“Chapter 3: Poetry, with Examples” from STARTERS

DEFINITION

 POETRY is a literary form, of which 1) the content can be factual (the details actually happened) or fictional (the writer created the details from his/her imagination) and 2) is written in verse; basically, it is a song using words alone. Unlike song lyrics, which partner with a melodic tune to give the full meaning of the lyrics, poetry must depend on the words alone for its full meaning. Therefore, the words you choose and arrange must do all the work.

Let’s pick apart my story poem “Patchwork” to see how the words work through the elements of poetry:

Once upon a full-moon night,
A patchwork man came by to sing
Of rags and buttons, silver bright,
Of lace and ribbons made of string.

He broke her wooden gate’s stone latch,
He trampled pansies to the root,
He trod upon her daisy patch,
And sung off-key with leaky lute.

“Away! Begone!” she yelled above,
Upon her gilded balcony.
She trusted not a patchwork love
Which came at night and came for free.

“I gave you silken scarves in parts,
My handkerchiefs, my bits of quilt.
That is no claim upon my heart,
And so – Begone! I feel no guilt.”

She saw the patchwork man below,
His hat slung back, his coat too thin,
With mismatched buttons in a row,
His trousers held with safety pins.

He gently set the lute aside
And gently start his search and sift.
He pulled – what is it? – from his side
And threw the object as a gift.

It fell before her small, bare feet,
A package wrapped with cloth and tape.
She picked it up, unwrapped the sheet,
While sensing tingles in her nape.

A patchwork heart sewn timid tight
With silken scarves and quilted strings,
With cotton kerchiefs, buttons bright,
Embroidered lace and ribbon rings.

“You gave me silken scarves in parts,
Your handkerchiefs, your quilt. ‘Tis true
I have no claim upon your heart,
But mine I offer you to choose.”

A patchwork love thrown in the dark –
Oh, what a crazy, silly match –
She felt the patchwork make its mark,
But first, “Get off my flower patch!”

#

ELEMENTS OF POETRY 

  1. LINES: Instead of sentences, a poem is written in lines, where often a sentence is broken between two lines. For instance, “Patchwork” has forty lines.
  2. STANZAS: Instead of paragraphs, a poem can be divided into stanzas – separated groups of lines. For instance, “Patchwork” has ten stanzas, with four lines per stanza.
  3. RHYME: While a poem doesn’t have to rhyme (such poems are called “free verse”), “Patchwork” is a rhyming poem. But let’s go over basic rhyming terminology first.

Couplet: two lines, back to back, rhyme at the end of their lines (“end rhyme”), AA. Example:
And so I grab my meds, my Benadryl
And slather anti-itch cream to my fill.

 Tercet: three lines, back to back, in which the first and third lines end rhyme, ABA. Example:
Red sea strew the sand
Airy children play and hide
Bound the foot and hand

Quatrain: four lines, back to back, in which the end rhyme scheme alternates from line to line, either ABBA or ABAB:
ABBA Example:
I killed him with a ruddy, tightened fist
Because I didn’t have the words to say
Of every hurt that rushed all in that day,
A million jabs and bruises, much to list.

 ABAB Example:
Once upon a full-moon night,
A patchwork man came by to sing
Of rags and buttons, silver bright,
Of lace and ribbons made of string.

Now we know that “Patchwork” is a series of ten quatrains. 

  1. RHYTHM & METER:

Every word has a rhythm, of stressed and unstressed syllables, when we pronounce a word. For example, we pronounce the two-syllable word “upon” like this: uh-PON. The first syllable is “unstressed” while the second syllable is “stressed”. If we were to write stressed/unstressed marks on the word “upon,” it would look like this:

ŭpón.

In a poem, any polysyllabic word (or two or more monosyllabic words strung together) that follows a particular rhythm is a metrical foot. Every metrical foot has a special name (in order of common usage):

Iamb = unstress+STRESS Example: upon
Anapest = unstress+unstress+STRESS Example: intervene
Trochee = STRESS+unstress   Example: wander
Dactyl = STRESS+unstress+unstress   Example: thunderous
Spondee = STRESS+STRESS Example: cold steel

For the musically trained, the metrical foot sound like the beats of eighth and quarter notes, like this:

Iambic foot =   |♪ quarternote|
Anapestic foot = |♫ quarternote|
Trochaic foot =  |quarternote ♪|
Dactylic foot =   |quarternote ♫|
Spondaic foot =  |quarternotequarternote |

Just like a sheet of music has a set series of musical beats called a measure, a poem has a set series of metrical feet called a meter. Each meter has a special name, based on the number of metrical feet:

Monometer    = one metrical foot
Dimeter          = two metrical feet
Trimeter        = three metrical feet
Tetrameter    = four metrical feet
Pentameter    = five metrical feet
Hexameter    = six metrical feet
Heptameter  = seven metrical feet
Octameter      = eight metrical feet

If we “scan” our first poem – that is, sound out the rhythm and meter of “Patchwork” – we will see that each line is primarily written in iambic tetrameter.

