrated, the essence of language- words and images boiled down until they're thick with meaning, layers of thought and emotion in every line. You don't achieve that kind of magic by just "expressing yourself," spewing out a random stream of thoughts and feelings. Like anything else worthy of being called an art, this skill must be learned. The good news is that it can be learned. In fact, it used to be taught.

Until the twentieth century it was expected of every educated person that they be able to compose a competent verse when occasion called for it, and people were taught how to do it. You can teach yourself. There's no way to teach inspiration, of course, whatever that is. The special quality of great poetry is a type of genius, a flash of insight that cannot be forced. But you can give yourself the tools to be ready for it. You can learn how to express your thoughts and feelings in potent language.

The easiest way to do this is to study the ancient tradition of formal verse. That may seem like a contradiction, because most poetry written today is in the free verse mode. But when free verse was still a revolutionary form, its adherents were all trained poets, men and women fully competent in formal verse styles who then went on to write poetry without rhyme or meter. The free verse they created was quiet and elegant, employing sound rhythms of great subtlety. It was still poetry, though of a new kind.

Unfortunately, something happened in the decades that followed. Generations of poets were weaned on free verse, and went on to compose their own examples without any understanding of formal meters. The vast majority of it was indistinguishable from prose, though it usually lacked the clarity of good prose. They had put the cart before the horse.
Free verse is not the easiest type of poetry to write well- it's one of the hardest. It should probably not be attempted at all without a thorough grounding in traditional verse forms. Once you have learned your craft and learned it well, so that you have the ability to write decent verse in any meter, then you might be ready to write poetry without meter.

This probably sounds like an extreme statement, but ask yourself this. When was the last time that you went to a poetry reading and heard anything comparable to the great poets of the past? Anything that could move you like Blake or Wordsworth, Rilke or T.S. Eliot or Robert Frost? That may be a little unfair, because poetry of that quality is rarely found, and has always been a rare find. But have you heard anything that even sounded like the same species of creature? Poetry has been redefined to mean other than what it used to mean, no longer "the best words in the best order" but just a random catalogue of personal feelings. If you want to become a good poet, you must set the bar higher. Don't be content with mediocrity. Learn your craft.

First Reading Exercise: Find a verse translation of "Beowulf" and read it out loud, listening for the rhythm of the poem. Try to make up lines of verse that sound similar.

If you're interested in writing formal verse, you might want to know a little bit about its history. The early English poets had strict metrics but no rhyme. Their verse used accentual meters, which means that every line had a certain number of strong beats in it. Try reading this couplet out loud, from a modern example of accentual verse by John Myers Myers:

"Harsh that hearing for Houston the Raven,
Fools had enfeebled the fortress at Bexar."

If you read this out loud, you might have noticed that every line had four strong beats or "accents":

HARSH that HEARing for HOUSTon the RAVen,
FOOLS had enFEEBled the FORTress at BEXar

Putting the accents in capital letters exaggerates the effect, but those stresses are the ones that would normally occur just from reading the poem out loud. Every syllable in the English language is either strongly stressed or weakly stressed, and we all learn how to stress a word when we learn that word.
So what can we say about this early meter, the sort of meter used in Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon epics? As you can see if you count them out yourself, there are four strong beats in every line, no matter how many syllables the line has. Another thing you might have noticed is that there is a natural break or pause in the flow of the line:

"Harsh that hearing for Houston the Raven,
Fools had enfeebled the fortress at Bexar."

This break is caused by the fact that two of the accents or strong stresses are in the first part of the line, and two are in the second.
When reading the lines by John Myers Myers out loud, you might have also noticed that the same sounds kept repeating, which is even more apparent as the poem goes on:

"Harsh that hearing for Houston the Raven - Fools had enfeebled the fortress at Bexar, leaving it lacking and looted...."

This a technique called alliteration, and it was a favorite of the Anglo-Saxon bards, or skalds. Alliteration is when you keep repeating a letter to give your poem a "musical" flow. As you can see, the Myers poem flows quite well even though there's no rhyme. A letter can also alliterate with a different letter that sounds alike. Certain letters seem to work well together for alliteration. This short list is from my own personal experience. P goes with B; D goes with T and Th; M goes with N; O goes with W and U; V goes with F; Ch goes with Sh.
There is one letter that should almost never be alliterated - S. Use it very sparingly in any poem. Why? That hsssss sound, like a snake. It grates on the ears, and unless you're trying to be ugly, use it only when you must.

