Part 1: Forms and Traditions
As poetry is a type of music, there are, as in music, many different varieties, or styles, of writing poetry. I will briefly enumerate them in the following vignettes; some of which are undoubtedly familiar to western audiences. But others might not be as familiar. If this is a book from which you are to take instruction, I implore you to experiment which each of the following techniques and forms as you read.
As you can trace different types of music to different parts of the world, poetry is no different. Different styles of music bear the stamp of the culture from which they come. Jazz is a distinctly American production, a production which later led to what is titled punk rock, when of course one wishes to resign expression to names. Classical music that behaves led to blues; blues evolved into rock ‘n roll, rock ’n roll into metal, and metal into a myriad of different species of music. Poetry is no different.
Poetry has been around since the beginning of writing itself. It is an echo of the time where humans understood one another by tone alone. An example of this, to a non-German speaking listener, one can still fathom the emotional expression that is put forth in Mozart’s opera; therefore, tonal value is of great quality in getting the ambience and tone just right and then, upon revision, turning it into an atmosphere, an atmosphere in which the tone is the movement of the clouds, and the sounds become the rain that touches the reader’s heart and soul.
As valuable as expression is, it is important to know the difference between expressing and stating. To express sorrow, the tone of the language and the contrast between happiness and sadness must be apparent. It is also important not to be entirely obvious, but it is important to be relatable. To be personal and relatable is not easy to attain. Throughout this book, after detailing the most famous of poetic forms, I will analyze historical efforts as well as modern, and to give legitimacy to my thoughts on poetry, I will not avoid showing how I put my philosophy on what poetry should be into practice.
A recent example of an abecedarian poem is Anna Robinowitz’s ‘Darkling.’ This book-length acrostic sequence details the experiences who family went through during the Holocaust. ‘The Darkling Thrust,’ by Thomas Hardy is used as a palimpsest for its structure.
For people new to writing novels or poetry, a helpful way to begin is to map out another poet–preferably a good one–and use the length of lines and quatrain arrangement and substitute their words with your own. As one learns to play piano by learning how to play pieces by old masters, by using a palimpsest approach, by changing only the words and keeping the structure, it will become easier for you to branch off into your own territory.
The abecedarian form of poetics is ancient and is identified by its form of usage according to alphabetical arrangement. As it is to be expected, the first line begins with first letter of whichever language it is you are writing in and succeeding lines are begun with the next letter in your chosen alphabet.
The history behind this tradition is semitic and can be found in the religious poetry of the Hebrew peoples. It was traditionally used for compositions considered sacred; hymns, psalms, prayer. There are many examples ot the abecedarian to be found in the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 118 is highly regarded. It is composed in twenty two eight line stanzas, each for one letter of the alphabet. Another example, fast forward several centuries, and the abecedarian can be found in the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘An ABC.’ As it is one of the works of literature that would signal to the world that English was a viable language for beautiful expression. ‘An ABC’ is crafted from the translation of a French prayer (the translation being of his own doing it is thought.) It is composed using twenty-three eight line stanzas following the alphabet, excluding J, U, V, and W.
Abecedarian poems are wonderful tools for children and can make poetry fun by turning the composition into word games. Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey are children’s book authors who have used this form in modern times, even if it’s a modified way of doing so. Among adults still using this ancient form, it is a mnemonic device. Contemporary examples of can be found in Blue Hour by Carolyn Forché, and in Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullet. In Forchés forty-seven page poem On Earth, the alphabet guides not just the stanzas, but the words as well.
Languid at the edge of the Season
Lays itself open to immensity
Leaf-cutter ants bearing yellow trumpet flowers along the road
Left everything left all usual world’s behind
Library, lilac, linens, litany.
A poetic form know as the acrostic, which spells out names or words through the first letter of each line, was developed through abecedarian poetry. In a perverse sort of effort, the intention is to reveal by hiding. In William Blake’s London, he recalls the way in which the pain of the people come to people as he wanders the shore of the Thames (a River that runs through London, among other cities in England.) In the third stanza of his poem, Blake uses the acrostic in the third stanza to emphasize jarring, terrific sounds.
How the Chimney sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.
The way this works is that within the stanzas he is communicating with sounds and through acrostic getting the message ‘hear’ across. This is an interesting technique, despite the fact that is built on an edifice of rules, and, normally, I’m opposed to any sort of edifice in which expression is forced into a corset unable to contain its voluptuousness. Practice with me. I’ll mimic the four line quatrain of Blake’s, and within the acrostic use the lines themselves the first letter word to convey the hidden but intended to reveal word that echoes the theme:
Looking for someone in the dark
Old as the wind playing the Lark
Someone somewhere just may help
The child climb from the darkened well.
