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CREATIVE WRITING: POETRY


PTh: theme and idea. 

Avoid two extremes:

1. Some poems have too little theme and lack a unifying idea.  They do nothing but describe or talk, without a clear idea of any attitude they may be expressing.  You need not be heavy-handed; you can imply your meaning.

2. Some poems have too much theme.  Writers who try too hard to argue for what they think of as a “message” (“war is bad”; “people of all races are equal”) often produce heavy-handed propaganda instead of poetry, no matter how noble the idea is.  Good poetry may explore rather than conclude, suggest rather than preach.  One understated image of a bag lady can work better than a page of ranting about “poverty and injustice in our society today.”

 

PD: diction. 

Writers who try too hard to produce an effect resort to artificial language:

Archaic

Gushy

Whither hath fled

Thy doleful damsel?

Gentle, soothing breezes

Waft shimmering, gilded clouds

Over serene sapphire streams

And lush, verdant meadows.

Writers who do not try hard enough produce flat language with nothing poetic about it: 

Drab

Drab

Drab

I guess she just

Doesn’t like me

Very much.

There was nothing

Good on TV so

I went out with

My friends.

We were behind by

A field goal with three

Minutes to play and

Third down and six on our

Own twenty-yard line, but

We had two time-outs left.

A poet’s medium is words, just as a dancer’s is movement and a sculptor’s is marble.  Every line should do something interesting with language.  Not even the pleasant sentiment which the lines below express can redeem the dullness of their language:

            Trite:

Thanks, Mom, for spending quality time with me.

You helped me to be all that I can be.


PLE: avoid ending lines on weak words.  

Articles: a, an, the

Conjunctions: and, but, or, when

Prepositions: of, in, to, with

The line is one of the basic units with which a poet works.  Even if you are not using meter or rhyme, there should be reasons for line length and line breaks.  End lines where the reader’s breath would normally pause, or to call attention to a single word.  Great poets achieve powerful effects by  ending lines on well-chosen verbs: 

            Elizabeth Bishop: the art of losing isn’t hard to master.

            Alexander Pope: at every word a reputation dies.

            William Shakespeare: And where the offense is, let the great axe fall.


PSS: sentence structure.  Avoid writing (1) a vague series of unconnected phrases or (2) a monotonous string of one-line sentences.

Careless sentence structure is one of the most common flaws in student poetry.  Sometimes both flaws appear in the same poem. 

Unconnected, unpunctuated fragments

Monotonous one-line sentences

Walking along the beach

I walked along the beach.

The sun shining

The sun was shining.

Sand under my feet

I felt the sand under my feet.

Waves lapping the shore

I heard the waves lapping the shore.

Relaxing in summer

I was relaxing in summer.

Sentence structure is an important resource for a poet, like metaphor, imagery or irony.  Vary your sentence structure.  Use run-on lines as well as end-stopped lines.  A well unified sentence that covers several lines, carefully building up to its conclusion, can be highly effective.


PP: punctuate poems correctly. 

All the rules of punctuation that apply to prose apply to poetry as well.  Commas, periods and other punctuation marks go where sentence structure and clarity of meaning dictate.  Poetry is not an excuse for carelessness.


RHYME


Rh: rhyme.

Beginning poets often think rhyme is easy and meter difficult.  They are half right.  Meter is difficult, but rhyme is much harder to use well than meter, and bad rhyme does more harm than bad meter.  If your are writing with rhyme, know the rules for using it.


Rh.A: do not let rhyme and meter force you into awkward phrasing. 

“Fold” and “cold” might make a good rhyme, but when you read “which not being cold,” it is obvious that the writer has sacrificed natural, clear phrasing for the sake of rhyme.  Concentrate on ideas first, phrasing second, rhyme third (if you are using rhyme), and meter last.

AWKWARD: Ăll nīght  ⁄ thĕ thūn ⁄ dĕr māde ⁄ ŭs fēel ⁄ ĭng fēar

BETTER (rephrased): Ăll nīght ⁄ thĕ thūn ⁄ dĕr strūck ⁄ ŏur hēarts ⁄ wĭth fēar

BETTER (new rhyme word): Ăll nīght ⁄ thĕ thūn ⁄ dĕr shōok ⁄ thĕ āt ⁄ mŏsphēre


Rh.W: avoid weak rhyme words that are there only for the rhyme.

Three flaws are common: (1) a tacked-on phrase (“you see,” “as they say”) that contributes nothing except rhyme; (2) predictable and overused rhymes; (3) rhymes on prepositions, conjunctions and articles, which carry little meaning and are usually unaccented.

Tacked-on rhyme:

it’s true

as they say

you see

Overused rhymes:

love-above

see-me-be

do-you-too

Connective words:

from, on, to

and, as, when

a, an, the

For more information on line endings, see PLE.


Rh.Str: the last stressed syllable determines rhyme.

If the final syllable is stressed, the rhyme is called masculine.  If one or more syllables follow the final stress, the rhyme is called feminine.

