Reverie Fifty-Two: back to basics

Nearly the end of 2012, and we’re still here. Should we be relieved?

I forgot to mention before that I will be at the Poetry and Prose Winter Getaway in New Jersey next month, which will be my first real poetry retreat ever; quite excited about this! I hope I get to say hi to Dorianne Laux, because I chickened out at the Dodge Festival and didn’t get to meet her. While the Jersey Shore in mid-January is not the most hospitable natural environment, I suppose that means I will be more able to seclude myself in the hotel room and write up a storm. Tomorrow I’m going to make my list of poetic new year resolutions, so “doing a poetry retreat” will be fulfilled right quick, I suppose.

This week: “back to basics

This is going to be a simple post. I looked back through the last year of Reveries, trying to come up with some kind of idea for what to do on the last one of the year. One thing I’ve noticed – and in a good way, I’m flattered by it – is that a lot of the prompts have comments where people have said, “This requires a lot of thought; I’ll have to come back to this later.” I think prompts that challenge you to think a lot are the best ones, that deserve attention; there are certainly throwaway prompts out there, and ones that come naturally for some and difficult for others, but my favorites are the ones that require extensive thought. I’ve never liked the idea of time limits on these Reveries, and so I’ve never pushed for getting a response poem up within the week or whatever. Sometimes you only need to be with a prompt for an hour; sometimes it needs to stew for a year.

So, as we roll from one calendar year to the next, what I suggest is go back to the ones you’ve set aside. If you need a refresher, the “Reveries” link in the left column will pull up only the Reverie posts, so you can remind yourself which prompts you skipped but wanted to do later, or which ones you want to give another go because they were just so cool. (I hope you found at least a couple of them cool…) Maybe you want to go all the way back to the beginning of the year, having had fifty-two weeks to practice and develop ideas. Any way you want to do it is fine with me, but with all the holiday chaos (note that this is going up a day late), I don’t think any kind of prompt I could cobble together will do justice equal to the notion of going back and having a second look at something valuable from before.

And after that, here is my suggestion for the next year’s prompts: each week, I will take one poem and workshop it here on the blog. You can send poems in via email (linksfreude at gmail), or by comment, or link to them in your blog, and I will pick one out of the bucket to pick apart. I promise you the following: I will be fair and constructive in my criticism (endeavoring to do three strengths and three areas for improvement; shorter poems might get less), I will treat all poems equally (even if they are the kind of poems I dislike; see my list of poetic turn-offs, also in the left column), and I will try to give a chance to everybody (unless no one takes me up on this offer, and I have to post my own poems to revise openly). My hope is that I can deliver some critique and suggestions in a way that is leading, but not controlling, and that will touch on general poetic subjects enough that other readers will be able to make use of it. Of course, the caveat I always give still stands: all of this is based on my own meandering experience of the last three-almost-four years as a daily-or-thereabouts poet, the several years before that as a prose scribbler, the linguistics/comparative literature training that I have, and the consequence of being a voracious reader. The advantage to my comparatively unprofessional experience is that you don’t have to pay me several hundred dollars to read your stuff and get an opinion. I just hope it’s an opinion you’d want. :)

Probably I will still do these on Saturdays, too. I’ve gotten very used to Saturday posts.

If you want to be considered for the first of these new prompts (whose name is yet undetermined), please send me something this coming week (such as, for example, a response to a Reverie you missed?) so that I have something to put up on Saturday that’s not my own work. And spread the word, if other people want critique. The comments section of those posts can also be a forum for other poets to workshop each other, if that is something desired as well. It’s very free-form feel-it-out kind of stuff, this: it will be a learning journey for all of us.

Off to the Apple store to see if they can fix my iPod. Cheers for now!

Reverie Fifty-One: personal holiday

Before launching into this week’s Reverie, I want to discuss this prompt series. I think it’s gone well, and I’ve enjoyed doing them, but I don’t know how much more I can dredge up from the idea wells in the coming year. I’m wondering if I should change tack a little bit, still doing weekly prompts but with a different tone. What do you all think? I know that sometimes these move between too complicated and somewhat interesting, but if you have any ideas for what works/what doesn’t, and what you might like to see (and whether you’ve benefited from these prompts), I’d be happy to hear them.

Also, if you have suggestions for what shape the last prompt of the year should take next week, please drop them in the comments, as my brain will be in slumber mode, and I will be happy for some input.

This week: “personal holiday

Between Hanukkah, Yule, the end of the world, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, and all the other holidays crammed into the few weeks at the year’s finish, it can feel as though there is simply one special festive occasion after another to attend to. In a sense, when every day is a holiday, can there be said to be any holidays at all? (There’s a brain-teaser for you.) I do find that some of these holidays become a bit tired after a while, and I start looking for new traditions to follow.

So, this is a prompt that has been used elsewhere before, which I will now appropriate. On the subject of holidays, you have two options for this prompt. The first one is to take a pre-existing holiday (it doesn’t have to be one of the winter ones) and give it a new spin. You can discuss some kind of existential issue that’s been bugging you about Arbor Day for years; or share some rare and unique tradition from rural Romania that takes place the first week of Advent; or you might even find a holiday that’s only celebrated in one part of the world which you want to research. However it goes, you ought then to think about how to describe it poetically. A couple of pointers:

– think about the season where the holiday falls, and use that as a backdrop to juxtapose the images of the celebration: if, during Italian Easter, they carry big torches around the countryside, focus on the colors of Tuscany in April at least as much as the color of the flames
– decide whether you want to zoom in on the trappings of the celebration or the overarching purpose of it, but don’t try to do both, as it might be too much at once
– dig up some photos, music, items, stories, or other artifacts about the holiday, and do a bit of free-writing to see what they summon up in you: do you get particular stories or emotions that you can name out of them?

