When words surprise

Hi everyone,

Do you ever surprise yourself by how quickly and easily you dashed off that last poem? Sometimes I do. And it worries me. Taken on average, poems don’t roll off our assembly lines without blemish. We may focus on meter at the expense of metaphor, narrative that still begs for similes and telling idioms, convenience over struggling for assonance and internal rhymes.

Best thing to do when those “easy” ones come along is put them aside for a while and return with a critical review. At this stage I’m searching for a fresh way to say it, a surprise for the reader, a more unique voice. I want my muse to earn a 20% tip.

I just took a few books down from the shelf to see if I could find examples of what I mean. It didn’t take long. For example, here’s Douglas Florian, (INSECTLOPEDIA, Voyager Books, 1998) in his poem, “The Caterpillar.” About the caterpillar he writes:

“She eats eight leaves at least/To fill her,/Which leaves her like a/Fatterpillar.”

Douglas is a master at juxtaposing unexpected sounds, fabricating words that make perfect sense, and just plain having fun playing with words, as in the double use of “leaves.”

In Valerie Worth’s delightful book, ALL THE SMALL POEMS AND 14 MORE (A Sunburst Book, 1994), she charms the reader in the poem, “sun,” by describing the burning sun in her opening stanza but then presenting it in a different light:

But it will still/Lie down/In warm yellow squares/On the floor
Like a flat/Quilt, where/The cat can curl/And purr.

Isn’t that a marvelous image? Here’s another Worth-y example. In “tractor,” she compares an old tractor poised in the shed doorway to a grasshopper. Tricky? Sure, but she pulls it off with flair.

But with high/Hind wheels/Held so still
We know/It is only waiting,/Ready to leap –
Like a heavy/Brown/Grasshopper.

Next I opened N. M. Bodecker’s, SNOWMAN SNIFFLES AND OTHER VERSE (Atheneum, 1983) and immediately fell in love again with his title poem in which he describes how a melting snowman’s drippy nose leaves snowdrops as a reminder that he existed.

until you wake/and find one day/the cold, old man/has run away,
and winter’s winds/that blow and pass/left drifts of snowdrops/in the grass,
reminding us:/where such things grow/a snowman sniffed/not long ago.

In “possum,” we learn:

The possum’s tail/is called/prehensile,
and is/her usefullest/utensil.

Clever rhyming, not to mention arranging syllables to remain true to the meter while also maintaining perfect, puckish sense.

Constance Levy is another favorite poet of mine. In A CRACK IN THE CLOUDS (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1998) she concludes a trick of the wily seagull (“Seagull Tricks”) like this:

You will soon be/“un-sandwiched”/as I was today.

“Spring Watch” opens with this marvelous simile.

As tight as misers/grip their gold,/that’s the way/these leaf buds hold.

Barbara Juster Esbensen describes “First Day of School” in her book, COLD STARS AND FIREFLIES (HarperCollins, 1982). Note: I’m deleting parts of the poem to focus on her great descriptions and personifications.

No more barefoot/days . . .
/Inside the school-shoes/my toes are stiff/and afraid of the dark.

The sidewalk is bright/With sun . . .
/We can’t feel its rough/skin/through our soles now
/and it really doesn’t know us/anymore.

As is frequently the case I quote from poetry because poems are short and examples of excellence are easy to spot. But poetry doesn’t hold the franchise on good writing. Nor does good writing belong to people who have attained some sort of legal age that entitles them to a permit to use imaginative language. Ruth Culham shared this poem written by a second grade student.

Ruleless Playground

Poetry
is a ruleless playground
no adults saying
do this
do that!
poetry
is a ruleless playground
you can do…

anything you want.

A journal provides a place to collect examples of our language beautifully expressed. Kids in school are often told to “steal’ words and expressions they like. It’s good advice for us too. If you don’t already have the habit, I recommend it.

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POETRY TIP #2, THE LINE: ARRANGEMENT

BULLETIN: Current leaders for January Hall of Fame Poets are Mimi Cross, Liz Korba, and Steve Withrow. Mimi and Liz have won previously so Steve is the leading contender. Student poet leaders are Rachel Heinrichs, Sam Shekut, and Cecily White.
REMINDER: Voting ends at midnight CST this Saturday, January 30.

As promised, here’s another Wednesday Poetry Tip. I hope you you’ll post comments, suggestions, and questions.

THE LINE: ARRANGEMENT

Poetry, whether verse or free verse, is constructed in lines and a great deal depends upon how the poet arranges them. Pulitzer winning poet Karl Shapiro said, “The line provides the greatest possible concentration of meaning and feeling in the most controlled manner possible.”

Free verse provides the poet with more flexibility (and more decisions) about the best arrangement for conveying meaning and feeling. Generally, positions of greatest emphasis fall near the end or the beginning of a poetic line. Read some poems by another Pulitzer winner and 2007-2008 U. S. Poet Laureate, Charles Simic, for good examples of how a single sentence can be crafted into a powerful stanza of free verse. Here’s the opening to “Evening Walk” from The Voice at 3:00 A.M. (Harcourt, 2003, page 61).

You give the appearance of listening

To my thoughts, O trees,

Bent over the road I am walking

On a late summer evening

When every one of you is a steep staircase

The night is slowly descending.

Would you have arranged any of Simic’s lines differently? It would be as simple as moving furniture around a room.

You give the appearance

Of listening to my thoughts, O trees

Bent over the road

I am walking on a late summer evening . . .”

. . . is still a poem, but in the first line the emphasis has changed from what the trees appear to be doing –listening – to how they look, which is less important at this point. In the third line we have traded off walking along the road for a stronger emphasis on the road itself, another poor exchange. The road isn’t what’s important; walking along it is.

In certain fixed forms of verse, the poet has less flexibility. A short ballad stanza must be phrased in four lines with three beats (usually iambic) in lines 1, 2, and 4 and four beats in line 3. Change the basic recipe and you bake something else.

A limerick is told in five lines with lines 1, 2, and 5 three anapestic beats long and lines 3 and 4 two anapestic beats long. A lot of limericks fall somewhat short of the goal, but they all have five lines that approximate the basic definition for that kind of Cinquain (or Quintet if you prefer).

However the poem is told, the line establishes at once the rules for reading it. Here’s “Giraffe” (from Snowman Sniffles and Other Verse, by N. M. Bodecker, Atheneum, 1983, page 18).



I like giraffe and hope that he

In his own way is fond of me

Despite the fact that he and I

Did never quite see eye to eye.

 

That’s known as a long ballad stanza (4, 4, 4, and 4 beats respectively) told in two couplets and it’s typically Bodecker-clever. But the poet didn’t choose to break the lines the way I’ve written them. Since no one could see eye to eye with a giraffe, Bodecker obligingly arranged his lines into something more appropriate.

I like

the giraffe

and hope that he

in his

own way

is fond of me,


despite

the fact

that he and I

did never

quite

see eye to eye.

The poet chose to emphasize the imposing height of his subject by breaking four traditional lines into twelve and further dividing them into two stanzas. The new lines, some now as brief as one or two words, urge us to read a bit slower and think a bit longer about the tall star of the poem.

Coming up – on Wednesdays when I can answer the bell — will be similarly brief discussions about other aspects of poetic lines, including number of beats, end-stopped, enjambment, punctuation, capitalization, syllabic, and accentual.

REMINDER: SIGN MY GUEST BOOK THIS MONTH FOR A CHANCE FOR A POETRY OR PICTURE BOOK CRITIQUE.

David