Masculine rhyme:

flōat, remōte, petticōat

bēnd, defēnd, comprehēnd

Feminine rhyme:

vītal, tītle, recītal

reālity, hospitālity, superficiālity

The unstressed “-al” at the end of “vital” does not rhyme with words like “all” or “pal.”

True or perfect rhyme is exact; “title” is a true rhyme for “vital,” and “tidal” is not. 

No rhyme: grievĭng-rīng

Better: grieving-even

Perfect: grieving-leaving

No rhyme: hatĕd-dēad

Better: hated-raided

Perfect: hated-dated

Of course, another way to correct the weak rhymes on “hated”-“dead” and “grieving”-“ring” is by finding rhymes for “ring” and “dead.”

Meaning is more important than rhyme.  True rhyme that makes good sense is ideal, but imperfect rhyme that makes good sense is better than true rhyme that does not.


Rh2L: the second-to-last (penultimate) syllable must be unstressed for rhyme to be strong. 

If you need a rhyme for “mouse,” “lighthouse” or “red blouse” will not work well, because “light” and “red” are stressed.  As a result, the voice falls away at the rhyming syllable, which should be strong. 

            WEAK: Thrŏugh ēve ⁄ nĭng fōg ⁄ thĕy sāw ⁄ thĕ ōld ⁄ līghthŏuse.


Rh.Tr: for true rhyme, the vowel and any final consonants must be identical.  

“Tame” and “pain” are not true rhymes.  Neither are “rather” and “father.”  A verb like “throws” or a noun like “toes” is not a true rhyme for “go.”  When one word ends in “-s” and one does not, it is usually not hard to solve the problem by rephrasing to have either both words end with or without the “-s.”


Rh.Dif: adjacent rhyme sounds should be different.

Careful poets avoid two flaws.

1. Do not use identical sounds.  “Mind” and “remind” do not rhyme; they are identical in sound.

2. Even if two rhyming words are different, avoid placing them close to another pair of rhymes that uses a similar sound.  They are too close to sound like separate rhymes.

Couplets

Quatrain rhymed ABAB

Too similar in consonant sound

Same vowel sound

cried

decide

freed

need

found

howl

ground

scowl

If your poem has the second flaw, you do not need to delete two lines or change the lines completely.  You may be able to correct the problem by relocating lines or adding new lines in order to separate the pairs of lines with similar sounds.

 

Rh.Sch: if you start with a rhyme scheme, stick with it. 



METER


M: meter. 

MA: avoid letting meter and rhyme force you into awkward phrasing. 

When you read “to come to home,” it is obvious that the writer distorted natural phrasing (“to come home”) for the sake of meter.  Concentrate on ideas first, phrasing second, rhyme third (if you are using rhyme), and meter last.

AWKWARD: All night the thunder made us feeling fear

SCANNED: Ăll nīght  ⁄ thĕ thūn ⁄ dĕr māde ⁄ ŭs fēel ⁄ ĭng fēar

 

BETTER: All night the thunder struck our hearts with fear  (rephrased)

SCANNED: Ăll nīght ⁄ thĕ thūn ⁄ dĕr strūck ⁄ ŏur hēarts ⁄ wĭth fēar

 

BETTER: All night the thunder shook the atmosphere  (new rhyme word)

SCANNED: Ăll nīght ⁄ thĕ thūn ⁄ dĕr shōok ⁄ thĕ āt ⁄ mŏsphēre


MP: do not pad a line with words to make it scan. 

Every syllable should have meaning. 

            PADDED: Bŭt mōrn  ĭng brōught  ă dā thăī⁄ sŏ clēar.

            BETTER: Bŭt mōrn ⁄ ĭng wāshed  thĕ slāte  ănd māde  ĭt clēar.  (rephrased)

            BETTER: Bŭt mōrn ⁄ ĭng māde  ŏur tē⁄ rŏrs dī⁄ ăppēar.  (new rhyme word)


MO: do not rely too much on one-syllable words. 

They quickly become monotonous, and they are hard to use in iambic meter because most of them are stressed.  Try for a balance of polysyllabic and monosyllabic words.  One or two well chosen words can animate a dull line.  The second version below is better not only phrasing but in rhythm.

            FLAT: Shĕ gōt ⁄ sŏ mād ⁄ hĕr mēan ⁄ lōoks būrnt ⁄ hīūp.

            LIVELY: Shĕ scōrched ⁄ hĭm wīth ⁄ ĭncīn ⁄ ĕrāt ⁄ ĭng glāres.

Polysyllabic words can have a powerful effect.

George Meredith: The army of unalterable law.

Oliver Goldsmith: Where wealth accumulates and men decay.

William Shakespeare: And smooth as monumental alabaster.


MC: Avoid distorting natural pronunciation with contractions and accent marks.

Many editions of older poetry use punctuation to help readers with pronunciation.  You may see –ed endings that are pronounced:

O no! It is an ever-fixèd mark.

You may see contractions that indicate elided syllables:

It is the star to ev’ry wand’ring bark.

