The Craft of Poetry: Structure & Sound

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Approaching Poetry

I consider myself a prose writer, which makes sense given that I write exclusively in prose these days. Why is the idea that a writer would start in one discipline and shift to another so surprising? And it can be very different, depending on your style.

Poetry places heavy emphasis on the aesthetic properties of language as a way of communicating emotion and suggesting meaning. Because poems usually use so many fewer words than stories and essays, each word must do as much work as possible and as such must be very carefully chosen. In poetry workshops like the ones I took in college, you spend a lot of time dealing with these kinds of aesthetic concerns, rather than focusing on fiction elements like narrative structure, character, and dialogue.

Deploying language effectively is part of how you pull your reader in and train their attention — often subconsciously — on the things you want them to notice and the emotions you want them to feel. Studying poetry taught me how to search for unique, unexpected words and phrases to convey potent sensory information.

Stanzas in Poetry

I learned that assonance stringing together words with similar vowel-sounds often has a soothing, musical effect and that a lot of sharp, alliterative consonants can wake people up and have an humorous or jarring effect. So while there were certain storytelling skills I had to develop when I began to write fiction, other important skills were already second nature.

So, you want to become a great fiction writer? Some examples:. If there are a lot of short, open vowels eg.

“A Line Will Take Us Hours Maybe:”Craft and Inspiration from the Ethnography of Poetry

In this short example, the first line has the 'w' sound repeated at the beginning of each word with a rhythm in sound and sight that reminds one of the shape of a wave. Being a long line also underlines the spacial idea of 'wide' because the poem is wide. The second line is short, being a single word, and gives a sharp contrast to the other two, which are longer. It makes that idea more powerful. Notice also the vocalic sounds at the beginning of the words in both lines and how that similaritude connects the two lines in the absence of rhyme.

The words 'aimless' and 'dark' have a negative connotation here.

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Please note that traditional word connotations can be undone by the context. The word 'dark' is often assumed as negative and, yes, it can be negative when talking about death, but it can also be positive when talking about night skies or a lover. Finally, if you find that the poem you're criticising is about death but seems to have a multitude of positive words and ideas while the lines and the rhythm give you a light-hearted feeling, perhaps point it out and ask if that was the intention because, to you, it felt like the tone was detracting from the general effect.

While critical analysis could get into a lot of factors - structure, vocabulary, form, relations to events and culture, use of poetic language forms, rhythm, flow, themes, all these things that comprise a poem, they are all secondary, and a simple, crude, primitively written couplet can sometimes have a much stronger impact than the most polished, fancy and advanced sonnet or epos. And this is all poetry is about - evoking specific feelings, causing a specific emotional impact - everything it does serves that singular purpose. If it achieves the effect, it's good.

If it fails, or the effect is underwhelming or different than intended - say, it bores you, or gives a bad aftertaste of emotional manipulation - then it's bad.

Your critique may include analysis, how the effect is achieved, or what factors prevent the poem from creating the intended impact, and such analysis can include all the elements you want to include, but you must at all times remember they are subservient to the primary goal, just means, not ends. Just like you respect an opponent in sports playing better than you; a rival in a debate pointing out your errors, or trapping you by clever use of eristics.

It's wrong to leave out your feelings, because poetry is all about them - but of course the intended impact may be something you personally dislike - e. In that case treat the poem as a worthy rival, underline strong points, show the weak ones, acknowledge the impact - you don't have to like it or agree with it, but it still works as intended!

Craft : How skillful is it? What command of the technical basics does the creator have? In terms of poetry, if it is a formal poem, does it meet all the rules? If the rules are broken, are they broken for good reason? Is it presented well, and in a way that is free of mistakes? Creativity : Is it original?

Is it fresh? Does it break new ground? Does it take risks? Is it memorable? Is it surprising? Depth : Does it move the audience? Does it take on challenging subject material? Does it have deeper levels and layers of meaning? Is it heartfelt? Is it important or significant? Using this rubric, there's almost always something to praise AND some valuable avenues for improvement.