  1. DICTION, IMAGERY & TONE:

 DICTION is your word choice. Just like using Description for Narration to “flesh out” the story’s events, characters, and setting in prose writing, in poetry you use Subjective Description to describe persons, places, things, and actions as emotionally important as possible. Those descriptive and specific word choices make the emotional impression concrete and real to your reader.

Besides having words that your reader can sense – see, hear (especially hear – with the repetition of vowels, consonants, and even whole words and phrases), smell, touch, taste – your word choice should also match the tone of the poem.

 TONE is the attitude (think of the phrase “tone of voice”) of the SPEAKER in the poem. The speaker can either be your own self or a character speaking in the first person in the poem (“I, our, we”) or an all-knowing speaker who is narrating what is happening in the poem and refers to the characters in the poem in the third person (“he, she, it, they, his, hers, its, theirs”).

Since the content of a poem can be factual or fictional, you are free to choose what kind of person the speaker is in your poem. Whatever you choose, the speaker’s tone will be the main driver of the emotional impression in your poem, based on the speech pattern of the speaker.

For instance, the speaker may use ENJAMBMENT. Enjambment means that the sentence of one line wraps around and continues to the next line without any obvious pause at the end of the previous line. Enjambment occurs in both free and rhymed verse and gives the poem a more natural-sounding and contemporary speech pattern. Example:

Blood once flowed with tears
On this hard, green ground
I now walk with my son.

The cumulative effect of diction and tone is the poem’s IMAGERY, which is the sum total of your word-pictures that guide your reader to the poem’s emotional impression.

In “Patchwork” we have no enjambment; instead, we see clearly defined end-rhymes and word choices like “Once upon a full-moon night,” “leaky lute,” and “Begone” – all of which gives a fairy-tale imagery to the poem, as told in third person by an unnamed narrator. With the image of a raggedy musician wooing a seemingly hostile woman standing above him in her balcony, the fairy-tale imagery continues, and we’re rooting for the clumsy but sweet patchwork man to finally win the high-class woman’s heart.

 RESULT: EMOTIONAL IMPRESSION OF POETRY

The words have done its work in this poem. The simple lines of sing-song iambic tetrameter, with easy-to-follow stanzas in regular, rhyming quatrains, and the fairy-tale imagery in diction and tone, reinforces that EMOTIONAL IMPRESSION of the poem: a sweet and simple love story of a once-upon-a-time age, with a happy ending of any romantic comedy

A poem’s emotional impression (also called a poem’s THEME) is equivalent to a creative non-fiction essay’s implied Thesis, and the job of the poet is to make the elements of poetry do their work, to produce that emotional impression that feels natural and intuitive to the reader, instead of artificial and forced (like a bad greeting card).

INTERESTING NOTE: In the past, I have had some readers interpret some of the imagery in “Patchwork” as being metaphors for the absurdity of physical intimacy, which wasn’t my intention. However, while different readers may get a different emotional impression from your intended impression, as long as that emotional impression feels real and true to your reader, then your poem has done its work.

 THE WRITING PROCESS

Now that we know what poetry is, here’s how to write one.

 STAGE I: INVENTION & PREWRITING

 Keep a poetry journal (where you jot down words, phrases, and even preliminary poems) as you work to find your emotional impression. Also, read the poetry of others, especially if you are deciding on a form of poetry (free verse, metrical rhymed verse, or even a traditional form like the sonnet), which will determine what form of poem best fits your intended emotional impression.

Because poetry is a literary form with condensed meaning (a lot of meaning in a very small space), the invention/prewriting stages easily flows into the other stages of writing. What makes this stage distinct, therefore, is writing your ideas so that it looks like you’re drafting, but you’re actually freewriting as you work through the elements of poetry to determine your intended emotional impression of your poem.

