Have you made your New Year’s Resolutions yet? How many items did you mark off your list because they were too hard? How many items have you switched around because “I can’t do that in January: the time’s not right”?
Poetry: Major Methods Every Poet Should Know, part 3B of 3
It’s our last blog on Poetry!
Here at Christmas, we’re looking back over our year.
We’ve had a long journey from modern songs: “Clocks” and “Counting Stars”, favorites like “Wildflowers” and “Tapestry”, unexpected connections to classical music with “Hotel California”, and detours to occasional poems and Aristotle’s three unities and the annual Summer Symbols blogs.
In October we looked at Free Verse, my favorite method of poetry. The gravitas of November, as the year closes and we consider everything for which we are grateful, called for a look at Blank Verse. Now, on Christmas Day, we have the second of our two blogs on Pure Verse.
Pure Verse contains rhyme and rhythm. This is the method people think of when they hear the word “poetry”. This is the method newbie poets and hacks use when they are writing and post their own poems in various forums and on sites like poemhunter .
(Wannabes think they are avant garde by writing free verse. Nope, sorry: the tide has changed. We have become so used to breaking the rules with free verse that it is now avant garde to write pure verse, especially such fixed forms as the sonnet and the ballad. For a modern ballad, try “The Stone” by Wilfred Wilson Gibson: The Stone by Wilfred Wilson Gibson.)
But I have digressed—twice.
On the 25th of October and November we examined the MMO—Means, Methods, Opportunity—of Free and Blank Verse forms. We guided ourselves through those blogs by contrasting an Old Master with a New One.
This time, we’ll still look at the MMO of Pure Verse, but we’re only going to examine 3 poems. And since it’s Christmas Day, that will be our focus
BTW, all our Christmas carols and songs are Pure Verse!
What Do We Think of When We Think of Christmas?
“This Section is a Christmas Tree” by Vachel Lindsay
This section is a Christmas tree: Loaded with pretty toys for you. Behold the blocks, the Noah’s arks, The popguns painted red and blue. No solemn pine-cone forest-fruit, But silver horns and candy sacks, And many little tinsel hearts And cherubs pink and jumping-jacks. For every child a gift I hope. The doll upon the topmost bough Is mine. But all the rest are yours. And I will light the candles now.
This poem brings to mind “Silver Bells”. This version is sung by Burl Ives, whom I have a soft place in my heart for. He opens my favorite Christmas movie with Rudolph and the Abominable Snow Monster.
This dramatic monologue appears to be one child showing other children around at Christmas. Where are they? The last three lines suggest they are at the first child’s home: her doll, her privilege to light the candles. Since she also hopes that every child will receive a gift, we can assume that her (wealthy) family is hosting an open house for less fortunate children. The house is decorated in different styles, with one room devoted to the Christmas tree.
While it looks like a single stanza, a closer look shows that it’s actually three stanzas, with an ABCB rhyme scheme. Occasionally, Lindsay tosses in slant rhyme (blocks/arks) and alliteration (popguns painted / forest-fruit).
What is Lindsay telling us here? That we should open our houses to the less fortunate? That, in doing so, we offer glimpses to an abundance that those of us who are less fortunate can only dream about? I think that’s over-thinking—but my mind went there, didn’t it? I have also decided I don’t particularly care for our little guide. I am certain that was NOT his intent.
Lindsay is doing very little more than listing the types of Christmas ornaments that would please children: “No solemn pine-cone forest-fruit” but “silver horns and candy sacks” and “popguns painted” and “jumping jacks” and “blocks” and “arks”. This Christmas afternoon is going to be LOUD.
Remember the Reason for the Season
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The song that I grew up with has a melancholic melody. Casting Crowns has created an updated version, not quite so doleful, which you can listen to as you read the lyrics:
Each stanza is a separate sentence, each presenting the situation, the problem, the emotion about the problem, the solution to the problem, and the result when the solution is implemented. This is classic essay form that Longfellow has used (and as usual, Longfellow makes it look easy when it’s not).
Longfellow forms each stanza by opening with a couplet, a third line that uses internal rhyme, and the fourth line repeating throughout the poem.
Internal rhyme is a clever way to create the additional rhyme per stanza that people subconsciously listen for: 1) sweet/repeat, 2) along/song, 3) strong/song, 4) fail/prevail, and 5) chime/sublime. I could write an interpretive essay on how Longfellow’s choices for the internal rhyme echo his theme … but I won’t.
The bells, in the fourth of five stanzas, are personified by giving, through their “wild and sweet” sounds, the solution to the speaker’s problem: If we treat each other as Christ would have us do, with love and harmony and cooperation (rather than hate and discord and competition), then the “wrong will fail, the right prevail”.
Longfellow uses Christmastide to remind us of the reason for the season. While we love the presents and the cooking and the reunion with families and friends, we should focus on our fellow man and how we can improve their lives.
