|WRITING POETRY--Basic guidelines
This article is aimed at describing my views about how to write good poetry. Poetry is rather an abstract thing, as is clear from the myriad of definitions regarding what is poetry. Though these definitions are very different from each other, they merely represent different aspects of the same phenomenon, namely, poetry.
In order that my views may be understood in the proper perspective, it is necessary to give a background about myself. I am a 65 years old male ex-professor of medicine and changed my profession to that of a lawyer six years ago after earning my LL.M. For last 4 years, I have been writing poetry. I started with a scratch. I have written poetry in two different languages, English (900 poems) and Hindi (750 poems). I must place on record here the invaluable help that I have received from the wonderful site writing.com, which, through its unique review and incentive system, has helped me learn and practice and refine all the poetry I know. It is the encouragement that I received from writing.com's contest system that spurred me to write better and better poetry, resulting in award of 136 prizes in poetry contests so far. The list can be found at "MY WINNING ITEMS" . I recommend to all those who aspire to hone their poetry writing skills to seriously consider participating in contests. More than the award, what is really beneficial are the reviews we get from contest organisers and others.
I intend to give in this brief article a summary of what I have learned about poetry during last four years by reading poetry, by reading about poetry and by writing poetry. I will try to write in a matter of fact, methodical manner, without literary hype and verbosity.
Before I proceed further, it is appropriate to clarify that wherever I have used the pronouns he, his, him etc, they are meant to include she, her etc. as well.
1. WHAT IS POETRY?
Poetry is difficult to define. One of the most popular definitions is that given by William Wordsworth in the introduction to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1802: “Poetry is the spontaneous outflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquility”. Poems usually use language in a much richer way than prose, often with rhythm, metre, rhyme, imagery and figures of speech. Poetry is more concentrated in language and ideas than either prose or drama. A poem is a concentrated blend of sound and imagery to create an emotional response. These characteristics are variously represented in the following famous quotes.
• Poetry is ordinary language raised to the N th power. (Paul Engle).
• Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is a speaking picture. (Simonides).
• Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. (Robert Frost).
• If a poem is written well, it was written with the poet's voice
and for a voice. Reading a poem silently instead of saying a
poem is like the difference between staring at sheet music
and actually humming or playing the music on an instrument. (Robert Pinsky).
• In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be
understood by everyone, something that no one ever
knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite. (Paul Dirac).
• Genius is mainly an affair of energy, and poetry is mainly
an affair of genius; therefore a nation whose spirit is
characterized by energy may well be imminent in poetry. (Matthew Arnold).
• Each memorable verse of a true poet has
two or three times the written content. (Alfred de Musset).
• Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful. (Rita Dove).
• Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words. (Edgar Allan Poe).
• Poetry is of so subtle a spirit, that in the pouring out
of one language into another it will evaporate. (John Denham).
• I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew.
Writing a poem is discovering. (Robert Frost).
2. THE IMPORTANCE OF METER:
There is an inseparable relation between music and poetry. The major poetical characteristic that lends musical quality to poetry is rhythm. Rhythm and meter are closely related. The dictionary definition of meter is: rhythm as given by division into parts of equal time. The word meter comes from the word metronome, which is a device to measure beats within a definite time frame. It is used to set the tempo for a piece of music. Like a musical creation, classic poetry has both rhythm and meter. The job of both music and poetry is to bring some sort of emotion to the reader or listener; to touch their hearts with the words the poet has written. We have all listened to a song and suddenly realized we are crying. Such power over our emotions, which is the hallmark of good poetry, is enhanced if the poetry has rhythm.
3. WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF POETRY?
Poetry may be traditional type (with rhyme and meter) or non-traditional type (in free verse).
A. TRADITIONAL POETRY--Rhyme is well understood, so need not be elaborated. Rhythm is an essential characteristic of poetry. For information on “What is rhythm?”, see http://www.poetrymagic.co.uk/advanced/rhythm.html. Rhythm basically depends upon meter. Metre is a systematic regularity in rhythm. In western literature there are two great metrical systems — the quantitative (which was introduced by the Greeks) and the accentual (which appears in Latin of the third century AD). The quantitative system is based upon counting of syllables. Syllabic verse has fixed counts of syllables regardless of stresses. Pure syllabic verse, as exemplified by the French form Alexandrine, is not strictly metrical. Twentieth century attempts to write pure syllabic verse in English have not caught on. The accentual system is based upon counting of stresses. Accentual verse has fixed counts of stress but variable syllables. Accentual verse is found in popular verse, ballads, nursery rhymes, songs and doggerel. A combination of the two, the accentual-syllabic meter, is the conventional meter with fixed pattern of both stress and syllables. It was developed by Chaucer from Italian models, and became the staple for English poetry from Elizabethan times till comparatively recently.
B. FREE VERSE--It originated in France around the middle of the nineteenth century. It was championed (briefly) by the founders of Modernism, and has ramified into various forms, some of them indistinguishable from prose. Free verse has no restrictions on either syllable or accent.