That might not be the most eloquent of verse to which my name has been attached, but I think the acrostic’s lettered word is well-connected to the content of the verse. It’s an easy way out, admittedly, to speak of being lost only to then use the acrostic lost. So, out of solidarity, I’ll put a little bit of effort in this next one:
To hurt is how we know we live,
Ruin is what heaven is;
Under a pale sky’s looking glass
Thumbnails from some distant past–
Helpless we ne’er seem to last.
Anaphora’s etymology can be traced to a Greek term meaning, ‘To carry.’ The intention of anaphora in poetry is parallelism; parallelism can also lead to something called non-complement anaphora. Successive phrases or lines beginning with the same word is the essence of anaphora and can be as simple as just a word or as complex as a complete and musical phrasing. Anaphora is an ancient poetic technique, and is familiar, even if by the name of anaphora, to Christians due to the usage of ‘And’ in successive lines of devotional, religious poetry–especially in the Psalms.
Poets in the time of queen Elizabeth during the Romantic period, a period including Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (author of Faust,), Philip Sidney and Edmund spenser (author of the Faerie Queen.) Shakespeare used anaphora in his plays and sonnets. Line 66 demonstrates anaphora to its utmost, as he begins ten lines with ‘and,’ which is the most common repeated word associated with using anaphora.
Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold a desert beggar born
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly–doctor like–-controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tired with all these, from these I would be gone,
Save that to die, I leave my love alone.
To continue our discussion of anaphora, it is important to remember that the intention is to produce a rhythm, a rhythm of reiteration that deepens the content by stacking words, building more and more pressure on the content. It can also intensify the emotion of a poem, make it more sporadic, make it seem more desperate. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Tears, Idle Tears,’ does this in repeating ‘the days that are no more,’ at the end of each stanza. The end line variation of anaphora is termed epistrophe, as it is an echo of a phrase instead of the voice that speaks it.
Here is an example of a poem I wrote that demonstrates the epistrophe variation of anaphora. In these frames I won’t attempt to go into theme or meaning, only the demonstrative qualities of form. This poem is called the Malfunctioning Robot and is published in my poetry collection Counterpane and Other Poems. The classical variation of anaphora is evident in the some of the stanzas, but the epistrophe variation is used in others.
We have a problem here.
The robot is malfunctioning;
The warranty is void.
It’s stuck in an endless loops,
asking the same questions,
Getting the same answers,
Repeating the same line:
Wrong place, wrong time.
We have a problem here;
The robot is malfunctioning;
The programmer won’t answer the phone.
It’s stuck in the same place,
That stutters back and forth;
Wires flicker in his brain,
Disconnected data goes nowhere;
In one side and out the other:
‘Wrong place, wrong time.’
We have an emergency;
The poor robot is shutting down,
Not knowing why, not knowing how:
The programmer isn’t home.
The robot does not know what’s wrong;
He wants to go to somewhere safe;
He’s never had a home.
Random command lines drift around,
A broken fish-bowl brain:
Random numbers, random letters,
Faces without a name.
Ten seconds of power remains.
Find another power source,
Or you’ll lose everything.
The malfunctioning robot repeats the same line:
‘Wrong place, wrong time.’
He falls back in a chair, offline.
This poem (the merit of which may be questionable) has many elements that represent the elements of anaphora. Anaphora doesn’t always have to be a direct replica; it can be a replicated reference that evolves within the story. For example, the ‘programmer’ references would technically constitute as anaphora, although they deviate and change as the situation for the robot changes. It is important throughout the progression of a work of poetry that the refrain alter, or evolve to suit new and changing conditions within the composition. Anaphora can also be thematic without being true to repeated lines or words; it can be repeated leiit-motifs. Within the poem, although it is not classical anaphora, the repeated references to the programmer, although his position in relationship to the eponymous ‘robot.’
The obvious anaphora in the poem, the ‘error, error, the robot is malfunctioning’ and the ‘wrong place, wrong time,’ is obvious. The reason I chose this poem of mine to represent the poetic form of anaphora is to show that it doesn’t necessarily follow the Biblical concept of ‘And,’ after ‘and’ after ‘and’ which we will discuss in turn. The point in discussing this poem is to show the versatility of anaphora within your own writing as it can reinforce thematic elements.
There are many famous poets who use anaphora to reinforce the rhythm and cadence within their works. Howl, by Allen Ginsberg is one, as is Walt Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. It is also used by T.S. Eliot in ’The Waste Land,’ in second V; Mark Strand–all are great examples of modern poets who have found creative ways to use anaphora. In a book length by Joe Brainard, I Remember, anaphora is used in recalling his childhood in Oklahoma by starting each phrase with ‘I remember.’
I remember when one year in Tulsa by some freak of nature we were invaded by millions of grasshoppers for about three or four days.
I remember downtown, whole sidewalk areas of solid grasshoppers.
