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.

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Poetry Resources: The HyperTexts

One of the most fascinating – as well as ENORMOUS – repositories of poetry on the Internet is a vast, rambling, straggling site called The Hypertexts. The link here will take you to a listing of hundreds and hundreds of good poets, ancient and modern, well-known and obscure, formal and free, with and without expositions by the site’s creator, poet Michael R. Burch.

William Blake Ancient of Days

William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days”

Want to read William Blake? Or Ronald Reagan’s (surprisingly competent) verse? They’re both here.

Want to read poems on the Holocaust next to poems on the Nakba, the Palestinian Catastrophe? There’s a whole section on it.

Ancient Greek Epitaphs and Epigrams? Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings? Walt Whitman? Wit and Fluff? Everything you could hope for, with more being added all the time.

Truly one of the greatest resources in the world for lovers of poetry!

Our First Chapbook: “Tourists and Cannibals”

The first chapbook in the Potcake Chapbooks series–“Tourists and Cannibals – poems on travel”–is now out, and available through Sampson Low’s page. It features 11 well-known formal poets (“formal” in the sense of structured rhyme and metre/meter). Spellings wander between British and American, as the poets are writing from half a dozen countries. The variety of voices is part of the charm of the series, from the flippant to the wistful to the analytic, writing in a wide variety of forms.

01 Tourists and Cannibals cover

Alban Low’s drawings capture the right tone!

These chapbooks are made from a single large sheet of high quality bond paper printed both sides in colour, folded four times, cut and stapled. This gives a 16-page booklet, with enough space for a dozen poems and some illustrations by Alban Low. As you can see by the title and the front cover above, the chapbooks are lighthearted.

The poems can’t be too long in a format like this, and lightheartedness is well served by rhythm and rhyme. The chapbooks are designed to be the sort of enjoyable, witty, interruptable collection that serves well on a journey or as a little gift at the price of a fancy greeting card.

But of course their true, insidious intent is to help with the reinvigoration of traditional verse within popular culture. Will this work? We’ll just have to see.

 

Why “formal” verse?

This blog is dedicated to the proposition that not all poetry is equal – indeed, that not all of it is even poetry. “Poetry” went off the rails in the 20th century for a variety of reasons – accidentally? suicidally? – but it is slowly getting back on track.

Chatterton

“The Death of Chatterton” – the poet died at 17 (it is uncertain whether he committed suicide or took an accidental overdose, trying to cure himself of venereal disease).

“Poetry – the best words in their best order,” said Coleridge. Aristotle says “rhythm, language and harmony,” and that it is the use of harmony that distinguishes poetry from the other language-based forms. “Harmony” again from Thomas Campion, talking of poetry as the “ioyning of words to harmony”. Ezra Pound rewrites Aristotle’s definition as “Poetry is a composition of words set to music”.

This requirement for “rhythm”, “harmony”, “music” is what has been missing from most of what people styled “poetry” through the last 50 years. But it never goes away from popular culture, because it lives in musicals, rock, c&w, rap, the chants of street protests, and the nursery rhymes and lullabyes sung to babies. It never goes away from popular culture, because it is deeply ingrained in all of us, beginning with the heartbeat that surrounds us before we are born.

And rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and other tricks of formal poetry are not just some meaningless style: they are the hooks on which we hang our memory of the exact words. Ask anyone to recite a poem, and it will be a song, a nursery rhyme, or something else with strong formal elements to it. If you want something to be memorable – not in the sense of remembering the experience, but of remembering a text word for word – if it is anything more than a dozen words, it is far, far more easily remembered if it has rhythm and rhyme.

This blog argues that formal elements are essential to poetry. “Free verse” may be insightful, emotional, witty, descriptive (or, often, none of those), but it isn’t poetry. It’s prose.