POETRY

FORM AND STRUCTURE

Questions we need to answer:
  • Why do some poems seem to “wander” all over the page while others “march” down the page in tidy blocks?
  • Why do some lines rhyme and yet others do not?
  • Why do poets sometimes leave a phrase dangling at the end of the line so that it doesn’t make sense until you read the next line?
  • Why does a line end when it does?

Naturally these questions lead to slightly more complex questions such as:
  • What exactly is rhythm in poetry? And is it the same as in music?
  • Why is the sound of a poem so important?
  • What comes first – the form or the words that fill it?
  • Why do some poets chose to write poetry that follows “rules and regulations”, like sonnets, when they can actually just write any way they want to?

Ultimately we need to answer things like:
  • Why is a poem a poem and not just prose that have been written slightly differently on the page?
  • Is there a difference in the way we read poetry and the way we read prose?
  • Are our expectations from poetry different from those we have of prose?

First, let’s see if you can tell the difference between poetry, prose, poetry disguised as prose and prose disguised as poetry?

A = Poem, Limerick
B = Prose
C = prose disguised as poetry (Newspaper Report)
D = Poetry disguised as prose (a poem by T.E Hume called “Autumn”)
E = Poem (an extract)
F = Prose (discussing the Mona Lisa)
G = Poetry disguised as a poem
H = Prose disguised as a poem
I = Poem disguised as prose

Rhythm

Let’s start with the basics:
  1. Poems are organised words.
  2. Words are sounds
  3. So, poems are organisations of sounds

Although the basics may be helpful, they are too limiting…

Words are not just sounds like musical notes, they carry with them meaning – so in poetry we expect there to be a link between the sound of a word and its meaning.

When you listen to poetry you need to be both a reader and a listener and then, almost as if you have a “third ear” – you need to be able to be critical of the quality of your reading.

Probably the most important thing to remember when you are listening to poetry is that it is a deliberate and conscious arrangement of words which will differ in a number of ways from “normal” or “natural” language.

Because we speak, think (and dream) in prose we tend to think that prose is NORMAL and poetry is, therefore, unusual or different. The problem is that we try to read poetry as if it were prose and, naturally, this leads to all kinds of problems.

Often the question is asked “Why couldn’t he/she just say it normally?”

When we ask why poets have to use such unnatural or obscure language to say what they mean it’s like asking why a painting of an apple doesn’t taste nice?

What you have to learn is that a poet chooses the form or the language in order to enhance his/her expression and NOT to get in the way of what they are trying to say – this requires listening with a “new ear”.

Very often the form or overall sound of the poem comes before the words do; much like a musician may compose the music before the lyrics are decided upon.

So you need to develop a tolerance for “language used differently” or run the risk of never quite “getting it”!


Writing about the sounds your “third ear” hears.

This is not a simple process, but it will improve with practice.

Avoid being vague in order to gloss over things that may be difficult for you to put down in words:

“The first lines are smooth” or “there is a hard feel to line 4” actually don’t mean very much. You need to build up a small vocabulary to help you through this tendency.

  • Imagine that you are learning the words to a new song and you have to get them to fit exactly with the rhythm of the music.
  • The first step is to read the poem in your “best voice” – don’t rush, don’t swallow the ends of your words and make sure that CLARITY is your ultimate goal (you do not have to sound as if you have a hot potato in your mouth)!!
  • Pay attention to the punctuation and pauses – they are there for a reason.
  • Read the poem several times – as much as this may seem a waste of time the truth is the more you “hear” it, the more you will be able to make sense of it.
  • Get the weight of the words right – should some of the words be read slower, is the emphasis you have placed on the word correct and have you got the pace right?


A – Rhythm Methods

There are foreground (or obvious) rhythms and others that are more subtle – lets think about Reggae music versus a piece of classical music by Mozart.

Rhythm gives writing UNITY (or coherence) – think about an orchestra or a four piece band – all the instruments need to be following a similar rhythm in order for the end result to be pleasing to the ear.

Predictability of the rhythm only works to a certain extent – for example, if a poem sustains the same rhyme scheme for the first 5 or 6 lines we tend to enjoy the rhythm, but if it had to repeat that same rhyme scheme for 40 lines or so we would almost certainly get irritated.

So, poets sometimes disturb the expected rhythm of a poem – usually to draw our attention to something.

B – Emphasis and Meaning

English in particular relies on where we place the emphasis on the word:

See page 145 (Bacon Sandwich)

Another example is found in a sentence like “I want to go”; each sentence has a slightly different meaning depending on the emphasis.

  • I want to go
  • I want to go
  • I want to go

Perhaps we can help ourselves by working through the lines of a poem and indicating (very simply) what the stresses on the words are.

/ indicates a strongly stressed syllable
˘ indicates a lightly stressed or unstressed syllable

Mark the stresses on the following sentence


I had a go on Kevin’s bike and smashed it up against a bus


As you can see it breaks up into eight similar units:

I had I a go I on Kev I in’s bike I and smashed I it up I against I a bus.

If you break this up further you would get the following:

I had I a go I on Kev I in’s bike
And smashed I it up I against I a bus.

