Sunday, 30 October 2011

What is poetry, Part 2: The formal elements of poetry

It is helpful, when discussing poetry, to be armed with a certain knowledge of the formal elements of poetry. I am going to briefly discuss the key formal elements in this post, in order to provide a framework for exciting future posts on the sonnet, the ballad and free verse. The formal stuff in abstract is kind of boring, but it becomes more interesting when applied to particular poems. This post aims to give a basic guide which provides a jumping off point for looking at particular poems or poetic forms.

The building block of a lot of poetry is the number and structure of lines.  Some poetic forms have a set number of lines - for example a sonnet has fourteen lines. A line of poetry was traditionally referred to as a 'verse'. Line is easier to understand these days. A 'stanza' is a unit of lines within a poem, set out from other stanzas by a space. Often traditional poetry would have a set number of lines in a stanza.

In the last post I talked about rhyme, which is the formal element most people associate with poetry. Different poetic forms traditionally have different rhyme schemes.  A 'Shakespearian sonnet' for example rhymes abab cdcd efef gg - ie, the first and third lines rhyme, the second and fourth and so on.  The final two lines are a rhyming couplet. Normally in a traditional ballad the poem is divided into stanzas of four lines, with the second and fourth lines rhyming.

The third formal element of poetry is meter. While we can talk is a general way about the rhythm of poetry, meter means a specific rhythm. To determine the meter of a poem, each line is divided into feet composed of a number of syllables, stressed and unstressed. Feet have different names depending on the number of syllables and the stress placed on them. Often the symbol '¯' is used for stressed syllables and '˘' for unstressed. Wikipedia has more information here. One of the most common feet is the iamb - one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable:  ˘ ¯.  The meter of the poem is determine by the kind of feet used and the number of feet in a line. Iambic pentameter, for example, means there are five iambs in a line.

Other formal elements are a bit more straightforward and less technical.  Repetition, both informal and formal - ie a set pattern of repetition in a poem - is one important element frequently used in poetry. Imagery, in particular metaphor and simile, is a vital element of many poems.

So, and short example by William Blake (1757-1827)

The Sick Rose

    O Rose, thou art sick!
    The invisible worm
    That flies in the night,
    In the howling storm,

    Has found out thy bed
    Of crimson joy,
    And his dark secret love
    Does thy life destroy.

This poem does not use a strict meter - the feet vary in each line.  For example, the first line has an iamb (˘ ¯) followed by an anapest (˘ ˘ ¯). The second line has two anapests, the third an iamb and an anapest, and the fourth an anapest followed by an iamb.  Importantly, however, all the lines have two stressed syllables.  

The short two-beat line gives the poem a quick rhythm which accentuates the ominous tones in the poem's imagery.  The two short stanzas rhyming abcb defe is a simple structure reminiscent of a song or a nursery rhyme.

The rose is traditionally a symbol of love in poetry, and 'thy bed/of crimson joy' seems to refer to the sexual expression of love - bed, crimson and joy combining to create the image.  The 'invisible worm' - the destroyer of life - is a metaphor for the invisible forces which create a sense of shame about the sexual expression of love. Thus shame and love become intertwined - destroying love and life.

This poem is very simple, but the rhyme and meter, and the strong imagery really make it stick in your head. If you want to read more of Blake, start with Songs of Innocence and Experience. He was a really interesting character, and an amazing visual artist as well - I will have to do a full post on him one day.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

What is poetry, Part 1: Does it have to rhyme?

Anyone who writes poetry that doesn't rhyme will at some point have been confronted by someone telling them that if it doesn't rhyme then it's not poetry. So, in exploring the hazy boundaries between poetry, prose and song I will begin with the question: Does poetry have to rhyme?  The answer to this question is no, and not just because I (usually) don't write rhyming poetry. I will also note that in this post I am talking about English language poetry.

First, historically speaking, many poets (who are very serious and clearly poets) have written in blank verse - poetry which has a particular meter (iambic pentameter) but no rhyme scheme. We associate this usually with drama - in particular Shakespeare, but also Christopher Marlowe. However, the form has also been widely used in poetry as well - John Milton's Paradise Lost is written in blank verse, and the Romantic poets (notably Byron, Shelley and Keats) all wrote in blank verse.  Hopefully as the blog progresses I will look more closely at various poetic forms, so I won't say too much more about blank verse at this stage.

