Thursday, January 21, 2010

Foundations of Poetry

Free verse and its variations have been around long enough that every person believes he (or she) can write poetry, granting that some may be better than others. With this comes the idea that any poem written in form and meter is old fashioned and out of date. Not so. I always stress that you can not write “free verse” until you understand what verse has been freed from, and that to be good poetry it needs to retain its roots, its foundation.

Part of that foundation is rhythm. All of our speech consists of syllables that are either stressed or unstressed; it is by arranging them in a pattern pleasing to the ear that we begin to create poetry. This is the basis of the blank verse of Shakespeare and Milton, rhythmic but without rhyme. The measure of this rhythm is expressed as feet. There are a limited number of such feet; a poet would be well served to acquaint himself with them.

To build such pleasing patterns is the craft of poetry, the work that comes after the inspiration. Words and phrases that seemed so natural but will not fit into a pattern, a rhythm, need to be replaced by something that doesn’t completely alter the proposed meaning. English is a language rich in such words.

And free verse? Free verse is not constrained by such tradition, is it? Here comes the distinction between prose and poetry. Prose, whether in a novel or the daily newspaper, has never had to follow such patterns. Verse, whether free or formal, must or it may lapse into prose. The least measured of free verse must have a cadence that the ear recognizes as pleasurable even if the mind does not.

Then what about the claims of rhyme? Modern poetry, especially free verse, doesn’t rhyme so why should a poet concern himself with such an outdated concept?

True, rhyme at the endings of lines is not as prevalent or obvious as it was when it was used as an aid to memorizing poems. Most of us no longer memorize but read poems stored on the page. However, rhyme and all its many fascinating variations are such an integral part of poetry that it can not be denied its place.

We spoke of rhythm, of the patterns that make up a good poem. One of the most important ways to emphasize the recurrent patterns of sound has always been through repetition. When the repeated sound or combination of sounds came at the end of a measured line of poetry, we had “end rhyme.”

But to emphasize the pattern the poet can also repeat the sounds in other, related ways that are equally pleasing. Internal rhyme is like end rhyme but doesn’t occur at the ends of lines. The repetition of consonants at the beginning, the end, or even in the middle of words can give a sense of that pleasure the ear is listening for, the repetition of vowels more so. All these and many more go to enhance that basic pattern.

It is my belief that the poet who completely ignores the basics of poetry that have always worked is doomed to lapse into writing that no ear will recognize as poetry. Rhythm and rhyme is to poetry what time and tone are to music, what heart beat and breathing are to the body: essential.
A mastery of these fundamentals can lead you onto many new roads in language and poetry.

1 comment:

Laurie said...

Well said. This post (and this blog) should be required reading for anyone who wants to write, to teach, or to understand poetry.

(And how you manage to keep coming up with such brilliant inset illustrations is beyond me.)