Then, choose what form you want to use for your poem and begin writing. Tantalize your reader: don’t give away everything about the holiday, just leave enough traces of its spirit to get the reader interested. If you had to describe Christmas for the first time in thirty seconds to make it appealing, how would you do it? Stick to powerful, rich images that pique the reader’s interest.

The other option (which I prefer) is simply to invent your own holiday. A word of caution: I suggest not using a personal anniversary that will not have a universal appeal. (I know, the title of this Reverie is “personal holiday”, but bear with me.) Pick something from the natural world, or an abstract concept to celebrate (in the way that Valentine’s Day has transitioned from a saint’s day into a generic festival of love, more or less). I’ve often said that two of my favorite holidays are First Snow and First Thunder, which demand their own particular kinds of pomp and ceremony (and are moveable feasts as well). And as with the first option for the prompt, zoom in on the particulars of time/place to give some specificity to the piece. A few more tips, this time for the second option:

– if you choose a natural moment/event, pick apart why it summons up emotion X or Y in you; try to draw some symbolic associations between the literal, elemental parts of what you’re celebrating and the emotional, figurative ones
– alternatively, if you’re more concerned with a place or thing in the world (if you have Grand Canyon Day, for example) rather than a particular time, how will you decide when your holiday should be?
– get diverse with the descriptions: First Snow is not just about seeing the white stuff on the ground, it’s about the peculiar bite in the air, the colors of the sky, the silence over the trees, etc.
– because you’re creating this holiday yourself, come up with some celebratory aspects; do you go on a picnic, or see friends, or say a chant, or dance madly on the roof, or what?

When you write, it’s up to you how you want to frame this, to invite the reader in. The first option can be considered a little more educational, for lack of a better word, especially if you take a familiar occasion to explore: you and the reader are jumping off on this journey of discovering the wiggly backstage of Christmas, or July 4th, or whatever, together. The second option is simpler for the brain, but perhaps more open to the heart. It doesn’t take a wild logical leap to understand “first snow”, and there’s not much you can teach about the event itself, but the challenge is to draw the reader in to understand why this celebration you’re doing is important to you, in the emotional sense. Of course, if you can manage to both educate and enchant your reader at once, you’ve been doubly successful; maybe you can have the first snow happen on Christmas, and get those two sides of the celebratory coin in at once. In any case, allow yourself to go deep and pensive with this one, and really think about what the celebration does for you, more than what it just “means”. And then get meta, and think about that day against the backdrop of a year that is (largely) drab and shallow by comparison.

Time for a nap, but I hope this is enough to get you started. (And I know people are busy this week, but if you have a chance, do come back and share!) Hoping to see what ideas you have, and any suggestions for the final Reverie of the year…!

Reverie Fifty: six by six

I usually resist posting anything political on my blog, but obviously people are still reeling from yesterday’s tragedy. I’m pretty unashamedly pro-gun-control for reasons just like this, and I worry about the future of this country as access to mental healthcare plummets, gun ownership skyrockets, and demagoguery gets ever more fiery. Will this shock the country into doing something about the epidemic of gun violence we’re dealing with? (To call it anything else is just ignorant.) I don’t know; I hope so. Find me one nutbag who tries to justifiably defend more guns in the wake of this. (Actually, no, don’t find me one, because I know they’re out there, and I will go apeshit.)

The Fellow went up to Connecticut to visit his sister and nieces yesterday (as planned, nothing emergency); she was pretty beside herself, he said, but much better when they came home from school. (Not sure if their school was part of the lockdowns: they’re pretty far away from Newtown, but far away is not very far in CT.) There are cruel ironies everywhere, folded into the story: at our office holiday party on Thursday night, one of our guests said that nothing remarkable ever happens in Connecticut, and I can’t stop thinking about that. The one takeaway from this and every other tragedy of this kind that I want to share is, express yourself. Don’t be afraid to have the conversations that need having, and to feel what needs to be felt. Listening, discussing and understanding are what people need to do right now (with substantive action as a product of that), and they are the things that can help prevent other similar tragedies in the future.

It is a disservice to the dead to forget them, but it is also a disservice to not keep on living. It’s Saturday morning, and I have a Reverie to write. We are a terrible and complex species, capable of many things in our minds at once.

This week: “six by six

My intention with the series of world poetry forms every four weeks was to broaden people’s horizons a little bit regarding those obscure but enchanting forms that they might not otherwise be familiar with, in time and place. We’ve tapped Southeast Asia, Viking Scandinavia, Wales, Persia, Korea, Ecuador, Java and Bali, ancient Greece and Rome, Japan, Ireland, pre-Islamic Arabia, and Somalia; there are plenty more I would’ve liked to get to, but that will have to do for this year, at least. Today we’re going to talk about sestinas, a Franco-Italian medieval form which most people are familiar with, but daunted by. Fear not! The sestina is not so fearsome a beast as all that.

