Using Structure in Poetry
tools of the trade for various forms of poetry, a few thoughts
I like to think of poetry as living somewhere on the road between prose and music. Real music, I mean, with rhythm and melody and harmony. Poetry is its verbal cousin.
There are certain poems — some pieces in blank verse or free verse, for example — that are on the prose end of the spectrum. And there are others that actually overlap with music. Poems by Robert Burns have been co-opted and set to folk tunes. Others by Goethe have been set by the likes of Schubert. As well, some song lyrics have become separated from their original tunes and now exist as poems in their own right. The old ballads come to mind. And a good deal of wonderful poetry belongs just in the middle.
All of this really does set poetry apart from prose writing. This, and the sheer intensity of expression, as Ansel Guarneros recently pointed out in this article:
Now, we can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of form and tradition and freedom and the rest of it. But it is in the essence of poetry to be structured — whether loosely or closely, whether to the ear, the eye, or only the mind. Structure is one element that produces that intensity.
So here are some thoughts (possibly rather rambling) about structure in poetry.
One of the core elements of structure is repetition. Repetition — along with its corollary, variation — is one of the greatest tools of any artist in any field. Painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and on and on… and poets — we all have this wonderful tool available. For the poet it comes in a wide variety of forms.
It is easy to look at rhyme and see that here is a case of repetition and variation. Each rhyming word ends with the same sounds but is a different word. But it is just as true that an idea can be restated (in another way; this is where the variation comes in), words re-visited for emphasis, an image established and then built upon.
It’s not a bad idea to look at your work and see all the times and ways you are using repetition without even thinking about it. And then to see where it can be strengthened, as well as how much elasticity you want to bring into that repetition to produce variation.
Curiously, I learned my biggest lesson about repetition elsewhere, not by writing poetry or painting or any such thing. I learned it while knitting. Yes, knitting.
I found that when a sequence of stitches was repeated frequently enough — even if it seemed a somewhat awkward sequence — I could get away with almost anything from a design standpoint. The eye and brain could make sense of the sequence because of the repetition. This is not to say that one should use effects that aren’t good in themselves. But it is to say that there is a great deal of clarity and assurance to the reader/viewer/listener when presented with a wise use of repetition and variation.
Texture is also important. Again, this is a concept which is valuable throughout the arts. I like to think of it with respect to poetry, though, because this very subtle element can do much to determine the sound of our work.
Here, we most frequently hear about things like alliteration and assonance. This is again another version of repetition and variation. Alliteration is the repetition of the initial sounds of words, no more. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within words — not rhymed as having identical endings, merely a repetition of the vowels.
Recently I wrote a poem in the Old English style:
This ancient style was used long before rhyme came into English poetry. It was instead defined by the use of alliterative words. Three, or at least two, of the four stressed words in each line were expected to begin with the same sound. (Words beginning with a vowel were all counted as the same sound.) This was an effective device for a poetry form which was developed to be created and passed on by ear only. It creates an internal structure that is at once memorable and richly textured.
But texture can be much more understated than the pounding pulse of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
For instance, what is the scale of the words in any given piece? Some lines are full of insignificant words, some full of short but forceful words, some use long, multisyllabic words.
I like to remain aware of the proportions of these various word-scales within a given poem. Working out the proportions gives a sense of consistency. It can assist the reader to understand the flow of the lines.
Lines in which small, unimportant words predominate can make it difficult to feel the flow of both thought and rhythm. A good balance is a gift to the reader. And the chosen balance should be appropriate to the content of the poem.
Then there is the question of flow. Here we have texture worked out over the longer scale of the lines. Sometimes a thought ends with the conclusion of a line; sometimes it flows into the next line or even the next stanza. (Enjambment is the delightful name for this effect of letting a phrase flow uninterrupted to the next line.)
And this is a good example of the fact that just as repetition is a powerful tool, so is variation. Working the thoughts, sentences, or phrases in a variety of lengths allows the reader’s brain to keep hold of the ideas, rather than fixating on the lines. Variations in phrase length can help to keep the reader’s interest and create an emphasis on the actual content of the poem.
Of course, punctuation can then become a secondary tool to allow the reader to understand what you are expressing. I confess to using a haphazard combination of Chicago school and Oxford rules and who knows what else, choosing my commas and semi-colons chiefly with the goal of increasing clarity of communication.
And that is really why I write poetry. The goal is to communicate emotions, thoughts, even stories and dreams and philosophies. Every tool that facilitates that communication is valuable.
So when I think about structure, I like to approach it from all levels: the elements I hear, the elements I see while reading, and the elements I think about afterward. Repetition and variation, texture and balance can be expressed at each of these levels.
The ideas I’ve presented here are things I have thought about and worked toward over all the years that I have loved poetry. So if it helps you think in a new, positive way about writing, that is all to the good. That is what I am hoping, anyway!
Later I would like to write about the most recognizable elements of traditional poetry. But perhaps this is enough for one post!