I remember a shoe with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green.
Kenneth Koch was so influenced by Brainard’s technique that he adapted the process to teach children how to compose verse. The method has maintained its popularity with English composition teachers for students of all ages since.
A popular usage of anaphora among English readers of poetry who are by necessity uncultured and unaccustomed to variety and therefore drawn to what they consider macabre, in Edgar Allen Poe’s strictly superficial work The Raven, which is given more depth by those who explicate it than by the author who penned it, the repeated refrain ‘Nevermore,’ is an example of anaphora.
It is thought that the composition of ballads began in the European folk tradition, most often accompanied by musical instruments. Centuries old in practice, ballads were not originally put to parchment, but preserved as oral lit for future generations, with the intention of being passed along through recitation. The subject matter dealt with religion, love, tragedy, domesticity, and even took shape of political propaganda.
The prototypical ballad is defined as a plot-driven ones, with one or more characters that drive the narrative to its conclusion. Traditionally, a ballad does not intend to reveal what is actually happening and instead relying on detailing crucial moments that lead to the conclusion. Quatrains are the typical method of stanzas in ballads; this technique is often employed to convey emotional urgency–wherein there are three to four stresses and rhyming either the second or fourth lines, or of all alternating lines. This style of composition is most common in the forms of poetry one encounters, as it is in the ABAB style, and, as such, provides a palimpsest which allows the transposition of one’s own ideas into an established form of poetic expression. Due to the nature of the ballad’s hidden happenings allow for abstractions throughout the composition that are to be resolved with its conclusion.
In the fifteenth century, English ballads began making their way into print and have remained popular since. Ballad broadsides were a rich source of cultural income during the Renaissance and because of this became a popular practice, though rarely earning the respect of other authors because those who wrote ballads were referred to as ‘pot poets,’ a pejorative used to demean the ‘lower classes.’ It was considered a cheap form of poetry, easy in the sense that it didn’t require the complicated rhyme schemes or the sceptered iron mood music of bombastic blank verse, like that of Shakespeare.
The ballad would later evolve into a sort of sport. Samuel taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth would make the ballad a respectable form of poetic expression and both wrote numerous ballads during their careers. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ the tale of a cursed sailor aboard a ship caught in a tempest, is a revered ballad in the English language. It opens: (Take notice of how syllable count and line separation allow the reader to keep the fluidity intended by the author while reading–we will analyze this further in another section):
It is an ancient mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
–’By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stoppest thou me?
Te bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
Mayst hear the merry din’
He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! Unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hands dropped h.e
He holds him with his glittering eye–
The wedding guest stood still,
And listen like a three-years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
Writers of early ballads, such as Thomas Percy, and later W.B. Yeats, contributed to the english tradition. The ballad evolved into folk songs in America, in compositions such as ‘Casey Jones’ and the old time cowboy favorite, ‘Streets of Laredo,’ and ‘John Henry.’
In France in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, the ballade was the principle form of music and poetry. It is distinguished from ballad, as a ballade contains three main stanzas, each with the same rhyme scheme, plus a shorter conclusion stanza, or envoi. Each of the four stanzas have identical refrain lines. The tone of the ballade was most often solemn and form, using elaborate symbolism and classical references to further its narrative.
François Viillon was one of the most influential writers of early ballades in Renaissance France. His exacting form was checked by his limited rhyme, although he was capable of creating intense compositions about poverty and the frailty of life. Inspired by vagrancy and poverty and the vagrancy of his criminal life, his work offered up eviscerating attacks on the bourgeois and declarations about the injustice imposed on people ranked lower in the caste system. It was a sort of ‘poetry for the poor,’ that would later be claimed of Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist about whom Nietzsche said, ‘[He[ was the only psychologist from whom I ever learned.’
Ballades were also written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. It would become popular again in the nineteenth century after being revived by Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne. Ezra Pound, a major figure in the post-modernism and a person for whom James Joyce has to thank for the publication of works that would change the world of literature (Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses), would later compose variation of Villion’s ballades. This poetic form is used for light verse in modernity and there aren’t many examples from which to cite as successful.
What is, in America, called the blues poem, is an extension of another type of poetry that has been around since poetry began, the lamentation. But in this chapter, I would like to discuss the tradition of American blues. It began as an oral tradition among slaves in southern America, it is believed, and is imbued with weighty themes like struggle, despair, though some of it does lighten up enough to include sex–which usually is the outcome of struggle and despair or, inversely, the cause of it.
It has an inherent form, but it’s not set in stone. Its formal shape is an individual statement, modified by the second, and the third is usually an ironic alternative.
It is about struggle and despair
And can be light, about sex:
Which sometimes is the cause of it.
