Poetry in Mid to Advanced Level 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 08:10:31
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.