National Poetry Month doesn’t get much play in the media these days. There are no big action events—poetry jams, a “Stars of Poetry” TV special, interviews with great poets in action as a feature on the evening news. Maybe if CBS’s Charles Kuralt was still around there might be something on his Sunday morning show.
Alas, poetry has never captured much media attention and to do so today would probably require some sort of sports-based poetry confrontation controversy—say a claim that you had come into possession of pornographic poetry written by Whistler’s mother. Argh!
Something in “confrontational poetry” might work, but then, would you really want to make something so historically associated with peaceful contemplation turned into something crass and low rent, controversial and sleazy? Don’t answer that. Too often the answer is “hell yeah.”
The phone rings,
The clock dings,
I scream, scream, and scream:
I can’t grasp what is real
I can’t inhale the lives you steal
This game is like murder in the first degree,
I can barely feel the words you’re expressing.
Your hand, holding on to mine as if it was the last
I crawl I hide behind these moonstone walls
There it stood and stole my Womanhood
Pink is the ointment rubbed inside my diary.
Imagine Little Johnny memorizing that little ditty for a second grade assembly? That’s partly why writing about poetry is a challenge. It has expanded so much. Yes, back in the day, there was Beat poetry and there have been experimentalists along the way. The poetry tent has always been fairly large. But in recent years it has added new nooks and crannies under its tent. Much of what I label the “new stuff” I simply can’t understand, and if I presented it to a classroom of lit students, any effort to find any meaning and otherwise interpret it might be a search into fruitlessness. Of course, if you write meaningless stuff you can enjoy those who cluster around and try to find the “hidden” meaning. So you can still be misinterpreted by the fact someone is trying to interpret your efforts. It starts to get circular about now! So much gets lost in the noise that you suspect the noise is the meaning. Perhaps that is the logic of modern poetry after all. The labels become important, as opposed to the actual quality of the content.
Yeah, I know. That sounds like some old coot lamenting the loss of the “good old days” and a commitment to iambic pentameter. I’ll just refer to myself as a traditionalist. But when I do want to read some poetry, I have to look in the older books in my library. I don’t buy the new stuff. I find it rambling, senseless, cacophonous even.
That’s also why I will not address how to write poetry. (At least in this entry.) Everything is pretty much up for grabs. It’s not so much what is right but what you prefer, and preferences are not required to be “educated” ones. My suggestion is to read a broad sampling and find what you like and then try your hand at writing something in a similar vein. What you want to do is prime your poetry pump and see what sorts of word combinations you come up with. Once you get your “poetry legs,” your output will expand in accordance with your interests and growing facility. You grow into your own poet.
If you want, you can read a chapter on poetry in an English textbook or get your hands on the “Write Source 2000 – A Guide to Writing Thinking, and Learning” by Patrick Sebranek, Dave Kemper, and Verne Meyer (You can order it online from Amazon and through other booksellers.). In the chapters on the fundamentals of poetry, the authors supply insights into poetry in a delightfully straightforward and clear way. As you explore penning your own poetry, those insights will steer you clear from producing the hackneyed and sophomoric stuff that too often permeates initial efforts of writing poetry.
Even with this in mind, you might start by playing around with limericks—a humorous verse form in five lines, the first, second, and fifth verses of which rhyme and the third and fourth verses rhyme.
There once was a panda name Lu,
Who always ate crunchy bamboo.
He ate all day long,
Till he looked like King Kong.
Now the zoo doesn’t know what to do.
Limericks have their own patterns of poetry (AABBA). Here are some others you can play with:
Stick with the AABBA pattern and you’re in limerick business. Shakespeare on the other hand was famous for his sonnets, which too have a rather strict set of rules, the first of which is to contain fourteen lines and express—usually deeply—personal feelings about a topic.
Shakespeare arguably is the king of sonnets and undoubtedly spent a great deal of time crafting something that worked poetically and still complied with the formal structural requirements. His Sonnet 18:
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.
That’s the sort of stuff that can scare off a newbie from reading, let alone writing poetry. But it shouldn’t. Look for the pattern Shakespeare used and how he fit together the rhythm and rhyme, and you could become the new Shakespeare. (You’ll be rich I tell ya, rich!) Don’t forget, Shakespeare hailed from the 16th Century so his style comes across a bit stuffy yet it’s surprisingly modern at the same time.
