Essay Non-Fiction posted July 7, 2009


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Discusses both reading and writing of verse

The Seven Pillars of Poetry

by joelh605

These are the seven attributes to look for in a poem; only the first four are necessary, but mastering all seven at once should be the glint in every poet's eye. In order of importance, best-first, these are the seven "pillars of poetry."

1 Strong emotional content
The emotion must be palpable, true to the human spirit, and made easily accessible through the words of the poem. A poem about a sunny day or a quiet moment can still be a work of art, but when that poem splashes tanning, sweat-making sun onto your face, or stops you long enough to feel the deep peace of a truly quiet moment, it has "set up the pillar".

2 Powerful language
Diction, i.e. word choice, must go straight to the bone, yet also be both elegant and persuasive. It must be concise, unmistakable, and surprising. Ordinary homespun words of one syllable can do this; just choose them slowly, and well.

3 Powerful imagery
The poem should use simile and metaphor in ways that illustrate its feeling clearly, and persuasively. "My love is like a red, red rose" is a simile. "My love has thorns; her deep red petals draw me in to embrace them" is a metaphor. Both produce an image in the reader's mind; the poet should aspire to set up and elaborate on one consistent image throughout the poem.

4 Just like conversation
The poem should sound as though it were being spoken directly from the heart, with no inverted or twisted syntax, nothing overly cute or rhetorical except as required by e.g. a cute or rhetorical speaker being quoted in context. Poems read in one's childhood may have tended to fall short of this, creating the impression that poetic speech is full of inverted syntax. When this thought creeps out of hiding, slay it.

5 Meter
If used, meter should be as tight as the stones of a dry-laid wall, yet not sing-songy. Sing-songy would be a brick wall with ab so lute ly rig id bricks, and all the joints mortared in. Meter should be reliable, yet incorporate occasional syllables that are neither stressed nor unstressed, but in between. In short, it should read like conversational, if somewhat elevated, language.

6 Rhyme
If used, the rhyming words should be chosen from the entire language, not just the one-syllable brace-rocks in that dry laid stone wall. Monosyllabics may be direct, blunt, and powerful; but the poet must use his or her whole vocabulary in all aspects of the poem, including rhyming words. Rhymes also need to be novel, surprising, powerful, ... (keep going)

The aa bb cc rhyme scheme only works well when the line length is fairly long. So-called xaxa xbxb rhyme is in fact aa bb rhyme with long lines broken into halves.

So-called assonant or partial rhyme is like leaving off some of the frosting, which makes it something of a personal choice. My own preference is to eschew half-measures: if you include rhyme, then make it integral and strong.

Poets may include internal rhymes, which appear according to some pattern which the reader may deduce (a pleasant challenge, usually) and may or may not adhere too closely to a pattern at all. A Japanese rock garden effect created by randomly placed internal rhymes can be very pleasing, when done well - consider the rhymes to be placed with apparent randomness, yet with care and attention to an inner harmony.

7 Enjambment
enjambmnent ()n. The continuation of a syntactic unit from one line or couplet of a poem to the next with no pause.

In other words, the syntactic unit, such as a clause, phrase, etc., spills across from one line into the next because one line just won't hold it. Enjambment applies primarily to formal verse.

Think of it this way: one citizen - one vote is fine; one thought - one line (OTOL) is not. Poems are made of many small clauses, statements, and supporting thoughts, but not all of these are going to find proper expression in exactly one line. Enjambment means that you've successfully divorced The Line from The Thought. When reading verse, an enjambed line that succeeds should declare that this poem came from a skilled hand, not just someone capable of rhyming - and - timing.

What are the consequences of not using enjambment? The first, and worst, is that OTOL can trivialize a poem. If it won't fit on one line do you chuck it and use something simpler? - or is it that finding a notion that overflows the line is hard - it often is! Pump the iron, do the heavy lifting, until it's not hard any more.

Beyond reducing the catalog of your thoughts to one-size-fits-all commonality, OTOL breaks the flow. A poem with no enjambment is likely to have some sort of pause at the end of every line, which slows the reader.

I've encountered fanstorians who regard OTOL as real poetry and regard anything else as suspect. But a poem which makes good use of enjambment demonstrates how it can improve both flow and expression. Think about it - in the ideal conversational language, do thought units all occur in set numbers of syllables? Certainly not - so why would we expect them to in poetry, especially when one of poetry's aims is to embody the flow of natural speech.