“Jest `Fore Christmas” ~ Eugene Field
I certainly didn’t know who Eugene Field was when I started researching Christmas poems for this blog. Field wrote the classic nursery rhyme “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”. He announces in his title that he is going to have some fun. And he certainly does. Read this one aloud for full appreciation.
Father calls me William, sister calls me Will, Mother calls me Willie, but the fellers call me Bill! Mighty glad I ain’t a girl—ruther be a boy, Without them sashes, curls, an’ things that ‘s worn by Fauntleroy! Love to chawnk green apples an’ go swimmin’ in the lake— Hate to take the castor-ile they give for bellyache! ‘Most all the time, the whole year round, there ain’t no flies on me, But jest ‘fore Christmas I ‘m as good as I kin be!
Got a yeller dog named Sport, sick him on the cat; First thing she knows she doesn’t know where she is at! Got a clipper sled, an’ when us kids goes out to slide, ‘Long comes the grocery cart, an’ we all hook a ride! But sometimes when the grocery man is worrited an’ cross, He reaches at us with his whip, an’ larrups up his hoss, An’ then I laff an’ holler, “Oh, ye never teched me!” But jest ‘fore Christmas I ‘m as good as I kin be!
Gran’ma says she hopes that when I git to be a man, I ‘ll be a missionarer like her oldest brother, Dan, As was et up by the cannibuls that lives in Ceylon’s Isle, Where every prospeck pleases, an’ only man is vile! But gran’ma she has never been to see a Wild West show, Nor read the Life of Daniel Boone, or else I guess she ‘d know That Buff’lo Bill an’ cowboys is good enough for me! Excep’ jest ‘fore Christmas, when I ‘m good as I kin be!
And then old Sport he hangs around, so solemnlike an’ still, His eyes they seem a-sayin’: “What’s the matter, little Bill?” The old cat sneaks down off her perch an’ wonders what’s become Of them two enemies of hern that used to make things hum! But I am so perlite an’ tend so earnestly to biz, That mother says to father: “How improved our Willie is!” But father, havin’ been a boy hisself, suspicions me When, jest ‘fore Christmas, I ‘m as good as I kin be!
For Christmas, with its lots an’ lots of candies, cakes, an’ toys, Was made, they say, for proper kids an’ not for naughty boys; So wash yer face an’ bresh yer hair, an’ mind yer p’s and q’s, An’ don’t bust out yer pantaloons, and don’t wear out yer shoes; Say “Yessum” to the ladies, and “Yessur” to the men, An’ when they ‘s company, don’t pass yer plate for pie again; But, thinkin’ of the things yer ‘d like to see upon that tree, Jest ‘fore Christmas be as good as yer kin be!
Fields is taking a note from Father Christmas, who gives gifts to the little boys and girls who are good and coal to the ones who are mean. Santa is making his list and checking it twice. Bill, wise to the world, has got Santa’s system figured out.
We see how Bill goes throughout his year—he is all boy, “snips and snails and puppy dog tails”. He’s not having the problems of modern little boys who never go outside to play. And I have great nostalgia for a world I never knew, when the grocery cart delivered to the houses and I didn’t have to spend an hour shopping up one aisle to get one thing then down another aisle to get one thing.
I wonder how far in advance of Christmas that Bill manages to be good. And how long his goodness lasts? Does he make it through Christmas Day?
The dialect is pure boy, running wild most of the year, totally appropriate for Bill’s voice. And the spelling! If I screw up my eyes, I can see a paragraph he wrote at school about his great-uncle Dan, “et up by the cannibuls”, dutifully red-marked by the staid teacher who rolled her eyes and moved to the next paragraph. Field writes in couplets, eight lines per stanza, another appropriate form for a child’s voice.
What opportunity is Fields’ taking? Mother loves her little “Willie” while Father has to correct “William”. And we have a surfeit of reasons for William/Bill to need correction.
Is Fields reminding parents that their little jewels at Christmas are manipulating the system?
Or is he reminding little boys to be nice at Christmas in order to get their presents (reinforcing Santa’s list)?
Or has he created a character that little boys agree with—yes!—and he’s reminding them to be extra nice at Christmas?
And the Traditional
C.C. Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas”
In the past few years a controversy has swirled around and around about the authorship of “Night Before”. You know what? It’s long past copyright. Time to let it go. Just enjoy.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Now a classic, this Christmas story has inspired songs and films and Golden Book stories. Who doesn’t love a good story before bedtime? And Moore? delivers: descriptive, amusing, plenty of favorite lines to choose from.
The poem is a series of couplets, easiest to write and appropriate for a simple story. For all my bashing of the simple couplet, when telling a simple story, it’s best not to overly complicate things. Similes and metaphors and symbols, repetition and alliteration: all abound.
It’s Christmas. Who doesn’t want a good story at Christmas? And when Moore? wrote this, children basically had the Biblical story and very little more. Now, we have an embarrassment of riches, Rudolph in song and film (Abominable Snow Monster!), classic songs like “12 Days of Christmas”, and multiple stories from Charlie Brown to Santa Clause—as well as some unnamed drivel that gets classified with the “riches”.
