Pure Verse for Christmas

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.

Definitions–Oh well!

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.

MMO

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.

http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Fir-Christmas-Angel-Tree-Decorations-233731
two ornaments, certainly not enough for this tree

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.

Means

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.

Method

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).

Opportunity

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:

Means

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).

Method

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”.

Opportunity

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.

The Non-Traditional

“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!

Means

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?

Method

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.

Opportunity

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!”

Means

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.

Method

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.

Opportunity

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”.

Wrapping Up

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.

Happy Holidays from all of us at WIB!

Poetry: Major Methods 2B of 3 :: Blank Verse MMO

Blank Verse:  Old Masters and New

Remember, we’re examining the poems using MMO:  Means, Methods, Opportunity (Aristotle’s Kairos).  This time we won’t have three different forms to analyze.  Blank Verse only has one form.

Old Master 1:  William Shakespeare

Macbeth’s Famous Speech

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
Till the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Patrick Stewart delivers the best version of this speech in a modern adaptation of the play.  Some prefer Michael Fassbender, but I think that one drags too much (Fassbender taking direction from the word “creeps”, just as his whole 2015 film does.  That thing is slooooooow) while Ian McKellan seems too insouciant.

Shakespeare’s MMO

Means: 4 sentences, each expressing the futility of life.  Remember, this is Macbeth talking, not Shakespeare.  Never consider a character’s words as the writer’s personal philosophy.

Method:  alternating lines of 10 and 11 syllables, with the next to last hitting 12 syllables and the last line hitting 6.  Not for nothing is Shakespeare called genius.  In the world of symbols …

  • 10 represents completion (the completion of Macbeth’s life is drawing close).
  • 11 represents transition (and the greatest transition is death, doubled here as Lady Macbeth to whom he speaks is dead and his own death is rapidly approaching).
  • 12 equals man’s relationship with God (and Macbeth will soon be judged for his crimes).
  • 6 represents doubled mystery (and the greatest mystery is Death, again for Lady M and himself).

Opportunity:  Shakespeare is reminding the audience that everything we do in life will have consequences far reaching into our deaths.  Time may seem to pass slowly … until our own death approaches.  We may never understand our lives;  they may seem no more than a shadow or an idiot’s tale with no meaning ~~ but we must still answer for the sins we commit.

Old Master 2: William Cowper, who brought about a revival of Blank Verse in the late 1700s, just in time for the English Romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Byron.

A few lines from “Winter Morning Walk”, Book V of The Task:

’Tis liberty alone that gives the flow’r
Of fleeting life its lustre and perfume,
And we are weeds without it. All constraint,
Except what wisdom lays on evil men,
Is evil; hurts the faculties, impedes
Their progress in the road of science; blinds
The eyesight of discov’ry, and begets,
In those that suffer it, a sordid mind
Bestial, a meagre intellect, unfit
To be the tenant of man’s noble form.

Cowper’s MMO

Means: You can hear the intellectual conversation the poet is having in the rhythm of his words.  While Cowper is writing strict Blank Verse (count the syllables, every line is 10), he avoids the rocking-chair beat.  In this section we hear the conversations of the coffee salons of the 1700s, when people discussed the role of man in society and the ills of society in harming man’s soul.

Method: pure Blank Verse, unrhymed which allows the conversational tone.  Only one line appears to have more than 10 syllables, but if we pronounce “bestial” as “beast-al”, we achieve 10.

Opportunity:  Look at Cowper’s theme:  Liberty/Freedom gives life its beauty.  Only those restrictions which prevent evil should be allowed (as in “no murder”).  Cowper believes restrictions hurt us and hurt progress while those who impose those restrictions are narrow and base.

That’s an interesting juxtaposition to Macbeth’s Famous Speech, isn’t it?

New Master 1: Robert Frost

From “Birches”

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.

Frost’s MMO

Means: “Birches” is a long poem, 60 lines, another one of those poems that high school students hate and adults remember with confusion.  This section is the poet addressing his audience:  Remember when you were a child and had fun ~ until Truth broke into your life.  In this, Frost is like Cowper:  restrictions restrict us.  Where’s our freedom, the freedom we had in childhood, the freedom we have lost and dream of regaining?

