Poetry Tips

Hi everyone,
(Of course I used to have more hair! Of course it had real color!)

Yesterday I noted that visitors to my blog had pulled up two of the poetry tips I first posted in 2010. This happens now and then, enough that I’ve decided to give the dates and topics of the original series. They are:

1/18/10: The Foot
1/27/10: The Line#1
2/10/10: The Line#2
3/30/10: Visual Elements
5/4/10: Accentual and Syllabic
5/19/10: Short Stanzas — Couplets and Triplets
5/26/10: The Quatrain

In addition, I occasionally post something such as these:

1/22/11: My approach to writing this month’s W.O.M. poem
7/12/14: Preparing for a villanelle
8/22/15: Sizing and Shaping for Impact
1/3/16: Putting Lines to Work

Putting lines to work

Hi everyone,

Have you noticed how lines with the same number of accents can differ so much in length? There are reasons of course and poets use them to help establish a mood and urge the reader to proceed at the poet’s intended pace. This technique works in free verse, too, but we may be more aware of it in structured lines. Here are examples of essentially iambic lines with four accents.

He scratched his head and said, “How come?”
Where valiant warriors draw their swords
His name alone numbed men with fear
I’m doomed to play this horn for years
You’ve joined the Pirate Brotherhood
We swore an oath to make that clear
And blocked his freedom to the yard
“This snake belongs to me,” he said
Don’t you shake those horns at me
Who came in by the door in spring
Tomorrow I’ll fix steak and bread
Stood all day in the burning sun
Here I stand forlorn and bare
I’ve gottogotothebathroom!
Faster! Faster! Not enough!
Even when we study madly
To signify that he’s around
He’s not exactly like a pet
Stuck together like a ball
Follow me and we will go
Every year I say I’m quit
Actually we’ve never met
No one’s ever satisfied

The first thing you notice is that I’ve arranged them from longest to shortest lines. They are long or short to suit whatever mood was being conveyed. But you need to read each one aloud before drawing conclusions. For example, the quickest line is, “I’ve gottogotothebathroom!” because I ran the words together to convey panic. Another quick line, “Faster! Faster! Not enough!” is aided by exclamation marks to hustle the reader along.

Although, “Here I stand forlorn and bare,” ranks 13th in length, it takes longer to read than many above it, such as, “‘This snake belongs to me,’ he said.”

In actual length, the longest line contains 8 words, 8 syllables, and 31 letters. The shortest contains 4 words, 7 syllables, and 19 letters. The long one, “He scratched his head and said, ‘How come?'” represents a rather slow thinking boy whose bubble gum bubble just got popped all over his head. The shortest one is a children’s lament about their parents’ thermostat war.

Long vowels help slow the pace of a line. Short vowels can give it more juice. Careful choice of words, selecting synonyms with more letters over those with fewer, creates a longer looking line that signals the reader to take his/her time. Generally speaking, serious subjects tend to want longer, more reflective lines. Lighthearted verse is usually at its best when the lines are crisp and jiffy right along.

Often these fine tunings occur during the latter phases of rewriting. That’s when the true character of a poem may reveal itself and we become aware that some perfectly good words, which we may have loved originally, may now need to be traded for those that fit better.


New England Reading Association Journal

Hi everyone,

I’m pleased to announce that the winter issue of New England Reading Association Journal is out. Edited by Helen R. Abadiano, Central Connecticut State University, the entire issue is dedicated to poetry in the classroom and was led and coordinated by Tim Rasinski at Kent State.

The ten articles are a balanced mix of scholarly work and contributions from poets. Tim is joined by Wendy Kasten, Belinda Zimmerman, Kasim Yildirim, and others. I’m one of the poets along with Jane Yolen, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Brod Bagert, and others.

For anyone interested in the subject of what research has shown about the value of using poetry in the classroom as a tool for teaching both reading and writing, as well as personal insights from some of us who specialize in writing and/or teaching children’s poetry, I recommend this issue. The NERA Journal is one of the finest in the country. It’s an honor to appear in it.

I received my copy on Saturday and I think the online version will soon be available too. Here’s the link for when it does. http://nereading.org/?page_id=34

Putting your poem in the right box

David giving brief remarks

Hi everyone,

A friend and I were discussing the issue of how we categorize poems. We know when we’ve written something that rhymes or doesn’t, so we can easily recognize verse from free verse. And there are numerous established forms such as the sonnet, limerick, haiku, ballad, and villanelle. However, there is another way to examine poetry and place it into one of three broad groupings. I’m not sure how important it is to know this. It could be like memorizing ancient dates in history: interesting but often without an immediate application. Anyway, here are the three that I’ve used and outlined in the book I wrote with Bernice Cullinan, EASY POETRY LESSONS THAT DAZZLE AND DELIGHT.