First Writing Exercise:
Write a poem of ten lines, in which each line has four strong beats. Try to create a natural pause in the middle of each line, so that two of the strong beats are in the first half of the line and two are in the second half. Include alliteration if you can.

Second Reading Exercise- Read a collection of Haiku, listening for the subtle rhythm of the poems.

So now you have a basic understanding of accentual verse, the style of poetry in which each line has a set number of strong stresses. As mentioned above, this was the earliest type of Old English poetry. But at the same time that the Saxon skalds were composing in accentual meters, the bards of Wales and Ireland were composing in syllabic meters. In syllabic verse, the stresses follow no particular pattern, but there are a set number of syllables in each line. Some of the syllabic meters used by the bards were extremely complicated, requiring the poet to master very intricate sound patterns. The old Irish and Welsh poets created metrical forms that would make a sonnet seem like a summer vacation. Here is one of the easier of the Welsh forms.

ENGLYN: A poem written in rhyming couplets. Each line must be seven syllables long. The last word of the first line must be one syllable. The last word of the second line must be two syllables, and the accent of that word must fall on the first syllable. The first word of the first line must alliterate with the last word of the first line. The last word of the first line must rhyme with the first word of the second line. This pattern repeats in each couplet!

That is only one kind of "englyn", which was a form invented by the bard Dafydd ap Gwylym because the other poetic forms were even stricter. In other words, this was the "free verse" of its day!
However, syllabic verse need not be as strict as that in the first place. The only absolute requirement is that each line has a fixed number of syllables. One of the classical French meters is the ballade, in which every line is either eight syllables or ten syllables. The most familiar example would be the Japanese Haiku, with its pattern of five syllables, seven syllables, then five syllables:

A hushed forest of
Toasted green, and the sound of
Warm rain on gravel.

Generally speaking, languages that are heavily stressed (such as English) produce accentual meters, and languages that are lightly stressed (like French or Gaelic) produce syllabic meters. When syllabic verse is used in English, care must be taken to keep the flow of the accents a subtle one, so that no particular pattern appears and dominates. In practice syllabic meters can sound a lot like free verse, although the subtle pattern of having a set number of syllables per line creates the musical flow of metered poetry:

This new horizon was a dark rose
From an unknown light. There was no sun.
And our boat dried, as we came ashore,
To a fine dust. When I touched your hand
There was a softness like white birds' wings
Breaking the wide night into pieces.

Second Writing Exercise- Compose a poem of ten lines, in which each line has exactly nine syllables. Try to make use of alliteration if you can.

Third Reading Exercise: Read a selection of Shakespeare's sonnets out loud and get used to the stress patterns. Experiment with making up lines in your head that have the same rhythm.

Neither accentual nor syllabic verse, however, was destined to take pride of place in the poetry of the English language. The Anglo-Saxons used accentual meters while their Celtic neighbors were using syllabic meters. A combination of the two forms was a natural development, producing the type of meter known as accentual-syllabic. In this type of meter, there are a set number of syllables per line, and the stresses must fall in a particular place in each syllable. This sounds a lot harder than it actually is, because our language just happens to be structured to make it easier. For instance, if you were to turn to your roommate and say, "I'm going to the store to get some beer," you would have just composed a line in "Iambic Pentameter," the most popular of all the classical poetic forms. Why is that? Let's break it down.
If you count out the syllables in the line you will find that there are ten. There are ten syllables in every line of an iambic pentameter poem. Now try saying the line out loud, and exaggerate the strong stresses. You'll find that the line sounds something like this:

I'm GOing TO the STORE to GET some BEER.

Or, if you were just writing down whether each syllable was a weak accent or a strong one:


So the ten syllables of the line are divided into five pairs, and each pair contains a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable. Those pairs are called "feet." There are different kinds of metrical feet, but for now all you really need to know is this: a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable is an "iambic foot" or "iamb." So "iambic pentameter" is a meter in which each line contains five ("penta") iambic feet, for a total of ten syllables per line in the pattern of "Weak STRONG weak STRONG weak STRONG weak STRONG weak STRONG." Check the following humorous example for yourself, reading it out loud and counting out the number of weak and strong stresses on your fingers:

I'm going to the store to get some beer,
Malt liquor maybe, or a jug of wine.
If I'm not back before the break of day,
Come look for me. (Bring cash to pay my fine.)