There’s plenty of theory about the construction of the form that veers into the mathematical, looking for numerical patterns and natural harmonies. I’m not going to get into all that, since my goal is to de-mystify the form a little bit, not make it more complicated. Very simply, as you’re probably aware, the sestina features six stanzas of six lines each, and rather than have a set rhyme scheme, repeats the end words (also called teleutonsin different orders through each stanza. So, for example, if you had the first stanza’s lines ending in these words:

blue, collide, slack, forbear, twice, jar

…then the second stanza would have:

jar, blue, twice, collide, forbear, slack

If you number the endwords, i.e. 1. blue, 2. collide, 3. slack, 4. forbear, 5. twice, 6. jar, that will help plot out the form of the poem. Each stanza will have the endwords in these orders:

1st stanza: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (obviously!)
2nd stanza: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3
3rd stanza: 3, 6, 4, 1, 5, 2
4th stanza: 2, 3, 5, 6, 1, 4
5th stanza: 4, 2, 1, 3, 6, 5
6th stanza: 5, 4, 6, 2, 3, 1

Beautiful, isn’t it? The Wikipedia article has some nifty little graphics to show how this pattern can be graphically represented, but I find them unnecessary. I do want to throw a couple of tips in right off the bat:
– Do choose your words first! We’ll talk about that below.
– You’ll note that each endword will appear, at some point, in every line position in a stanza: first line, last line, everything in between. Be sure to choose words that you’re comfortable having front and center, words that can end a stanza, and words that you’re okay with getting enjambed and/or lost in the shuffle in the middle.
– Note that the last line of each stanza ends with the word that will end the first line of the next. All of the words should be ones that won’t sound too heavy if they are repeated in the next line.
– By the same note, choose polysemous or homophonic words to make your life easier. Polysemy just means multiple meanings: notice that I picked blue above, which can be a color noun, color adjective, or emotion adjective, with ease. Similarly, jar could be a household object, a bird, or a startling verb. Homophony is also a clever way to bend the rules: I have forbear up there, but maybe I just want to repeat bear and bare as endwords, varying them six times.

In addition to the six stanzas (the “sestets” or “sixains”), there are three lines at the end, called the envoi. I actually recommend that you start with this, because people often choose six words that work really well in the context of the stanzas, and forget its tail, where things are more difficult. Different authorities insist on different patterns for the envoi, but the key is that each of the three lines should contain two of the endwords, somewhere inside. So, I might use my endwords above to do:

We collided twice before we made peace:
you, with a jar of things you couldn’t bear,
me, with heart gone slack to meet that twinned blue.

I was thinking “eyes” for the last part. It’s something I could return to in the stanzas if need be. My point is this: the sestina tends to get into a groove pretty early on, and readers often get bored by stanza five or six. The envoi is how you draw them back and wrap up what you’ve been doing in a neat little package, so it must pop a bit. Essentially, write a three-line poem you’re really proud of first, then go back for the other thirty-six lines.

Once you’ve chosen the endwords and gotten a sense of your envoi, what next? There is no required meter for the sestina, but English ones have often been written in iambic pentameter (of course), while the original troubadour-era ones had seven-syllable first lines followed by ten-syllable lines in each stanza, and the eventual Italian ones were in eleven-syllable lines. I find iambic pentameter to be nice, but of course you must serve the purpose of your poem: check out Daniel Ari’s fantastic guide to writing a sestina, which is instructive and flexes the form wonderfully. (Actually, check out a lot of the sestinas from McSweeney’s.) In actuality, the sestina can be one of the freest forms out there: yes, the endwords are fixed points, but the entire poem can just blossom off of them.

I’m getting into this habit of suggesting examples lately, so check out these two classics: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina“, and Seamus Heaney’s “Two Lorries“. I like these two because they show a nice contrast between the everyday and memorial narratives that are the hallmark of the sestina. Often, the form is used for love and heartache poems, but the fact remains that it’s difficult to carry any shallow thoughts across 39 lines. My favorite sestinas are the ones like onions: deceptively simple on the outside, which can be peeled down layer after layer. (If you’re lucky, they’ll make you cry along the way.) The sestina is a very popular form, but I think a lot of people don’t practice building up their endurance before writing one; they simply want the challenge of the form. So, I exhort you: build up that endurance! Write one that will hold the reader’s attention in the same way that the 13th-century troubadours, back in the royal courts, would have had to hold their patrons’ attention with nothing but a harp or lute and six words repeating over and over.

If you want to further complicate the challenge:
– Try obfuscating the form a little bit. You’ll note that (6×6)+3 = 39. But so does 13×3: you could try re-dividing the lines into three stanzas of thirteen, while still respecting the endword pattern. See what it does to your enjambment. Or maybe you want to write it as a prose poem and hide it altogether.
– There are variations on the form based on the number of lines: the pentina (five stanzas of five lines each: endwords go 12345, 51423, 35214, 43152, 24531, with a two- or three-line envoi), the quatrina (1234, 4123, 3412, 2341, two-line envoi), the tritina (123, 312, 231, one-line envoi), and others that expand up to many more lines (such as the 9-tina). Try one of these out if you want.
– I made up this form a while back I called the helix sestina, and wrote a poem called “Madison Square Tableau” which was published by Autumn Sky. Essentially, it’s a sestina, but then if you go backwards from the end of the sixth stanza, the beginning words of each line repeat in the same orders as the endwords do. (And then the envoi contains all twelve.) It was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever written, so if you’re feeling masochistic… go for it!

