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Michael A Gibbs

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The Construction of Poetry
1/2/2006 8:30:49 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

A basic guide to the concepts of poetry construction, presented here for those who have the talent but not the knowledge.

My definition of poetry is the rhymed and metered animation of the inanimate, or the personification of something not human. This animation or personification may occur in only one line or in one phrase of the entire piece, but without it, the work is “dead.” Example – burgundy wine is the spilt blood of grapes.

Rhyme and meter: Any writing not rhymed and metered is not poetry; it is simply prose, or maybe not even that. There are “poets” who would argue that statement. In fact, most poets would argue that statement. I don’t care. The modern term for rhymed and metered verse is “traditional verse,” which is simply a term reserved for those who either cannot write real poetry or refuse to make the effort. Anyone (and I mean anyone old enough to write at all) can write free verse poetry, breaking lines at will and simply expressing what’s on his/her mind. If you’ve read the poems posted at Authorsden or anywhere else you’ll find that most are free verse. The reason is that anyone can write it. I’m sorry, but free verse simply is not poetry. My proof lies within any paragraph from any text ever written. Take a line from a high school geography book and break the lines at unexpected places and call it poetry. That’s today’s fashion. If the writer has a topic and several things to say about it, she can break it into short lines, give it a title, and say she’s written a poem. I don’t think so.

Meter is counting. A line of poetry should have a certain meter, or count. Without going into iambic pentameter and other meters, which are a study unto themselves, I’ll say that when you write a poem, the meter should be apparent throughout the work. It should be consistent. Robert Frost's line, “Whose woods these are I think I know,” is a line of 8 syllables. But there’s more to it than the number. We must consider the stress of the syllables. That particular line shows a consistency of alternating unstressed/stressed syllables. Read the line aloud to prove to yourself what is stressed or unstressed. “Whose” is unstressed, while “woods” is stressed. That pattern continues across the entire line. The next line may or may not have the same pattern, but, depending on your rhyme scheme, that first pattern will be repeated again and again, just as the pattern of the other lines will be repeated. If you break the pattern, the reader will falter in her reading of the poem. The music of it will be lost. Enough about meter. There are entire books written on the subject should you care to dive in.

Rhyme is either perfect or false. A perfect rhyme is found at the end of a line (or sometimes within a line in the case of internal rhymes). The last syllable of the line sounds exactly like the word of the preceding or the next line that your syllable is fashioned to rhyme with. Mr. Frost rhymes “know” with “though,”--a perfect rhyme. (His house is in the village though)a perfect rhyme. Although spelled differently, know and though sound exactly alike at the end. “Lord” and “sword” are perfectly rhymed, as are “feet” and “meat.” (Beware: some words have a last syllable that might rhyme with the last syllable of another word, but if that syllable is the very same syllable, the rhyme is wrong. The words “lease” and “release” have the same-sounding last syllable, but because they are formed exactly the same way, the rhyme is impure. However, “niece” and “lease” is okay, because they are formed differently. Do you see that?)

False rhyme is common in defective poetry and popular songs. “Down” and “ground” is a false rhyme. So is “feet” and “peep.” The syllables do not sound the same due to the tongue’s action forming the last letter. But how many times do we hear such rhymes in out favorite song? The music of a song covers the defect, but in written poetry, we are exposed—to be seen and judged for exactly what we’ve written. To be sure of your rhyme, get a rhyming dictionary or look at one of the Internet sights such as the one at Rhyming Zone.

Forced rhyme is using a word simply because it rhymes, or even worse, writing an entire line just so we can use such a word. If poetry is anything at all, it is concise. Perhaps I should have included that in my definition of poetry. Poetry is saying in the fewest possible words, and in the best possible way, the thing we wish to impart. If you go out of your way to use a rhyming word that does not add meaning to your poem (or worse, takes away meaning), you have not only ruined the conciseness of your work, you have spoiled the music. Make sure your rhyming word is the right word for the text. Ask yourself if that word, or the line it is used in, adds to the poems meaning or reinforces its meaning. (For an "example" lesson in rhyme and meter, look at my poem "Envy." See the rhyming syllables that are "internal" in each line, as well as the end of line rhymes. In that poem, count the consistant syllable per line pattern.)

Lastly, if what you’ve written does not or cannot create emotion within your readers, the work has failed. Emotion can’t be rendered through specific demands. I mean to say that just because you describe something as “beautiful,” does not mean your reader sees the beauty. Not only must you use the words to show her the beauty, but you must also make her feel it. What is emotion if not feeling? I once read a piece by a writer whose name I can’t recall wherein she described the place at her home where her child had played—a child that had either grown up and departed, or perhaps died. She said, “Here is the spot where a thousand dragons were slain,” or something similar. Can you not hear and feel that mother’s sadness for the child that’s no longer there? The writer didn’t have to say she missed her son, that she loved him, or that she felt alone upon walking in her back yard. That one line about dragons slain tells us what’s in her heart, and we, the readers, share her loss. That, my friend, is emotion.

So there you have it--as short a lesson in the construction of poetry that you’ll ever get. And probably as opinionated as you’ll ever get. Look elsewhere for opinions easier to accept. Poetry written outside the above stated guidelines are constructed by the untalented, the uneducated, the lazy, or some combination thereof. The only exception might be the individual who feels compelled to express herself by writing in a certain manner without regard to what it sounds like to others. In those instances, and in my opinion, regardless of government guaranteed freedoms, such words should be contained within private realms and not exposed to public view. With that said, you’ll find some free verse among my works. It’s a crazy world.

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More Blogs by Michael A Gibbs
•  The Construction of Poetry - Monday, January 02, 2006  
• Tallships - Sunday, December 25, 2005

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