Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Practical Poetry: Forms, media and venues

     At this point, the student is expected to understand the basics:

  • The definition of poetry (i.e. verbatim speech);

  • scansion;

  • that song lyrics have eclipsed [spoken] poetry in our culture; and,

  • that a market for [spoken] poetry will have to be created.

     In this installment we flesh out the student's understanding of technique and discuss how and where an audience for poetry might be built. 

The Elements of Form

     Because it needs to be memorized and reproduced word-for-word, all English language poetry, as opposed to prose or the hybrid, prose poetry, has one thing in common:  mnemonics.  The simplest of these is concision.  It isn't a chore to memorize William C. Williams "The Red Wheelbarrow".  Even epic poems exhibit an economy of language. 

     The longer the piece, the more repetitions the poet uses, including:

  1. Choruses

         A chorus virtually ensures that we'll recall at least part of a song we hear.

  2. Repetends  

         Sections of Federico Garcia Lorca's "Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías", arguably the greatest poem of the 20th Century, featured lines like "a las cinco de la tarde" ("at five o'clock in the afternoon") and "¡No quiero verla!" ("I don't want to see it!").  Villanelles and some other forms rely on repetends.  The issue is:  "Why is this person saying the same thing over and over again?"

  3. Anaphora and Anadiplosis

  4.      Starting sentences with phrases from the beginning (anaphora) or ending (anadiplosis) of the previous sentence is an effective way of building drama.

  5. Sonics

         Along with rhythms, the judicious use and melodious repetition of sounds is what distinguishes poetry from prose.  The master of craft employs long (e.g. "shawnee") sounds to slow down the pace, sharper ones (e.g. "pit") to build excitement.  Repetitions include alliteration, consonance, assonance and, most saliently, rhyme (which deserves a discussion of its own).  The general rule for rhyme is this:  the less serious your poem the more perfect and proximate your rhymes should be.

         Consider all the repetitions in this uniquely effective advertising jingle:

    You'll won|der where | the yel|low went
    when you brush | your teeth | with Pep|sodent!

         Note the assonance of "You'll"/"you" and "won"/"brush" in the first foot and in all three syllables of "yellow went"/"Pepsodent", along with the alliteration of "w" sounds throughout.  Together with the iambic tetrameter and the alliterative anacrusis of "when" after "went", it's easy to see why this brainworm survives as the single most brilliant couplet of the 20th Century, if not of all time.  Even those who would dearly love to forget it cannot.  That is what poetry does.  That is what poetry is.  Nothing more, nothing less.  This is a point that every succcessful poet knows and that no failed poet understands.

  6. Rhythms

        Patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables form feet in verse and rhythm strings in free verse.  After a pattern like "de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-", knowing that the next syllable is probably stressed can help a forgetful reciter.

  7. Meter

        Meter is the quantification of something, usually either feet (accentual-syllabic) or beats (accentual).  Notice that "The Red Wheelbarrow" has the same number of words (three then one) and beats (two then one) in alternating lines.  Such poems with two or more meters (i.e. accentual dimeter and monometer in this case) are called "heterometrical".  T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has no less than four meters (trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter and two heptametric lines) but only one rhythm (iambic).

Paradise Has No Colonies
     There are two aspects of a poetic form:  structure and application.  Structure is the more visible:  a villanelle has repetends and rhymes in set places, a sonnet is usually 14 lines of rhyming iambic pentameter, et cetera.  Anyone can invent a new structure but, until it has a "killer application" and is emulated by others, it isn't considered a form.  For example, "Paradise Has No Colonies" (on left) is a "cada línea"*, a structure wherein the whole sounds like a prosey, prosaic story while each line, examined in isolation, addresses a different aspect of that theme.  Until others write successful poems using this format it is not a form**.

     During this process a general purpose develops.  For example, the sonnet usually entails a condition in the octave and then a turn ("volta") toward a resolution in the sestet.  Traditionally, sonnets have tended to pursue romantic motifs but I see no reason why a poet couldn't use the form to expound on, say, politics (i.e. where the condition is dire and the resolution is the writer's proposed political solution).

     The theme of a villanelle rests on the purpose for repeating a line over and over again.  Is the person crazy?  Often, yes, with worry in the case of "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas.  Sometimes an event is being repeated.  In "Holly Would" an old Parisian man remembers his bride doing a striptease:  "another pearl black button comes undone".

      Other forms include the rondeau or rondel, the triolet, limerick, pantoum, ghazal, and sestina.  Coincidentally, the two most famous poems of the 20th Century were both in form--a sonnet and a rondeau--and were written by members of the Canadian armed forces who died scant months later.

     Forms can be combined.  "¡Ni Una Más!" is both a sonnet and a glose.

Media and Venues

     Poetry can be presented in written, oral, audiovisual or multimedia format.  One might think that print and pixel poetry would be similar.

    "Text is text, right?"

      Well, for starters, internet text has many advantages over books and magazines, among them:

  • Multimedia

         The same poem can be presented as a text, audio, audiovisual or as background to a video.  Just as it is best to watch a Shakespearean play first and then study the script, text usually works best as secondary exposure.  Enjoy first.  Study later.

  • Hypertext

          One can link the words and phrases not only to references (such that there would be no need for T. S. Eliot's footnotes) but to related videos.

  • Graphics

         Web sites can employ pictures with far greater ease and far less expense than print publications.  Some of these can be moving GIFs or, of course, videos.

     Even without these extra capabilities, comparing print text to pixel text without embellishments, there is a qualitative and quantitative difference.  The underlying reason for this can be described in one word:  readership.  Magazines that mirror their content on the web soon discover that the same poem by the same poet gets significantly more attention online.  Over time, this creates [gasp!] competition for that attention***.  Eager for any edge, students learn the elements of the craft, which is the raison d'être for this course and blog. 


* A "cada frase" would do the same thing, changing subthemes in each phrase.

** It may be worth noting that, without an audience--a testing ground--for poetry, it is difficult to establish new forms.  Structures, yes.  Forms, no.

*** In the current print world competition ends with publication.  Online, the competition begins with publication.

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