Method:  Primarily 10 syllables per line, with others that reach 11 and 12.  Curiously enough, the two lines about Truth are 11 and 12 syllables;  check back up to Macbeth for the meanings of those numbers.  See a sly point by Frost?

Opportunity:  It’s an ice storm that bends the trees down, Truth reminds the speaker, but he would rather it were a boy at play.  And while Frost describes the childhood event, he zings us with two truths:  “He learned all there was / To learn about not launching out too soon” and “So was I once myself a swinger of birches / And so I dream of going back to be”.

New Master 2: Wallace Stevens

The Plain Sense of Things

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

Steven’s MMO

Means: 5 stanzas, each presenting an idea: literal, vacuum, need, silence, potential ~ the great flashiness set aside for a time, we have a chance to think and peruse and rebuild, focused on the essentials rather than the amendments.

Method: This is a loose Blank Verse, meaning that most but not all of the lines are 10 syllables.  “Plain Sense” is not conversational, not philosophical.  It is introspection, one of the few times we can point to master poetry and say, “This is what the poet is thinking.”

Opportunity: “Plain Sense” was published in 1954, a year before the poet’s death.  Is he discussing the loss of his imagination, his creativity with poetry?  Is he discussing the drained feeling of every person who has poured every bit of self into a project and sits back after its completion with a sense of emptiness rather than success?  “After the leaves have fallen”, after the work is finished, what do we have?  Is Stevens capturing that moment before the next project seeds itself?

The Irony of Blank Verse

Most writers launching into poetry as a career will avoid the Blank Verse and Pure Verse methods of expressing themselves.  They seek the freedom of Free Verse without realizing that Free Verse is actually bounded by more rules of structure than Blank and Pure Verses are.

Robert Frost shares with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edna St. Vincent Millay a great benefit that is also a detriment:  all three poets make writing poetry look easy.  Their lines are easily understood and accessible.  They don’t find it necessary to twist the words or show off their snobbery.  They make it look so easy that sometimes we don’t really see what they are doing.

And all three poets, along with Wallace Stevens, work in very structured poetic forms, both line and stanza—and rhyme scheme, as we will consider next month.

Free or Blank or Pure?

While I have a great love of Free Verse, especially the challenging poems by e.e. cummings, writers working in poetry make a great mistake in thinking Free Verse is the best method for their writing.

Let me quote Andrew Hamilton in his review of Robert Shaw’s “Blank Verse”, a review you can find here: link opens in a new window.

“In ‘The Problem of Form’, poet J.V. Cunningham spoke in 1962 of the exhaustion of modernism:  “We have lost the repetitive harmony of the old tradition, and we have not established a new.  We have written to vary or violate the old line, for regularity we feel is meaningless and irregularity meaningful.  But a generation of poets, acting on the principles and practice of significant variation, have at last nothing to vary from.  The last variation is regularity.”

When modern poets abandon the structured verse methods and consider themselves edgy and avant-garde by doing so, they forget the very point that Cunningham made in 1962.  Modernism has created a curious situation in which breaking the rules is considered establishment and following rules is considered anti-establishment: rebellious.

So, if you want to be one of the avant-garde poets, you need to write structured verse.

Walt Whitman is laughing at the irony.

Join us in December as we take our last looks at poetry, the method of Pure Verse.  We’re on the 5ths!

Poetry: Major Methods, parts 1B of 3 :: Free Verse

Free Verse:  Old Masters and New

We’re having a brief concentration this time on the MMO of free verse:  the poet’s means, method, and opportunity, or kairos, as Aristotle called it.

Shaped Verse

The Old Master: Roger McGough, “40 Love”

MMO

Means:  lobbing the words back and forth, just as a tennis ball does.

Method: the shape of a tennis game.

Opportunity: the couple stays together, even though they may bicker, even though they may no longer love each other, they have lost the connection between them (a barrier is there, invisible to us but relevant to them).

The New Master: well, this is an interesting problem.

It’s hard to find contemporary shaped poetry that doesn’t devolve into sentimentality or juvenile wish fulfillment.  Let’s try the Prose Poem.

Carolyn Forché’s “Ancapagari” (found on Poetry Foundation)

In the morning of the tribe this name Ancapagari was given to these mountains. The name, then alive, spread into the world and never returned. Ancapagari: no foot-step ever spoken, no mule deer killed from its foothold, left for dead. Ancapagari opened the stones. Pine roots gripped peak rock with their claws. Water dug into the earth and vanished, boiling up again in another place. The water was bitten by aspen, generations of aspen shot their light colored trunks into space. Ancapagari. At that time, if the whisper was in your mouth, you were lighted.

