1: Poems range in length from the 17-syllable Haiku to the 16 thousand line ILIAD, although the ILIAD is by no means the longest poem––nor is the Haiku the shortest.
The poem is insane.
It ties tin cans to its tail.
The above poem is shorter than a Haiku. It’s 13 syllables. Somebody has probably written a shorter poem somewhere.
Just for argument’s sake let’s begin our exploration of poetry by considering the opposite of poetry.
All texts that aren’t actually poetry are referred to as prose.
Most (but not all) novels, memoirs, personal essays, journalism and screenplays are prose.
However, many texts in these categories can be poetry––there’s a whole sub-genre of novels in poetic form, especially in the Young Adult and Middle Grade fields–– even those novels that aren’t poetry are often somewhat poetic.
In fact it’s generally thought that all novels (and all creative prose) should be at least a little poetic, and this is why it’s essential for all creative writers to read and write poetry even if they don’t really consider themselves to be poets.
This is a snippet from Lawrence Durrel’s novel, Justine:
…In the great quietness of these winter evenings there is one clock: the sea. Its dim momentum in the mind is the fugue upon which this writing is made. Empty cadences of sea-water licking its own wounds, sulking along the mouths of the delta, boiling upon those deserted beaches– empty, forever empty under the gulls: white scribble on the grey, munched by clouds…
Let’s look for a brief moment at something that is almost never poetry, namely legal documents. Nobody reads legal documents for pleasure, but why can they not be read for pleasure?
The legal document’s purpose is to present facts and opinions in the most straightforward manner possible, and we imagine that the intended readership of legal documents are lawyers and judges, who we assume are not particularly poetic.
Obviously there are plenty of lawyers and judges who are poets in their free time, but when they are in court they’re utterly prosaic.
Sentences of legal documents are written in a manner that attempt to exclude any ambiguity of meaning. Facts are plainly stated in the clearest way possible, and they can allow for only the one correct interpretation.
There is no regard for rhythm and flow, no regard for musical cadence. No thoughtful digressions, no metaphors, no evocative language, no stressed or unstressed syllables, no sense of conciseness, no imagery, and absolutely no rhyming…
So, if it is a lack of these elements that make legal documents tedious to read, then does including these elements (rhythm, flow, cadence, imagery, et al) make a text a pleasure to read?
Can you include too many of these elements?
Look again at the brief Lawrence Durrell quote. The novel Justine comprises page after page of Durrell’s scrollwork of poetic language, with the most intermittent elements of plot and character. You might think it would be exhausting to read, and yet it’s actually delightful. It perhaps feels almost more like listening to music than reading a book, and yet its visual nature even renders it a little like watching a movie.
Am I suggesting you take a piece of your prose and throw in every poetic element you can possibly think of barring the kitchen sink? Perhaps I am. Maybe it will be wonderful. Maybe it will be appallingly over-written. There is only one way to find out.
And that is exactly what I’d like you to try today.
But before we try that, let’s explore the rudiments of poetry in detail.
2: Poetry is intended to be heard aloud––and remembered. The 16 thousand line ILIAD and ODYSSEY were composed around 1200 years before the current era, in the mind of an author named Homer.
We know absolutely nothing about Homer––not even if he was male or female. Samuel Butler, the first person to translate the Iliad into English, believed that Homer was an aristocratic Sicilian lady.
These epic poems were passed from poet to poet, from parent to child, for many generations before being finally written down, around 700 years before the current era.
Writing did exist in the Greek world of 3 thousand years ago, but was not used for poetry.
Writing did exist at the time of Homer, but was not used for such things as poetry.
The Iliad, Odyssey––and in fact several other epic poems––were memorized by teams of actors, and were recited at special performances that took around 24 hours to complete.
Here are the first few lines of the ILIAD, translated from the Ancient Greek.
If you aren’t familiar with the Iliad, it concerns a war between the Greeks and the Trojans––particularly the hero, Achilles, who was one of the Greek generals.
Hades is the land of the dead.
Zeus is the king of the gods.
Apollo is the messenger of the gods.
Agamemnon is the supreme general of the greek army.
The Iliad by Homer, Book I, Lines 1-15,
(translated by Stanley Lombardo).
Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon–
The Greek warlord–and godlike Achilles.
Which of the immortals set these two
At each other’s throats?