This may not exactly be poetry, but if you read it out loud you will see that its rhythm is very similar to that of a line from a very famous poem…

I wan I der’d lone I ly as I a cloud
That floats I on high I o’er vales I and hills

Although all of this may seem quite heavy going you need to understand “METRICS” if you are going to be able to listen effectively to the poetry written between 1350 and 1900.


Free Verse & Form – Chapter 16 Leading Questions

Sharp F S E Cor
A M L n
L I e
L r


<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">             Though foolishly he lost the same,</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">                   Decaying more and more,</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">                           Till he became</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">                             Most poore:</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">                              With  thee</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">                          Oh let me rise</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;">          <span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;"> As [[#larks]], harmoniously,</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"> <span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">          And sing this day  thy victories:</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">     Then shall the fall further the flight in me.</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">     My  tender  age  in  sorrow   did   beginne:</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">          And still with [[#sickness]]es and shame</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">               Thou  didst  so  punish  sinne,</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">                         That  I  became</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">                            Most thinne.</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">                              With  thee</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"> <span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">                       Let me combine</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">             And feel this day thy victorie:</span></span>
<span style="line-height: 150%;"><span style="font-family: 'Book Antiqua','serif'; font-size: 13.5pt; line-height: 150%;">          For,  if  I  imp  my  wing  on  thine</span></span>
shall advance the flight in me.


  • Can you guess what the title of this poem is?
  • Perhaps in order to understand the poem, you will need to know that in the Christian faith the individual has to become humble, suffer and die in order to achieve glory and eternal life.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
(2 Corinthians 4:16-17)

  • Can you see the connection between the shape of the poem and its meaning?


Free verse is essentially unrhymed or “non-metric” verse – this means that it is not organsied like the verse-forms we have encountered in the poems we have looked at so far.

Free verse is often written in lines pf varying length, and these lines may or may not begin with a capital letter.

Free verse may be organised into regular stanzas, or it may not.

In fact it’s a little difficult to exactly define what free verse is and often this leads to panic in the reader – if there are no rules how do we analyse it?

Well, firstly you have to consider each poem that uses free verse in isolation – as it comes.

Free verse as a concept is French in origin (coming from the term vers libre) and started a poetic revolution. Suddenly conventional metric verse and “regular versification” was seen as the trend of the bourgeois and therefore conservative and dishonest. Free verse was liberating, novel and the mark of the individual.

This style of verse was eagerly adopted by the English and American writers because it was so different from the “stuffy” poetic rules of the Victorian era.

See an extract from D.H Lawrence’s “New Poems” – page: 161

Warning!!!!!!! This doesn’t mean that a poet who still employs metric verse is less of a poet or that his / her writing is less honest or meaningful.

Whether a poet writes in metric or free verse – NO POETRY JUST HAPPENS!!

Regardless of the subject of the poem or how natural it sounds once it is completed it still takes careful deliberation to get it just right. This will include choosing the right words, the best rhyme scheme (if any) and the most suitable rhythm, be that metric or free verse. In order for poetry to sound like it “just happened” takes lots of hard work.


Let us now take a closer look at FORM…

Certain free verse poems seem to have a “difficult” form. This poem by e.e cummings was published in 1950.


i’m
asking
you dear to
what else could a
no but it doesn’t
of course but you don’t seem
to realise i can’t make
it clearer war just isn’t what
we imagine but please for god’s O
what the hell yes it’s true that was
me but that me isn’t me
can’t you see now no not
any christ but you
must understand
why because
i am
dead


Questions

  • Would the meaning of the poem change at all if you wrote it out in a more traditional manner?

  • Count the number of syllables in each of the lines. What do you notice?

  • How would you explain the unusual shape of the poem and the fact that it doesn’t really seem to make any sense at all?

  • Who is speaking?

  • Who is speaking to him?

  • Can you guess at the circumstances?



Keep in mind that cummings is fairly unusual in his preoccupation with this type of visual form and playing with the meaning through form.

(McGough)

In the time...

And the bomb ex... plodes...
A spider's web woven across the plate glass window trembles,
Snaps, and sends a shimmering haze of lethal stars across the crowded
pavement

In the time it takes...

And the bomb ex... plodes...
Jigsaw pieces of shrapnel glide gently towards children
Tucking in to the warm flesh

In the time it takes to put down...

Enough limbs to build a Calvary across from splintered bones
For England's devious apathy
Island now atones

In the time it takes to put down
a brown
paper
carrier bag.

(boom)


  • What is the poem about?
  • What emotion is generated by this piece of writing and how is this achieved?
  • Do you see any relationship between the subject of the poem and its form?


Remember: There are no fixed rules about the length of a poem or the length of the lines in the poem. As the reader all we can do is run a check on the right hand margin of the poems we are given and see if there is anything significant about the length of the individual lines or the spaces in between the lines. By doing this we may spot signals as to what may be going on in the lines themselves.

In summary we need to keep the following in mind:

  • A free verse poem should leave us with the feeling that it is “what it has to be”.

  • We should also see that a free verse poem has the form it should have.

  • In free verse words often need form to shape their meaning more fully.