Ralph Ellison once said that the blues, though they are often about struggle and depression, it is also about determination to overcome difficulty through strength of character. Making it through the struggle is what defines the blues poem, as it begins with tragedy, and ends in ironic bemusement after it has been overcome. This can be seen as a way of differentiating between traditional lamentations and American blues poems.
Among the many famous poets who work in this category, among them Sterling Brown, James Johnson, and the more popular Langston Hughes. In high first book, the eponymous poem, ‘The Weary Blues,’ is an wonderful example of an America blues poem:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night,
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did lazy sway…
Another good example is Brown’s ‘Riverbank Blues,’ which begins:
A man get his feet in a sticky mudbank
A man get this yellow water in his blood,
No need for hopin,’ no need for doing,’
Muddy streams keep him fixed for good.
Kevin Young is a contemporary poet who has continued the tradition. In his book, Jelly Roll, he presents a collection of poetry steeped in the tradition of American blues poetry. Apart from that, he attained success as the editor of the anthology, Blues Poems.
Try it out yourself. Begin with a line that states the issue; modify it in the second line, and then finish it with it being overcome.
Sisyphus tied to his rock,
Pushed it up all day and night,
Until he realized he could stop.
The bop as a poetic tradition is relatively recent, originating from Afaa Michael Weaver during a summer retreat at Cave Canem. The bop is not unlike the sonnet in its framework; it is a form of poetic argument, rigidly constructed; it consists of three stanzas; the first is followed by anaphora, or refrain, each mutating to reveal a different facet in the overall composition; the first stanza is six lines long and states the issue; the second is eight lines long and enumerates on the issue. If there is a resolution, the third stanza, which is traditionally six lines long, attempts to find it. If a resolution can’t be made, the third stanza is the reflection on the failure to overcome the proposed problem introduced in the first stanza and modified / expanded upon by the second.
Despite its youth, the bop has engendered many variations. Adding to the three stanza bop, six line fourth stanza, refrain-ending bops have appeared. A good example of how a bop introduces a crisis before attempting to resolve it is a poem by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, whose book Black Swan features several bop poems. The most popular, Bop Haunting begins:
In the evening she comes, her same unsatisfied self,
with the hard, smug look of salvation. Mama,
stop bothering me. When we argue, she says
What you’re saying is not scriptural
You need to get back to your Bible.
In one dream, I slap her. I’m tired of her mouth.
I hate to see the evening sun go down.
The refrain in this piece, ‘I hate to see the evening / sun go down’ appears at the end. It is, what is called in blues guitar, the blue note; the tone of the speaker has not found a solution to the woes conjured by the invocation.
In contemporary criticism, the bop can be looked at as a formalized way of recounting a life: it begins with an issue, the issue evolves, and the issue is either resolved, or the failure to resolve it is lamented. To do your own bop poem, extrapolate an issue from your life that you have been struggling with, show the evolution / modification / growth of the issue, and then show its resolution, or lack thereof.
I’ll give it a shot.
My mother left me at a door,
At a home for children poor;
To me, to live, is such a chore.
Cento is a Latin word for ‘patchwork,’ and the cento is a collage poem, a poetic form made from lines cobbled from other poems and other poets. Poets often ‘borrow’ lines or leif-motifs from more imaginative and skilled writers, a cento in its true form is composed entirely independent from the composers own poetic sensibility, though it can definitely reflect it in his / her choice of juxtaposition of foreign and imported sources. Examples of this can be found in the most respected of poets, including Homer and Virgil, who wrote the Odyssey and The Aeniad, respectively.
The composition of a cento consisting of other poet’s lines can do as much to reveal the intended expression of the collaborator as that of the original writer. You can make psychological deductions regarding the arrangement and selection of verses and the poetic voices included in the arrangement of the cento to find the individuality in the voice of the person’s compilation of the work of others. You can find out if they’re a novice, weekend warrior poet–if, for example, they’re canto is littered with Edgar Allen Poe (ugh) and Sylvia Plath.
Sylvia Plath actually had great poetic ability, and to put her in the same sentence as the morose and monotonous Poe is a sin, I’m sure, but the compilation of one’s favorite poetry can do as much to express one’s self than writing one’s own verse, if that person is without the talent or inclination to construct their own verse. William S. Burroughs went through a copy, cut and paste period that is similar in style to what falls under the heading of canto, as defined by this chapter.
The Academy of American Poets, with lines from Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, Charles Wright, and Marie Ponsot, composed the following canto, which can serve as an admirable example of the psychology and individuality that typifies the poet who composes cantos consisting of other poet’s work.
The the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-eyed man is king
Brute, spy, I trusted you; now you reel and brawl
After great pain, a formal feeling comes–
A vulturous boredom pinned me to this tree
Day after day, I become less use to myself
The hours after you are gone are so leaden.