Zeus’ son and Leto’s, offended
By the warlord. Agamemnon had dishonored
Chryses, Apollo’s priest, so the god
Struck the Greek camp with plague,
And the soldiers were dying of it.
Some believe that the evocative powers of the spoken word were weakened when we learned to write things down.
For example the word ‘ghost’ appears in the ILIAD. If I say ‘ghost’ to you, you will get a mental image of your perception of a ghost, but you will also get an image of the word as written or printed. To a Greek of 3 thousand years ago there could be no sense of the written word whatsoever. Even if they saw the word they would have no idea of what the abstract shapes represented any more than you or I would be able to interpret Sanskrit.
Did this endow words with greater power than they have now? We can’t know for sure as we can’t unlearn reading.
So this is perhaps our task as writers: to endow words such as ‘ghost’ with all the primal emotions that are stored within it. To frame the word in a way that takes the reader into a world where ghosts exist.
How can that be done? This is what we are going to attempt to do today and throughout the semester.
3: Poetry existed before prose, just as song probably existed before speech––and wordless melodies probably existed before sung words. So we hummed, then sang, then spoke, so as poets we need to try to get back to those ancient days when ideas were sung rather than spoken, and perhaps even to the days when meaning could be understood merely from the tone pitch and rhythm rather than the words. Do we sing to each other? I believe we do. There’s always a melody to the line, “Hi Honey, I ‘m ho-ome!” is there not?
I can assure that the melody is the same in Britain and the United States.
For how long have we been singing this melody?
Decades? Centuries? Millenia? Since before there was spoken language?
There’s a slightly different rising melody to, “Dinner’s ready!”
And a dark descending melody to, “You are a bad, bad person!” You can substitute different words for this expression, but the melody doesn’t change.
What other melodies do we sing as p[art of our most basic communications?
4: The Patterns used by poets: Imagery, metaphor, repetition, meter, stress, rhythm, assonance, consonance, alliteration, and rhyme, all help with performance and memorization.
What poems can you remember?
How about the grand fanfare of: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…!
Or: There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away…
Or: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
or perhaps merely: There was an old man from Nantucket…
5: The emergence of doggerel (sentimental and ‘greeting card’ poetry)––and even popular song-writing––in the Victorian era led many ‘serious’ 19th century poets to reject meter and rhyme in favor free verse.
This is some doggerel by William McGonagall.
Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv’ry Tay,
I now must conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.
6: Other 20th century poets continued to press ahead with meter and rhyme as they believed free verse to be no more than prose in note form. There doesn’t seem to be a word for the free verse iteration of doggerel.
7: However, the most successful free-verse poets realized there were many opportunities to play loosely without fixed rhythm and rhyme, and still write wonderful evocative––and still rhythmic poetry.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
8: Many poets, such as Emily Dickinson and Wilfred Owen used slant-rhymes, and not-quite-rhymes in their poetry.
The Should Selects her own Society: Emily Dickinson.
I’ve known her from an ample nation
Then shut the valves of her attention
Wilfred Owen: Strange Meeting (written during World War One).
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
Others used middle rhymes and various forms of alliterative patterns, such as this Poem, Pioneers! O Pioneers! From Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:
9: Allen Ginsburg rejected Haiku, as he felt that the 17 syllable-575 pattern wasn’t suited to American sensibilities, so he devised his own variation on the haiku: American Sentence:
- “Taxi ghosts at dusk pass Monoprix in Paris 20 years ago.”
- “Put on my tie in a taxi, short of breath, rushing to meditate.”
- “Tompkins Square Lower East Side N.Y.
- Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.”
- “Rainy night on Union Square, full moon. Want more poems? Wait till I’m dead.”
- “That grey-haired man in business suit and black turtleneck thinks he’s still young.”
- “Bearded robots drink from Uranium coffee cups on Saturn’s ring.”
- “Crescent moon, girls chatter at twilight on the bus ride to Ankara.”
These of course are more than a little ironic.
10: Our ideas of formal poetry come from Latin and Greek verse, and just in the case of Ginsburg and the Haiku, many modern poets felt that the strict forms of these classical poems did not really suit the English language very well.
For instance, Latin and Greek use long and short vowels, whereas English is a muddled language of stresses and accents.
Put it on the table please.
I will fall like an ocean on that court.
