Monday, August 27, 2018
Writing And The Analysis of Poetry
I can hear the groans already. “Poetry? I want to be a writer, not a poet.” Or my favorite, “I’m really not a poet.” I refuse to ever challenge those responses. I can always suggest that a person try to do the poetry thing, but it’s a pretty scary endeavor. I can also offer the testimonial that I once said the same thing, then I went off and wrote a bunch of poetry. However, these are not good arguments for exploring that world. So I will approach it from a simple direction – as a tool for better writing.
First, a few ground rules: Poetry has a lot of cousins – sonnets, prose, free-verse, haiku, etc. – and each has its own form and rules or lack of rules. Shakespeare’s sonnets followed a rigid structure and meter, while e. e. cummings wrote free-verse poetry that defied every rule of grammar, print style, and typesetting. For the sake of this post, I am targeting what composing poetry can offer you as a writer.
Rhyme patterns are all about structure. A standard fourteen-line sonnet has a standard rhyme scheme, and presents the first half of the sonnet as the dilemma and the last half as the solution. Rhyme schemes and structures have differed, with the current English standard following the Surrey rhyme pattern of the first and second lines rhyming with the third and fourth, respectively, the fifth and sixth with the seventh and eighth, the ninth and tenth with the eleventh and twelfth, and the last two lines rhyming each other.
Now that you know sonnets, here’s why this is important. The author needs to understand the question-and-answer being presented, and the moral conclusion of the discussion. Furthermore, this needs to be boiled down into fourteen lines, and follow the rhyme scheme. It’s easy to make an argument in 5,000 words, but could you make the same point in 500? 400? And can you make your discussion rhyme? The author better know their stuff to condense it into a sonnet.
And now the importance of trying to write something with meter. Please do not think that any narrative requires meter – just hear me out. One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. It’s not a long read, and I think everyone should read it once. On that note, follow the link and read it once. Out loud. Now.
Let’s pretend you read it. I won’t ask what you got from it – maybe you enjoyed it, hated it, didn’t get it, thought “meh” or whatever. That’s fine. I only hope you heard the pattern and rhythm to each line, how each stanza had the same musical build to it. Frost wrote this poem to a specific meter, including breaking from that meter in the last line to give it impact.
Why is this important? The important part to a writer developing their craft isn’t the choice of meter or what kind of rhythm the author likes. Frost aimed for a particular rhythm, and had to select words that both fit the pattern and expressed his feelings. He could not just go on and on about his particular sentiment – each word had to be chosen specifically for those purposes. This forced him to truly understand what he wanted to express, and reveal it in a very efficient and meaningful way.
Which brings us to the haiku – the master of all poem structures. Haiku structure is simple – the first line can only use five syllables, the second line seven, and the last line five. There are variants, but let’s stick to this one. A haiku requires a person to present a feeling, emotion or sense of self in a mere seventeen syllables – not words, syllables. This means the writing has to be packed more efficiently than a week’s-worth of clothes in a tote bag. As writers, we learn to clear out the clutter, the filler, all the unnecessary talk and ugly words I will talk about in the next post. We take our broad idea and refine it; crystallize it into one clear, shining idea. One of my favorite people in one of my writing groups brought in haiku writing as an exercise, and I know everyone benefited from learning how to think and write just a little more effectively. In writing haiku, syllables express our souls; words just carry them.
(That last sentence was a haiku)
Not all writers have to write poetry – it’s not mandatory. I know plenty of writers who never wrote one poetic line (or at least never admitted to it.) Being a poet is to be an animal of an entirely different shape than a writer – though they are both incredible species to admire. However, the lessons that come from making poetry can definitely expand our skills as writers, even if we just read poems and marvel in how they express ideas without all the clutter that can come with narrative.
If poems arrive on our unsuspecting page, be proud of their birth.
(Yet another haiku)