In January, we start considering the nuts and bolts that affect all writers.
I like to think that all writers can learn from practicing devices for the different genres. Poets can teach novelists and non-fiction writers quite a good bit about concise communication and repetition keys. And studying the logical arc of non-fiction and the plot/suspense arc of fiction can teach poets how to lead from an inspiring thought to an thoughtful insight.
So, Writers Ink Books remains on the 0s, and Writers Ink Services remains on the 5ths. Join us three times each month (2 x 3 = 6) for promos and writing nuts and bolts.
Poetry: Major Methods Every Poet Should Know, part 3A of 3
Pure Verse: Seduced by Rhythm and Rhyme
True poets and wannabies and hacks and newbies all work with Pure Verse.
No matter which of the four writers above, rhyme entices us more and more. The quick little rhymes affect (and infect) us all the time.
This the last. We’re going to go fast. Keep up.
Pure Verse Affects Us ~~ our ear listens for similar keys in pretty much everything. When the ear hears one similarity, it listens for more. Advertising uses the Rule of 7, within a single commercial and within a series.
Pure Verse Infects Us ~~ thinking that similarity in sound will make others pay attention, we resort to it over and over. Rhyme, then, can become not a seducer by a raper of our ear.
Pure Verse, remember, is the matching of both rhyme and rhythm within a short work.
Blank Verse is the matching of the rhythm but no matching of rhyme.
Free Verse, which is supposed to be without rhythm and rhyme, uses other methods to tie the poetic lines together.
Problems with Pure Verse
The first thing that a true poet must avoid is the “Rocking Horse Rhythm”: back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you.
Rocking Horse Rhythm puts every poem on the level of a nursery rhyme.
Once you know that Emily Dickinson’s poems with 8/6 line structure can be sung to the theme song for “Gilligan’s Isle”, you can’t help but try it with everyone one.
“I died for Beauty but was scarce / Adjusted in the Tomb / when one who died for Tru~th / was laid in an adjoining room.”
Geez. Dickinson’s point gets lost in the gimmick. Decades of high school students have been ruined by teachers who would rather destroy the point in order to generate a laugh.
How many students will consider a poem about the power of imagination when they are busy mentally singing the poem to “Gilligan”?
“I never saw a Moor / I never saw the Sea / Yet know I how the heather looks / and what a billow be.” Huh?
How do poets avoid this problem caused by rhythm?
Well, poets can work in the music industry, for music needs strongly rhythmic lines.
Better yet, they can craft such strong words that the rhythm is disguised, as Frost occasionally did: Contrast “Once by the Pacific” with “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
We could say that “Stopping by Woods” uses its strong rhythm, especially with the last two lines of “miles to go before I sleep”, for strong rhythms are associated with sleeping.
How could similar-sounding words at the end of lines create problems? Sometimes they don’t.
Working with couplets is problematic. Read the worst poems by hacks and wannabies and newbies, and the problem is quickly evident.
Divided couplets are what poets usually default to: ABAB or ABBA or some such pattern.
Even poems I love display this problem:
“I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree.” ~ Joyce Kilmer
“Whose woods these are I think I know / His house is in the village though / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow.” ~ Robert Frost.
See how Frost broke the couplet pattern to create AABA . . . but look at the second stanza: “My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near / Between the woods and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year.” BBCB. And so the poem continues.
“I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. / So it, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: / Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned / With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.” ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay ‘Dirge Without Music”
Millay avoids the close rhyme of her ABAB stanza “ground / mind / crowned / resigned” in two ways.
1] The length of her lines prevent the close reading of the rhyme.
2] She uses unusual rhymes: mind / resigned.
Work Carefully with Pure Verse
Sara Teasdale’s “Christmas Carol” gives us a multitude of examples to avoid problems.
Unusual word choices trick our conscious minds into thinking of those rather than the rhyme (even though our subconscious still registers it).
Another method to trick the conscious mind is to invert the order of words. Using inversion helps the mind focus on the words rather than the rhythm.
Use the divided couplet and keep it changing. ABCB DEFE GHIH JKLK MNON PQRQ
An alternating rhythm that reinforces the divided couplet helps: Teasdale’s is iambic tetrameter with iambic trimester.
Notice how the second stanza repeats similar structures but uses contrast: ermine is contrasted with brown/old coats; gold / had not any gold. Juxtaposition is a powerful pattern for our minds. Teasdale sets up the juxtaposition in stanzas 1 and 2. Then she plays with her contrasting for 3 and 4, showing stronger similarity than difference.
She plays with repeating the primary characters in stanzas 5 and 6. By then, however, she adds in one more element.
That seventh element is Charm. Gets the mommas and children every time. Awwww.
Wrapping Up: Time to Unwrap the Presents
Join us for our last blog of the year, on Christmas Day, for Old Masters and New of Pure Verse.