I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

Reverie Forty-Nine: i’ve got rhythm

Have to type quickly today, as there are things that need some doing around town. This week has just been interminable, and I worry that the next will be even worse. But here’s to keeping a stiff upper lip and hoping that it all works out, and that I can make it through to the other side (vacation!) intact. Got such a headache, though…

This week: “i’ve got rhythm

After talking about punctuation and line breaks, and different ways to use sound repetition, I want to wrap up this little three-part series with some talk about meter, vocabulary, and the broader level of sound structure. The usual caveat: this is all my own opinion. The secondary caveat: I have this habit of spelling meter as metre sometimes, à la the Brits, I suppose. Please pardon me in advance if I weave between the two spellings.

It can be easy to throw meter out the window, especially when doing free verse: with all the delicately crafted images and carefully placed sound devices, attention to grammar and punctuation (or breaking them apart), and other structural tricks, who has time to worry about the stressed syllables? Leave it for the sonneteers. But the truth is that meter can serve you well in any poem, whether it’s in a particular form or not. The basic types are as follows, described by each “foot”:
iambic – unstressed syllable followed by stressed (the caffeinated beverage…)
trochaic – stressed syllable followed by unstressed (anybody want peanut?)
spondaic – two stressed syllables in a row (stand back!)
dactylic – stressed syllable followed by two unstressed (come to the carnival Saturday)
anapestic – two unstressed syllables followed by stressed (in the silence, a cry)
amphibrach – unstressed, stressed, unstressed (the moon is the coin that bought nighttime)

There are others, but you’re most likely to run across entire lines of feet in one of these meters, or a few types mixed together. Pretty much everyone knows iambic pentameter from the sonnets; but what about amphibrach trimeter/dimeter? (That would be the limerick.) Or dactylic dimeter? (See the aptly-named “double dactyl”.) See what each line summons up in you and how they feel: try to give a name to the rhythm, whether it’s gallop, plod, trudge, sprint, flitter, crash, parade, etc. When you’re writing formal verse, you don’t often have a choice, but in free verse, you can mix and match these freely. If you want a particular section of the poem to move more swiftly, a lot of unstressed syllables often helps; similarly, if you want to stop the reader dead in their tracks, a spondee can be very effective, especially when combined with a subtle rhyme, a period, and a line break.

Even in formal verse, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could mess around with metre. Try doing a trochaic sonnet, or even a dactylic one. Is the sonnet more than just the sum of its parts? If you change the rhythm, you still have the rhyme scheme to follow, and the all important octet-sestet combination, with that important turn in the middle. (And if you don’t know what the turn is, please review the definition of the sonnet.) We are often told to use iambic rhythm in English because the language normally falls into that pattern; but part of the joy of poetry is to explore how far outside that pattern you can flex language.

So now let’s talk about choosing vocabulary. Again, free verse has a bit more liberty with this one, as there are normally a couple different options for the pacing of your lines, and therefore more options for the word selection. In a sonnet, the rhyme and the iambs keep you fairly set; you may have to say absurd instead of cockamimieridiculous, ludicrous, etc. even if you’re feeling wordy. But I want to draw your attention to word length, which is a different aspect that isn’t considered as often. In Japanese poetry, we hear about how haiku are not counted in syllables, but rather in “morae”, a nebulous linguistic concept. The short-and-sweet version, though, is that it’s about the number of sounds you’re cramming into one syllable. Think about be and strengths; they are both one syllable, but which takes longer to say? The latter has more morae, and would take up several “syllables” in an authentic Japanese-style haiku.

Use this perception to your advantage. Remember to change the flow of the poem. If you want to keep your reader moving at a clipped pace, you could write:
the river is serpentine, lapis lazuli singing its song

But if you want to slow that line down a bit, you might choose deeper vowels, syllables heavy with more consonants, and a metre with more stressed syllables:
wide-flowing water streams and falls; oxbow lake meets mire and sighs

Lots of monosyllables mixed in there, and “bow” is the only syllable that has less than three sounds in it. Rather than worrying about which words you can dig up that have the most syllables or the proper ones that fit the rhythm, try to find words which have the right balance. Try this: I can’t believe I’m about to suggest this, but open a thesaurus. Pick a word like “water” or “river”, and just make a list of everything in that entry. For each word, pick apart the stressed syllables; what meter could this fit into? Rate it from 1 to 10 on how heavy and slow (or light and quick) it is. Does it convey a particular tone? Sometimes, making a list like this can be very well-suited to replacing a word that you know is wrong for its location in your poem, but you can’t figure out why.

And a side note: you’ll want to stay away from the rarefied words, of course. And you don’t want to force a word into place. The cardinal rules of choosing language in poetry – get specific, but comprehensible, and don’t break the word too much – are paramount. But when you have your specific, comprehensible, flexible words, sometimes there are still several options, and the one whose sound matches your mood in that place in the poem will be the best one.

Lastly, sound structure in general is an important consideration. To develop what I said above, different metres, vowels and consonants will have a different effect. (And the rub is that different people will have myriad reactions to the same sounds.) You may craft a line perfectly, and then discover that the next one you want to write is completely different in rhythm. But instead of seeing this as a problem, use this to your advantage: what changes in the poem’s tone do you come across as a result? If you’re writing a poem about snowfall that starts out light and airy, and suddenly you want to insert an image full of deep, wide sounds:

…while thin-fingered flakes gathering between the twigs
make a bored yawn whose snobbery crumbles to the touch…

Roll with it! Here, the lines go from an almost childish glee at the snow to a disinterested unfriendliness, and the sound reflects that. (Note: “bored yawn” = spondee.) And look at the lines: they keep stopping and starting (like snow, perhaps?) with iambs rubbing against trochees, fading into a nice little pair of iambs at the end. Allow your lines to echo each other with their pace, but contrast in sound quality, or perhaps vice versa. Most importantly, allow yourself to discover things about the poem by reading it, over and over, as you write it, and tweak it to allow the sonic devices you love to come through.

