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What is poetry?

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Have you always wanted to try to write poetry but never quite managed to start? This free course, What is poetry?, is designed to illustrate the techniques behind both the traditional forms of poetry and free verse. You will learn how you can use your own experiences to develop ideas and how to harness your imagination.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand the common techniques underlying free verse and traditional forms of poetry
  • identify personal experiences that can be used when writing poems
  • understand the basic terminology and practical elements of poetry.

By: The Open University

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5 Poetic techniques

5.1 Lines and line-breaks

Poets are skilled at noticing things, and one of the things we should learn to notice is how other poets employ the various devices at their disposal. All poems, even those which don't conform to a pre-existing model or form, use technical elements, even if these may not be immediately apparent. In the next few sections we are going to study, discuss and try out certain technical aspects of poetic writing, starting with lines and line-breaks.

Is something poetry only if it rhymes and has ‘proper’ line-breaks? Is the following a poem?

I go back to May 1937

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,

I see my father strolling out

under the ochre sandstone arch, the

red tiles glinting like bent

plates of blood behind his head,

I see my mother with a few light books at her hip

standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the

wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its

sword-tips black in the May air,

they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,

they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are

innocent, they would never hurt anybody.

I want to go up to them and say Stop,

don't do it – she's the wrong woman,

he's the wrong man, you are going to do things

you cannot imagine you would ever do,

you are going to do bad things to children,

you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,

you are going to want to die. I want to go

up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,

her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,

her pitiful beautiful untouched body,

his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,

his pitiful beautiful untouched body,

but I don't do it. I want to live. I

take them up like the male and female

paper dolls and bang them together

at the hips like chips of flint as if to

strike sparks from them, I say

Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Sharon Olds

This poem seems to break the rules about the whole purpose of a line-break. Who ever heard of breaking a line after ‘I’ or ‘its’ or ‘the? In a free verse poem like this, the line-breaks vary, and are individual to that poem.

Unorthodox line-breaks may propel the poem forwards, as in the earlier section of the above poem, but other line-breaks might be considered with reference to the ideas. For example, to finish a line with ‘Stop’ has a dramatic impact, made more so when we consider that the narrator is helpless to stop the past, as framed by a photograph. The line that finishes with ‘I’ seems appropriate to the poem, when we consider the theme, and the concluding statement of intent that ‘I’ makes, which is about the very poem itself.

On the simplest level, we might place an imaginary frame around the line of a poem, in order to enclose or focus that line's thought, idea or image. When a line is divided in an unorthodox way, tipping the weight and sense down into the next line, we call this enjambement. Use of this device affects how the reader experiences the line, and where the emphasis is put. John Hollander, in Rhyme's Reason, explains these effects by example:

A line can be end-stopped, just like this one,

Or it can show enjambement, just like this

One, where the sense straddles two lines: you feel

As if from shore you'd stepped into a boat.

John Hollander

In order to make decisions about line-breaks, you'll want to assess the direction the poem is taking, and where you want it to go. These may be two different things. Line-breaks can:

  • effect a juxtaposition of like or unlike things, within a single line or divided across two lines

  • evoke a sensation (freedom, discomfort, excitement, etc.), perhaps by breaking the line in an unnatural place

  • impel the narrative drive forward

  • create room in which to expand a train of thought or idea

  • subvert or challenge existing conventions, if this suits the theme of the poem.

Activity 8

Read the following poem.

The sky is blue

Put things in their place,

my mother shouts. I am looking

out the window, my plastic soldier

at my feet. The sky is blue

and empty. In it floats

the roof across the street.

What place, I ask her.

David Ignatow

Consider the reasoning behind the line-breaks in ‘The sky is blue/and empty’ and ‘In it floats/the roof across the street’.

Answer

Some of the line-breaks in this poem suggest the rationale of a child, who might perceive sense in what an adult regards as nonsense. The roof seems to have detached itself from the house on the ground to become part of the sky. The sky is otherwise empty. A simple question of ‘place’ for a child, in this context, introduces ideas of visual and intellectual perspective.

Let's start building another kind of house:

The house that Jack or Jill might build

We know that poems

are made of lines

and lines need line-

breaks …

We'll keep coming back to the building works on this ‘house’ as the course progresses.

The following poem seems to be about line-breaks, but in fact it is about something else. The reader might deduce from the line-breaks, rather than just from the content, what that ‘something’ is.

The literal and the metaphor

Lover

or not of poetry,

you rehearse an impressive show as a lover

of women,

and you're a natural with your line

in line-

breaks.

Eva Salzman

Humour might be seen to be masking a more serious message about the nature of relationships. In this way all the technical elements contribute to the message. The poem's brevity reiterates ideas about the transitory nature of love. It is divided into two sections, the first offering a situation and the second amplifying this situation. Somewhere in between, the penny drops. Remember Frost's surprises for both reader and writer? This poem, ostensibly about form, discovers and makes connections between seemingly unrelated things.

Such self-reflexive poems, about form itself, clearly illustrate how form and content are integrated. The structure is neither arbitrary nor irrelevant. In a way, the Sharon Olds poem you read in Section 5.1, ‘I go back to May 1937’, was also about itself – its own history. Poems about poems generally work better if they are about something other than just themselves – or at least seem to be. Good poems usually work on more than one level: the literal level (ground level) and the deeper level (the basement). Furthermore, these ‘houses’ may have several floors.

Activity 9

Still considering lines and line-breaks, is the following a poem?

‘We were so poor… ’

We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap. All alone in the cellar, I could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turning in their beds. ‘These are dark and evil days,’ the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear. Years passed. My mother wore a cat-fur collar which she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.

Charles Simic

Answer

You're probably thinking that this is very prose-like, and indeed this is a prose poem. Countless writers and academics have enjoyed arguing about the merits of this form, but many established writers nevertheless practise it. Most poems, whether traditional forms or free verse, establish a sort of pattern on the page, however irregular. The prose poem is characterised by having few or no line-breaks, and is most akin to a vignette or snapshot. It is frequently descriptive and can make unexplained correlations. In fact, this poem's chain of logic does seem to lack some vital links, which the reader must supply. This lack of complete narrative logic is perhaps what defines this as a poem, rather than a story, for instance.

Activity 10

Even allowing for creative line-breaks, can the following possibly be a poem?

On going to meet a Zen master in the Kyushu mountains and not finding him

(For A.G.)

Don Paterson

Answer

Er, is that it, we might think? But there's no poem to go with the title! When you stop to think about it, though, the question ‘Is that it?’ seems perfectly apt in a poem about Zen Buddhism. We could call this a one-horse poem, because it hinges on a single idea. This poem, while sounding like a mere title, seems peculiarly modern and ironic. It offers the occasion for discussion about the search for truth and absolutes – which may be, at least in part, its point. Such a poem certainly raises questions about the nature of existence – not to mention the nature of poetry.

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