Poetry in Writing Courses
This handout discusses some terms and techniques that are useful to the beginning and intermediate poet, and to instructors who are teaching poetry in writing courses at these levels. The distinction between beginning and intermediate writing is provided for both students and instructors, and numerous sources are listed for more information about poetry tools and how to use them. A sample assignment sheet is also provided for instructors.
Last Edited: 2010-04-21 08:10:24
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.