Not to be confused with the division of Dante’s Divine Comedy’s division into cantos, which were of original composition, the modern cento is less weighty in tone and often ironic, witty, or humorous, humor which comes from juxtaposition of idea and representation. This is something we will come to in due course. Contemporary examples of centos are John Ashbery’s The Dong with the Luminous Nose, and Peter Gizzi’s Ode: Salute to the New York School.
Variable operations, or the more common name ‘chance operations,’ are methods of generating poetry independent of the author’s will. This can be done by throwing darts, rolling dice, chopping up and juxtaposing pieces of newspaper articles (as Burroughs did in his ‘cut and paste’ period), and the laying of yarrow stalks, which dates back to the Chinese divination method used to make sense of the Oracle, or book of changes, the I-Ching. Sophisticated computer programs have also been designed to randomly select disparate and seemingly incompatible work to put it together by using encyclopedias, almanacs, or famous works of literature.
The purpose of this method is to separate intentional contrivance and allow the nature of your variable methods to speak for you; it is the poetry of chaos, and it creates unusual syntax, disjoined images and odd correlations. This sort of chaos is intended to be extractable, that is to say meaning is imported from the chaos while there was no intended meaning in its composition.
The Dada movement in western Europe are generally credited with the development of chance operations in the early and mid-twentieth century, Paul Eluard, Phillipe Soupault, Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, and Tristan Tzara are notable. The prominent focus of Dadaism is the subconscious as they believe that the mind would create meaning and association from any text, even randomly selected juxtapositions in variable operations. Tzara’s Dada Manifesto on Feeble and Bitter Love offers instructions on how to compose a Dadaist poem, here translated from the original French: (The translation is mine, so any errors are entirely my fault.)
Take some newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up the article and put them [all] in a bag.
Shake smally [gently.]
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy with conscience in the order they [are] left in the bag.
The poem will resemble [you.]
The use of chance operations in contemporary poetry has been used by the avant garde group Fluxus, poet Jackson MacLow, and the poet / composer John Cage. A good example of a poem written using chance operation is MacLow’s Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of a Justice Chair, which includes, also, MacLow’s explanations of the methods he used he used to compose the poem.
Considering futurism, Dada, and concrete poetry, if a language is to support a highly literate culture, claimed rhetoric scholar Richard Lanham has argued, then the language must be composed of more simplistic parts. That is to say, characters which are to be the building blocks of language must be easily comprehensive and written in unobtrusive calligraphy. This is primarily due to the fact that because language is an external device that requires internal recognition, a reader must be able to internalize the alphabet and see through the characters to differentiate between representation and meaning. When reading a book, it is not often apparent that one is simply looking at marks on a paper; the awareness of the ideas that the words represent under the surface of language.
Typographical philosophy, simplicity, clarity and transparency, dominates printed culture and has since the advent of the printing press, Lanham has argued. The twentieth century has seen many movements in art and poetry has called this philosophy into philosophy into question, using typography itself for a medium for meaning, preventing people from looking through words, and forcing readers to look at them. This is to disconnect idea and representation and make representation and idea the same thing.
A movement of Italian futurists, led by F.T. Marinetti, in a 1909 manifest, rejected traditional expressions of art as ‘borrowed dresses.’ (The English idiom would be second hand clothes.) Among their critiques was the book itself. Marinetti called the book stale and oppressive, a symbol of what the futurists called the ‘old guard,’ which they [the futurists] were striving against.
In the Electronic Word, Lanham wrote: ‘In a literate culture, our concept of meaning depends on this radical act of typographical simplicity. No images, colors, strict left to right then down one line, no type changes; no interaction; no revision. In attacking these conventions, Marinetti was attacking the literary totality of humanity.” Marinetti would begin by experimenting with unusual typography, creating textual and visual oddities, such as the 1919, SCRABrrRrraaNNG.
At the same time, Dadaism was gaining strength as a coherent artistic movement in Europe, due partially because identity is adapted in three manners: alignment with the culture, rejection of the culture, or an independently evolved set of ethos and sensibilities, commonly found in orphans and the displaced. As a rebellion against traditional art forms, it had its appeal. The Dadaists were keen on spotaneity, something which I believe is of great value in poetry and prose, along with automatic writing and variable operations.
Collages were important elements in both are and poetry until the futurist movement, and it remained important in typography. The Dadaist Tristan Tzara urged poets of the futurist movement to cut out of newspapers as in variable operations, and anthropomorphic letters were also used; Kurt Schwitters used the character ‘B’ with feet and arms, for example, and the style was also interested in poems that were ephemeral and erasable, such as poems written in sand or on a blackboard.
