Poetry is a method of expression. Expression, ostensibly, means to show–not say. For example, to rhyme how you feel is not poetry, or expression; it’s didactic and it’s boring. Touching on universal characteristics of the human condition is important; hope and fear, gain and loss, love and hate–it is all a part of the human experience.
Although it is not poetic to simply rhyme how you feel in blatant statements, to overtly symbolize and make metaphor of your work is almost as bad. Symbols rely on idea association, and one of the main movements of modern art was the separate symbol from idea, idea from representation. Symbols are important, but to be obvious is to be boring. The oblique interplay of ideas allows for the reader to extract and apply allegory to their own life; allegory shouldn’t be equivocation within the poem itself.
The best poetry not only has the ability to express without stating, but also works as a work that can successfully convey beauty with tone alone. Having fluency in another language will awaken the reader to the tonal qualities of his or her native language and, in doing so, allow them to see the beauty that certain arrangements of words can be. It has been said that ‘cellar door’ is the most beautiful word in the English language. It is unclear who actually made this claim, but once it was perpetuated by a popular Hollywood movie, it has become a go-to word for illustrating the beauty within the tone of certain English words. In writing rhyming couplets, a good way to judge the way it may sound to someone who can’t speak the language, is to see if it is possible to read the sentence as one word without difficulty. Let me offer a demonstration:
I’m uncertain as to what makes a book on expression necessary.
The consonant reflections do not adhere to natural vowels which would follow if the sentence rolled, in the manner I intend. ‘Expression good’ doesn’t roll because it’s rare for a consonant, N, to be followed by another consonant, G. (It does happen, as in lingo and linguistics, for example) but adding to the diminished roll after the reflective consonant is the D that closes the sentence on a closed sound. It is a good practice in rolling to arrange words in ways that reflect single words, as in the following sentence ‘for what’ is not too far a stretch from ‘forward.’ For what I do not know the purpose for those books on prose. In the same manner, ‘purpose for’ is tonally related to purposeful; ‘books on’ is tonally related to book song.
The sentence works as an example of smooth rolling and as an example of internal rhyme and, in addition to removing an unnecessary proposition, the line becomes more fluid, as though the words become Siamese, inseparable from what came before and what is to come after. In addition to flowing and being more lucid, it has multiple syllabic rhymes within it. ‘Do,’ (although not a perfect rhyme), ‘Know,’ and ‘prose’ connect as middle and ending phonemes and, taking away everything away from the sentence between the phoneme rhymes, the rhyming words, do the imperfect, and know and prose the perfect, you are reduced without transitions and articles to a statement: ‘Do know prose.’ Consonant pairing spread across the lines can also lend symmetry to a line: as the ‘t’ in ‘not’ presages the ‘t’ in quality. It is easy to do end-sentence rhymes of vowels, but to rhyme consonants by alliteration using internal, ellipse rhyme schemes, is much more difficult.
End-line rhyming is the easiest form of writing poetry. But, just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean the resultant poetic expression is without value. I could make up lines of more than 20-30 internal parent rhymes, imperfect rhymes, and consonant relationships, but it wouldn’t make the statement, or expression, any more lovely. For example:
I’m an imaginative and passionate masochist given adjectives elaborate and massive ass whoopins so bad it could land my ass back in prison. Imaginative, passionate, masochist, and adjective are three syllable perfect rhymes done over the course of the first half of the sentence. Just because of the display of rhyme ability in such a sentence is admirable, it is not necessarily a poetic sentiment. Which brings me to what qualifies as valid poetic expression.
To be a poet, idea-object relationships have to be seen through the lens of a poet. To be a poet is to see relationships between objects and ideas that people without the poetic inclination do not. To look at a ring of smoke and see the essence of life is the type of idea-sight association that a poet would make, because there are layers to this idea. A ring is cyclical, like the cycles of life and death, the coming in and receding tide; the fact that it’s blown into being and lingers briefly before fading also links it to the idea of its relationship to life.
It is important to keep in mind that, as important as it is to keep meter, for the sake of maintaining musical quality, nothing about it should be forced. If you are resigned to a specific meter, it is important not to be hasty in putting thought to paper. It is said that the poet Virgin, author of the Latin epic the Aeniad, wrote only two lines of poetry a day. When you’re under the impression that it is necessary to wait for inspiration to write good poetry, the best advice is to write on anyway: inspiration doesn’t always come when it is needed. If every writer who ever penned a master piece waited on inspiration for every page, the amount of masterpieces we have on record would be cut in half. Frank Herb, author of the acclaimed science fiction series Dune, said of writer’s block (I’m not aware of the price quote): the important thing is to write anyway, for when you look back, if you forgot all memory of the composition, you would not be sure which parts came to you while inspired and which came to you while uninspired. There’s something dangerous about inspiration, too.
Inspiration should come to you as you’re working. You don’t get past writer’s block by waiting on the fence to be torn down, you have to break through it yourself by writing. If you waited on inspiration to write, you’d never get anything done. By the time inspiration does arrive, you should be too busy to notice. There is a dangerous quality to inspiration too; inspiration is like a drug, and certain drugs can lead you into self defeating cycles: professional writers will know what I mean when I refer to the re-write cycle. There is a tendency to stop while you’re in the heat of a good section to go back to the beginning and check out what you have so far. In doing this, you lose what future was going to come naturally before you stopped, and can be locked into forever trying to improve what you’ve already written. Be wary of this; it is possible to fix something until it’s broken. Jack Kerouac famously believed that re-writing was a censorship of one’s self, that re-writing was a cheat that altered the original expression for the sake of making it more decorative, more intentionally pandering to the sensibilities of one’s perspective readers. Ginsberg, author of the famous poem Howl, was always revising, always looking for le just mot (the perfect phrase, as it is said in French) and considering his success, I would not give my support to one extreme or the other.
Another dangerous thing about inspiration is that it can lead you into tangents that, due to your confidence, will lead you so far away from the actual novel that, when working with a copy editor to produce a galley proof to send to a publish, it can look like an out of place, drug induced tangent that, in reality, was the moment you were lead astray by the confidence that inspiration can bring. Like a drug, it can convince you that you’re doing no wrong. Therefore, I would say that while inspiration is a good quality and excellent motivation, it is just as important to write logically and with a clear focus on where you’re going.
When you go back to the beginning and start trying to improve, you begin to take the story out of a linear progression, because ideas intended to come later on are slipped in unknowingly, and as it is easy to do this, it is easy to forget what you have already said and, in all probability, have said better. Expression should be as natural as breathing; breathing is not a practiced process. Serendipity comes to those who summon her through great effort, not to those who wait on her to provide them with everything.
Symbolism and metaphor are wonderful tools to use in poems. But the reliance on heavy, weighty symbols and metaphors, as well as the deplorable usage of using ‘like’ to relate one object’s essence to a train of thought, can trap you into expressing the ideas of symbols, instead of symbols used to represent ideas. When I say the reliance on symbolism in poetry is dangerous, I only mean to say the reliance on often used symbols to represent something is dangerous. Poetry is the expression of the personal, but it should have the touch of the universal. That’s why when I am writing I take great pains not to use ‘I’ as much as possible, to use ‘I’ in writing a poem is a way of separating your poetry from the reader. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but it keeps your writing within the three walls.
The forth wall is the final barrier between true art and kitsch.