Of course, blank verse does have a particular rhythm (not that any poet completely respects the rhythm - more on this in the as yet only potential post on rhythm). So the question could be revised to 'Does poetry have to have rhyme and/or rhythm'? If by rhythm you mean an actual meter, like iambic pentameter, then the answer is no.

Here is a poem by William Carlos Williams, 'This is just to say', which doesn't rhyme at all.

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

This poem could be written out without the line breaks, as a note from a husband who came home late to his wife.  But would such a husband have written it like this? More like he would have written: 'Sorry, I ate all the plums in the icebox, I hope you weren't saving them for breakfast.'

WCW's poem draws out each separate part of the moment - 'the plums' and 'the icebox' each on a separate line in the first stanza emphasises the two central objects.  'I have eaten' is an almost imperious intoduction to a simple poem about a simple moment.  In the second stanza, the introduction of 'you' conjures a relationship - someone with whom the writer shares the icebox, a life.  The intimacy conjured by his knowedge of 'you', saving (once again the separation of the word conjures 'saving' as a special, thoughtful act).  Then forgiveness is asked, not because the writer was hungry or tired or had a big day, but because of the particular deliciousness of the plums - each element 'so sweet/and so cold' separated out. I could talk about this poem for much longer, because I love it, but I will leave my example there.

And this is why poems don't have to rhyme - the use of line breaks and/or the natual rhythms and order of language can conjure so much (more on line breaks when we get to prose poetry).  A poem can slightly alter natural spoken rhythms for emphasis, place special importance upon ordinary things by highlighting particular words.  So 'This is just to say' is a note apologising for eating the plums, but it is also about a simple and beautiful moment.

And I haven't even made it to Walt Whitman yet.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

An introduction, and 'Why do people write poetry?'

The idea of this blog is to record my thoughts about poetry. I really like poetry - I write poetry and I read poetry.  On this blog I want to think about some of the fundamental questions about poetry - what it is, why we write it, what the 'writers marketplace' means for poetry. But I also want to look at these questions in the context of poems I love and poems I hate. This is largely because I know quite a few poets who don't really read any poetry, particularly older poetry, and I think that's kind of sad.

I'm starting with the question of why people write poetry, rather than the question of what is poetry. In some ways I think that asking why is easier than trying to define what poetry is (which inevitably leads to debates about whether things should rhyme or not - stay tuned for next week on these and other exciting questions).

Reason 1: For yourself. Some people just write poems for themself - maybe because you feel sad, or angry or happy and you want to write a poem that no one else will see. I write these sorts of poems sometimes. For obvious reasons I am not going to post one here.  I was going to put up a small sample, but quite frankly when you write for yourself its not the kind of thing you want splashed across the internet.

Reason 2: For someone in particular.  Poems in this category are often love poems, or break up poems, and can end up really being for Reason 1, depending on how lame they are.  The important thing is that they are just for that other person (or perhaps people).

Reason 3: For the world at large, in the belief that we all share exeriences in common.  These could also be partially written for yourself, or for another person, but they also have something to say (or you think they do) about the human condition, life, love, death etc.  Great love poems are usually written to someone in particular, but speak to many others of their loves.

Reason 4: For the world at large, to convince them of something.  I guess you could call these political poems, or polemical poems, but I prefer not to. Here I mean that you have a view about the world - how it is, how it should be - and you write a poem to tell the world about it, and maybe convince them of something.  Like poverty is bad, war is bad, destroy poetry.

Reason 5: For the world at large, because you want to be a poet.  These are poems you write because you think other people will like them, and you will win the poetry slam, or get them published.  This is the part of the poet that longs to be famous and immortal.  This reason often shadows reasons 3 and 4. For some people it is an enemy, for some a friend.

There may be other reasons, but five seems like a good number.  Below is a poem by John Donne, which I think it could be argued was written for reasons 2, 3, 4 and 5.  This poem and many others by Donne can be found at

by John Donne

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;
    And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.