Now these people are buried. The root-taking, finished. Buried in everything, thousands taken root. The roots swell, nesting. Openings widen for the roots to surface.

They sway within you in steady wind of your breath. You are forever swinging between this being and another, one being and another. There is a word for it crawling in your mouth each night. Speak it.

Ancapagari has circled, returned to these highlands. The yellow pines deathless, the sparrow hawks scull, the waters are going numb. Ancapagari longs to be spoken in each tongue. It is the name of the god who has come from among us.

MMO

Means: four paragraphs.  Fragmented sentences alternated with complete ones.

Method: It looks like any other prose;  however, it reads as poetry, compact ideas with rhetorical repetition and climatic ordering.

Opportunity: the resurgence of life once gone yet never departed, the power of the cyclical eternal to influence us when we allow ourselves to open and “speak it”.

Catalog

The Old Master:  Walt Whitman again. “I Hear America Singing”.

MMO

Means: a list of common people going about their work.

Method: extended lines that briefly describe an array of everyday jobs.

Opportunity: celebration of the everyday worker that makes America great.

Two New Masters: Let’s starT with Maya Angelou’s “Women Work”

MMO

Means: a list of jobs that every married mother must do.

Method: short lines listing the jobs, one after another, until they are all done and the persona can sing / enjoy the free things of life.

Opportunity:  Getting the chores done, the good and the bad, often leaves little time for reflection.  Slow down and enjoy the free things of life: good and bad, sunshine and rain, dew and storm, all necessary to know we are living.  The only things that we can truly call our own are the moments we take to enjoy.

Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry”

MMO

Means: presenting the reactions a poet wants to hear from the audience.

Method: the catalog across stanzas.

Opportunity: Collins wants students to enjoy the poem, not analyze it to death.  Literature classes often over-analyze.  As Archibald MacLeish says, perhaps the poem “should not mean / But be.”

Simple Form

Old Master: Carl Sandburg’s “Bones”

MMO

Means: a dramatic monologue of someone who died at sea.

Method: the speaking voice contrasts the mundane grave with the “song of thunder, crash of sea”.

Opportunity:  if we cannot live an extraordinary life, we can give our bones an extraordinary death.

New Master: Charles Simic’s “Stone”

MMO

Means: a simple imagining of the life of a stone.

Method: three unrhymed stanzas, repetition, anaphora and other devices.

Opportunity:  Like Sandburg’s “Bones”, this poem is about transformation.  Simic, however, imagines the serene existence of the stone only to wonder if it hides a more volatile existence beneath a cold, hard covering ~ as we often encounter with people, the difference between their exterior and interior lives.

Wrapping Up

Coming in November: We look at Blank Verse. Part 2A will introduce considerations with Blank Verse; part 2B will provide more examples.

We’re on the 5ths!  Join us.

More old-style poetry, but with Pure Verse, we can return to SONGS!

Poetry: Major Methods Every Poet Should Know, Free Verse, part 1A of 3

Poetry is SOUND before it is SIGHT.  This is especially true of songs.

Yet in special cases Poetry is SIGHT before it is SOUND.

The typography of the words can capture us visually before the ideas capture us.  If the “shape” of the letter ensnares us, we will stay to read the ideas.

With free verse, it is the SIGHT, the typography, that captures our attention.

Divide to Conquer

The realm of poetry can be divided in two different ways:

1st, the purpose of the poem: lyric (songs of emotion, virtually everything we hear in music), narrative (story songs, lot of the hits by the Eagles: “Lying Eyes” and “Hotel California”), and dramatic (story without exposition, folk ballads like “Lord Randall”).

2nd, the method of the poetic structure:  pure verse, blank verse, and free verse.  It’s these 3 methods that we’ll examine in this series of blogs.

Pure Verse = Rhyme and rhythm:  that’s the poetry we are conditioned to accept.  The poems of childhood and the songs of our everyday life fall into this method.  Even rap music has an expected rhythm (beat, cadence, meter) as well as rhyme.  This is Dolly Parton’s “I will always Love You” or George Harrison’s “What is Life”.