There are poets for whom the overarching sound structure is the primary concern, but if you’re not one of them, then I urge you to keep it in mind. It might come after finding those perfect images and getting the rhymes just right, and writing in your particular voice, but it’s just one more component of the puzzle in a memorable poem. Formal verse takes advantage of this fact by forcing you into one pattern or another; it makes finding an enchanting skeleton to your poem easier, but can get stale real fast, or prevent some of what you want coming through. Write what you want to write, but then go back and write it again to see how it talks and sings. You will surprise yourself when you think about how lines rub against one another, how metres match within a poem, how the weights of different syllables will pull the poem in one direction or another.

A bit of reading, again:
– Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill” (again, I know!)
– Langston Hughes, “Harlem
– Rafael Campo, “Love Song for Love Songs

These are more or less chosen at random (okay, Fern Hill was not), but try reading these paying attention only to the sound. Look specifically for any change/shift/regularity in meter, any repetition of sound structure (not just rhymes!), and words that seem curious at first glance, but upon closer inspection bring the feel of the poem to life. (Relating back to the last Reverie, all three of these do also do interesting things with rhyme.) Free-write a bit: what ideas do these three poems generate in you?

And then once you’ve gotten those juices flowing, try either revising and old poem to pay more attention to meter and sound — change some of the words around! — or craft an entirely new one where you do make it your primary concern. Happy writing!

Reverie Forty-Eight: euphony, eyephony, we all phony

Forgive the tongue-in-cheek title…

Let me give some quick blog updates. First, the GRE went well; at least, I felt good enough about my scores to send them to my prospective schools (again). Simultaneously, my company (which has been in impending merger for a year) is finally rolling out all their fringe benefit things as part of the parent company like opportunities to work in Europe/Asia, and flexible freelancer hours. (This week, though, has been illustrative of the principle that there are times when no fringe benefits, I think, could make me truly love my job. So we’ll see what happens in ten months.) Meanwhile, NaNoWriMo is finished; final count of 51,345 words. Of course, the novel itself is not done, and my new goal is to finish it before Christmas, but at least I won the challenge. It feels great to be writing prose again as well. And today is World AIDS Day, which has me a little bit down, thinking about Nicholas. I wonder if today is the day to begin the warped elegy for him that’s been languishing in my mind since August.

But enough business chat. Down to the Reverie.

This week: “euphony, eyephony, we all phony…

…for homophony? Or whatever you will. I want to talk about sound structure today, not necessarily sound symbolism, but the nuts and bolts of using different sounds in your poems. There’s two threads I want to pursue: formal and free verse. In formal verse, people often think that if they can just fit the rhyme scheme required by the poem, and the meter, they don’t have to worry about all the words leading up to the end. (Sometimes an inspired bit of alliteration might slip in there too.) But in fact, it can be helpful to think about all the words working together, not just the ends of lines. Conversely, in free verse poets sometimes believe that rhyme has no place in their work, when in reality the careful use of sound can pack a wallop.

Firstly, rhyme. Rhyme is really just matching sounds, but what people think of as rhyme is often technically a perfect masculine tail rhyme. So “I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree” fits the bill for this: same vowel sound, different consonants, stressed syllable, at the end of the line. But let’s pick this apart: perfect implies imperfectmasculine implies feminine, and tail implies head. Here are a few quick pointers:
1. Perfect rhymes are those which the final stressed syllables of two lines match vowel sound and differ in consonant (…see, …tree)
2. A masculine rhyme, like the one above, contains the whole rhyme in one syllable. Feminine rhymes have an additional unstressed syllable which shares vowel sounds, and can have the same or different consonants in the second syllable (…acquainted / …painted, …pleasure / …treasure)
3. Tail rhymes come at the end of a line. If we strictly consider the rhyme to be a match of sound, we could include alliteration (head rhyme), consonance, assonance, etc. to be other kinds; but for our purposes, let’s treat these as separate phenomena.

Poets often fall into the trap of writing according to how they pronounce the lines. Naturally, you want it to sound right to yourself, but when you pass it to another person, they don’t always pick up the same patterns that you articulate. Try this: take a poem of yours that features some kind of rhyming device (but doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it) and record yourself reading it. Then give it to a friend and have them read it. How similar is the reading? Chances are it will be at least a little different. Bear this in mind when setting up your sounds: little words like for or and can have flexible pronunciations, while several substantives (leg, hour, orange, water, bath) change from dialect to dialect. Write in your own dialect, but allow yourself to be a little bit flexible. I have several North Jersey friends who would rhyme leg and egg with plague and the Hague, while South Jersey is often lampooned for water rhyming with (do-)gooder. You can take advantage of this with forced rhymes: allow your line endings to shift their vowels ever so slightly in a plausible direction. Check out Wikipedia for several examples of “mergers and splits” that happen in English, and don’t let “proper pronunciation” stand in the way of word choice. This is the first kind of “imperfect rhyme”.

