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Poetry: a user's guide

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Poetry: a user's guide Poetry: a user's guide

Everyone is born a poet, William Stafford said. It is the ultimate 'do it yourself' art form. Yet few except the terminally poetic foster that playfulness and curiosity with words and sounds. What draws people to take a pen to paper and bare the deep, secret experience of their life for all to read and judge?

'Poems are life transmuted into diamonds, compact and indestructible,' Richard Lederer said. The curious character of poetry is its eloquence. By capturing the commonplace and everyday experience, poetry finds the universal strands connecting us all. And it does so with the words which we all use and know. Writing and reading poetry is as fun and innocent as making castles in the sand. But why then do people stop making sand castles with words?

A disservice has been done to poetry in certain circles. Poetry has been transformed into an alien form meant for abstruse folks in horn-rimmed glasses and turtlenecks, when it is just the opposite. Since its conception, poetry was meant for everyone. It is the property of all classes, genders and races. No single person or group is privileged in the house of poetry. All are welcome, so come in out of the cold.

There are few if any rules you need to follow to be a poet or write poetry. It can be as lofty as Shakespeare - 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds/admit impediments. Let is not love/which alters when it alterations finds' - or as simple and plain as Kerouac - 'Trying to study sutras/the kitten on my page/demanding affection.' It can adhere to any form and style, use words both long and short, and be a meditation or an observation. All it need not do is be abstruse and cryptic unless it is unavoidable.

A poem occurs between the marriage of form and content. What is both fun and difficult about poetry is that it can be anything. Of course, certain forms are more complementary than others depending on the subject and theme. So if you want to write a poem, first choose your subject. Henry James's adages of 'write what you know' and 'be one of those people on whom nothing is lost' are as core to the curriculum of the poet as they are to that of the fiction writer. Eloquence and musicality will be lost if you know and feel nothing for your subject. It will be poor and tone-deaf.

The best poem will come out from simple observations: seeing the forest for the trees and the difference between each snowflake. Which is to say that a poet must be on 24/7. For example, the 'Filling Station' by Elizabeth Bishop starts with the description of an 'oil soaked, oil permeated' gas station. The poem turns its attention to the father and 'greasy sons' who work in the yard. Bishop supposes that they must live in the station because of the 'cement porch' full of 'grease-impregnated wickerwork.' But the poem's central theme enters when she takes note of 'the doily' and 'hirsute begonias' that decorate that space; the unseen mother who cares for them all. She concludes that 'somebody loves us all.'

The wisdom and poignancy of poetry is in the care and attention it lavishes on the smallest detail of the simplest and common experience. No doubt many turn away from poetry because it is pressed on them to be about something above and contrary to their life.

When you have a subject it is time to decide what is the best form for it. Bishop's poem is unrhymed septets (seven line stanzas). There are nearly as many forms of poems as there are poems. There are sonnets, villanelles, haikus, tankas, sestinas, blank verse, free verse, couplets, tercets, quatrains, limericks and clerihews. Each of these and more places restrictions on how our language is used, demanding that we choose each word carefully as though the whole fate of the poem lies on this word. Imposing restrictions fosters creativity, though some may find this to be counterintuitive. But restrictions force you to say more with less and to be as exact as you can possibly be. Anyone in doubt of this only needs to open a book of haikus.

To know what verse form is the best for your poem, read as many poems and poets as you can. In doing so, you will see what works and what doesn't. Gradually, you improve your ear for verse, and the right form will appear more readily. Until then, experiment with different forms until the right one appears. Whereas the restrictions of the sonnet work best, sometimes the openness of free verse allows for the sustained meditation 12 rhymed lines do not permit. However, you may be the kind of person who looks on the lighter side of life. A limerick or clerihew may provide you with the form suited to your humor.

Being a born poet, you do not need advice and guidance from anyone so long as you are true to yourself and the world. All the tools you need are at your disposal, and at most you need just a little kick to get out there. Share what you see. While the doors to the house of poetry are open, you cannot hide within its walls but must go out to live and work, only to come home at night to record your thoughts before lying down to sleep.

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