Blank Verse = rhythm without rhyme.  This poetry is usually intellectual.  Think Shakespeare, especially the major dramatic speeches:  Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” and Hamlet’s “What a piece of work man is”.  Think Robert Frost at his best and most unexpected, in “Out, Out—” or “Once by the Pacific”.

Free Verse = no rhyme, no rhythm (but plenty of reason).  The poet controls the line in other ways than the expected.

A Word on Line Structures

Songs become memorable when key elements are emphasized.  Emphasis through unusual punctuation and capitalization are not acceptable means for our minds unless our minds truly love puzzles.

*Emily Dickinson and e.e.cummings break the punctuation and caps “rule”, but they are purposeful with their rule-breaking.  It’s not communication anarchy.

Free Verse MMO

While free of rhyme and rhythm, free verse by master poets—and if we want our poetry memorable, we learn from the mastera—gives us Means, Motives, and Opportunities for structuring our poems.

Once we see the MMO in action, we discover free verse is as highly structured as the pure and blank verse forms.

Shaped Verse

The Old Master:  George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”

A first practitioner of shaped verse, Herbert did follow a rhyming pattern.  He worked in the early 1600s.  How’s that for age?

Our souls, in celebration of the Resurrection at Easter, are enabled to fly up to Heaven.

The New Master: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity”

Ferlinghetti reminds us that poets are performers, risking their public acceptance just as a trapeze artist does.  Both work without a safety net.  Ferlinghetti’s structure mimics the acrobatic performance as the words walk back and forth across the taut lines of verse.

Catalog

The Old Master: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself 26” (selected series of lines)

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronoun-cing a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streak-ing engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching car. . . .

The New Master: Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We real cool”

We real cool
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Simple Form :: Is anything ever simple?

The Old Master:  Stephen Crane’s “The Wayfarer”

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

The New Master: Arcelis Girmay’s “Elegy”

What to do with this knowledge
that our living is not guaranteed?

Perhaps one day you touch the young branch
of something beautiful. & it grows & grows
despite your birthdays & the death certificate,
& it one day shades the heads of something beautiful
or makes itself useful to the nest. Walk out
of your house, then, believing in this.
Nothing else matters.

All above us is the touching
of strangers & parrots,
some of them human,
some of them not human.

Listen to me. I am telling you
a true thing. This is the only kingdom.

Aracelis Girmay, “Elegy” from Kingdom Animalia. Copyright © 2011 by Aracelis Girmay.   From Poetry Foundation: poetryfoundation.org/poems/56716/elegy-56d2397a11e87

Wrapping Up

When we examine these poems, we see interconnections of ideas through the shape, through the catalog, through repetition, and through other rhetorical techniques.  In addition to other techniques, Whitman’s catalog uses anaphora, Brooks plays with alliteration, Crane writes a narrative, and Girmay uses repetition and typography and contrast.

Our next blog, 1B of 3, will provide another glimpse of old and new masters working in free verse.

Join us for Carl Sandburg, Charles Simic, Carolyn Forche, and others.

We’re on the 5ths!

Poets & the Three Unities

Three Unities

Sprawling tree roots support the central tree.

Action.

Time.

Place.

Writing can sprawl into unnecessary digressions.

The struggle for writers is to keep that sprawl focused so that every element seeds ideas relevant to the theme.

When relating the story of father killing daughter, wife killing husband in revenge, and son killing mother to restore a balance, any writer might be tempted to stray away from the central storyline.  Aeschylus managed to stay focused for his trilogy The Oresteia, and he didn’t have the Three Unities to guide him.

I am tempted, just from that previous sentence, to comment that The Oresteia wiped out every family relation or that killing doesn’t restore balance to the scales of justice, even in Greek myth with its differences between revenge and justice and its taboo on kin-killing.  See?  It’s hard to let things go.  Orestes had to argue with the Furies to get them to leave him alone for re-balancing the scales of justice.  And Aeschylus took three dramas to tell that one story.

Action. Time. Place.

Aristotle laid down the law about the Three Unities.  These three “laws” help structure any writer’s work.

To create the law of Three Unities, Aristotle looked at the most impressive dramas (tragedy and comedy) and classified the reasons for their success.