4. WHICH POETRY TO WRITE?
This depends upon the choice of the writer. Poetry is spontaneous flow of emotions, so it should not be and cannot be pre-determined. However, in my experience, it helps a poet to know the basics of rhythm and meter and to have some practice of the same. The link between the traditional and non-traditional poetry is rhythm. I believe that an essential characteristic of all poetry, whether traditional or non-traditional, is a certain degree of rhythm. The rhythmic element is more pronounced in traditional potry, because it is written in defined meter. I believe that free verse emanating from the pen of a poet familiar with traditional styles will be more rhythmic, hence better, than that coming from the pen of a poet ignorant of traditional writing. I must hasten to add that I have no intention of drawing comparison or stating that traditional poetry is better than free verse. Having said that, I must say that traditional poetry calls for much more effort on the part of the poet in ensuring a set structural format. However, this imposes a limitation on the traditional style poet and he feels hampered in giving free expression to his ideas and emotions. It is a constant challenge for a traditional style poet to be able to express freely within the constraints of form. The reward of a traditional poet lies in being able to meet this challenge. Free verse writers have no such challenge. I may comment that, in general, rewards are related to the degree of challenge.
5. TRADITIONAL POETRY FORMS:
For those who want to try their hand at traditional poetry, it is best to start with simple forms such as couplets and quatrains. Rhyming couplets can be aa, bb, cc, dd type or ab, cb, db, eb type, where the small case letter denotes the end rhyme (rhyme at the end of the line). Examples are:
Why are you shivering, child?
“I have fever not so mild”.
Are you taking medicine?
“No, mom will give when she’s in”.
From: "A PROSTITUTE’S CHILD" , 7 syllables in each line.
Better jump and break a bone,
Than be afraid of a fall.
Why escape the clutch of death?
It is sure to take its toll.
True love asks nothing in turn,
Like a girl who loves her doll.
From: "HIT THE BALL--a ghazal" , 7 syllables in each line.
QUATRAINS—These can have various forms, the commonest, and the easiest being the abcb type:
One day I will be no more but
My essence will be there.
My body will decay but my
Thoughts would be everywhere.
From: "ONE DAY I WILL BE NO MORE" , 8 and 6 syllables in alternate lines.
Another type, slightly more difficult, is the abab pattern, typically found in a Shakespearean sonnet:
All that we see need not always be true.
Of this we must ourselves always remind.
The sky and sea are, from distance, so blue.
But, go nigh them and no color you find.
From: "WHAT WE DON’T SEE: a sonnet" , 10 syllables in each line.
6. IS RHYMING ESSENTIAL?
Let me phrase this question as follows: ‘Must a structured poem rhyme?’
My answer would be in the negative. My concept of a structured poem is a poem that follows some pre-determined and consistent pattern. An inbuilt structural pattern ensures rhythm to a great extent. Rhyming is perhaps the commonest and most easily recognized pattern. However, syllabic constancy in itself goes a long way in bringing a touch of rhythm. An example of a non-rhymed quatrain with reasonable flow induced by syllabic constancy is given below—
It’s at a great master’s feet
Where I rather belong;
It would be up to him to
Deal with me as he likes.
-- From: "Invalid Entry" , 7 and 6 syllables in alternate lines.
7. SOME PRACTICAL TIPS:
I have learnt through experience that:
a. It is impossible to write good poetry without having good language skills, especially grammar and spelling.
b. It is very useful for a poet to have vast vocabulary.
c. A good poet must have a good dictionary by his side.
d. One must learn to count syllables. I have found the Random House Dictionary especially useful for this.
e. Even if a poet wants to write free verse, no possible harm, and, probably, some benefit, can accrue to him if he learns to write in traditional style, even for the sake of learning or exercise.
f. It is useful to participate in poetry contests. That way, one improves writing skills.
g. Poetry can be difficult to understand, more so because it can be vague, obscure, mystic or abstract. Readers find a poem easier to understand if there is proper punctuation.
h. Don’t forget that rhythm is the essence of poetry. Even free verse need not be devoid of rhythm. For example, I believe the following poem, in free verse style, has a certain rhythm of its own: " I AM ASHAMED" .
i. The poet must read his poem aloud to himself. This is a simple but effective way of detecting jarred corners and smoothening raw edges and ensuring better rhythm.
j. Try to avoid using unnecessary words. If a word is superfluous, take it out. It will dilute the poem. A good poem is concentrated stuff.
k. Try to have some imagery in the poem. Imagery brings life to a poem. This is what a reader wrote to me in his review of a poem of mine:
“A wonderful, heart-breaking poem. The good thing about it is, while reading the poem, I myself, was among the snow-clad mountains and the alpine trees; I saw the birds flying over my heads, I was 'listening' to the quietness of the place”. (Ref: "SILENT ECHOES" )
SOME USEFUL REFERENCES—
1. How to write an acrostic, "HOW TO WRITE AN ACROSTIC-acrostic,edpick"
2. How to write an article, "HOW TO WRITE AN ARTICLE: double awardee "
3. WHAT IS A GHAZAL AND HOW TO WRITE IT?"WHAT IS A GHAZAL AND HOW TO WRITE IT?"
4. SCANSION---the basics—"SCANSION--the basics"
5. Poetry Forms, "Poetry Forms" by Bianca
6. Poetic Forms - How To, "Poetry Forms and Techniques"
7. Poetry in rhyme-rhythm contest "POETRY IN RHYME - RHYTHM CONTEST-winner"
M C Gupta
13 February 2007