However, contemporary writers who use meter usually avoid such indicators because they are artificial and distracting.  Trust your readers.  If they cannot tell where you intend an elision, it is probably a bad, forced elision.  If they cannot tell where you intend a variation from normal pronunciation or meter, it is probably a bad, forced variation.  Even if they misread your elision, a slight irregularity in your meter is better than making your page ugly with unnatural punctuation:

Artificial: She ordered bakèd pork and frièd rice.

Artificial: My line’s not big ’nough f’rall my syll’bles.

Better: My line’s not big enough for all my syllables.


Elision

Poets sometimes elide syllables for the sake of meter.  Elision (rhymes with “vision,” not “mission”) is the omission of an unstressed syllable in scansion for the sake of regular meter.  In William Wordsworth’s line “I was a traveler then upon the moor,” the second syllable in traveler (-el-) is elided:

Ĭ wās ⁄ ă trāv ⁄ elĕr thēn ⁄ upōn ⁄ thĕ mōor.

You can read the third foot as an anapestic substitution (ĕlĕr thēn), but is really just an iamb with the first two syllables elided.  Elided syllables may be read aloud although they do not weigh in the meter.  Poetic contractions like ’tise’en, and o’er exist for the sake of elision.  Elisions work best when there are two consecutive unstressed syllables in a word of three or more syllables (for example, words with endings like “-ial,” “-ious” or “-iate”).  John Dryden uses a famous witty elision in his satirical poem Mac Flecknoe (c. 1678), in which he mocks a bad poet named Thomas Shadwell:

The rest to some faint meaning make pretense,

But Shadwell never deviates into sense.

Read Shakespeare’s sonnet 33 below and see if you can find the seven elisions.  The words “world” (line 7) and “hour” (11) are monosyllabic, not elided.  The feminine endings in the last two lines are not elisions.


Full many a glorious morning have I seen

Flatter the mountaintops with sovereign eye,

Kissing with golden face the meadows green,

Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride

With ugly rack on his celestial face,

And from the forlorn world his visage hide,

Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:

Even so my sun one early morn did shine

With all triumphant splendor on my brow;

But out! alack! he was but one hour mine,

The region cloud hath masked him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;

Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

 

To see the answers, scroll to the bottom of the page.



MSS: weak sentence structure.  Avoid writing a series of one-line sentences and clauses.

Try sentences that run on from one line to the next.  Begin with subordinating conjunctions (like “although” and “when”) or prepositions (“in,” “on,” “with”); save the main clause until a second or third line. 


PF: formatting poetry.  

Make your poem look good on the page.  Of the five versions below, version 5 looks best and version 1 second-best. 

 Extra Help: Formatting Poems

Version 1.  The title is not centered, and the narrow left margin leaves a wide space at the right: 


Version 2: The Diving Board.  The title is centered, but the title hangs over the edge of the poem:


Version 3: The Christmas Tree. The margins are ragged.  Only the title should be centered:


Version 4. The left margin was set at three inches for the entire poem including the title; as a result, the centering of the title is skewed to the right:


Version 5. Everything is correct: margins, alignment, centering.  The poem looks good:


To make your poem look like version 5,  take two steps:

1. Center the title, not the entire poem.

2. Set a wide left margin for the rest of the poem (not for the title).  Choose a line of average length (not the shortest or the longest line), center it, see where its left margin is, and set a tab stop or margin there.  If the poem is in iambic pentameter and you are using 12-point type, a three-inch margin (two inches—or four tab stops—from the one-inch margin) is usually right.

The Keables Guide recommends leaving two or three blank lines after the title and double-spacing the rest of the poem.  If your poem has stanza breaks, leave two blank lines between stanzas and one between lines.

Advanced Formatting

For advanced students seeking to format poems with indented lines of varied length, the Keables Guide suggests the following steps.  Use 12-point Times New Roman.

1. Format > Tabs > Clear all

2. Format > Tab stop position > 1.8", 2", 2.2", 2.4", 2.6" > Set > OK

3. Use tabs at 1.8", 2", 2.2", 2.4" and 2.6" respectively for iambic pentameter, tetrameter, trimeter, dimeter and monometer.

The lines below, from a poem by George Herbert, have varied meter, as indicated in the right margins.  The indentation is consistent.


You may have to vary the tabs slightly to achieve the best centering if you use a font other than Times New Roman, or if you are formatting a poem that is not in iambic meter but that has some lines indented. 




Elisions in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 33


Full man- / -y a glor- / -ious morn- / -ing have / I seen

Flatter / the moun- / -taintops / with sov- / -ereign eye,

Kissing / with gold- / -en face / the mead- / -ows green,

Gilding / pale streams / with heaven- / -ly al- / -chemy;

Anon / permit / the bas- / -est clouds / to ride

With ug- / -ly rack / on his / celes- / -tial face,

And from / the for- / -lorn world / his vis- / -age hide,

Stealing / unseen / to west / with this / disgrace:

Even so / my sun / one ear- / -ly morn / did shine

With all / trium- / -phant splen- / -dor on / my brow;

But out! / alack! / he was / but one / hour mine,

The re- / -gion cloud / hath masked / him from / me now.

Yet him / for this / my love / no whit / disdaineth;

Suns of / the world / may stain / when heaven’s / sun staineth. 

 


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