He went on and on.
Enough already. I’m on it!
Can you feel how the street increases on the word ‘on’ in each line?
11. The same applies to rhyme. Regular Latin and Greek verb and noun endings, along with adjectival gender agreements, mean that they are languages rich with rhyming possibilities. English has no gender agreements, and so end-rhymes are actually rare, and often problematic to achieve.
12. Hence, many late 19th century poets felt that English was strait jacketed by the restraints of formal verse.
13: Robert Frost believed that English was a closed door language, meaning that with all of its stresses and accents it could be understood perfectly well through a closed door.
14: Ezra Pound believed that a poet should compose in the sequence of the musical phrase rather than the metronome. I’m not entirely sure what this metaphor means, and I have studied music on and off throughout my lifetime.
I think he means that the student musician is tied to the metronome, but the virtuoso takes liberties with timing, letting the phrasing ebb and flow to bring out the evocative qualities of the tune.
15: Robert Pinsky declared that we should write in full sentences using standard punctuation. I have often suggested that students write in fragments––at least while the ideas are developing. Robert Pinsky is the poet laureate and I’m merely a novelist, so you can choose whose guidance you follow.
15: Alliteration, Consonance, and Assonance.
Let’s look again at:
The poem is insane.
It ties tin cans to its tail.
What makes it a poem rather than a little fragment of prose.
Note the stress on the words: …sane, tin, and can.The repetition of the final N sound gives the accent, and this is known as consonance. It’s a form of alliteration that uses the repetition of consonants.
Note the non-accented repetition of the ’i’ vowel in: is, insane, it, ties, tin, its, and tail. This is assonance, the repetition of a vowel sound––that can modulate between both long and short versions of the same vowel.
Then the consonance of the ’t’ especially in the second line.
Look at the imagery. A poem can’t really have a ‘tail,’ let alone tie tin cans to it. So the poet is using metaphorical language, and we begin to see the group of words as a cat or a monkey––something that can’t be controlled, and might slip away from us.
Listen to the audible imagery: ‘Tin Cans’ can’t help but evoke the sound of the cans in our ears.
So this is your assignment for today. Write a piece of the most prosaic prose that you can possibly think of––or find one. A contract for something; a recommendation letter maybe; or something from a text book.
You don’t need a lot: between 100 and 200 words is plenty.
Now, simply take take your prosaic text and make it poetic. Add imagery, metaphor, simile, alliteration, cadence, meter…even rhyme if you like.
But don’t turn it into a poem. You’re going to create poetic prose.
I found the following character reference online:
I have always been impressed by how dedicated Rose is to being an outstanding mother. She shifts her work schedule and completes her work late at night after her daughters have gone to bed so that she can pick them up from school and be present in the evenings with them. She encourages her daughters to pursue classes and activities they enjoy and is always willing to help with homework and drive them to their weekly soccer practice and art classes. She even goes above and beyond by regularly providing snacks to teammates and classmates during these events. She always listens to her daughters and makes them feel cared for, and I know from my own children that Rose’s daughters feel secure and well-loved by her. Rose’s daughters are thriving academically and passionate about many extracurricular activities, and I know that with Rose as their mother, they’ll grow up to be upstanding members of society.
It’s full of good information, but it makes uninspiring reading. This is how I turned it into prose poetry:
Rose soars above the gathering storm clouds like a broad-winged bird of the remotest wilderness. She rides the shifting winds to her nest and gathers her young beneath her outstretched pinions, waiting until they are at rest before she ventures out across the broken boulders of the Cordillera in pursuit of prey…
Okay, I realize that my version is absurd––but then I never said that it couldn’t be absurd.
A character reference is something given to a judge. Is my poem an effective character reference? Maybe not, but it does make for better reading.
So, that is the assignment. Make a piece of prose-poetry out of a piece of prose.
The duller the prose, the better the poetry.
Include both the prose and the prose poetry when you submit the exercise.
Here’s some prose-poetry for your reading delight:
Excerpt from the Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.
In this scene, the protagonist, Esther, has gone on a skiing trip with her sometime boyfriend, Buddy. Notice how the narration starts out with scenic information, then transitions into stream-of-consciousness, then back to scene :
Buddy had never skied before either, but he said that the elementary principles were quite simple, and as he’d often watched the ski instructors and their pupils he could teach me all I’d need to know.
