Pattern and Variation in Poetry
Pattern and Variation, Generally Considered
There are two factors battling for poets' attention when they sit down to write a poem: chaos and control. Classically, these factors are attributed to Dionysus (the Dionysian or chaotic aspects) and Apollo (the Apollonian or formal aspect of poetry.) Just as the two Greek gods of poetry were Apollo and Dionysus, any great poem has elements of both chaos and control.
A poem uses the formal (sound and visual) aspects of language to control the chaotic (meaningful and expressive) aspects of language. Like the lead bars used to control a nuclear reaction on the verge of exploding, form is used to control and curb language to make it digestible, more powerful and contained for the reader. Since, as everyday language users, we are probably more familiar with the Dionysian frustrations of language (who has not uttered the phrase, "I don't know; it's hard to put into words"?) our focus will be on the Apollonian or formal aspects of a poem.
This doesn't mean that we should not let some chaos into the poem, of course (both Apollo and Dionysus have to have their say, after all), but since a poem is a structured thing and we can't "control" the chaotic aspect, per se by any means than by imposing structure on it, then it makes sense that we should talk largely about the structural, formal aspects, as those are the parts that we can control. And although we are talking about form and structure, it should be said that too much control (Apollo having too much say) risks forcing the poem into shape, and the poem created in such circumstances will very often be stilted and the structure will weigh the poem down. It's a risk we have to take, but being aware that a heavy-handed structure can ruin a poem just as fast as a lack of structure will hopefully keep our writing balanced and in that delicate middle ground where the best poetry happens.
In the making of a poem, pattern is one of the most important ways of building form and structure, and one of the most difficult to master. In classical verse, pattern was established by using a traditional form and meter, where lines had set numbers of beats and rhymes and alliteration came at predictable places within the line (typically at the end in the case of rhyme, within the line in the case of alliteration in Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry). Nowadays, as most readers and writers of poetry know, most poetry written in English is free verse, rather than in traditional forms, and this presents a unique set of problems.
The Unique Problem of Free Verse
Since free verse poets cannot rely on the authority of an accepted "classical" form, they must develop an authority through consistency and pattern and variance. The word "authority" may prick the ears of many poets, as it seems too definitive and demanding. All it means here is that the poem is a made thing, a built thing, if you will, and its "authority" is its commanding presence or ability to accurately relay itself to the reader.
A standard reader feels authority in a good poem more than thinks about it, and a writer builds a poem to the needs of itself—its authority comes through when the poet has found the poem's form. If we "read like writers" then we must think a lot about how a poem derives its authority, as we set out to do something similar in our own work. What this all means is that a solid study of pattern and variation in a poem is necessary if a poet intends to make a poem that is sturdy in its structure without relying on an overtly consistent (read: strictly metered and rhymed) form. Especially for free verse poets, who can't rely on conventions to derive their authority. The poet should always be asking "what is the best vehicle to relay this poem?"
When talking about pattern, there is a lot of crossover to a discussion of classical form and meter. Pattern and variation are general categories that include the more traditional subjects of scansion, sound and prosody that deal with the sound of the poem (what we'll call aural pattern) but also the matters of how the poem looks on the page (what we'll call visual pattern).
So two kinds of pattern will be evaluated, and both give the poet and opportunity to assert Apollo's hand onto a poem at an opportune time. But before getting into specifics, we must define what we mean by pattern, generally, and how variation effects a poem once a pattern is established.
Let's take a few definitions of the word pattern to see what it typically thought of it:
- The fifth definition from the World Book Dictionary gives us "the arrangement and use of content in particular forms, styles, etc., in a work of literature, music, etc."
- Dictionary.com, "5a: Form and style in an artistic work or body of artistic works."
- Perhaps the most interesting one for us is found in an unexpected place, the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law, "a recognizably consistent series of related acts."
Each definition adds something valuable to our discussion. The first tells us that pattern is an arrangement of forms, and the use of the word "form" should not be overlooked since we are talking about the "formal," the structural (Apollonian,) aspects of poetry here, after all.