This sort of interest in transience is reminiscent of a poem I will come into in a later section, Masters and Masterpieces, which is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The image of a poem written in the sand along the beach, to me, has poetic, dreamy power to it. It establishes an important element often addressed in poetry across cultures, transience and mortality. I can’t think of a more poetic way to describe life than in terms of a poem written on a beach, or on a blackboard, however passionately, it is finite, it will go away.
Although the futurist revolution never really took over the old regime of classical forms of expression, public interest would reemerge in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s in the form of concrete poetry. These are poems that take visual shapes and can only be appreciated when seen. Reinhard Dohl, for example, wrote a poem in the shape of an apple made entirely of the word apple, save for one instance of the word worm.
Another example of a concrete poem is Eugen Gomringer’s 1954 poem Schweigen, the German word for silence, was composed of entirely of typographical representations of schweigen, which surrounds an empty, silent space in the third line. The silent space in the third line is the most important part of the poem, as scholar Roberto Simanowski in Concrete Poetry in Digital Media, because, in practical terms, silence can only be articulated by the absence of words.
Concrete poems continued the typographic experimentation begun by the futurists, requiring readers to look at and through language. As Simanowski wrote, ‘Concrete poetry deals with the relation between the visible form and the intellectual substance of words. It is visual, because it adds the optical gesture of the word to its semantic meaning.’
I’ll give you an example from one of my own poems:
The Glass Umbrella, one of my most popular works of poetry, was one of the first poems I wrote after becoming somewhat fluent in Italian. And sometimes it’s necessary to orient the subject-modifier-article in manners which reflect the normal diction of other language to maintain the music of what you’re trying to convey. Another good way to maintain the music of what you’re saying is to keep time. This can be done by line by line syllable matching. This is a good way to keep tempo; to break it into faster reading, making shorter, even one to two word lines, will increase the speed with which the reader takes the music of the piece in. Another important aspect of getting poetry read at the intended tempo is ‘rolling’ from one word to another.
It is easiest to roll words when a following word begins with a phoneme that could attach to the ending of the previous word to form an independent word. This will be important to consider when we’re considering first line beginnings for end line rhymes. When done properly, the reader will read the poem in the manner you intend it to be read in, while poor poetry may work when read in certain ways by the author, it is rarely rendered in a consistent tempo, or universal meter that makes it possible for everyone to attach to it the tempo at which it is intended to be read. Another important aspect of a good poem is intimacy. While it is amateurish to rhyme about how you feel, it is not so to, by tone and imagery, isolation of ‘blue’ phonemes, to convey a type of sadness. Theme is usually something that is threaded throughout the poem; it is reinforced by repetition, but made poignant by reconciliation and furtherance through moderation as the poem progresses. In making a poem universal and also personal, it has to be open to extraction / allegory application for those who read it. If it’s an elegy (a poem for the deceased), a personal approach can be more universally applicable as one’s own lens through which death is seen can remind one of their own and enrich it, making the poetry more relatable and stronger. Let’s consider the mentioned elements in an analysis of my narrative elegy, the Glass Umbrella:
We are the footprints by the Sea. (8 syllables)
The waters come
The waters leave. (8 syllables)
Miss Sea, you see,
your children taken. (9)
Children of the Sea forsaken. (8)
By keeping a running syllable count, it ensures that the lines will be read at the same speed. Using words that allow one word to roll into another adds to the music of the work, although ‘come’ and ‘and’ could not be attachment phonemes, they can be said as one word. Like ‘miss Sea, you see,’ it can be pronounced as one word, an extended phoneme that allows for appreciation of tonal quality. Repeated consonants, of the same delension, such as Sea and see, give an element of completed rhetoric to a basic statement. Independent clauses, beginning with ‘the waters’ employ a poetic construct called anaphora; anaphora is a device in poetics where certain words are repeated, usually at the beginning of the sentence, and is most obvious example of anaphora usage. Mnemonics in poetry is the usage of a term to represent an abstract; in the Glass Umbrella, the Sea is represented as a proper noun and preceded by a definite article because it is being used as both a literal sea and a place to which life goes when gone, and whence life came. The waters come; the waters leave also echoes this biological truth, thus linking the poem to the natural workings of the world and, as a eulogy, enforces the thematic elements regarding the wax and wane of natural processes. The reference to forsaken children introduces the idea of the eulogy in the first stanza and sets it up for the coming story.