TO BE (FORMAL) OR NOT TO BE (FORMAL)

There are two primary schools in modern poetry. Over the past half-century poets have increasingly distinguised classic poetry as formalism, ostensibly because the old forms interfere with one's ability to let the spirit flow. Since only a few words will fit a given rhyme, formalism definitely restricts the poet's choice of words at the ends of lines. Does this kill the verse? - or does it make writing good verse harder? Each school has its own answer.

When rhyming disappears but meter remains, the result is "blank verse." Whole plays used to be written that way, in fact all of them some centuries ago.

When meter also disappears, the result is called "free verse." With only four pillars to rely on, not seven, good free verse is actually harder to write well.

Free verse has led poets to contrive new formalisms, both borrowing Oriental forms such as haiku and senryu, and expanding into syllable-counting forms, e.g. rictameter, or forms that produce a shape on the page, concrete poems.

Poets who still embrace formalism remind us that Shakespeare used formalism as less a crutch than a framework, on which he - in fact, many centuries' worth of poets - used these as trellises on which to grow marvelously expressive works. Modern formalists apply the 21st Century's evolved vocabulary to classical forms such as the sonnet or ballad, or more generally any rhymed and metered verse.

A breathtakingly beautiful poem does not require rhyme and/or meter; in fact, every poem should be breathtakingly beautiful, compressed, concise, expressive, eloquent and flow naturally, or it won't merit the name. A mythical WORLD'S GREATEST POEM might perfect all seven Pillars, with none higher than any other, i.e. all at the limits of human perfection, but the proof is in the cake, not the icing.

Backing away from that ideal by omitting one or more requires the poet's success in polishing those that remain to be that much the greater. "Free" verse is anything but; freedom always comes at a price. The poet writing free verse must go beyond expressing a thought or feeling; prose is capable of piercing expressiveness. Free verse must do so in a breathtaking way, and this requires high craft. To offer as "poetry" something that took no time or effort to write and received no subsequent polish, is to offend the art.

DENSE, ELEGANT, POWERFUL LANGUAGE

The best language does not always consist of the longest possible words; the best language may often compress complex thoughts into simple words. Characterizing "the best language" is akin to herding cats, or nailing jello to the wall. When you write something that sounds powerful and you're still proud of it on the fifth or eighth reading, you may have used "the best language."

MARKING METER

How do you visualize a verse's metrical construction? Here is one method, among many:

Beneath each line of a poem place a separate line with one mark per syllable. Use '1' for a stressed syllable, '-' for an unstressed syllable, and 'i' for a syllable that won't go quietly into either camp. Using these marks will illustrate what kind of 'foot' is in use, and whether all feet are from the animal.

Metrical poetry uses five kinds of feet:

noun     adjective  marks  effect
spondee  spondylic  1      stomp
iamb     iambic     -1     moonwalk
trochee  trochaic   1-     stride
anapest  anapestic  --1    hoppy moonwalk
dactyl   dactylic   1--    hoppy stride


Of these, the iambic is the most common. For instance in the time of Shakespeare all plays tended to be written in iambic pentameter, i.e. five iambs per line:

I am a quiet diplomat of peace
-1-1-1-1-1
Who nonetheless surmounts e'er war of man
-1-1-1-1-1
Or earthly beast may God's good Will release
-1-1-1-1-1
Upon the land or ocean - none began
-1-1-1-1-1
But ended soon by this my weapon'd arm.
-1-1-1-1-1

You get the point. Now, think of the '1' as the heel; every foot has one. The '-' syllables are like toes, and the foot either stomps (spondee), strides forward (trochee or dactyl) or does a moonwalk (iamb or anapest).

Not all lines have to be exact; a formalist may sometimes fudge the unaccented syllable at either end of a line, usually by leaving it off. When there is an extra '-' on the end of an iambic line one might omit the '-' at the start of the next, so the flow doesn't falter. Changes like this can leave the rhyme on a different stress than the other rhyming line's rhyme, in which case you should try to match that pair of rhymes to the same altered meter. In fact there are some poems which rhyme the 10th of 11 syllables, and match that with the correct 10th syllable of the rhyming line. In short, thinking inside the box doesn't mean the box has to be small.

When a poem's meter is in trouble, i.e. when it wears different shoes from foot to foot or it wants to have different numbers of feet per line, what do you do?

You write the notion(s) in those line(s) in as many ways as you can think of, then write them several other ways, until you get just the right reading. This is like pumping iron: the more work goes in, the more powerful the results that eventually come out. Your metrical muscles may take over, to the point that you realize you've been writing in iambics, say, in the middle of some intense passage in a private letter.