Two other possibilities are slant rhyme or weak rhyme. The first is essentially rhyming consonants rather than vowels: hand and bendwrist and test. (If you match the consonants but change the vowels, that’s called pararhymehand/hound, wrist/rest.) The second is rhyming unaccented syllables, because remember, if you have a meter that’s not iambic or anapest, what will you do for a rhyming form? Note the difference between this and a feminine perfect rhyme: under and thunder is feminine perfect, wastrel and scoundrel are weak rhymes. (But they still work really well: try shouting, “A wastrel! A scoundrel!” in a quiet cafe a few times like I just did. You’ll see what I mean. Lovely amphibrach.) And then you have near rhyme, which matches a stressed and unstressed syllable, if that’s your thing: solvent and wentdeadly and spree. But this is somewhat rarer as a tail rhyme when your meter is consistent.

Now for the other side of the coin. As I’ve alluded to before, I dislike when people think that free verse “can’t” or “shouldn’t” rhyme in various ways, that every line should just be pulled from the ether and dropped onto the page. I’ll quote — as I am wont to do — Laura Dern as Poet Laureate on the West Wing: “An artist’s job is to captivate you for as long as we’ve asked for your attention.” I have faith in y’all’s abilities to come up with beautiful imagery and language to describe it, but if you can get the sounds to carry your reader even further, it’ll be a hat trick. It’s what makes for fantastic poems. Let me present you with my three cardinal rules about rhyme in free verse poems:
1. It’s okay to have two lines rhyme, at the end, just as though it were a formal poem. You might want to avoid an iambic pentameter couplet at the beginning, so the reader doesn’t feel misled, but if the imagery and language demands it anywhere else in the piece, rhyme!
2. Your rhymes do not have to fall at the end. We’re disregarding alliteration and the beginnings of words for this Reverie, but by all means, use them. And by equally all means, allow the ends of the third words of each line to have a rhyme scheme, or every prime-numbered syllable, or whatever. Internal rhyme is a hallmark of great free verse poetry.
3. A lot of experimentation that may seem out of place in a sonnet or terza rima is welcome in free verse. Try repetition or rhyme chains as a device: “the tintinnabulation of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells,” or “a lean green mean machine“, for example. (But maybe better than those examples I just used.)

Think of it this way as well: formal verse rhyme schemes are predicated on the end of the word, but at least in modern poetry, enjambment causes a lot of the discrete clauses to flow together more smoothly. When you hear a poet read, do you count the syllables, and mark exactly where the rhymes will fall? I’m a fan of doing my creation secret sonnets, which are iambic, 140 syllables, and with particular rhymes every ten syllables, but otherwise they are arranged just like free verse. If the flow of a read poem is relaxed about where the rhymes fall in the pattern of speech, why shouldn’t you be? Make use of internal rhyme if it serves you; and in free verse, you have the option not to if it doesn’t.

Ultimately, you must also consider why rhyme is done in the first place. Big reasons include: it adds connective tissue between lines to associate images with each other; there is the principle of euphony, where the beautification of sound signifies art rather than just talk; and in forms, well, you just have to. Rhyme should be seen neither as a chore nor as a panacea: use it in just the right amounts that you must and want, throughout the lines you need to, for whatever purpose of making the poem sing beyond its literal content. Metre plays an important part for this is well, but rhythm is only part of a song.

I recommend some reading:
– Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill“, because it’s a free verse poem bursting at the seams with alliteration, assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme of all sorts.
– Pretty much everything by Emily Dickinson, I think, has slant rhyme in it. Check her out.
– James Falen’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which I read in college and has stuck with me since. Other languages have all their own rules when it comes to rhyme, and 19th-century Russian poetry gets particularly elaborate. Check out just the beginning; the whole novel (a verse novel!) is like that, and Falen maintains the scheme nigh-perfectly.

Then come back and write! If you’re into formal verse, try messing with the rhyme schemes; if you’re into free verse, get some sound repetition into the works; and either way, allow yourself to do internal rhyme and use difficult sounds that you wouldn’t ordinarily use. I humbly offer my secret sonnets or this poem, with holorhyme (rhyming entire lines rather than individual words) for some ideas. And maybe you want to try different combinations of punctuation, building on the Reverie from last week? See what marinates in your brain, what sticks and what doesn’t, then come back and share. Happy December!

Reverie Forty-Seven: freeing the verse

It’s such a strange feeling to basically have two weekends in a row. I don’t think I’ve had more than three days off in a row since April, and now I’m getting five and a half at once. (And four weeks from now, twelve days! Let’s hear it for taking all the vacation time at the end of the year.) Trying to keep my mind eye on the studious/literary prizes, but simultaneously I have to think about pudding-making tomorrow, and shopping/laundry down here, where it’s cheap. This morning I woke up and instead of thinking, “ah, another day off,” all I could think was “shit, I have X hours until I have to do Y”. And that, I suppose, is what being an adult is all about.

This week: “freeing the verse

This Reverie will be the first in a three-part series to round out the year a bit. In each one, I want to talk about the mechanics of poetic craft, more than just the inspirations, the challenge of form, and finding distinctive ways to use language. Today’s will focus on getting more into free verse, for those of you who struggle to bust out of the standard patterns of language.

Let’s set some ground rules right at the beginning. Poetry is not prose, and it is more acceptable to explore the boundaries of grammar in a poem than in a novel or an essay. (Not that this has stopped some authors: James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, ’nuff said.) The first thing we want to do in this exercise is turn off the copy-editorial switch: not the one main editor-switch that says “this poem is terrible” (which you should try to turn off anyway), but the one that says “this is not the right place for a semicolon”, “you should capitalize this”, etc. That switch doesn’t get enough attention in light of the critical one. I don’t mean to say that you should throw grammar out the window, but take this as a cardinal rule: don’t let grammar stand in the way of your poem. You’ll be surprised at how the tone and meaning of your words can change when you omit or flex different elements of style, in ways that can pinpoint the effect you’re going for more precisely.