It is important to import music into your poetry to invite atmosphere. The sound of waves gives atmosphere, and footprints disappearing hints at the element of passing, and as mnemosis, it is, the footprints, our lives, and the waves are death, the death that take us back to whence we came. This cyclical nature is central to the poem. Let’s take a look at the next line, where syllogism is more direct than symbol-idea association, though the syllogism is without an unstated contrast, the conclusions drawn from this natural cycle pervade the work, and thus the apparatus of syllogism is just as important as that of mnemosis, which has a soporific effect and adds to the atmosphere. When writing poetry, to fully immerse the reader in the world, a certain part of the story’s completion relies on the reader’s ability to fill in the gaps, to fill in implications and open ellipses (which we will touch on later), and the scenes should be painted with broadstrokes, allowing for fine details to be added by the imagination of the reader. The author creates part of the work, but it is completion is only accomplished by the reader’s coloring in between the lines and synthesizing the words into a complete portrait. Another important part of poetry is telling a story that can be about yourself, but also can be extracted to be about any aspect of any person’s experience with similar experiences. The poet paints the picture, but the reader puts the frame on it. Let’s look at how the Glass Umbrella develops (remember this is a elegy written when I was 21 upon the death of a friend.)
See me, see Miss Galilee (7)
Bring back what she took from me; (7)
Bring back what you swallowed whole. (7)
The yawning old,
And wide-mouthed urn, (7)
Lolled on but never turned,
Her deaf ear,
My confused shouts at her. (19)
The first line is an invocation, a request for the murderer to look me in the eyes. My friend, her name Diane, had taken a lot of pills and walked into the New Jersey shore, and Galilee was the name of a church we once went to when she visited me in South Carolina, so that’s where the title of the Sea comes from. The next two lines are anaphoric, pleas to something that can’t hear, the first being a request for what ‘she’ took from me–this is an instance in which the reader’s participation in the work is vital. When someone is gone, what is lost varies from person to person. Instead of naming something precise, the ambiguity allows the reader to substitute their own feeling of loss, and what it was they lost, and this allows them to feel with the poem instead of feel it on an intellectual level. Age is another thematic element referred to over and over again, in adjectives such as ‘yawning’ and ‘wide-mouthed’ and the lazy, lolling about. The sea is mnemonic in this stanza for death again, being a wide-mouthed earth, and is described in a way that would befit death–never turning her deaf ear, to me, to hear, my confused shouts at her. Using ‘at’ instead of ‘to’ furthers the unfeeling nature of what has taken away my friend. Confused, as a modifier, indicates the nature of how we react to loss. We don’t understand it, the why, the where they may be going, if they’re to be going anywhere, and we’re often reduced to unintelligible shouting, either in our heads or at something that can’t hear us. The shortening of the ‘her deaf ear, to me, to hear,’ lines are designed to keep the tempo read at the proper pace by the reader. It quickens the pace and brings about the conclusion to the stanza. Within the stanza, the sea is referenced to an urn; this is a way of expressing what was taken into the sea–a person–although nowhere in this poem do I explicitly say it is about someone who has committed suicide. The abstract artists of the 20th century who followed in the tradition of Vincent van Gogh believed that there was more passion in the strokes and fury of the execution than the accuracy of photographic replication, and therefore a report unedited from nature was not the highest calling of an artist, but simply a way to paint rich and famous people as accurately enough to flatter them because they didn’t have cheap and affordable photoshoots in those days. The abstraction in this poem is mostly embodied in the characteristics given to the sea which is by mnemonism addressed as the Sea. In looking for the music of a line of poetry when written in Victorian classic verse, my preferred method and the preferred method of W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and, more famously in America, Edgar Allen Poe, it is useful to read a sentence as one word and attempt to ascertain whether or not it would not sound inappropriate, or disjointed, if it was a single word in some other language.
The poem has been given sound, anthropomorphic characteristics (related to swallowing and blindness), and deafness. The poem, being about deaf, is just as concerned with shutting down the stimulation of the senses as it is with stimulating them in the livelier sections. In later, less ambiguous narrative segments, the senses will be fully engaged and for it to work so well, to contrast death and life, is to shut down reference frames that one can avail oneself to in part, and then make them accessible when the character becomes alive again in memory. The deafness of the lost is reinforced in the next stanza:
Without a word at all to say (8)
She waves at nighttime and the day (8)
` She rolls about within a dream (8) –
The carousel goes by overhead (9)
To it she turns her mirrored head (8)
She simply looks to it, and all, (8)
As we, like leaves,
Around her fall. (8)
The silence is reinforced again, the silence from that side of this veil of tears, and movement is introduced to give the mnemonic representation characteristics of the idea’s dressing. Introducing movement gives fluidity gives it a natural feel to it, and the addition of our comparison to leaves keeps the natural feel to the whole implied cycle. To extract this and apply it to the physical process of lives, we sprout from seeds, grow and flower, and produce leaves and seeds of our own. To this sea, this urn, we’re universally the same watchful, fearful eyes, unheard and afraid of her ‘mirrored’ head; the mirrored head is not a poetic device without implication. When we look at someone dead, part of the revulsion we fear is our own mortality and this is what gives us pause, trepidation. In giving death the face of a mirror, the expression is open to debate, as it should be. There are those who believe once a mystery is solved, it is no longer interesting. Being a fan of Sherlock Holmes’s detective stories and Agatha Christies serial works, I don’t necessarily agree with this when it comes to art. Art is an elaborate door and there is no skeleton key, and sometimes the person who understands it the least is the person who wrote it. So it can be said that instead of defining what it means, I’m interpreting it. Finished works of poetry rarely begin and end in one sequential writing. When I first compiled this poem, when I sat down to put it together, I had to gather it from non-linear and disparate sources, notebooks, scraps of toilet paper. I don’t intend to speak for all poets, but it’s rarely a straightforward, linear process. And at the time, while I was generally aware of what was being said, I didn’t have the kind of understanding of poetics I have now. One thing I’ve learned from the study of aesthetics, you can use philosophy, if you’re good at it, to make something mean anything you wish depending on the quality of your rhetoric. When I wrote it, what I was conscious of was the symbols of the footprints and the sea–the footprints being us, the sea being where we’re from and where we’re going. The best place to hide a tree is in a forest, and subtlety is not used purely to understate your ideas; it’s a means by which the attentive are rewarded. And subtlety, to be honest, is most often accidentally done by the author being in tune with his subject.
