Monday, October 20, 2014

What About Writing Poetry? ({Part 2)

Poet, Roy J. Beckemeyer, has a second guest blogger post for us on the topic of poetry. Roy explains the ins and outs of poetry in a reasonable and understandable way. I'm learning something from his posts and I bet you are, too. If you didn't read the first one, be sure to click on the link and do so. Roy leaves us with promise of another installment of your own personal poetry class. Here's Part 2:

Thanks to Nancy for asking me to pen another poetry-writing piece for her blog. In an earlier installment, we discussed line length as one feature that distinguished poems from prose.

Another difference between poetry and prose is the way the poem sounds when read (preferably aloud). Poetry probably had vocal origins, and the rhythmic pattern of poetry, the assonance, dissonance, alliteration, the richness or starkness of the spoken words all contribute to the poem's feel and message.

Let's discuss rhythm as an element that distinguishes prose and poetry. A traditional and once common rhythmic pattern in English language poetry is based on the iamb. This is a unit of measure in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one. It is likely the most common form because it reminds us of our own heartbeat (da dum). It is also the pattern that became familiar to most of us because we heard it in nursery rhymes or when reading Shakespeare. The iamb is also called an iambic foot (a foot is a rhythmical unit of two or more syllables; various feet are combined to make up a line).  If you combine five iambs together to make a line, you get a form called iambic pentameter, a five-footed line in which each foot (or nearly each one) is an iamb.

Here's a commonly-used example, the opening line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 12:

                        "When I | do count | the clock | that tells | the time"

I have used a bold font to denote the stressed syllables and the vertical line to separate the feet. Notice that iambic pentameter sounds a bit "sing-song-y." Poets often change one of the iambs to another pattern to vary the rhythm a little. For example, here is a nursery rhyme in which three feet are used:

                        "Jack and Jill | went up | the hill
                        to fetch | a pail | of water"

Here the first foot of the first line has been changed to a three-a three-syllable one, with an unstressed syllable separating two
 stressed ones.  The second line ends with a tri-syllabic foot in which a stressed syllable separates two unstressed ones.

You can find many examples of rhymed poetry. Reading them, you will be able to decipher how the poet used various kinds of feet to provide the feel and richness of their particular poems. There is a nice summary of traditional formal poetry, and the other various feet and meters that are commonly used. You should look at that tip sheet to widen your understanding of the rhythms of formal poetry.

Blank verse is written in iambic pentameter, but the ends of the lines do not rhyme. Here is an example from Milton's Paradise Lost (Book 8: line 460):

                        "Mine eyes | he clos'd | but op | 'n left | the Cell
                        Of Fan | cie my | inter | nal sight, | by which
                        Abstract | as in | a transe | methought | I saw
                        Though sleep | ing, where | I lay | and saw | the shape..."

You might notice that the rhythmic structure of the examples we have used could be read to the cadence of a metronome. So it is likely no surprise that traditional rhythmic patterns are referred to as the meter of the poem.

Most of the poetry written these days is unrhymed and also does not use any of the traditional repetitive rhythmic patterns; it is therefore called Free Verse. But free does not imply the lack of rhythm. One way of viewing the rhythm of a free verse poem was stated by Ezra Pound, who said that it takes the form of "the sequence of a musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome." That is, the rhythmic structure of a free verse poem is more complex (its units are not feet, but in phrases or lines), and is generally not repetitive.

We will investigate the rhythms of free verse in a future installment. 

Some References

Cooper, G. Burns. 1998. Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse. Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA.

Flint, F. S. 1913. "Imagisme." Poetry Magazine. 1(6): 198-200.

Haskell, Dennis. 2002. Rhythm and Resonance in Poetry. Pp. 157-163 In Brenda Walker (ed), The Writer's Reader: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Poetry. Halstead Press. Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

Pound, Ezra. 1913. "A Few Don'ts by an Imagist." Poetry Magazine. 1(6): 200-206.

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