For the first half hour I obediently herringboned up a small slope, pushed off with my poles and coasted straight down. Buddy seemed pleased with my progress.
“That’s fine, Esther,” he observed, as I negotiated my slope for the twentieth time. “Now let’s try you on the rope tow.”
I stopped in my tracks, flushed and panting.
“But Buddy, I don’t know how to zigzag yet. All those people coming down from the top know how to zigzag.”
“Oh, you need only go halfway. Then you won’t gain very much momentum.”
And Buddy accompanied me to the rope tow and showed me how to let the rope run through my hands, and then told me to close my fingers round it and go up.
It never occurred to me to say no.
I wrapped my fingers around the rough, bruising snake of a rope that slithered through them, and went up.
But the rope dragged me, wobbling and balancing, so rapidly I couldn’t hope to dissociate myself from it halfway. There was a skier in front of me and a skier behind me, and I’d have been knocked over and stuck full of skis and poles the minute I let go, and I didn’t want to make trouble, so I hung quietly on.
At the top, though, I had second thoughts.
Buddy singled me out, hesitating there in the red jacket. His arms chopped the air like khaki windmills. Then I saw he was signaling me to come down a path that had opened in the middle of the weaving skiers. But as I poised, uneasy, with a dry throat, the smooth white path from my feet to his feet grew blurred.
A skier crossed it from the left, another crossed it from the right, and Buddy’s arms went on waving feebly as antennae from the other side of a field swarming with tiny moving animalcules like germs, or bent, bright exclamation marks.
I looked up from that churning amphitheater to the view beyond it.
The great, gray eye of the sky looked back at me, its mist-shrouded sun focusing all the white and silent distances that poured from every point of the compass, hill after pale hill, to stall at my feet.
The interior voice nagging me not to be a fool—to save my skin and take off my skis and walk down, camouflaged by the scrub pines bordering the slope—fled like a disconsolate mosquito. The thought that I might kill myself formed in my mind coolly as a tree or a flower.
I measured the distance to Buddy with my eye.
His arms were folded, now, and he seemed of a piece with the split-rail fence behind him—numb, brown and inconsequential.
Edging to the rim of the hilltop, I dug the spikes of my poles into the snow and pushed myself into a flight I knew I couldn’t stop by skill or any belated access of will.
I aimed straight down.
A keen wind that had been hiding itself struck me full in the mouth and raked the hair back horizontal on my head. I was descending, but the white sun rose no higher. It hung over the suspended waves of the hills, an insentient pivot without which the world would not exist.
A small, answering point in my own body flew toward it. I felt my lungs inflate with the inrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”
I plummeted down past the zigzaggers, the students, the experts, through year after year of doubleness and smiles and compromise, into my own past.
People and trees receded on either hand like the dark sides of a tunnel as I hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly.
My teeth crunched a gravelly mouthful. Ice water seeped down my throat.
Buddy’s face hung over me, near and huge, like a distracted planet. Other faces showed themselves up in back of his. Behind them, black dots swarmed on a plane of whiteness. Piece by piece, as at the strokes of a dull godmother’s wand, the old world sprang back into position.
“You were doing fine,” a familiar voice informed my ear, “until that man stepped into your path.”
People were unfastening my bindings and collecting my ski poles from where they poked skyward, askew, in their separate snowbanks. The lodge fence propped itself at my back.
Buddy bent to pull off my boots and the several pairs of white wool socks that padded them. His plump hand shut on my left foot, then inched up my ankle, closing and probing, as if feeling for a concealed weapon.
A dispassionate white sun shone at the summit of the sky. I wanted to hone myself on it till I grew saintly and thin and essential as the blade of a knife.
“I’m going up,” I said. “I’m going to do it again.”
“No, you’re not.”
A queer, satisfied expression came over Buddy’s face.
“No, you’re not,” he repeated with a final smile. “Your leg’s broken in two places. You’ll be stuck in a cast for months.”
The Hunting of the Snark
In this excerpt, the narrator (Eliot himself) meets the ghost of WB Yeats in the Underworld:
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold fricton of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and sould begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
He left me, with a kind of valediction,
And faded on the blowing of the horn.
Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie
This is the forest primeval.
The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
In Any Language by Cynthia Alvez
You and I