The second reiterates the importance of form, but adds that, in this instance, it is the application of form in an "artistic work." The addition of "art" means that pattern is not accidental, but is performed by the artist (the poet, who, through practice, learns to contend with particular formal issues and applies them thereafter when the time is right).
The third definition adds something related to the second, which is that pattern is a series (especially the aural aspects, which are delivered in time, like music), and as a series there is a either a predictable repetition, addition, or subtraction of a particular aspect. A pattern then may not be a simple repetition, but can also be a predictable change within a series. As in math, where the series 2,4,6,8,10 is predictable but not simply repetitive, a pattern in poetry may take a similar form. We also get in this definition that a pattern is a series of related "acts," and those acts (as artistic acts performed by the poet) are again not accidental, but deliberative poetic actions that help convey the poem to the audience.
A sidenote would have to admit that with practice, the poet begins to perform these actions without the explicit thoughts that the beginner needs. This is comparable to a dancer who practices a step thousands of times so that when the time comes at the recital, her deliberate thoughts are no longer a burden and she can perform gracefully. The application of pattern at the right time in the writing process is something derived over years of practice and will continue to frustrate and intrigue any poet as long as he or she writes.
Because these three definitions are not speaking of poetic pattern specifically, we must also remember to add to our definition that poetic pattern is made of the aural and visual aspects of a poem. These are the two readily available material aspects of the poem (poets rarely seem concerned by, say, how a word physically smells, or, except in cases of Braille poetry, how it feels on the page).
So can we then offer our own definition of poetic pattern? Let's say that it is:
It is not such a stretch to say that the discussion of pattern and variation makes up a large chunk of the study and practice of poetics. To create a poem, some pattern and variation must be applied to the words. Something may be poetic without being a poem (a metaphor in a novel, for example,) but this is another matter. Things like metaphors come from a branch of poetics that deals with what are called tropes, and they are another matter from the discussion here. Here we're talking about poems specifically, not something "poetic," and what makes a poem a poem (and here we take a risk by defining such a thing...there will inevitably be discontents, but it must be done), is the presence of the material (aural and visual) aspects of words shaped into particular forms. Said another way, poem-making involves the rendering of the material aspects (aural, visual) of words into structures that are relevant to the meaning of those words. The establishment of pattern is the consistent application of particular material aspects across a given poem. But that is only half of the matter.
We must also deal with variation.
If pattern in a poem is "The artistic arrangement and use of the material (aural and visual) aspects of words into particular repetitive and/or serial forms as a means to structure a poem," then variation, pattern's partner in crime, is
Once a pattern has been established, it may be varied. The effect is always the same: it produces emphasis. The degree of emphasis is directly related to the degree of variation. An extreme variation from the pattern will produce extreme emphasis, minor variation will produce minor emphasis, and any degree within the extremes is there to be played with. If a given word or phrase is of import in the poem, Then variation can be used to set it apart. Whether a phrase should get such emphasis is an important poetic question, and one that we should never tire of asking.
So pattern and variation are two primary tools in Apollo's toolbox. In a poem the material aspects of the words(both aural and visual) are being controlled. Taking a largely chaotic, Dionysian line or sentence, we begin to give it shape, and that shape is largely defined by the patterns and variations that we set into those words.
Important Terms for Pattern and Variation
Authority: A poem's commanding presence or its ability to accurately relay itself to the reader. Poetic authority is derived from the seamless marriage of the structural and chaotic aspects in a poem.
Form: In our discussion here, form means the Apollonian aspects of poetry, or those aspects that show control. Form includes both the visual and sound elements in a poem.
Free Verse: The form of most contemporary poetry. Free verse makes a structure that is unique to a particular poem, thus making it "free" from the traditional verse forms and "versed" in that there is still an attention to formal detail.
Pattern: The artistic arrangement and use of the material (aural and visual) aspects of words into particular repetitive and/or serial forms as a means to structure a poem.
Structure: The resultant sum of all sound and visual form in a poem (note: the sum of the whole should be greater than the parts).
Variation: The artistic breaking of a pattern within a poem to create degrees of emphasis.