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Using form to convince: “Conviction”

Verse has magical powers to engage the minds of its audience and, through that engagement, sway opinions and change attitudes. This is more than the tricks that make it easy to learn verse. It is more than Coleridge’s “Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.” It is that poets and singers chant, and enchant. The musician chants, the magician chants, if it is well done it creates enchantment. It changes moods, it changes minds. It is used by all religions, all football teams, all angry mobs, and all gentle singers of lullabyes. The fact of the idea being expressed in verse is used as unspoken proof of the idea’s appropriateness.

Chanting

Poetry in motion

In my last post I said that “rhyme can be used to create a sense of inevitability”. Let me explain:

CONVICTION

True verse has a rhythmic twitch
that needs ongoing action.
Rhyme’s an open pattern which
asks for satisfaction.
Give the right words, strong and bright,
and the listener knows “That’s right!”

Conviction carries over, bought
with the words expressed.
The listener believes the thought
because it came well dressed.
Give the right words, strong and bright,
and the listener knows “That’s right!”

In other words, because the words sound right (in meter and in rhyme), our minds are prepared to accept that their meaning is right, their argument is valid. As O’Shaughnessy wrote,

“With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities
(…)
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample a kingdom down.”

And that is why Shelley was able to claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Poets everywhere agree!

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Uses of Poetic Structure

One of the great things about writing formal poetry is that, if you approach it the right way, it can force you to reduce unnecessary words to meet the structural requirements, and simultaneously add more ideas to meet the rhyme scheme. Here is an example:

Jam Jar

In the night’s jam jar of my memory
My long-dead parents live as fireflies.
My thoughts of them worn by time’s emery,
Their faint light still suggests where my path lies.

(This from the Amsterdam Quarterly, which produces three themed issues a year, the current one being related to “Genealogy”.) The original expression of the image behind the first two lines was longer than the end result; tightening it up and finding “emery” as a rhyme for “memory” extended it again, but this time as a regular quatrain.

If you write an outline of a poem that comes out to 15-20 lines, in free verse but with a couple of rhymes showing up, consider condensing it into a sonnet. All the unnecessary words get squeezed out, and the search for additional rhymes will only make the thoughts richer.

Structure and rhyme can be used to compress, condense, and hopefully intensify the ideas and their expression. But, amusingly, it is also possible to search for rhyme by increasing words, rambling until the rhyme can be tracked down. Scotland’s 19th century William McGonagall comes to mind, his most famous work being “The Tay Bridge Disaster”.

Contemporary illustration of the search after the disaster

The Tay Bridge Disaster

It tells of the collapse of the railway bridge during a storm, while a passenger train was on it:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
(…)
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

The structural requirements of formal verse are only justified when they are at the service of the poem’s aesthetics (or esthetics, depending on your residence). Rhyme, metre/meter and so on should be thought-provoking or relaxing sources of enjoyment, beauty, humo(u)r, memorableness. There is no merit in rhyme that destroys those things.