STAGE II: ARRANGEMENT & DRAFTING

For the purposes of this short guidebook, we’ll go over the three aforementioned forms of poetry: free verse, metrical rhymed verse, and the sonnet.

FREE VERSE allows you to write without the limitations of rhyme and formal metrical feet, while the other elements of poetry – lines, stanza, rhythm of the words and how they’re related to each other, diction, tone, and imagery – become even more important to achieve your emotional impression.

Many free verse poems rely on the modes, especially Narration and Cause/Effect, to provide structure to an otherwise random group of words. Here are two examples that rely on the Narration mode:

“Armistice Day” – 38 lines

Blood once flowed with tears
On this hard, green ground
I now walk with my son.
Past cries ring and touch me;
Wonder if my son can hear it
Too as he runs ahead of me?
But – no.

I don’t know why I came back
Here, this deserted place.
I hated this site, this
Desolate hole, this hellish
Land, where blood and mud
Mingled, and I couldn’t tell the
Difference.

Too far from home, across the Great Sea
Too far from Mother and Father and
My wife, heavy with child.

My son explores the land with
Excitement. He is still only a
Boy, like I was when I came
Here, among boys who were
Supposed to be men, doing their
Duty.

Duty is such an abstract thing
ntil you come here,
Until you see the anxious
Faces mirror yours, until you
See their eyes close like children
In that eternal sleep.

Dear God, I miss them,
Those boys – my friends.
Their cries ring through me in
Waves that ache.

“Father!” my son calls out.
I look up. He stands like a boy-god
On top of a grey mountain.
“Father, is there where Troy
Once stood?”

#

“DOG” – 46 lines

The dogs would wander in from the street –
Tired they were but happy, tongue lolling out
Like a wet, rough rag, as they would trot to the
Music that nobody else but they could hear.

Lean, bristly hair, some ears notched, paws
Roughened by concrete, these were city dogs
Urban dogs, sometimes converged in packs,
Often in ones or twos. Occasionally, a lone

Scout would spring ahead, crossing the traffic,
Avoiding that car, that truck, in the narrowest
Of margins, fazed by the carhorn honk, the human
Shout of “Fucking dog! Get outta there! Scram!”

This time the scout is female, unusual really,
Teats still enlarged by her litter, recently gone
With the pack, nowhere to be seen. She wanders
Across the highway, to the campus, the sun glinting

Off her eyes and playing like butterflies among
Flowers on the lean curve of her back. She regards
The close-cropped grass with tentative flicks of her
Tongue, rubs her side against one prodigious tree.

Life is good, the music in her head says, life is good.
She slips past the thin morning traffic of cars arriving
To work – not many this fine day, not many this early
Time on this fine day. The air is crisp, cool; winter’s

Coming. She can smell it, and if she is afraid of those
Cold nights, those lean nights of little food as the world
Goes to sleep a bit, she does not say. But, yes, she
Is an urban dog, a city dog, and trash, many mountains

Of trash, will always ensure that her belly never feels the
Pangs of hunger that much, will ensure that she never
Worries about the pangs of hunger in her litter’s belly
That much. She makes her way through the maze of

Parking lots, potholed, leaf-strewn, and sits in the middle
Of one of them. She sits there as a car pulls up, a little
Late for work, and moves only a bit as it arches away
From her, like a bird avoiding a fence, a wall. It parks

Aways down from her, and the driver, harried, yet takes
The time to regard this dog in the middle of the parking lot.
Human eyes regard dog eyes,
dog eyes regard human eyes.

She leans up and trots to a nearby tree and reclines.
The human makes a little wish, turns away from the
Dog, and marching to another tune, a human tune,
Makes the way into the building, far away from urban

Dogs, prodigious trees, and the sun glinting off of lean
Backs like butterflies in the field.

#

METRICAL RHYMED VERSE gives a musical quality to a poem, which is why it’s the most common form in songwriting. (In fact, listening to songs and their lyrics can help train a beginner poet’s ear to poetic meter and rhyme and how both contribute to the songwriter’s emotional impression.)

We’ve already analyzed one of my metrical rhymed poems: “Patchwork.” Here’s another one as an example, but unlike the earlier poem, I use enjambment generously, as it fits my poem’s speaker, John Keats. While it’s primarily iambic pentameter, in 40 lines the enjambment often drops or adds a stressed syllable, as well as the end-rhymes being more “near rhymes” than perfect rhymes. All of these elements contribute to the desperate passion of Keats as he wishes to live to see his beloved one more time.