Rule One when resolving a meter or rhyme issue is to rewrite, but to start with eyes closed - picture a blank wall in your mind, and let the words come out and play with each other. Some adventurous phrase will eventually reach up and rap at the inside of an eyelid, your eyes will fly open, and your fingers will release it onto the screen.

Rule Two is, if you are painted into a corner, go back to find whatever it was that put you there, and rewrite THAT.

FINDING RHYME

Enjambment deserves mention here. One of the hallmarks of the minor leagues of poetry is to use rhyme but then to trivialize its expression via the "one thought - one line" (OTOL) rubric. Looking for places to enjamb counters that.

When using rhyme, to quote Yoda,

There is no try; there is only do or do not.

If you very delicately use near rhyme, keep a light touch. But if you are going to follow a rhyme scheme, for poetry's sake please consider the following carefully.

Good and Bad Rhyme Schemes

First, the use of 'x' in a rhyme scheme, usually xaxa xbxb ..., can be a misnomer; xaxa is really aa where you've broken each long line in the middle; regard this as whole long lines. Since FanStory's format for poetry is a narrow window, long lines come out broken anyway. You can post it as prose and say in a note that it's really "long line poetry" but that's not going to do you any good in a poetry contest, is it? So go head and write it xaxa xbxb, and put a suitable grumble in the Author Notes to the effect that it's really aa bb.

If you have some other use for x, e.g. abxab bcxbc ... then bravo, go right ahead. Just tell your readers what the format is. The more formats you become familiar with, or known for (or invent),the more polished a poet you are likely to become.

Second, rhymed couplets of aa bb ... are like class A baseball in that you advance to class AA, then AAA, and then the Major Leagues. Your skills will be there to see, but the aa bb rhyme scheme tends to drag the poet into simplistic, unpoetic thoughts. Or it may be the other way 'round: a poet with undeveloped skills is often only able to visualize rhymes in couplets. It's your choice, but if you work in couplets it may create a shallow impression.

The next step up, and a personal favorite, is abab cdcd ... This doesn't tax the reader as much as for instance abba cddc ..., which uses a rhymed couplet in the middle, then places the 'a' 'd' etc. rhymes at some distance from each other.

Another challenging scheme is aa..aa bb..bb, i.e. each verse, of whatever length, uses the same rhyme. War Story Alert: in college a friend of mine composed something with every line ending in 'ation'. Well, there are a ton of those, so there was no challenge in that at all. Your humble and obedient servant found a rhyming dictionary and selected "ection", of which there were about two dozen, and composed a reply using them in alphabetical order. The result was half gibberish and half doggerel. :) There is a clear lesson in there, somewhere, regarding whether you will master a rhyme scheme, or it will master you.

Third, and of great importance to the elegance, beauty, and power of your poem, is to freely use multi-syllable words. Of course one syllable rhyming words are the easiest to aim at. You start at the front of the line and imagine any of the dozens of one syllable words which may fit your rhyme scheme; you'll even find that you've done this for the first rhyme!

But putting that one-syllable rhyming word out there does several things to your result, all of them bad. First, it tends to keep you from enjambing. Second, it limits your vocabulary; how powerfully can you write when you can only use is a simple, one syllable word at the end of each line? Third, it seems to encourage contorted syntax, since lots of those words tend to be parts of speech that DON'T come at the end of a natural phrase or sentence, yet there you are, putting them at the end of your phrase/line/sentence.

OK, longer words can also wind up "requiring" contorted syntax; please don't surrender to this idea. If syntax is suffering, stop and start over. Put a good rhyming word out there at the end of your unwritten line, then write toward it WITH PROPER SYNTAX.

Fourth is something called "half-rhyme", i.e. pairs of words that are near misses. Here are some: made - plaid, make - breaks, thing - thin - you get the picture. If you're going to use near-rhyme throughout poem, fine. But if you're going to establish an actual rhyme scheme, then near-rhyme is acceptable very occasionally. Think of it as a "beauty mark". Do you remember seeing old pictures of Marilyn Monroe? She had a very creamy complexion, and would put a tiny black dot somewhere low on one cheek where its imperfection would highlight the true perfection of the rest of her face.


Recognized


The same way cake comes with or without icing - think of brownies, for instance, as cake you'd frost only if your sweet tooth grew teeth. In the same way, poetry comes with or without rhyme and meter. This essay attempts to distill what makes a collection of words understandable as a poem, both with and without the icing, and proceeds from there to discuss ways to improve your results when writing verse.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.


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