Poetry in Writing Courses
One of the most important keys to understanding poetry language is music, and often the role of music in poetry is not shown to students in an introductory course, because emphasis tends to be placed on workshop and reading, with the idea that one learns how to write by reading and receiving critiques.
However, without an understanding of music in poetry (rhythm, lineation, meter), students are inclined to not absorb the most important qualities of poetry while reading, and to critique and receive critiques without a basic understanding of the language with which they are working. For this reason, we’ll begin with a brief description of one aspect of music in poetry, lineation, before going into the meaning of metaphor, simile, personification, apostrophe and imagery.
Of course there are more tools involved and accessible to the poet, but scholars/poets generally believe these are the most important to get things started. We'll close with a short note on the problem of “ambiguity” in poetry by beginners.
Lineation dictates when a line of poetry stops and a new lines begins. Often, beginning poets write down impressions, randomly break them into lines, and turn them in as poems. Asking even beginning students to write several drafts of a poem that are lineated in different ways will help them understand how rhythm is created through lineation
For example, the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai uses a fairly iambic beat (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). He consistently breaks the lines where the pause naturally occurs, in order to mimic the pattern of ordinary speech because he wants to capture the heightened meaning within the ordinary:
A man in his life has no time.
When he loses he seeks
When he finds he forgets
When he forgets he loves
When he loves he begins forgetting.
Amichai also uses repetition to convey a sense of truth and the inevitability of loss and forgetting. Amichai is creating a kind of poetry logic by beginning each line with “When...” to show the connection between seeking and forgetting and loving. If the poem were lineated in a different way, it would lose its force:
A man in his life has no time. When he
loses, he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets
he loves, when he loves he begins forgetting.
In this version, the connections are broken, and the cohesive, accruing force of the rhythm is lost. Also, because the last line is longer than the rest, it is given more importance, and the emphasis is placed on forgetting. This is fine, except that Amichai is trying to get rid of the hierarchies to show how everything is connected and equally important.
Metaphor, Simile, Personification, Apostrophe
A metaphor is a direct comparison between one thing or person to another, as in Pablo Neruda’s line from Twenty Love Poems: “You were a gray beret and the whole being at peace.” Because Neruda is saying that the “You” in the poem is a gray beret, the comparison in metaphor is more immediate than it is in simile.
Simile is a comparison using the word “like” to connect one thing to another, as in Derek Walcott’s “Crusoe’s Island” – “The chapel’s cowbell / Like God’s anvil.” The chapel’s cowbell is compared to God’s anvil. Good metaphors and similes bring in larger parts of the world into the miniature of the poem. Neruda hints at something more than human and the condition of “peace,” to make the poem expand beyond a simple address to a beloved. Walcott begins with the simple image of a cowbell and, through comparison, brings in the idea of God’s will shaping and creating things. Walcott doesn’t say “The chapel’s cowbell is a heavy force that shapes the world.” He wants to charge his comparison with the widest possible range of meaning and resonance.
Personification is when an object or thing is given human attributes, as in Odysseus Elytis’ poem “Aegean Melancholy” — “And the sea playing on its concertina.” The sea in this line is personified as a musician, playing an accordion-like instrument. The sea playing on its piano would be far less interesting, because the piano, and the sea are already very familiar images to the reader. The contrast between the already familiar image of the sea, with the idiosyncratic image of the concertina, is more surprising. Also, a concertina is played by squeezing it from both sides, and pulling it outward, letting it expand, much like the motion of waves. There are similarities and striking differences all within this one comparison.
Apostrophe is a direct address to a person or thing, as in Gu Cheng’s poem, Forever Parted: Graveyard, which is written to the dead Red Guards who are buried near the Cemetery of the Revolutionary Martyrs in China: “Your hands were / soft, your nails clean, / the hands of those who’d opened schoolbooks / and storybooks, books about heroes.” Apostrophe allows Gu Cheng to write about the dead with immediacy by addressing them directly, and imagining what their lives were like.
Imagery. Ordinarily, imagery is stressed more than anything in beginning creative writing workshops. Concrete language anchors the poem, engages the five senses, and keeps the poem from becoming too vague. While simply plugging in imagery to fulfill an image quota does not make music or poetry language happen, it is important for the beginning writer to learn to incorporate as many concrete images as possible. Here are a few lines from Shu Ting’s “The Singing Flower” that make the abstract experience of exile a concrete, palpable experience for the reader:
I walk to the square through the zig-zag streets, back
To the pumpkin shack I guarded, the work in the barley fields,
deep in the desert (of exile).
Shu Ting doesn’t say “When I was in high-school during the Cultural Revolution I was taken away to the countryside because my father was considered a political nonconformist.” Rather, she makes that experience in the countryside come alive with specific images like the pumpkin shack and the barley fields, the zig-zag streets. Also, images provide larger possibilities for making rhythm, and establishing stronger metaphors and similes.