Some poets—Shakespeare is one of them—explore the emotions, especially love; others focus on more mundane subjects. Take for example Robert Frost’s efforts to capture the experience of stopping his horse while heading home on what appears to be Christmas-time night, to look into the woods as it gently snowed. Read it, and then find someone to read it to you while you close your eyes. You’ll find yourself there with Robert Frost, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”
The letters in the parentheses at the end of each line, are to help you see the rhyming pattern Frost used—simple but powerful. Note that his word choices are simple and clear and he employs no flowery or hackneyed words or phrasing, a common weakness that can creep into a newbie poet’s initial efforts. As a result, he paints an image for the reader to enjoy, and that is the ultimate goal of a poet—to write with a painter’s brush.
On the website’s poetry page, I also explore the form called Haiku, which enjoys a long history, is simple, and can be both challenging and fun to write. In my “Illustrated Haiku,” I reversed the process. Instead of creating images to match the poetry, I wrote poetry that I felt fit the images I discovered on one of my favorite walks not far from the Stanford University campus.
My purpose here is not to present any specific lessons on how to write poetry, or convert you into becoming a poet, but to encourage you to explore writing some for a very simple reason—it exposes you to thinking about your individual choices of the words you use and thus acquire an appreciation for the intellectual process of searching for and finding the right word AND phrasing. The value of that in application is apparent by re-reading the first line of Frost above: “Whose woods these are I think I know.”
Poetry lets you dip your toe into the water without having to become a long-distance swimmer. Find a style of poetry, and by that, a poet’s whose stuff you like, and try yours hand at writing in the same style. Like writing prose, you will soon find yourself exploring different rhythms and techniques and find something you like that reflects your interest and style. Soon enough that poetry becomes your poetry and your relationship with words will become intimate and fruitful and spill over into writing your other prose.
Yes, you can study the forms, iambic pentameter for example, and various rhyming patterns—AABB, ABAB, and so on. You can pick a pattern that is pleasant to you and then come up with your own poem that fits its structure, or you might have the beginning of a poem—a verse that has wandered into your head—and take it from there. Or, you could stick to “free verse”—poetry that does not rhyme or have a regular meter. (You might want to read about that before you explore the form on your own.)
Rhyme in modern times has pretty much been relegated to advertising jingles, but rhyme has been historically at the heart of human literary activity since man first rubbed two words together. It is a natural application of language. That’s why children new to language love poetry. It is an invitation to play with words and feel them form and cross your lips.
The day after words were invented poetry was invented. Poetry, however, is funny stuff. Not funny ha, ha, but funny in a strange, unexplained way. Announce it as the next literature topic you’re going to explore to a lit class of seventh graders and the room fills with testosterone-laced negative reaction as the boys vociferously complain. But two weeks later they’re writing verses and standing up in class delivering them without embarrassment. Poetry is like the common cold—contagious, but, fortunately, won’t give you a stuffy nose. And once you write a little poetry, you’ll start finding rhyme hiding everywhere, and you might keep your own notebook of your efforts.
I suspect that poetry was the first word game. It led to lyrics and song that has marched us into and guided us out of love and war and virtually every other human endeavor. The natural affinity that rhyme and music have for each other meant that much early poetry was by balladeers. It’s easy to understand why. Poetry reflects emotion. It prompted a British pilot to invite us on his “High Flight” and reach out and touch the face of God, as well as the silly stuff penned by Ogden Nash: “Celery raw / Develops the jaw / But celery, stewed, / Is more quietly chewed.” After reading that, you won’t eat celery in quite the same way again.
We use a litany of rhymes to help us remember everything from historical facts to mathematical formulas. For example, circumference and area:
Fiddle de dum, Fiddle de dee
A ring round the moon is pi times d;
But if a hole you want repaired,
You use the formula Pi r squared.
And any boy who won’t admit that he’s at least tried to write a rhyme for some girl to actually share with her or to secret away in the back pages of a notebook in her honor is probably being less than completely truthful. There is something about rhyme that appeals to youth. There is something about rhyme that appeals to us all. Play with it. It will make you a better writer.