Writing Poetry: Exploring the Poetic Form

This week we will be continuing the Writing Poetry series and Exploring the Poetic Form.  We will also be looking at some examples of famous poems; and finally, I will present a brief case study of a well respected and accomplished Australian poet, Kenneth Slessor. I will also include a creative writing task which will give you an opportunity to write your own poem.

So why write poetry?

Poetry, for some people, conjures up images of eccentric men or women from the past who wrote poetry by the light of a candle with quill pen in hand, in an archaic language that no one uses any more. Others think of poetry as nothing more than a funny nursery rhyme, or that poetry is only reserved for the educated.

But to understand and appreciate poetry is to understand and appreciate the beauty of the English language. Of course poetry is not just limited to the English speaking world, as many of the poetry forms that are mentioned in this blog originated from around the globe – Italy, Japan, France, etc.

Sir Philip Sidney in his book, Apology for Poetry, summed up poetry as being both an “art of words [and] a moral activity” that allows a writer to express the mysteries of life (1965, p. 59). Building upon these two poetic truths, three things should also be kept in mind when approaching poetry.

 

1. Poetry does not exist in isolation from what has been created before, so when it comes to writing a poem, a writer must learn from the great poets of the past – Frost, Keats, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Plath, etc. These poets have developed their craft and turned poetry into a respected art form, and have provided a foundation for emerging poets to build upon.

 

2. Poetry teaches us to be vigilant observers of the world. It opens our eyes and imaginations to the beauty of nature and the uniqueness that can be attributed to the commonplace. And more importantly, poetry allows us to fully express the complexities and mysteries of our human existence.

 

3. A poem is an intricate “speaking picture” (Sidney, 1966, p. 25) that combines many elements of language (alliteration, assonance, hyperbole, vivid imagery, metaphor, simile), music (meter, flow, sound & rhythm), and structure (enjambment – specific line breaks that determine rhythm and dramatic pauses).

The French poet Paul Valery said it best: “Poetry is a language within a language.” We don’t just read a poem we experience it. And the best way to experience a poem is to speak it out aloud.

Poetry Styles – Exploring Poetic Forms.

Poetry is an incredibly versatile literary form and there are so many styles to explore. Some poems have a specific purpose.

The Elegy can be used as a lament or as a moving remembrance for a person or an event. A famous example of a Elegy is Do not stand at my grave and weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye.

Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starshine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there; I did not die.

A Ballad combines musical rhyme and vivid imagery to tell a story. A traditional Australian ballad comes to mind – The Man from Snowy River by Banjo Patterson. Here is an excerpt from Patterson’s iconic ballad.

There was movement at the station, for the word has passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses – he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.

Modern musical genres like country and western and rap music also draw upon some elements of the ballad’s form.

Here is a list of the different styles of poetry.

Elegy.
Free-verse
Haiku
Limerick
Pantoum,
Prose
Sestina
Sonnet
Narrative poem
Traditional Rhyme
Villanelle

Poetry analysis: the Villanelle and the Free Verse Poem.

I have chosen to analyse a Villanelle and a Free Verse poem as these two poetic forms display some stark differences. The villanelle requires a particular structure and rhyming scheme.

A free verse poem does not have to conform to regular patterns of sound and rhyme. A free verse is just like it’s name suggests: it allows the poet freedom to emulate natural human speech patterns and to experiment with irregular line breaks.

How to Write a Villanelle.

  • It contains nineteen lines.
  • It has six stanzas. Five stanzas contain three lines. The final stanza contains four lines (which is called the closing quatrain).
  • The first line of the first stanza is to be repeated as the last line in the second and fourth stanzas.
  • The third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas.
  • The first and third line of the first stanza are to be repeated as the last two lines (a refrain) in the final stanza.
  • The rhyming scheme is aba.

Also, the villanelle does not conform to any standard metrical pattern, although generally speaking lines should be of the same syllabic length.

Other poetry styles that are similar to the Villanelle are the Sestina and the Pantoum.

This is a villanelle by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas – Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

An example of a Free Verse poem.

During the twentieth century, poetry shifted from the restraints and restrictions imposed by the traditional expectations of rigid meter, rhyming schemes and set forms. Free verse allowed poets to experiment with uneven line breaks, an absence or a limited use of rhyme, and also their subject matter diversified.

In this free verse poem by Charles Bukowski, the rawness of the poet’s voice projects his feelings of life’s meaninglessness into the narrative, as he sees it. Despite Bukowski’s tragic life (he struggled with alcoholism and died of Leukaemia), his talent for turning his life’s pain and angst into a sad but beautiful poem is tangible here.