For more on imagery, please visit the Image in Poetry OWL resource. This source explains where images come from, how they are made, and what their function is in poetry.
The problem of Ambiguity in the beginner’s writing: beginners often mistake vagueness or lack of meaning or music in poetry as “ambiguity,” or “open-endedness” that allows the reader to imagine the rest, to fill in the blanks. In most cases, the poem is simply unclear, uncertain, or poorly written. Of course, ambiguity is important to poetry, since poetry excludes almost everything to say what it says. But at this stage, the beginning writer should focus on music, metaphor, simile, imagery, etc. and wait until she has reached a Mid-to-Advanced course in creative writing to explore how ambiguity works in poetry. Understanding how to read and write ambiguity is one of the most difficult, and necessary, features of poetry.
For more information on how to avoid some mistakes of beginning poetry writing, visit the Tutoring Creative Writing Students OWL resource.
Poetry in Mid to Advanced Level Writing Courses
As students move into mid and advanced level writing courses, they will be expected to read and write more complex poetry. This resource should help students as they transition into these more complex ideas.
Without an understanding of the uses of ambiguity, the beginning writer will find it difficult to move on to an intermediate or advanced level, because ambiguity is essential to the wordplay and music that make up a poem. The critic, William Empson, wrote a study called “The 7 Types of Ambiguity.” This is a scholarly work and not easily applicable to writing. But the point he makes about ambiguity is important for mid to advanced level poets.
Empson says that ambiguity could happen in many ways. For example, when two or more meanings are resolved into one. Also, if two things are compared or set against each other as opposites, but still yield multiple kinds of comparisons and oppositions, the poem is ambiguous. Another kind of ambiguity Empson talks about is when two seemingly unconnected meanings are given simultaneously. Contradictions within a single poem also lead to ambiguity. Adam Zagajewski’s poem, “Betrayal,” is ambiguous throughout:
The greatest delight, I sense,
is hidden sublimely in the act of betrayal
which can be equal only to fidelity.
To betray a woman, friends, an idea,
to see new light in the eyes
of distant shadows. But choices are
limited: other women, other
ideas, the enemies of our
long-standing friends. If only
we could encounter some quite different
otherness, settle in a country which has
no name, touch a woman before
she is born, lose our memories, meet
a God other than our own.
A contradiction is apparent in the first 3 lines, because “betrayal” and “fidelity,” two opposites, are put on the same plane. There are two unconnected meanings: 1) that betrayal is equal to fidelity; and 2) that betrayal can yield illumination or help us “see new light in the eyes / of distant shadows.” This is the kind of ambiguity we find in Shakespeare’s soliloquies. A mind wrestling with itself, unknown to itself, trying to resolve something, is enacted effectively in “Betrayal.” While two disparate ideas are being compared here, betrayal and fidelity, a multitude of other comparisons are teased out in the process.
By putting the betrayal of “a woman, friends, an idea” on the same plane, Zagajewski forces us to question whether or not a woman, friends and ideas have the same value for the speaker, and in life. And what about nationality, love, memory, God—do these warrant the same attention? In a way, the multiple meanings are resolved into one in this poem, because the last few lines seem to be about the human longing for limitless possibility, which becomes the one meaning that the poem is seeking to become.
Zagajewski is a master of ambiguity, so it is highly unlikely that the comparisons and contradictions and resolutions in his poem happened by accident. It is clear that he wasn’t merely trying to sketch something vague for the reader to fill in. On the whole, it is more fun to read a poem that directs us with craft and intention, wit and skill, and that guides us to particular kinds of ambiguities that strike the poet as exciting, interesting and necessary.
Even professional poets with MFAs struggle with using ambiguity effectively. The best way for a mid to advanced level poet to begin to understand ambiguity is simply to acknowledge how important it is to poetry, and how difficult it is to learn. Reading as much as possible with an eye on how ambiguity is working in good poetry is also helpful.
While writing in meter is beyond the scope of an introductory course on creative writing, it becomes essential in mid to advanced level courses. Meter goes back to the idea of music. If poetry is music made to create a separate language, then meter is the key principle in making music. Because of space limitations, I won’t go into a lengthy description of meter and metrical patterns, as they are widely available elsewhere. Mary Oliver’s “Rules for the Dance” is a handy and easy-to-use resource. Meter consists of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry and how they are arranged or organized.