Musical, can almost be sung and sometimes is. Example:

(performed in Byron Biggers Band)
David L. Harrison

Said the green-eyed beetle
To his honey doodlebug,
“You’re sweeter than a rose
And I want a little hug.”
So they hugged and they giggled
And a little later on
They had a thousand kids
Called Green-eyed Beetle
And Honey Doodlebug,
And they all lived together
In a snug little rug.

A narrator, in first person or omnipotently, relates a story. Might be humorous, might be serious. Classic poetry tends to fall into this category, particularly in novels in verse and holy works. Example:

(from A Thousand Cousins)
David L. Harrison

Since Mama bought this stupid horn
I hate the day that I was born
‘Cause nothing makes me more forlorn
Than practice practice practice.

Other guys are playing ball
But Mama doesn’t care at all,
She’s going to drive me up the wall
With practice pracrtice practice!

I deserve to go to jail
For murdering this B flat scale
And sounding like a dying whale
From practice practice practice.

I tried to tell her I’m not bright
So I could practice half the night
Forever and not get it right,
Why practice practice practice?

But nothing helps, not even tears,
I’m doomed to play this horn for years
With Mama yelling in my ears,

Think Shakespeare: “To be or not to be!” Some poetry is written to be performed, with dramatic flair, with raised voice, clinched fist, deep pause, hysterical babbling, intense introspect. We’ll all think of some of our better performance poets who can read a soup can label with that same sort of dramatic delivery. Example:

(from Somebody Catch My Homework)
David L. Harrison

I did it!
I did it!
Come and look
At what I’ve done!
I read a book!

When someone wrote it
Long ago
For me to read,
How did he know
That this was the book
I’d take from the shelf
And lie on the floor
And read by myself?

I really read it!
Just like that!
Word by word,
From first to last!

I’m sleeping with
This book in bed,
This first FIRST book
I’ve ever read!

You may or may not agree that my three examples go where I’ve placed them and you may not agree with these three umbrella categories for all poems. You can see at once that there is overlapping, which can be confusing. My example of a dramatic poem (placed there because of its intense personal journey which lends itself to dramatic presentation) also tells a story; therefore is it a narrative poem too? Instead of?

And my example of a narrative poem has also been arranged musically and chanted as a number in the repertoire of Byron Biggers Band. Does that make it lyrical? Can there be such a thing as a pure lyric poem or pure narrative poem or pure dramatic poem? Maybe, but many (most?) poems seem to wear more than one hat and I therefore tend to pay lip service to placing poems into groups that are difficult to clearly define.

Even more confusing, not everyone agrees on what the major phyla of poems should be. I went to just one place on the Internet, checked the first source I came to, and found this.

A lyric poem is a comparatively short, non-narrative poem in which a single speaker presents a state of mind or an emotional state. Lyric poetry retains some of the elements of song which is said to be its origin: For Greek writers the lyric was a song accompanied by the lyre.

Narrative poetry gives a verbal representation, in verse, of a sequence of connected events, it propels characters through a plot. It is always told by a narrator. Narrative poems might tell of a love story (like Tennyson’s Maud), the story of a father and son (like Wordsworth’s Michael) or the deeds of a hero or heroine (like Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel).

Both lyric and narrative poetry can contain lengthy and detailed descriptions (descriptive poetry) or scenes in direct speech (dramatic poetry).
The purpose of a didactic poem is primarily to teach something. This can take the form of very specific instructions, such as how to catch a fish, as in James Thomson’s The Seasons or how to write good poetry as in Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism. But it can also be meant as instructive in a general way.

I find “didactic poetry” to be rather an artificial category but it’s out there and someone uses it. I suspect that if everyone reading this post were to list their own pet classifications, we would discover other ways of dividing the poetry pie. If you tell me to write a poem four lines long with four accented syllables per line and with end rhymes on lines two and four, I’ll do it. If I write a poem first and without regard to any preset notion of category and then you tell me I must decide where it belongs, I might decide to put down my pen and go bowling instead.

