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Disclaimer: Go back and read the introduction to this series. The part about "there is no bad poetry." These lessons aren’t for people who want mindless stroking for their work, or who are content with their current output… it’s for folks who want to improve. If I say something in here that offends your artistic sensibilities… so be it. This series is for writers who want to improve their craft, and so when I say "poetry" in this context, I mean serious writing intended to impact readers. And away we go…
* Poetry is not prose with funky line-breaks.
* Poetry is not writing that rhymes
* Poetry is not writing that adheres to a specific meter
* Poetry is not writing that is purposefully vague or confusing
* Poetry is not purple prose in a different box
* Poetry is not archaic for the sake of sounding "poetic"
Now… poetry can have one or more of the above attributes. But just because something rhymes, doesn’t make it a poem. And just because it doesn’t, doesn’t make it not. Er…. yeah. You know what I mean.
My definition of poetry: writing that purposefully communicates on levels of meaning beyond those of simple, definitional comprehension.
OK… I wrote that… and then I checked Wikipedia. Their definition is similar to mine, but better: a form of art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its ostensible meaning.
Those are pretty close. The main point being that the poet intentionally uses language in ways that aren’t, let’s say, ordinary. Rhyming, for example, is not something you do when simply trying to convey meaning in normal, conversation:
Give me a meal, the type that is happy,
With nuggets and fries, and please make it snappy
That would be obnoxious. It’s also a good example of a type of non-poetry called "doggerel." Good poetry is almost as much about what to avoid as what to do; avoid doggerel.
The best first step to writing better poetry is to look at what is (generally) considered good poetry and try to understand why it is not prose; i.e., the difference between simple, declarative writing (as in an essay), and a poem on the same subject.
We will start, therefore, with the first exercise: taking a classic poem and un-writing it. That will help us understand what a poem is, apart from what it is not. I will use an absolute classic that everyone should know, the sonnet, "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day," by William Shakespeare:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
What is the poet saying… if we get right down to the meat, away from all the poetry stuff? Perhaps…
You’re very beautiful.
Wow. OK. That really takes out, well… everything. But think about it: why take the time to write all that other "stuff," put in the rhymes, make the meter very precise, whip out the old metaphors. If you just want to tell your girlfriend, "You’re pretty," well… why all the extra labor?
"Aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to or in lieu of ostensible meaning."
So… why is this a poem, and not just writing with some poetic attributes? What makes it *good?*
Well, first we must ask, why does it rhyme and hold to a specific, particular meter? In this case, the rhyming structure and meter are those of the English sonnet. The rhymes go: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. The meter is iambic pentameter. That’s an English sonnet for you. To a certain extent, Shakespeare used that form because it was popular at the time, and considered (when done well) particularly beautiful. We still appreciate the form, especially when written well and spoken well. In a later lesson, we’ll get into the specifics of subtle iambic meter as opposed to drum-like, irritatingly simple iambs.
And we’re not going to do a complete analysis of this piece today, either. What I will do, though, is point out some "poetic stuff" that adds all kinds of meaning. Socratic as I am, let’s pose the following questions:
* Why is the main metaphor one of time? That is, comparison to a season as opposed to physical objects?
* Why does the poet go into detail about the ways that summer doesn’t hold up so well in this comparison?
* Why is very little detail about the subject (thou… presumably, on one level, the beloved) actually given?
* Is the subject actually, let’s say, the poet’s lover? What else could be the subject? Why would we even consider this?
* What is the signifigance of the words, "temperate," "lease," "gold," "posession," "grow’st," "breathe (and) see?"
Great poets (and Bill is among the greatest) don’t just throw in words or rhymes willy-nilly. There is almost always a reason (or many reasons) why one word is chosen over others. That’s one of the signals, for example, of writing that rhymes — it tells the reader, "I have picked these words carefully, not just for their simple meaning."
Next time we’ll spend some effort on how the meaning of this poem may be, in fact, "in lieu of" its ostensible meaning; how it may be saying some things that are at odds with the surface meaning.
In the meantime, your assignment is to find a poem and strip away all the poetry stuff. What is the *least* that a poet may be saying?
I blog irregularly at TinkerX. I'm also on Twitter. @andyhavens, go figure.