Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Understanding Poetry

Hi everyone! This is a poetry blog, and I hope to introduce you all to the wonderful world of poetry. I will be presenting mini-essays on the subject, examining such topics as poetic feet and meter, the various forms that poetry is written in, both classic and contemporary, and some poems that exemplify the subject at hand, as well as poems I love and would like to share with all of you.

Keep in mind that reading poetry, or participating in any art form - or participating in anything in general, should be a pleasure. But our pleasure doubles and triples when we can see and analyze the scafolding of a structure, when we see it built, brick by brick, and can understand not only the blueprint, but enjoy the final, aesthetic product, be it a poem or a fine catch on the football field. I would also like to mention that my favorite poems are, with a few exceptions, contemporary and 20th century poems. However, due to copyright constraints (you must have permission to use a poem that has been written within the last 70 years), I will, in this introduction, use examples from the past. I will also, once I have explained the various basics and poetry forms, introduce some of my own published free verse and formal poems, the work of local poets I admire (from the San Francisco Bay Area), and contemporary poets that I have been able to contact and get permission from.

Let's start with METER and FOOT, part of the abc's of poetry. METER is the measure of a poem's lines, that is, the number of FEET in it. FEET is a combination of strong and weak syllables. Think of the strong stress as a beat. For example, in the little, every-day sentence "I WENT to WORK at NINE." you have three stresses, or beats: WENT/WORK/NINE. The pattern would look like this: -/ -/ -/

This particular "beat" or FOOT in poetic parlance is called an IAMB or IAMBIC FOOT. In our wee line, we thus have three IAMBIC FEET. Easy, wasn't it!

Most poets vary the feet or beat in a line, as all iambs, a "ta TA ta TA ta Ta" etc would be a bit boring, wouldn't it.

The most common FEET in English poetry are the following:

iambic (- / : he WORKS)
trochaic (/ - : GIVE me)
anapestic (- - / : so it GOES)
dactylic (/ - - : GO he said)

I'm going to jump the gun and offer a poem I received from Poem-a-Day today (Poets.org), which I thought very appropriate for the moment (12 September). It's an older sonnet, but when you finish it, you'll understand its historical importance.

The New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Today's poem is from Selected Poems, published by The Library of America.

Can you decipher the sonnet format? The rhyme scheme is the following:
abba/abba/cdc dcd/ This is a variation on the Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet, composed of two quatrains, followed by two tercets. More on the interesting sonnet forms later!

To review: the prevailing foot is what determines the meter of a line. They are the iambic (- /), the trochaic (/ -), the spondee ( / / ), the anapestic (- - /) the dactylic (/ - -), and the pyrrhic ( - - ). There are other feet from Greek and Roman poetry, but as they are not much used today, let’s leave them out.

The following material is adapted from “Meter in Poetry and Verse: A Study Guide” by Michael J. Cummings, © 2006

The length of a line in poetry is called meter, and consists of the following designations:

Monometer: one foot
Dimeter: two feet
Trimeter: three feet
Tetrameter: four feet
Pentameter: five feet
Hexameter: six feet
Heptameter: seven feet
Octameter: eight feet

Some are some examples from poems:

Here is the iambic pentameter (- / with five accents or feet):
From “On His Blindness” by John Milton

When I consider how my life is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide

Can you hear the rhythm?

When I con SID er HOW my LIFE is SPENT
Ere HALF my DAYS in THIS dark WORLD and WIDE

See if you can decipher the meter in the following selection, all iambic feet ( - /)
from “Intimations of Immortality” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;
Turn where so e’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Here is the poem, or rather the part posted above which is the first stanza. The entire poem is 204 lines, and was worked on from 1802 to 1807:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, (iambic pentameter)
The earth, and every common sight, (iambic tetrameter)
To me did seem (iambic dimeter)
Appareled in celestial light, (iambic tetrameter)
The glory and freshness of a dream. (iambic pentameter)
It is not now as it hath been of yore; (iambic pentameter)
Turn where so e’er I may, (iambic trimeter)
By night or day, (iambic dimeter)
The things which I have seen I now can see no more. (iambic hexameter)

Now let's look at the verse forms in the following order: the villanelle, the sonnet, the ballad, blank verse, the heroic couplet, and the stanza.

The Villanelle

The villanelle is a poem of 19 lines, which are divided into six stanzas. Stanzas one, two, three, four and five are composed of three lines, while the last stanza, the sixth, is composed of four lines. The villanelle is basically composed to two rhymes, A and B, but in a complex interplay of rhyme and line.

For example, the stanzas are divided thus:

1) The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas.

2) The third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas.

3) These two lines, A 1 and A2, become the third and fourth lines of the last stanza.

That is, the rhyme scheme would look like this, keeping in mind that A1 and A2 may vary in expression in a contemporary poem, but must end with the same word. The lines indicated by a small letter means that the end word must rhyme with their counterpart, but can be a different word, for instance, “wept, slept, crept”, which the lines ending in capitals must end with the exact same word as the original A1 or A2.

First stanza: A1 B A2
Second stanza: a b A1
Third stanza: a b A2
Fourth stanza: a b A1
Fifth stanza: a b A2
Sixth stanza: a b A1 A2

Now here’s an example to make all that abstract theory concrete:

The House on the Hill
by Edwin Arlington Robinson
(1869 - 1935)

They are all gone away,
The house is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away.
There is nothing more to say.

The Sonnet

The sonnet form began many years ago in Italy, and eventually found its way to England, and has become one of the most beloved of poetry forms, even in contemporary guise. The sonnet in its first form was developed by Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374), and were written for Laura, an idealized lover.

The sonnet combines the best of two worlds. That is, is tells a story in lyrical form. The two forms we are familiar with, The Petrarchan and the Shakespearean, have different rhyme systems. Both sonnet forms, however, share the division of the poem into an octave and sestet division. This division of strong opening statement coupled with a resolution is particular to the Petrarchan sonnet, with it form arranged thus: the opening statement: ABBA ABBA, the resolution: CDE CDE. The basic foot is the iambic pentameter (five beats, 10 syllables). Remember, the iambic foot is a weak accent followed by a strong one: - /

Here is a beautiful example of the Petrarchan sonnet by the great English poet, John Milton, written approximately 1655.


WHEN I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
'Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?'
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, 'God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.'