The Essence of Poetry (part two)

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This is an essay about writing poetry.

Submitted: January 11, 2019

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Submitted: January 11, 2019

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The Essence of Poetry (part two)

This essay deals with a number of important aspects of writing poetry. The idea is to try and answer a number of questions serious, aspiring poets will probably ask themselves every now and then.

Is there such a thing as a suitable subject?

 

It is a question a large number of people who dabble in poetry think about. The answer is simple; yes, any subject a poet would like to write about is suitable. By looking at poetry through the ages, it becomes clear that poets have always used their craft or art to describe a myriad of things, ranging from religion to love and murder. The only thing that one can easily see is that a lot of poems have been written about human relationships, nature, politics and grief, simply because those aspects of human existence seem to interest an enormous number of people, including those humans we call poets. It doesn’t mean that a poet should not write about the awful condition of having warts on an otherwise perfect nose or about the tax collector. Far from it; finding those areas of the human - or animal -experience that have not been described over and over again, may lead to some refreshing poetry. When writing it is always a good idea to leave the beaten track and explore new areas.

 

Should poetry be true?

 

According to a number of relatively unexperienced readers of poetry this question should be answered in the affirmative. It is likely that those readers will also think the first-person narrator in novels and short stories is the author. Such a mistake should not be made by any mature readers. Just like other forms of writing, poetry is nothing more than a way of presenting thoughts about something to a reader in a specific form. When dealing with novels, people generally accept that they are taken by the hand and led through a story. Yet, there are plenty of readers who expect a poet to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, as if it is some kind of court case. The only thing a poet really should do, is to write convincingly. It doesn’t have to be a short autobiography.

 

What about emotion?

 

This is probably the trickiest aspect of poetry. There is a large group of readers and (amateur) writers who think poetry should always deal with emotions. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be about emotions, but there is no obligation to write about them. The notion that poetry should be emotional probably comes from the somewhat strange urge some people have to express their highly emotional state in particular situations by using metre and rhyme, or when not wanting to be conventional, by writing down their emotions in shortened sentences and breaking those sentences up at random and calling the result a poem. There’s nothing wrong with that. It can be very helpful to those who suffer from some form of emotional distress, but it usually doesn’t result in any original poetry. Most forms of human pain have been described by an incredible lot of different people, so coming up with something fresh is quite difficult. The most positive thing one can say about it is that using this particular safety valve is a better way of dealing with distress than getting a weapon and assaulting someone.

 

There is another problem connected to emotion in poetry. Quite often emotions expressed in poetry lead to emotional writing, in other words, it leads to sentimentality. It is wrong to assume that this only applies to describing positive experiences, negative experiences can be just as sentimental. Again, there is room for sentimental writing, but usually the most enjoyable examples of sentimental writing are those poems in which it is clear that everything is done tongue in cheek. However, if it is not clear that a poem is meant as an example of humorous writing, sentimentality can be horrific. Common sense and a bit of thought spent on the poem under construction can prevent a poet from falling into the gooey trap of just writing what he or she experiences on a basic, emotional level. Chances are that writing from the gut causes readers to suffer from literary indigestion, or even worse, to stop reading the poem.

 

Are there any restraints on language?

 

The easy answer is no, there aren’t, but it is a bit more complicated than one would expect. Again, there is a large group of (amateur) poets, who think that things like vocabulary and grammar are completely unimportant. They generally like to use the expression poetic license for every idiotic absence of choice. It can be a very deliberate act to transgress the conventions of grammar or to use specific words and expressions or even to use a weird spelling. That’s all fine. However, every writer should keep one thing in mind, he/she is trying to communicate with another human being. Anything that gets in the way of successful communication should be treated with caution. One shouldn’t read this as if shocking language such as swearing or graphic imagery is a problem. It really isn’t if the poet’s aim is to use it for a particular effect.  The only thing a poet should be aware of is that everything he/she does in a poem should be the result of a conscious decision. In that sense writing is no different from other forms of art.

 

How does a choice of words influence a poem?

 

The choice of particular words should be the result of thinking about the message a poet would like to get across. It is very easy to use the wrong words and expressions for describing something. Using words that don’t fit the context or the tone of the poem will quickly chase away readers. Wordiness for the sake of wordiness is a crime against good taste, and usually gets punished by losing readers. The famous acronym KISS – keep it simple stupid – should be on a sign on every writer’s desk. If a poet’s aim is to dazzle the reader by using language that belongs in textbooks of some type of expert, by all means, do so, just don’t be surprised when the number of readers that appreciate your work seems to dwindle.