Whenever you go back to your refrain, the glue that keeps your narrative strings together, the narrative changes and evolves and your refrain has to reflect the growth of the narrative. The best way to execute a refrain and keep it memorable is to, although it’s slightly modified, is to keep it recognizable.
The beach we leave our footprints on, (8)
The waters come,
And then they’re gone. (8)
We are but footprints by the Sea; (8)
The waves come in,
And then we leave. (8)
Miss Sea, you see,
Your children taken. (9)
Children of the Sea forsaken. (8)
The importance of rolling in tonal value cannot be understated. Internal rhyme, instead of completely relying on the end of sentence rhyme, although it is the most common. The anaphora of the first two sentences gives stability to the stability. ‘The beach we leave’ opens the refrain with two compound syllable rhymes, and if pronounced together as ‘thebeachweleave’ doesn’t sound disjointed as a word, and thus retains the music. The same is true of the delayed anaphora of ‘the waters come, and then we leave.’ In this delay, a transition article is used to denote a brief passage of time–one word is used, in this instance, is used to separate the tide coming in (our lives) and the tide receding (our death.) The next stanza addresses this in a manner intended to break the fourth wall, as it is a direct line of questioning–questions for the king in black. The pain is in the appeal to something that cannot grant your wish, nor even hear your plea. Remember the elemental mirror of looking into death and seeing oneself, this stanza presents an inversion of that idea–wondering if that king in black can look at us.
` Ancient Sea, Miss Galilee (7)
Can you see yourself in me? (7)
As I see myself in you – (7)
Glowing white and tinged with blue (7)
Can’t you see what you have done? (7)
The lolling sea-saw none. (6)
In matching syllable counts to keep control of the tempo at which you wish for your poem to be read, breaks between articles and end stanza lines are not always necessary. Sometimes an abrupt stop can add tension and make the closed quatrain jarring, which is something you might want to employ in horror or suspense. The lolling see saw, which is non-perfect anaphora but effective in playing with the up and down nature that has been a thematic element with the tide, the waves, the sprouting of trees and falling of leaves; lolling was an attempted casual benevolence, not a mockery, although to a heartbroken person screaming at a loved one dead can make a world feel as if it’s turned into a mockery of your need to love and be loved.
Passing through the stages of grief from confusion and denial and anger, we get to acceptance in the next stanza, the gradual coming to terms with something that’s almost impossible, and would be impossible if not for it’s lack of other options. When Diane died, it opened a wound, and the poem I’ve spent this chapter analyzing is just the shape the blood happened to take. Sometimes apophosis is a good way to tell a story that allows the reader to put the pieces together on their own, like a magic eye test, by telling one story through apophosis, you get your expression across, and allow the reader to make it an extracted allegory of their own personal experience.
I see, I said, and that was that, (8)
Standing at the shore of black (7)
I hear my own words echo back: (8)
In that mirror,
I saw me, (7)
Just a reflection in the Sea. (8)
Continuing with the stages of grief, this stanza begins with facing the ‘shore of black,’ which was intended to be the equivalent of looking into the face of someone dead. The double anaphora of ‘I see, I said’ and ‘that was that’ is a seven line consonant non-complement anaphora and it serves, in this case, to further the see-saw / up and down of the nature de’ monte so persistent throughout the poem. Looking in the mirror–seeing someone dead from a drug overdose–was the first time I saw what would happen to me if I continued to abuse medication, and as painful as this process was, it had the effect of healing me, and seeing myself as just a reflection in the sea, in writing it, I intended it to connect me with the rest of humanity, as we are all alone in facing this natural process of our life.