Just as there are different types of accentual meters and syllabic meters, there are different types of accentual-syllabic meters as well. The opposite of an iambic foot is a trochaic foot, a strong syllable followed by a weak one. Trochaic meters are rarely used, because they sound sing-songy to most people. Longfellow's "Hiawatha" is the most famous example:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

If you read this verse out loud, you will notice that the stresses fall like this:

BY the SHINing BIG-Sea-WATer

There are eight syllables in every line, and the stress pattern is STRONG weak STRONG weak STRONG weak STRONG weak, which adds up to four trochaic feet in every line. So the meter Longfellow uses in "Hiawatha" is called Trochaic Tetrameter. ("Tetra" means "four".) Iambic meters are the most common in English, and Trochaic are the second most common. But there are also some rare options such as pyrrhic meters and spondaic meters. A pyrrhic foot has two weak syllables, and a spondee has two strong syllables. It is almost impossible to compose anything of length in English in either meter.
In anapestic meter, the foot contains three syllables and the pattern is weak weak STRONG. Here is a brief example from Lord Byron:

And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea

If you read this out loud, you can hear the anapestic rhythm of it:

And the SHEEN of their SPEARS was like STARS on the SEA

The opposite of the anapest is the dactyl, in which the rhythm is STRONG STRONG weak. It is rare to find trochaic meters in serious poetry and very rare to find any of the others. The vast majority of formal verse in English is in iambics.
Now that you have a general understanding of accentual-syllabic meters, you understand blank verse. Blank verse is accentual-syllabic poetry without rhyme, especially unrhymed poetry in iambic pentameter. Blank verse has a great tradition behind it. Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost" was in blank verse, and so is much of the dialogue in Shakespeare. It has a dignified, sonorous feeling to it, and once you get the hang of it is not terribly difficult to compose. Just make sure you pay close attention to the stress patterns, and that you don't depart from strict iambics too often. It is important to vary the rhythm a little occasionally by introducing a non-iambic foot into an otherwise iambic poem. If you don't do so every now and then the poem will sound too constrained. If you do it too often the meter will fall apart. Don't worry too much about when to do it. The more practice you get, the more obvious it will become. You'll be working along in iambic pentameter, weak syllables and strong syllables in their proper places, when a line will occur to you that doesn't quite fit perfectly but is still the right line. Just go ahead and use it; it will add variety. But if it sounds awkward when you read it out loud, cut it out.
The biggest potential pitfall you will need to watch out for is the risk of losing the meter. When poets compose iambics without understanding them, the end result is often not in iambics at all. If most of your lines do not distinctly follow the "weak STRONG" sound pattern, then the result is not iambics and it will read poorly. Make sure you can tell where the stresses are before you start composing your own iambic verses. If you have to read dozens of poems out loud before you can hear the patterns, then so be it.
Just as there are types of meter such as iambic pentameter or trochaic tetrameter, there are specific poetic forms that have been used over the centuries. The most popular and prestigious of these is probably the sonnet. Most traditional sonnets use one of a few rhyme schemes, but it is also possible to write a blank-verse sonnet. A sonnet has fourteen lines, and that's probably the only ironclad rule. Classical sonnets have a certain logical structure, where the poet describes a problem in the first nine lines and then the solution in the last five, so that there is a distinct "turn" or change of tone in the tenth line.

Third Writing Exercise- compose a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Don't worry about rhyme or alliteration, but if you feel confident enough to attempt it, then use the logical structure described above.

Here is a sonnet of my own to use as an example:

For you, some jasmine on a scented purse
Warps matter, mass and space and therefore time
With its surprising gravity. You find
A sudden knowing of forgotten thirsts.
No thought is there, no reasoning, because
You never reasoned then. A flash appears
Of things that haven't mattered much in years-
But now you know exactly how it was.
The galaxy is greedy of its laws-
Time travel doesn't last. It burns away,
Like revelation in the light of day.
Your friend is not aware you even paused.
Forgetfulness seems kind to you, and right.
You shrug, and walk into the growing night.

Note how the traditional "turn" is included in a subtle form. The narrator becomes nostalgic after smelling a scented purse in the first part of the poem, but the bittersweet moment fades as suddenly as it began and he rejoins his friend, concluding that forgetfulness is "kind and right." This turn or change of mood can add a lot of interest to a form that is sometimes seen as dry and formal.

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