"A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing poetry"
(New York: A Harvest Original - Harcourt, Inc., 1994)
Poetry of the Past
The poems of the past, however, present a singular and sometimes insurmountable problem. You can guess what it is: metrics:
Poems written with rhyme and in a fairly strict metrical pattern, which feel strange and even "unnatural" to us, were not so strange to our grandparents. They heard such poems in their childhood -- poems by Whittier, Poe, Kipling, Longfellow, Tennyson -- poems by that bard of the nursery, Mother Goose. In their literary efforts, imitating what they had heard, they wrote poems in meter and rhyme. It came, you might say, naturally.
On the other hand, we who did not enjoy such early experiences wit meter and rhyme have to study prosody as though it were a foreign language. It does not come to us naturally. We too write our early poems in imitation of the first poems we heard. More often than not, they have a flush left margine, and an image or two. The do not have a metrical design.
[Note: spoken poems do not have "margins," either left or right. They feature streams of physical sounds. To speak of "margins" implies that the person got their first introduction to poetry only after they learned to read. They do not hear poetry. They see written symbols which ostensibly represent the sounds of human speech.]
Acquaintance with the main body of English poetry is absolutely essential -- it is clearly the whole cake, while what has been written in the last hundred years or so, without meter, is no more than an icing. And, indeed, I do not really mean an acquaintanceship -- I mean an engrossed and able affinity with metrical verse. To be without this felt sensitivity to a poem as a struture of lines and rhythmic energy and repetitive sound [emphasis added], is to be forever less equipped, less deft than the poet who dreams of making a new thing can afford to be. Free verse, after all, developed from metrical verse. And they are not so very different. One is strictly patterned; one is not. But both employ choice of line-length, occasional enjambment, heavy and light stresses, etc.
Of course I don't suggest a return to metrical verse. Neither do I mean to suggest that the contemporary poem is any less difficult or complex than poems of the past. Nor am I advocating, necessarily, that students begin the remedy by writing metrical verse. I would like to. But it would be a defeating way to begin. The affinity is that strong with what we grew up with, the lack of affinity that powerful with what we do not. Now and again a fortunate student may discover an aptitude for metrical verse. But most students will simply struggle beyond the fair return of their time and effort.
Every poem contains within itself an essential difference from ordinary language, no matter how similar to conversational language it may seem at first to be. Call it formality, compression, originality, imagination -- whatever if is, it is essential, and it is enough for students to think about without, in addition, tending to metrics. One wants the student to understand, and hopefully soon, that the space between daily language and literature is neither terribly deep nor wide, but it does contain a vital difference -- of intent and intensity. In order to keep one's eyes on this central and abiding difference, the student must be able to manage both. And language, as one naturally knows language, is the medium that will be quick and living -- the seviceable clay of one's thoughts. An not what is, essentially, a new language."
Poetry of the Present
Modern poetry – that is to say, poems written in some sort of “free form – does not put us off in the way of metrical poems. The writing of these poems seems like something we can do. The idiosyncratic and changeable form allows us to imagine that we can “imitate” it successfully: there are no apparent rules about it that we don’t know and therefore cannot hope to use correctly. The familiarity of the language itself – not very different from the language that we use daily – gives confidence. Also, many of the poems are short – if it is going to be difficult to write the poem, at least it can be done quickly!
Such confidence is helpful and will encourage students to plunge in rather than hang back. That’s good. One learns by thinking about writing, and by talking about writing – but primarily through writing.Modern poetry – that is to say, poems written in some sort of “free form – does not put us off in the way of metrical poems. The writing of these poems seems like something we can do. The idiosyncratic and changeable form allows us to imagine that we can “imitate” it successfully: there are no apparent rules about it that we don’t know and therefore cannot hope to use correctly. The familiarity of the language itself – not very different from the language that we use daily – gives confidence. Also, many of the poems are short – if it is going to be difficult to write the poem, at least it can be done quickly!
Such confidence is helpful and will encourage students to plunge in rather than hang back. That’s good. One learns by thinking about writing, and by talking about writing – but primarily through writing.
Imitating such poems is an excellent way to realize that they are not very similar after all, but contain differences that are constant, subtle, intense, and radiantly interesting. Let students try to imitate the spare tenderness of a John Haines poem. Let them try the long cadences of Whitman, with their wonderful wrist-grip on physical delight and spiritual curiosity. …
Once again, one of the practices of visual arts students comes to mind as I write this: who has not seen a young painter in a museum intently copying a Vermeer, or a Van Gogh, and believing himself on the way to learning something valuable?
Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one’s own work – these are not first things, but final things. Only the patient and the diligent, as well as the inspired, get there.
More Devices of Sound
Some Given Forms
A poem requires a design -- a sense of orderliness. ... language used in the way that it is used. ... a gathering of words and phrases and patterns that have been considered, weighed, and selected." p. 59
Verse That Is Free
Diction, Tone, Voice
Workshops and SolitudeInstruction, Discussion, Advice
A workshop can help writers in a number of important ways. ...
First, a workshop can, in an organized way, make sure that
"... one can live simply and hornorably on just about enough money to keep a chicken alive. And do so cheerfully.
This I have always known -- that if I did not live my life immersed in the one activity which suits me, and which also, to tell the truth, keeps me utterly happy and intrigued, I would come someday to bitter and mortal regret." p. 120
..."A mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry. Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision -- a faith, to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed." p. 122