Note: the introductory informative section is part of the poem.

Author’s Note: John Keats was born October 31, 1795, in London, England, and died at age 25 of tuberculosis on February 23, 1821, in Rome, Italy, where he is buried. In a letter dated November 1, 1820, while still on ship at the port of Naples, Keats writes of being let out of quarantine for the first time on his birthday, October 31. But what is noteworthy in this letter is his declaration that his imagination of his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, torments him. “My imagination is horribly vivid about her – I see her – I hear her.” There is no record of what Keats’ last birthday, ill and isolated (except for his friend, Joseph Severn) on a strange ship on a strange sea, was like.

“Bright Star, Siren”

Bright star, siren of my mind, no less my
Body, I see you shining through the veil,
This waking life, this death of earth and sky.
I call life death, for alive, death I hail,
Before he steals upon me in surprise.

Yet, steeled as I am, my thoughts still surmise,
While huddled in dark blankets, sweating heat,
And sought within the wine-dark seas demise
Of all my sins, this sweat and blood, this seat
Diseased and broken, harvested too soon,

I swear I must be mad, but not in swoon.
To glance upon the waters’ swollen wave,
And see your image walk, a lifelong boon,
In radiance, all fair and cruelly grave,
I tear my hair out, strand by strand, and cry,

“This is too much, this is too much!” My cries
Are rattles, specked with blood, a fine mist spray,
Imagination made incarnadine.
You speak, with naked arms stretched towards my face,
“My dear, the marriage date is set, my gown –

I know it breaks tradition – bought in town
In nearby Rome. See, I await you there.
My voice will be my song for you, sweet sound
Echoed before the Spanish Steps. Beware
Of other-worldly hopes, for there is no

One but you and I.” But, sweet siren, O!
Bright star of my body, no less my mind,
Feverish dreams are only sighs. I know
My dearest girl remains in England, kind
And fair and young, my true star incarnate.

She’ll wear a dress of blue. Smiling, she’ll sit
Before yon desk and wrest the rough embrace
Into a winging word, released. Here, lamp lit
Reverses dark sunset on a birthday
Ill-conceived. Dear Severn hands me letters

One of which is hers. Ah, perhaps better –
I look upon the seas, and you are gone.
Happy, shining gift! I look upon her
Word, and you are there. Passion, soul, all run,
Bright star! But body only stands and waits.

#

TRADITIONAL RHYMED METRICAL FORM:

THE SONNET

 In the last chapter of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 young adult fantasy novel, A Wrinkle in Time, one of the main characters, an extraordinary creature named Mrs. Whatsit, says, “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”

Having to follow a form with pre-set rules may seem like a constraint to the poetic imagination, but the sonnet’s strict form (like any traditional poetic form) is like a mode for a poem: an already fixed arrangement of line, stanza, rhyme, rhythm, and meter allows the poet to concentrate on the diction, tone, and imagery of the poem. The sonnet form can be a support system as the beginner poet practices with the elements of poetry.

What makes a sonnet and sonnet:

  1. It’s all in iambic pentameter, with ten syllables per line.
  2. It’s 14 lines long, with only one stanza.
  3. The 14 lines are divided into two parts: the first part is the status quo, a problem, or a question; the second part is the change, the solution, or the answer.
  4. Where the “turn” – the transition between the first part to the second part – occurs depends on whether the sonnet is Petrarchan or Shakespearean.
  5. The end-rhyme scheme also differs between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet.

 Petrarchan (Italian) Sonnet

  1. The first part are lines 1-8 (called the “Octave”).
  2. The rhyme scheme for the first part is ABBA+ABBA.
  3. The “turn” happens at the end of line 8 or the beginning of line 9.
  4. The second part are lines 9-14 (called the “Sestet”).
  5. The rhyme scheme for the second part can be CD+CD+CD or CDE+CDE.

Here are three Petrarchan sonnet examples:

“Sugar Cane Harvester”

In heat I reap with speckled blade in hand
Which cut the cane with whistle and with shwink,
But sun whips down and makes it tough to think
To clear the wooden harvest from this land.
Sweet sweat rolls down, and stinging I must stand
Like tortured Tant’lus, seeing waters sink
Before his stooped, doomed form can grasp the drink
And pulls his hair in anguish, strand by strand.
Yet I am not that prideful fool of old
But just a burnt-arm reaper, not the first,
Who swings the slick machete in strokes bold
And fells the cane with flurried, rhythmic burst,
So as to catch a sugar cane unrolled
And, unlike Tant’lus, slake my tropic thirst.