 

One of the most important things an aspiring poet should keep in mind is that readers have probably read some of the expressions used hundreds if not thousands of times. The result of it is that those words and expressions have become clichés. By repeating them the poet shows he/she opts for the easy way out, there simply is no evidence of a thought process having been applied to creating a work of art. This warning does not apply to those young people who experience finding or losing a lover for the first time. They simply have to get to terms with their feelings in a quick and easy way, but to anyone who also wants other people to really enjoy their poetry as works of art, it should be obvious that one should be on the alert for falling into the cliché trap. Here are a few examples of the words and expressions that have been worn threadbare by overuse:

  • heartache
  • ripped from the chest
  • stabbed in the chest
  • soulmate
  • the word “soul” itself
  • you are my everything
  • the light of my life
  • the ray of hope
  • you are my light

 

This is a short list but reading a couple of dozen poems about having lost or found love usually provides a fairly long list of phrases that get used over and over again. The examples are taken from the genre of love poetry, but similar lists of clichés can be found within a range of genres. It needs to be stressed that there is nothing wrong with these expressions, and there is no such thing as a poetry police, but poets who are serious about their works of art, should be aware of this phenomenon.

 

Is the form of a poem important?
 

Yes, it is. This doesn’t mean that there cannot be any freedom in choosing a particular form. Every poet is free to opt for whatever form he/she wants to use, but a bit of thought goes a long way.  Metre and rhyme are beautiful things and they can help a reader to experience a poem in a specific way. The choice of using stanzas and how to create them is equally important.  But all these so-called technical things can be ignored by the poet. Does that matter? Perhaps it does. Poetry being a form of communication implies that there is a sender of a message, the message itself and a receiver of that message. Be careful not to confuse this with the idea that a poem can only be interpreted in one way. That’s obviously not the case, but the sender – the poet – would like to get the basics of the message across to the reader, who would like to use his/her interpretation to turn it into a reading experience. The sender may even want to achieve a particular effect in the reader. In that case, it is important to think about form.

 

At this point it is wise to pay attention to a phenomenon that was already mentioned in the sixties by Marshall McLuhan. All types of communication need a medium and his claim was that the medium is often just as important as the message itself. His famous quotation was: “The medium is the message.” After having said this, he went even further and stated: “The medium is the massage.”

 

A poet’s medium is the poem itself. The message is whatever he/she wants it to be. The medium of that message is shaped by the form of the poem. A sonnet fits in a tradition used by sonneteers, a ballad fits in a tradition used to tell heroic stories derived from an oral tradition. So, choosing for those particular forms makes it clear that a genre is being used which raises expectations about things like shape and content. Keeping in mind that the medium is the massage, it becomes obvious that by choosing the wrong form for a poem results in the reader being rubbed the wrong way. Ultimately, it may result in that specific reader judging the poem, or even the poet, as being rubbish.

 

So far so good, but what about those poems that lack metre and rhyme? The answer is simple, if they are any good, they will still have an underlying structure. The poems that really work have a form of rhythm built into them; not as easily detected as traditional metre with feet like an iamb or a trochee, but a more or less rhythmic sequence of stresses; even within the words that are used. In order to see if a poem really works on this level a simple test can be done. By reading the poem out loud, it becomes obvious where the weak spots are. One has to keep in mind that not every sentence that can be produced in writing is a sentence that can be pronounced effortlessly. This is a phenomenon that actors and singers are acutely aware of. This test should be done by every serious poet. Especially, because it also shows the poet where the lines should be broken.

 

A frequently misunderstood element of poetry is the rhyme scheme. By making the wrong choice, the poet runs the risk of gradually losing the reader’s attention. A good example is the rhyming couplet that gets used in long poems. After about seven or eight of those couplets – aa, bb, cc etc. – trying to predict the couplets takes over from reading the poem’s content. It is a funny case of the medium being the massage. Unfortunately, quite a lot of readers suffer from this unwanted effect, and it destroys the reading experience. Logical variation is needed to prevent this. It is one of the reasons why there are different types of poems.
 

How to use stanzas becomes easy when a poet thinks about the units of meaning used in the poem. A poet who doesn’t care about that aspect of poetry usually doesn’t care about a reader. Things like introductions of the subject, the examples, the logical development of the thoughts and the conclusion all have their place in that house of thought that is called a poem. An architect will always opt for dividing buildings into units that make sense. There is a dining area, usually next to a kitchen, there is a bedroom, usually connected to a hallway, there is an attic where unimportant clutter gets stored. All those units have their own significance and their own logical place within the building. This order of units should also apply to a poem. A person who wants to have fun with a bit of chaos will usually buy a jig-saw puzzle instead of a volume of poetry. A good poem helps the reader to make sense of it by offering some sensible structure.

 

Conclusion

 

Poetry is a wonderful thing to experience and when written carefully, it brings pleasure to reader and poet alike. Disregarding matters of taste, satisfying poetry can be recognized quite easily once one thinks about what is going on. It is up to the poet to make sure the reader is stimulated to finish reading the poem and to evoke further thought.


© Copyright 2019 Bert Broomberg. All rights reserved.

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