Poetry Intro


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.
(Alicia Ostriker) (I think this is 13 syllables).

2: Poetry is intended to be heard aloud––and remembered. The 16 thousand line ILIAD (and ODYSSEY) were composed before writing was in common use, and were recited at special performances that took around 24 hours. Some believe that we lost some elements of spoken when when we learned to write things down––such as the ability to remember long texts.

3: Poetry existed before prose, just as song existed before speech, and the forms of verbal communication still used by Fox News existed before even speech or song.

4: The Patterns used by poets: Imagery, metaphor, repetition, meter, stress, rhythm, assonance, consonance, alliteration, and rhyme, all help with performance and memorization.

5: The emergence of doggerel (sentimental and ‘greeting card’ poetry)––and even popular song-writing––in the Victorian era led many 20th 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 poetry.

8: Many poets, such as Emily Dickinson and Siegfried Sassoon used slant-rhymes, and not-quite-rhymes in their poetry.

I’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one
Then shut the valves of her attention

Like stone.

Others used middle rhymes and various forms of alliterative patterns, such as this Poem, Pioneers! O Pioneers! From Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

Pioneers! O Pioneers!

COME my tan-faced children, 

Follow well in order, get your weapons ready, 

Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes? 

Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here, 

We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger, 

We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend, 

Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths, 

So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship, 

Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost, 

Pioneers! O pioneers!

Have the elder races halted? 

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas? 

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson, 

Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind, 

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world, 

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, 

Pioneers! O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing, 

Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep, 

Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways, 

Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling, 

We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within, 

We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving, 

Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we, 

From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus, 

From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come, 

Pioneers! O pioneers!

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.

So, let’s play around with the English Language’s propensity for stresses and accents, and write a list poem.

Begin by writing a list in your comp-book.

Please don’t get stuck on what to write a list about. Try to find a category where you can name at least twenty examples. I’ll use the names of poets, because I can easily name 20 of them:

Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Browning, Frost,
Sassoon, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge,
Wordsworth, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Houseman,
Lear, Carrol, Tennyson, Rosetti, Eliot.

 Notice how many syllables are in each name.

Notice where the accent is.

Most of them have the accent on the first syllable, but not all.

Let’s try classical painters instead:

Davide, DaVinci, Fusselli, El Greco, Cezanne, Lautrec, Seurat, Carravaggio, Modigliani, Picasso, Dali, Miro, DiChirico…

They’re mostly accented on the second syllable, and they’re mostly Italian, Spanish, and French. The poets are mostly British and American.

Look at the rhyme possibilities too––or lack of them.

Anyway, let’s go back to the poets:

Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Browning, Frost, 

Sassoon, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, 

Wordsworth, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Houseman,

Lear, Carrol, Tennyson, Rosetti, Eliot.

So, we have the accent on the first syllable of all of them save for Sassoon and Rosetti (rhymes with spaghetti, you could make a list of pastas).

Rhymes––or at least slant-rhymes: Whitman-Houseman; Dante, Rosetti, and maybe Shelley? Sassoon, Tennyson; 

Let’s look at the list for possible assonance: Poe, Browning, Frost, Byron, Sassoon, Homer, Houseman, Carrol, Carrol, Rosetti, and Eliot.

There’s good potential for assonance on the letter ‘i’ too.

How about consonance? Ideally you want three instances, but two will do for now.

Keats, Coleridge, and Carrol?

Whitman and Wordsworth.

Byron, Lear, and Rosetti…’r’.

Now, write an ode to your list using stress, rhyme, consonance and assonance. Obviously you can use more words––or even adjust your list. 

An ode is a form of address to a subject, often in the second person.

‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness…” Ode to a Grecian Urn by Keats. Note how he’s personifying the urn.


Anyway, here are some examples of list poetry:

The Hunting of the Snark

Fit the First
 The Landing
“Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
   As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
   By a finger entwined in his hair.
“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
   That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
   What I tell you three times is true.”
The crew was complete: it included a Boots—
   A maker of Bonnets and Hoods—
A Barrister, brought to arrange their disputes—
   And a Broker, to value their goods.
A Billiard-marker, whose skill was immense,
   Might perhaps have won more than his share—
But a Banker, engaged at enormous expense,
   Had the whole of their cash in his care.
There was also a Beaver, that paced on the deck,
   Or would sit making lace in the bow:
And had often (the Bellman said) saved them from wreck,
   Though none of the sailors knew how.
There was one who was famed for the number of things
   He forgot when he entered the ship:
His umbrella, his watch, all his jewels and rings,
   And the clothes he had bought for the trip.
He had forty-two boxes, all carefully packed,
   With his name painted clearly on each:
But, since he omitted to mention the fact,
   They were all left behind on the beach.
The loss of his clothes hardly mattered, because
   He had seven coats on when he came,
With three pair of boots—but the worst of it was,
   He had wholly forgotten his name.
He would answer to “Hi!” or to any loud cry,
   Such as “Fry me!” or “Fritter my wig!”
To “What-you-may-call-um!” or “What-was-his-name!”
   But especially “Thing-um-a-jig!”
While, for those who preferred a more forcible word,
   He had different names from these:
His intimate friends called him “Candle-ends,”
   And his enemies “Toasted-cheese.”
“His form is ungainly—his intellect small—”
   (So the Bellman would often remark)
“But his courage is perfect! And that, after all,
   Is the thing that one needs with a Snark.”
He would joke with hænas, returning their stare
   With an impudent wag of the head:
And he once went a walk, paw-in-paw, with a bear,
   “Just to keep up its spirits,” he said.
He came as a Baker: but owned, when too late—
   And it drove the poor Bellman half-mad—
He could only bake Bride-cake—for which, I may state,
   No materials were to be had.
The last of the crew needs especial remark,
   Though he looked an incredible dunce:
He had just one idea—but, that one being “Snark,”
   The good Bellman engaged him at once.
He came as a Butcher: but gravely declared,
   When the ship had been sailing a week,
He could only kill Beavers. The Bellman looked scared,
   And was almost too frightened to speak:
But at length he explained, in a tremulous tone,
   There was only one Beaver on board;
And that was a tame one he had of his own,
   Whose death would be deeply deplored.
The Beaver, who happened to hear the remark,
   Protested, with tears in its eyes,
That not even the rapture of hunting the Snark
   Could atone for that dismal surprise!
It strongly advised that the Butcher should be
   Conveyed in a separate ship:
But the Bellman declared that would never agree
   With the plans he had made for the trip:
Navigation was always a difficult art,
   Though with only one ship and one bell:
And he feared he must really decline, for his part,
   Undertaking another as well.
The Beaver’s best course was, no doubt, to procure
   A second-hand dagger-proof coat—
So the Baker advised it—and next, to insure
   Its life in some Office of note:
This the Banker suggested, and offered for hire
   (On moderate terms), or for sale,
Two excellent Policies, one Against Fire,
   And one Against Damage From Hail.
Yet still, ever after that sorrowful day,
   Whenever the Butcher was by,
The Beaver kept looking the opposite way,
   And appeared unaccountably shy.

Here is another list, this time from TS Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding.

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

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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








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