#

“Thanatos”

With sharp cold steel, the knife drives deep the throat
Because my bullets could not do the deed
As my rote training kicked me in my need
Traverses kindness, love — that moral moat,
And slides into the trachea, afloat,
Until it anchors deep and furrows seeds
Which bloom into vermillion arching reeds
Staunches all desires, of laugh and gloat.
Yet deep within my brain comes out the grin,
Unbeknownst my CO, who’s up ahead,
And pray that my God’s laws call not this sin,
For I cannot wipe clean the recent dead,
And after all is said and done, there’s gin,
To dull the mem’ry of this beauteous red.

#

“Thrall”

I killed him with a ruddy, tightened fist
Because I didn’t have the words to say
Of every hurt that rushed all in that day,
A million jabs and bruises, much to list.
And when he crumbled, like a dying cyst
Subjected to the lance of cold X-ray
I felt at first I’d surfaced ‘bove the fray
Cleared from a world of silent, secret mist.
Yet even with him lying at my feet
The tightness didn’t dissipate at all,
And standing there upon that lonely street,
I clenched my hands and kicked against the wall,
For there was nothing else for me to beat,
As anger held me in her loving thrall.

#

Shakespearean (English) Sonnet

  1. The first part are lines 1-12.
  2. The rhyme scheme for the first part creates three quatrains: ABAB+CDCD+EFEF
  3. The quatrains elaborate more on the problem or situation that needs solving.
  4. The “turn” or “twist” happens at the end of line 12 or the beginning of line 13.
  5. The second part are lines 13-14, which are rhyming couplets, GG.

Here are two English sonnet examples:

“Allergies”

On Tuesday I had dinner with my spouse
Who sat across the table as I ate
And although it was nice to leave the house
I wonder now if it was chance or fate.
For shortly after dinner, when I left,
I felt a twinge of itch upon my arm,
Yet I ignored it, like a lip once cleft,
Since at the time I figured, “What’s the harm?”
But soon it becomes clear how wrong my skin
Has acted upon facing IT again,
And although I can fake it with a grin,
I’m really sick of it, my allergen.
And so I grab my meds, my Benadryl
And slather anti-itch cream to my fill.

#

“Sign”

“Keep out!” the sign said on her fragile heart
“Solicitors and trespassers on sight
Will be shot! No questions asked!” Well, a part
Of him stood back and thought, “Okay, this might
Not be the brightest thing I’ve done before
In this lifetime of mine. But, hell, what is
A person ‘sposed to do? Avoid the door
That stands between myself and her? Go miss
A chance because a warning’s posted here?
Pretend I never saw her in the day?
Succumb to her own wishes based on fear?
Should I turn back and simply walk away?”
A part of him said that. The better side,
However, smiled and, whistling, stepped inside.

#

After reading examples of free verse, rhymed metrical verse, and the sonnet, determine what form of poem best fits your intended poem’s emotional impression and begin arranging and drafting your poem.

STAGE III: Revision & Editing

After you draft your poem, check that it is error-free in regards to grammar, punctuation, and confused words (like writing “there” when you meant “their”).

Next, check that your draft’s poetic elements build and support your intended emotional impression:

  • Are there enough lines or too many?
  • Are the line breaks at the best place?
  • Should there be more stanzas?
  • Do the rhymes sound right (if it has a rhyming scheme)?
  • If there is a metrical rhythm, does it flow?
  • If it doesn’t flow, should you fix it or leave it be because it adds to the poem’s meaning?
  • Is the diction made of lean, strong words (like concrete, specific nouns and action verbs) that build word-pictures instead of vague, abstract ideas that sound like awkward, weak clichés?
  • Does the speaker’s tone match the overall impression of the poem?
  • In sum: read your poem out loud by yourself — does the poem SOUND right?

Then read your poem out loud with your peers and ask for feedback regarding the poetic elements.

Revise and edit, and keep doing so until you can feel and hear that emotional impression loud and clear, free of any obstacle to getting the true meaning and feeling of your poem to your reader.

 LET’S START
Write three poems:

  1. A free verse poem, using the Narration mode, of up to 65 lines
  2. A metrical rhymed verse of up to 65 lines
  3. A sonnet (either Petrarchan or Shakespearean)

 

 

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