How Studying Poetry Made Me a Better Writer

It's equally applicable to all art forms, and it works towards well-rounded artworks that excel across a wide variety of criteria. I've also found it to be successful in guiding people who wish to improve their art, which should be the end goal of all criticism. Remember, however, it's just as important, if not more so , to find the things that are being done well as it is to identify the areas for growth. This is actually largely true of any piece of writing. If you were to measure Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning by the same yardstick, you're not really being reasonable.

A piece absurdist Magical Realism about the pointlessness of a particular life, and a holocaust survivor's rumination on finding meaning in spite of incredible suffering and tragedy, are interesting to contrast, but are intended to have quite different effects. The first question in either case is whether they succeeded. By objective measures, both did.

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Full disclosure: I hate Kafka's writing. More specifically speaking of poems, you can't really critique a piece of free verse for not observing iambic pentameter. You might, on the other hand, suggest that a particular long-lined free verse poem just sounds like pretentious sentences, and doesn't really resemble your understanding of poetry. On the other hand, if something is a Shakespearean sonnet, except for garbled meter in a couple of the lines, then that metrical failure is a failure indeed. Except in the subset of cases where the poet is carefully and intentionally setting up and then breaking expectations, it is the patterns and conventions established by the poet which should your first yardstick.

So yes, a remark that, for example, "Days" and "Skies" is not an adequate slant rhyme may be a fair criticism Or it might not, depending on how rigorously the poet tends to rhyme, and how out-of-place the failure is.

A poem [implicitly] defines the criteria of its own success

This sliding-scale for criticism is especially important in regards to poetry, which can layer in any number of extra dimensions beyond what is usually put forward in prose, from meter and rhymes to specific families of images, or kinds of veiled commentary. Success is success of intention - when intention can be discerned.

In an essay on literary criticism, C. Lewis remarked that reviewers must be very careful in talking about a genre or subject they simply don't care for, and maybe should altogether avoid giving criticism on topics outside of their interest. There's a difference between "I don't care for spy thrillers," and "This was a bad spy thriller. I could not fairly review Kafka; I don't understand how anyone could think anything positive about The Metamorphosis or A Hunger Artist.

But there are people who think well of these pieces at least well enough to assign them as reading in a that lit class I was taking years ago. I know, intellectually, that there must be some kind of dimension that other people experience beyond the vacuity and navel-gazing pointlessness that is all that I can observe in them. Personally, when there's nothing about the theme that I feel that I can fairly critique, I do my best to focus on technical issues, or on the authorial intention, if I can manage it - but It works purely on the level of language, by stretching its power beyond the simple "normal" direct communication like you would have in prose.

A poem does not just "say things", nor it just say things "in rhymes". A poem works with different many levels of language that it's hard to understand and to judge easily, like you point out. Some elements are intrinsic in the poem, so they are easy to identify: metrics, rhythm remembering that no classic metrics is still metrics , sounds assonances, rhymes, and such , phrasing nominal style vs verbal style, etc. The second level goes to the words chosen and the images they evoke. Some poems use plain language and usual metaphors, other work by juxtaposition of different concepts and images, up to the abstract and symbolic plane.


Ultimately, it all goes to a deeper and invisible layer which requires a lot of culture and understanding of the context. To understand a work of poetry you need to understand the cultural context where it's born. There is a reason why Eliot writes differently than Shakespeare, or Zanzotto writes differently than Foscolo.

It's not just about style, or age, but there is a poetical theory behind. Also, if you write a poem today in the same style and language of any masterpiece of 19th century, it won't make a good poem, it will be just ridicolous. I know it sounds very much anti-romantic, but it's too naive to believe that a poem as any work of art lives in itself. I also love to abandon myself into the words and images, but it's too much a simplistic solution. Being a complex and synthetic form of expression, it requires some external hints to fully grasp the meaning and the quality of it.

But basically the advice is the same: Stay technical.

The Craft of Poetry: Structure & Sound The Craft of Poetry: Structure & Sound
The Craft of Poetry: Structure & Sound The Craft of Poetry: Structure & Sound
The Craft of Poetry: Structure & Sound The Craft of Poetry: Structure & Sound
The Craft of Poetry: Structure & Sound The Craft of Poetry: Structure & Sound
The Craft of Poetry: Structure & Sound The Craft of Poetry: Structure & Sound

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