(The other cardinal rule I want to introduce now is that it’s your prerogative to take as much of this to heart as you want, or as little.)

Let’s talk about punctuation first. I often tell people that if there’s one thing that has no place in a poem, it’s the ellipsis. Oh, how I loathe that ellipsis. When we think about the point of an ellipsis, what comes to mind? For me, it’s a pause (in prose) to signify that a thought is not yet complete, with the same length as a period/full stop. But we have lots of other tools to signify these two aspects. For a thought that’s not yet complete, a line break mid-sentence will serve just as well; a hyphen or dash will introduce a pause of acceptable length. Visually, the ellipsis also just seems to plod a bit. Consider the difference between this original line of Emily Dickinson’s:

How dreary – to be – Somebody!


How dreary… to be… Somebody!

The first has a clipped, abrupt, manic feel; the second is the pinnacle of angst. An ellipsis waits and drags out, which will force your reader to wait and drag your poem out: usually this is not a great effect. See how a line break can force motion as well:

How dreary
to be

Enjambment could fill a lesson on its own, but for those who struggle with it, here is what I recommend: treat line breaks as punctuation. And furthermore, give punctuation the value it deserves. Punctuation marks are not just laws to be followed; they have presence that adds value to your poem. If you consider that they serve the triplet functions of creating a visual aesthetic, managing the flow of your lines, and portioning out the weight of the thoughts on either side of them, then thinking of the line break as another punctuation mark helps move opinion away from “that’s just something ‘modern’ poets do to look cool”. There should be purpose and intention behind every line break, as much as behind every comma and period. If it manages to help you maintain a form or rhyme scheme, so much the better.

So let’s discuss comma use and period use. It doesn’t work as well for this line (“How dreary, to be, Somebody!” sounds like you’re addressing a person named Somebody), but the overuse of these two bits can result in dramatically different poems. Take a look at these three lines (which have been invented for educational purposes):

The rose in its blooming knows only a circle and the piercing green thorn.

The rose, in its blooming, knows, only a circle, and, the piercing, green, thorn.

The rose. In its blooming. Knows only a circle. And the piercing green. Thorn.

You could use line breaks too at various points, for different effects. But look at the straightforward first line, the liquid flow of the second, and the sharp cadence of the third. “Piercing green. Thorn.” is different from “piercing green thorn” by quite a lot. A poem has more freedom to use sentence fragments and strangely-joined clauses in this way. Conversely, there is also more freedom in the run-on sentence. Try replacing punctuation with conjunctions and watch what happens. This is Amy Lowell’s “Opal”, re-done with “and” instead of commas/periods:

You are ice and fire and
the touch of you burns my hands like snow and
you are cold and flame and
you are the crimson of the amaryllis and
the silver of moon-touched magnolias and
when I am with you and
my heart is a frozen pond and
gleaming with agitated torches.

It all depends what kind of feel you are going for. “Opal” is full of natural curves and crooks like a stream; this re-do is a cataract with a torrent of water rushing through it. It is perfectly acceptable to mix and match both ways in one poem, too:

You are ice and fire.
And the touch of you burns my hands like snow.
And you are cold and flame and
you are the crimson of the amaryllis.
And the silver of moon-touched magnolias.
And when I am with you,
my heart is a frozen pond.
Gleaming with agitated torches.

You have to decide for the voice of your poem how you want the images to stand in relation to each other. Remember that a subject or a verb can weaken an image as easily as it can strengthen it; there is a time and a place for the -ing participle; and adjectives are wonderful wrapping paper for your nouns. Don’t worry so much about how the images must fit together with punctuation and grammar; let the images speak for themselves, and then come back to fill in where needed.

A couple more thoughts on this process: it isn’t all-or-nothing. Historically, the development of messing around with the skeleton of grammar has evolved over decades (even centuries), through Whitman, Dickinson, Cummings, and so on. (If you want some truly wacky ideas, check out Gertrude Stein.) I dislike the term “free verse”, because there are shades and gradations of it. There is free verse which is essentially prose, with periods dropped in like depth charges, and the limbs cut off with scimitar commas, dangled into a poem. But then there is free verse that sings with its imagery and has internal rhyme, there is free verse that is simply a flood of language, and there is free verse that is basically iambic pentameter, with a twist. What I want to get across to you is that the grammar should be probably your least concern when crafting a free verse poem. There are plenty of forms that require discrete clauses, and you are welcome to use them in free verse, but the latter does not require them. Try breaking out a bit!

Here are three poems I recommend reading that get, um, inventive:
1. e.e. cummings, “i sing of Olaf glad and big
2. W.S. Merwin, “Yesterday
3. Ben Mirov, “Black Glass Soliloquy

If this Reverie is like “Breaking the Rules 101”, these three poets are Professors Emeritus of the topic. Don’t feel obligated to follow all of the stream of consciousness in the first, the complete lack of punctuation in the second, or the typographical acrobatics of the third, but let them inspire you and show you the variety that can be had. Then, write a response to one of them, where you examine the thoughts, separate out the images, and jot down how you think each punctuation anomaly serves the flow and message. Finally, either take a pre-existing poem (of yours or someone else’s) or write a new one, and break it out of its grammatical mold. Mess around with the punctuation, where the lines end, and let yourself get carried away.

Then come back and share! Next week we will talk more about such things.