The most common metrical form is iambic pentameter, which has five stressed syllables, and five unstressed syllables, per line. Each line begins with an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable. This pattern repeats five times in a single line. The common line in iambic pentameter, therefore, consists of ten syllables. The placement of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem determines the tone, feeling and effect of the poem, because the poem is first and foremost rhythmic. Iambic pentameter, for example, establishes a calm, regular tone that resembles speech, as in these lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23:
As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay
The trochee, on the other hand, reverses the iambic beat---a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed syllable. The trochaic line has the opposite effect of the natural, iambic beat. It sounds disruptive, artificial and energetic, as in these lines from Macbeth:
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble...
Many poets have mixed the iambic with the trochaic in the same line. Experiment with the various effects of different patterns, until you have a sense of what each sounds and feels like. The OWL's summary of sound and meter is a good resource. This source is a detailed explanation of how to scan meter, and write in meter.
It is essential for mid to advanced level poets to experiment with form. This doesn’t mean you have to write a sonnet in iambic pentameter. There are countless forms from around the world you can experiment with. Ron Padgett’s “Handbook of Poetic Forms” is an excellent guide. Write sound poetry, acrostic poetry, sestinas, villanelles, canzones. Form is a good way to touch base with the history of poetry, and forces you to pay closer attention to language.
Many beginning poets don’t revise, or don’t have enough of what Kenneth Koch calls a “poetry base” to understand revision. But for mid to advanced level poets, revision is essential. Generally, a good poem is not a result of writing, but of revision. It is difficult to hear the music in the process of writing. Go back and experiment with different ways to break the lines, using fresher metaphors, similes, or images.
Read the poem aloud to hear if the rhythm sounds right. If you were trying to be ambiguous, were you precise enough to make the ambiguity clear? Perhaps you’ll find that chunks of your poem don’t belong there, or that more writing is required. Maybe the poem calls for couplets, and you currently have it in quatrains. Whatever the case may be, the true test of learning the poetry language is the ability to revise and write several drafts of each poem, so that you learn by trial and error what works and doesn’t work.
Sample Assignment Sheet
Some teachers have found it helpful to introduce poets and poems for beginning and mid to advanced level students to imitate. This gives them the opportunity to read and discuss a poem, while at the same time generating their own poems. Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Unexpected Meeting” is a good example:
We are very polite to each other,
insist it’s nice meeting after all these years.
Our tigers drink milk.
Our hawks walk on the ground.
Our sharks drown in water.
Our wolves yawn in front of the open cage.
Our serpents have shaken off lightning,
The bats---long ago now---have flown out of our hair.
We fall silent in mid-phrase,
smiling beyond salvation.
have nothing to say.
Szymborska is famous for writing about particular objects and creatures that are neglected. Her work also tries to incorporate neglected feelings, and she is skeptical and ironic. J.D. McClatchy characterized the tone of her poetry as “detached sympathy.” Try to write a poem based on a very particular event, such as Szymborska’s poem about a reunion with friends. There is little that is particular about such a reunion, but the comical moment of “smiling beyond salvation,” and the idea that creatures are more articulate than humans, is very particular.
It is likely that Szymborska does not go around having these idiosyncratic thoughts all day, but in her poetry, she pays special attention to those thoughts that are nearly forgotten, or dismissed as trivial. Consider some thought or idea that you would ordinarily dismiss as random or trivial, and write a poem around it. Try to use the random or trivial thought to make a statement about life, human relations, or some other big topic.
The Brazilian poet Joao Cabral de Melo Neto is known for assimilating the style of pop song lyrics into his poems. He writes his own lyrics in a very abstract language. A good example is his poem “End of the World”:
At the end of the melancholy world
men read the newspapers.
Indifferent men eating oranges
that flame like the sun.
They gave me an apple to remind me
of death. I know that cities telegraph
asking for kerosene. The veil I saw flying
fell in the desert.
No one will write the final poem
about this private twelve o’clock world.
Instead of the last judgment, what worries me
is the final dream.
Joao Cabral de Melo Neto, unlike Wislawa Szymborska, doesn’t try to say anything about life or the world. He tries to bring poetry closer to what he considers its original form as song, and he thinks of his words as the material of song. Often in pop songs, the words are elliptical and don’t make much sense, but they resonate in a mysterious way. Write a poem that doesn’t make any logical sense or doesn’t add up to a final meaning; think about the way lyrics in pop songs suggest meaning without directly stating it or trying to explain it.
Additional Resources for Poetry in Writing Courses
- Bernadette Mayer’s Writing Experiments: A list of writing exercises and prompts that are useful in getting started
- Charles Bernstein’s Experiments: An excellent avant-garde list of writing exercises and prompts for poets of all levels
- poets.org: An online, comprehensive resource from the Academy of American Poets
- Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, Editors. The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1997.
- Kenneth Koch. Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. Touchstone, 1998.
- Mary Oliver. A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.
- Mary Oliver. Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
- Ron Padgett, Editor. Handbook of Poetic Forms. Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2000.