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

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Why Your Poetry Fails - Part I

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #18
     Why aren't you winning poetry writing contests or, if it's your preference, slams?  Why the string of rejections from editors?  Why are your readings or open mic performances greeted with yawns and polite applause?

     There may be any number of reasons but, assuming that you have interesting material, good general writing (e.g. lucidity, grammar, spelling, syntax, originality, cohesion, et cetera) skills, and competent, unbiased arbiters (something you should check before entering, especially if there is an entry fee involved), shouldn't your work be faring better?  And why do the same people win over and over again?

      It's enough to make you spitting mad and, perhaps, a little suspicious.

    "Is it rigged?"

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #32
      Speaking as an editor, contest/slam judge and frequent attendee of spoken word events, I can say that aspirants tend to underestimate the quality and quantity of their competition.  Most events boil down to picking between many submissions of equal quality--so much so that the winner is, at best, first among equals.  Once the chaff is tossed aside your creation can become a lottery ticket:  one of dozens or hundreds of fine submissions vying for the same few honored spots.  Indeed, arbiters often describe themselves as tie-breakers.  It follows logically that even the tiniest leg up could have put your entry over the top.  It follows, too, that where there is any difference whatsoever between the winner and the also-rans it is because the successful participant did something others didn't.  Often something inobtuse.  Perhaps more than one such thing, since it may take a few to create that margin of victory.  These can be downright undetectable, leaving some to wonder why their work wasn't chosen.

    "Is it rigged?"

    Not quite, and not in that sense.  The bottom line is that your opponents are picking your pockets, using sneaky, underhanded gimmickry, some of which you might not recognize, to win.  This leaves you with two choices:  give up or fight fire with fire.

    In this series we'll try to level the playing field.  We begin by looking at a few of these double-dealing, shady tricks, all of which were used in one guileful, insidious poem.


    You want your poem and its segments (i.e. stanzas, strophes, paragraphs) to end with a flourish:  little "ta-da" moments until the final "TA-DA!"  One of the shrewdest, slyest ways of separating your segments is to use diaeresis.¹

    To fully appreciate just how devious this one is, tell your friends that you are about to recite a two-part poem of about 8-12 lines and ask them to signal when they think the first part ends.

    "September came like winter's ailing child, but left us viewing Valparaiso's pride.  Your face was always saddest when you smiled.  You smiled as every doctored moment lied.  You lie with orphans' parents, long reviled.  As close as coppers, yellow beans still line Mapocho's banks.  It leads them to the sea;  entwined on rocks and saplings, each new vine recalls that dawn in 1973 when every choking bastard weed grew wild."

     As we can see when the poem is decoratated (i.e. put into normal [and, in this case, iambic pentameter] lines), the correct answer is at "reviled".

September came like winter's ailing child
but left us viewing Valparaiso's pride.
Your face was always saddest when you smiled.
You smiled as every doctored moment lied.
You lie with orphans' parents, long reviled.

As close as coppers, yellow beans still line
Mapocho's banks. It leads them to the sea;
entwined on rocks and saplings, each new vine
recalls that dawn in 1973
when every choking, bastard weed grew wild.

     Note the unusual ababa rhyme scheme in the first stanza.  How did so many of your amigos know that the break came there and not, say, after "lied"?  After all, abab is far more common than ababa!  What's going on here?  Are your buddies brighter than you think they are?

     Having detected the iambic (de-DUM) rhythm, take a close look at the two-syllable words in the first half:  "winter's", "ailing", "viewing", "ev'ry", "doctored", "moment", "orphan's", "parents" and, finally, "reviled".

     Every 2-sylable word is trochaic (DUM-de) until that final word, "reviled", which fits into the iambic rhythm like a glove and acts like the final keynote in a song.  This is what your pals were able to detect, likely without realizing it consciously.²

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #46
     It is important to note that these dodges operate irrespective of the sophistication of the judge/audience--as diaeresis did with your chums. 

    "Well, okay," you say, "but, seriously, how many sleazy, slimy ploys like this are there?"

     Would you believe an entire freaking encyclopedia?  As we'll see in subsequent installments of this series, the example poem has many.  It shouldn't take a lot of arm-twisting to make the point that, in any close decision, one or more of these may allow other entrants to keep you a bridesmaid and never a bride.

     "Those bastards!"


¹ - Diaeresis has many other meanings, including some of those marks ("diacritic") that appear over foreign vowels like ë and ö, and the care we have to take enunciating adjacent vowel sounds ("hiatus") like "re-emerge" or "nve" (which shows both the diacritic and hiatus use), even if in adjoining words, like "the attic".

² - This also explains why poems need to be heard, not just read.

Series Links:

  1. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part I - Diaeresis

  2. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part II - Brackets

  3. Why Your Poetry Fails - Part III - Judges and Editors

    Your feedback is appreciated!

    Please feel free to comment or ask questions below or, failing that, mark the post as "funny", "interesting", "silly" or "dull". 

    If you would like to contact us confidentially or blog here as "Gray for a Day" please use the box below, marking your post as "Private" and including your email address;  the moderator will bring your post to our attention and prevent it from appearing publically.

    We look forward to hearing from you.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments and questions are welcome.