Reverie Forty-Six: poets, not pirates

The café is getting me down lately, because their Internet is so temperamental. I am knocking on the wood of this table: for now, it is working, at least long enough for me to take care of a few things I need to. And I’ll start on this prompt, at least; if it goes down before I finish, I suppose I’ll have to wrap it up at home, before heading into NJ for a super-early Thanksgiving dinner. Meanwhile, do go check out the newest issue of Curio, out now!

This week: “poets, not pirates

I’ve given up on finding the book with hainteny (a form from Madagascar) anywhere short of buying it, so unfortunately, I will have to pass on talking about that as the world poetry form this week. But I still wanted to give Africa some deserved attention, and in my perusal of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics at the bookstore, I found some information about Somali poetry. Somalia gets a bad wrap in the media; you normally see terms like “failed state”, “warlords”, “famine”, and “piracy” in the same sentence. I don’t want to talk about the government and history of the last thirty years, both because I’m not from the region (and have been pretty much non-impacted by the situation), and because I’ll get really angry when I think about some of the corruption that goes on there. What I do want to discuss is the poetic tradition there.

Before the collapse of postcolonial Somalia, several academics of the 19th and 20th centuries discussed how poetry was an important part of life in the region, similar in many ways to other cultures across the world: elements of poetry being used to support the clan or family, the same mix of sociopolitical satire, love and war poems, an intricately designed system of meters that pattern with music, etc. Richard Francis Burton wrote, “The country teems with poets… every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines.” But in modern times, although this part of life in Somalia is still very much alive, public perception of it has been drowned out by images of young men with guns commandeering boats, or starving children in refugee camps. I think it’s an excellent example of two things: one can never make blanket statements about any other culture’s output and way of life without digging deep, and one can always be surprised by how effective words are at keeping the spirit of a people alive in the face of terrible adversity.

With respect, let’s talk about some of the forms of Somali poetry. The usual caveat: I’m not by any means an authority, and this information comes from scouring books + the Internet, distilling it all into a blog post. But the overview: there are two main genres of Somali poetry, the formal maanso and informal hees. The term luuq refers to the meter associated with a particular genre, and there are several patterns, each with their own names. (A note on the markings used here: /uu signifies a foot that can be either a long-vowel syllable or two short-vowel syllables, while / is long, u is a short on its own, and x is either long or short, an anceps. When /uu is realized as uu, it tends to be trochaic more often than iambic, that is, stress on the first syllable.)

We’ll start with the three subgenres of maanso:
gabay: /uu /uu u /uu /uu u /uu || /uu u || /uu /uu u
geeraar: /uu / u u / (x)
masafo: /uu /uu u /uu /uu u || /uu /uu u /uu /uu u

(There is also a subgenre called the buraambur, which only women compose and sing, but I couldn’t find enough information on it.)

Both the first and third forms have luuq that are divided into half lines. The gabay, as you can see, can mix long and paired short syllables pretty freely, but the second half line must have six syllables; for this reason, there are two possible caesura positions. The masafo does not have this requirement, and instead the caesura is right in the middle. Note that these three forms are the “classical” ones that have a great deal of historical respect, and are used for serious topics: epic love, epic loss, thoughtful commentary, etc.The masafo in particular has been used for moral and religious advice, as well as controversial political statements.

But perhaps more common nowadays is the hees, which evolved from an earlier form called the belwo, a genre of lighter verse that has gained its own cultural cachet. The most popular subgenre that came into its own in the 1970s is called jiifto, and is often used for love songs, work songs, or other poetry with less weight (at least on the surface). The meter is: (u) /uu (u) /uu u /uu /uu . An important phonological note: when one of the /uu feet is realized as uu, only the one in the first position can have its first short syllable be closed (that is, ending in a consonant). Any position where /uu is realized as uu can have its second syllable be closed. Also, note that this discussion of syllables is, as with Japanese haiku, adapted to English conventions of syllables: a more appropriate count would be by morae, which do not quite equate to syllables. The most common count is nine morae per half-line in masafo.

While meter is an important part of Somali prosody, an equally crucial one is alliteration. The rule of thumb is that each line or half-line, where appropriate, should have at least one word beginning with a key letter that repeats throughout the poem. So, if we were to put together a few lines in jiifto meter following this rule, adapted to English, it might looks something like this:

We planted the strawberry, white flowers,
blood-red hearts, to pry out,
to put in the summery skies, stars
spouting passionate, seeded light.

This one has both and repeating through it, though the former is what I was going for. The first line scans as: u uu u / u uu / (we planted the straw be rrywhite flowers), while the second runs: uu / u / / (bloodred hearts to pry out), etc. So you can see how those options in the meter, between long and short vowels (the distinction of which is a matter of personal or dialectal taste), across word boundaries, with the occasional additional short syllable, can lead to lines with a lot of variation. Just make sure you maintain the alliteration, and don’t put a closed syllable where it shouldn’t be! There is one advantage to this rule: in Somali, as in Arabic, words beginning with a vowel are treated as starting with a silent consonant. This means that if you alliterate with vowels, or “assonate”, I guess, you can use any vowels you want. But if you chose long ow and aye sounds, remember that they will count as a full foot.

In the Somali poetic tradition, poets are often given noms de plume and have poem chains called silsila that go back and forth, linked together by common alliteration. They are often accompanied by music and are performed primarily orally, rather than read. We don’t have all the luxuries of the tradition here in the blogosphere, but I encourage you to give the forms a try and do something innovative with how you present them to us: maybe you want to write a tune, or make a vlog, or whatever. In any case, come back and share!