The story should focus on one action occurring over a tightly controlled time frame within a closely bounded place.  For ancient dramas, this meant one conflict occurring during one day and situated in one place, such as the front steps to a palace.

The law of the Three Unities, however, is not limited to ancient Greek dramas.

Novelists are similar enough to dramatists that no persuasive evidence is necessary.  Short stories maintain a tighter control on all three elements while novels might address one single conflict (with subplots) over several days yet still in a closely-bounded culture.

The James Bond sagas focus on one antagonist to be defeated with a close-monitored ticking clock within the culture of the British spy game.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring saga seems to sprawl all across Middle Earth [place] as the Fellowship gathers allies in order to defeat Sauron [action] before he becomes too powerful [time].

When poets work with the Three Unities, something unexpected and extraordinary occurs.

Frost and the Three Unities

Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific” presents Aristotle’s Three Unities.

Action:  God considers re-making the world as he did with the Deluge.

Place: The great ocean crashes on to a shoreline saved only because it is “lucky in being backed by continent”.

Time: “A night of dark intent / Was coming”, and it could be that the dark night might turn into an age of destruction.

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the light was spoken.

Several of Frost’s poems use the Three Unities to control their meaning.
  • “Acquainted with the Night” and “Design” are examples of two sonnets controlled by Action, Time, and Place.
  • His narrative poem “Home Burial” reads like an ancient Greek drama. Husband and wife have lost their future together since the day (Time) she watched him bury their child in the family cemetery (Place).  He cannot express his emotions;  she cannot control hers. (Action)
  • Frost’s found poem “Out, Out—” is a Greek tragedy of futility and unexpected disaster. The son is cutting wood while the sister stands close by (Place).  Since the boy does not keep close watch on what he is doing (classic hubris:  challenging Fate), the chainsaw leaps out to take his hand (Action).  His death at the end of the day (Time) with the understated line of “little – less – nothing” has all the inexplicable mystery of Doom.
  • “My November Guest” reports the Action as a conversation between a man and his love: “My Sorrow when she’s here with me, / Thinks these dark days of autumn rain / Are beautiful as days can be . . . She talks, and I am fain to list”.  The Time is the unexpected beauty of November, and the setting is the simple beauty of the land:  “the bare, the withered trees” and “silver now with clinging mist”.
  • “Mending Wall” is another unexpected use. Two neighbors are in unexpressed disagreement over the wall between their properties:  one is instinct, delighting in the fairy shifts to the rock wall, while the other is plodding logic that dislikes sudden changes.  They meet on an appointed day (Time) and repair the wall (Place & Action).

Millay and the Three Unities

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Time Does Not Bring Relief” covers all Three Unities.

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

The conflict to resolve begins the poem:  her love is gone, and she must go about forgetting him so she can move on.

Time ~ Her entire existence is taken up with remembering him and their love.  Every day of her past year she has tried to forget him only to have her grief renewed:  the rainy season, last autumn, and winter have passed, yet her heartbreak remains acute.

Place ~ Typical romantic places have also served as reminders of him, therefore increasing her loss:  the oceanside, the mountains, country lanes.  We can assume the city from the “weeping of the rain.”

Left unmentioned is Action.  Since time and place have not eased her pain, the Bohemian Millay may move on to action to bring her relief.

More of Millay’s Structural Techniques

A Petrarchan sonnet without the stiff formality of the 19th century and earlier, Millay presents her mastery of the sonnet by providing rhyme we barely notice.  Only occasionally do we slow to read her meter-based lines, which lesser poets must twist to create.

Three coupled images tighten up her structure:  “I miss him / I want him” and “Last year’s leaves / Last year’s bitter loving” and “So with his memory / So remembering him”.  The first two sets are coupled together;  the last set is separated, for the couple is broken apart.

Wrapping Up

Millay constructs her poetry more tightly than Frost does, but both are masters of the poetic line reading like conversation.  With Aristotle’s Three Unities, we can see a bit of their approaches to writing.

The Three Unities become a device for writing.  Skillfully used, the audience doesn’t notice the framework for the poetic lines.

For novelists and dramatists, those Three Unities should also fade into the structure to become unnoticed.

Rhyme and rhythm help structure Pure Verse.  Rhetorical devices from Classical Antiquity structure Free Verse.

Join us August 25 for a reminder of unexpected devices that poets use to structure their works.