Are You Drinking?

washed-up, on shore, the old yellow notebook
out again
I write from the bed
as I did last
year.
will see the doctor,
Monday.
“yes, doctor, weak legs, vertigo, head-
aches and my back 
hurts.”
“are you drinking?” he will ask.
“are you getting your
exercise, your
vitamins?”
I think that I am just ill 
with life, the same stale yet
fluctuating
factors.
even at the track
I watch the horses run by
and it seems
meaningless.
I leave early after buying tickets on the
remaining races.
“taking off?” asks the motel 
clerk.
“yes, it’s boring,”
I tell him.
“If you think it’s boring 
out there,” he tells me, “you oughta be
back here.”
so here I am
propped up against my pillows
again
just an old guy
just an old writer
with a yellow
notebook.
something is 
walking across the
floor
toward 
me.
oh, it’s just 
my cat
this
time. 
 

Here are some other poetry examples.

An excerpt from a traditional rhyming poem by Emily Dickinson – Because I could not stop for Death. This poem conveys an casual attitude towards death, and compares him to a gentleman caller. My favourites lines are the opening ones:

Because I could not stop for Death – 
He kindly stopped for me – 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves – 
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Emily Dickinson was one of those poets who was not afraid to deal with the subject of death. She has used wit and commonplace imagery to steal back some of death’s ultimate power that cannot be escaped.

A Sonnet.

A classic example of a sonnet 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 dimmed; 
And every fair from fair sometime declines, 
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed; 
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owe’st; 
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest 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. 

The Pastoral.

The Pastoral is a celebration of rural life, and can also draw upon the metaphysical – a deeper contemplation of the role of man and nature.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. James Wright.

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

A rhymed stanza.

The Road Not Taken. Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day! 
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

Case study of an Australian poet – Kenneth Slessor.

One of Australia’s finest poets Kenneth Slessor had the ability to master the poetic form by combining the intricate use of expression, concrete imagery, rhythm, sound, and thought. Beach Burial, which is among the best of Slessor’s poems, uses dramatic imagery from World War II, where “it was not uncommon to find the bodies of drowned men washed up on the beaches [and] buried in the sand hills under improvised crosses, identification usually being impossible” (Slessor 1944, p. 139).

The theme that underlines this poem is not only the devastation of war, but that all of mankind is “engaged together on the common ‘front’ of humanity’s existence [and] that death unites them“ (1944, p. 139).

Slessor was a journalist and war correspondent during World War II and he observed first hand the madness and futility of war. This poignant tribute for the “unknown seamen”, who perished near El Alamein, can also be used as an elegy for those men and women who give their lives in service for their country.

Beach Burial

Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.

Between the sob and clubbing of the gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this;
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness;

And each cross, the driven stake of tidewood,
Bears the last signature of men,
Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity,
The words choke as they begin-

‘Unknown seamen’-the ghostly pencil
Wavers and fades, the purple drips
The breath of the wet season has washed their inscriptions
As blue as drowned men’s lips,

Dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall,
Whether as enemies they fought,
Or fought with us, or neither; the sand joins them together,
Enlisted on the other front.

 

Creative Task:

Why not try writing your own poem. Use one of the poetry exercises as listed below.

Using William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ as a model, write your own lyrical poem (8-10 lines) celebrating, using fine imagery, a domestic object we normally take for granted. The purpose of this exercise is give the commonplace special, original qualities.

The Red Wheelbarrow’
so much depends 
upon 

a red wheel 
barrow 

glazed with rain 
water 

beside the white 
chickens

Begin a poem with a serious predicament. It could involve people, animals, the law, or a combination of things. Try to resolve the situation in no more than 10 lines. Make a list of four or five objects that you like to have around you. It could be a a piece of sea-smoothed glass, a feather, a stone… Give each of these objects emotional qualities. Describe them as if they were alive, and had feelings.

Write a poem in the form of a letter. It can be rhymed or in free verse. Address someone you know, or a stranger. Or write a letter to yourself.

Write a poem about an experience from the past that includes the following:
person, animal, location, object… Allow each of these to inform the poem in ways that are both physical and emotional.

Write a poem in the form of a letter. It can be rhymed or in free verse. Address someone you know, or a stranger. Or write a letter to yourself.

Write a Villanelle, and be mindful of its specific structure.

 

References:

Sidney, Sir Philip 1965, An Apology for Poetry, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd and Gregory Shepherd, p.59.

Slessor, P 1944, Selected Poems, ed, Angus & Robertson Publishers, London
Some Notes on the Poems, p. 139.
How to Write a Villanelle is taken from The Making of a Poem, M Strand, E Boland, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London.

 

Image:

condesign.

Pixabay.com

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