Playing with meter

BULLETIN: Kay Logsdon took my sunset picture on yesterday’s post as inspiration for a lovely metaphorical piece on the sunsets of our lives. Please go over for a look. Thanks to Kay! http://foodchannel.posterous.com/the-sunsets-of-your-life

Hi everyone,

Returning to a recent conversation about setting up and sticking to metric patterns when writing in verse: I said that it’s important to maintain the established pattern to spare the reader from losing time trying to figure out how to scan the poem. Scholarly poets engage in serious debates about the underlying dynamics of poetic expression, but for most purposes it’s sufficient to decide on a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables for the idea at hand and not go wobbling off that track far enough or often enough to confuse the reader.

We’ve talked about the poetic foot and its most usual configurations of accented and unaccented elements.
u/ = iamb
/u = trochee
uu/ = anapest
/uu = dactyl
// = spondee
uu = pyrrhus

Armed with these tools, the verse writer can create a variety of meters. Spoken English is a mishmash of iambic and anapestic words and phrases seasoned with the occasional trochee and garnished, now and then, with a dactyl. You’d need to be listening to pick up the odd pyrrhus, if you don’t count “uh-huh,” but spondees pop up rather routinely, especially in such throw-away expressions as “good grief” or “you go” or “who knew.”

Because iambs come to mind so easily and often, a good many poets rely on the comfort of writing lines of iambic meter.






But there are so many other alternatives! Think of us as composers writing music for an ensemble of six instruments. To give them enough numbers for a concert, we’ll have to create variety. We may like the trumpet and drum best, but there are four other musicians sitting there waiting their turn to play.

I’m not talking about formulaic structures — limerick, villanelle, sonnet — or number of lines. I’m talking about using our six most important tools to create enough metrical variety that our concert won’t sound like (to me) so many of today’s musical groups: one basically indistinguishable from the next in terms of instrumentation, leaping ability, and decibels of delivery.

Here are two examples that show how we can sometimes mix meters for special affect. In “Helping Momma,” the first reader speaks in iambic lines: “We love to help our” (u/u/u). The second reader seems to be speaking in spondaic feet: “mom cook” (//). This makes an unusual and interesting break in the conversation between first and second voice.

Now run the lines together and it’s apparent that the first beat of the spondee is actually the last beat of the iamb that proceeded it.

We love to help our mom cook: u/u/u//

I borrowed the last beat of the foot (our mom) and put it to work as the first half of the concluding spondee. So do I now have an incomplete iambic foot for the first speaker or a partial spondee for the second speaker? I don’t know. What do you think? Does it matter which way we call it? What matters, to me, is that it works. It works because I stuck with the goofy little plan all the way through. In the end, the poem takes on a rhythm you could almost dance to, deep into the evening when people start snaking around the floor with their hands on the hips of the person in front of them.

(Opening lines from a poem in LEARNING THROUGH POETRY)

(1st voice)
We love to help our
(2nd voice)
mom cook.
(1st voice)
We think we do a
(2nd voice)
fine job.
(1st voice)
Our momma says we’re
(2nd voice)
good boys,
(1st voice)
But now and then we’re
(2nd voice)
big slobs.

The second example employs a similar tactic but it’s more complicated. Here I have two different speakers engaged in dialog. Big sis is cajoling while little sis snores on with her one word response. Big sister starts out pleasantly and conversationally. As in “Helping Momma,” the first line is 2 1/2 iambs long: “Good morning, Sweetie” (u/u/u) and the response line supplies the missing accent (“Snore”). In the completed line there is no spondee involved.

But follow the number of syllables big sister uses. As her vexation grows, so does the length of her warnings. She goes from 2 1/2 beats in the first line to 3 in the second to four in each of the next two lines. I let the meter waver a bit in favor of establishing a more realistic sounding big sis tirade.

Good morning, Sweetie! = u/u/u
Time to rise and shine. = /u/u/
Get up now or you’ll be late. = u//u/u/
Don’t make me have to ask again. = u/u/u/u/

If you’re counting syllables, she uses 5,5, 7, 8 as the coming storm brews. Also, as she becomes more forceful, her lines end on an accent — shine, late, again — which gives more oomph and irony to little sister’s one beat refrain, “Snore.”

(Opening lines of a poem in PARTNER POEMS FOR BUILDING FLUENCY)

(big sis)
Good morning, Sweetie!
(little sis)
(big sis)
Time to rise and shine.
(little sis)
(big sis)
Get up now or you’ll be late.
(little sis)
(big sis)
Don’t make me have to ask again.
(little sis)
When you go back through the verse poems in your files, check to see how much variety you’ve built into them. If too many have a sing-songy sameness about them, consider ways to create more distinctive meters.