A Matter of Poetry

From the Fall/Winter 2016 issue

“Poetry is an intimate act. It’s about bringing forth something that’s inside of you …” ~~ from The Poet’s Companion,
by Kim Addonizio & Dorianne Laux.

The authors are referring to personal experiences, but I would expand that to include imagination and other weird stuff inside your head … OK, maybe just weird stuff inside my head.
But getting personal: How do you write about a memory, death, love, religious beliefs—or any other beliefs, or some incident in your life or another person’s life, without being cliché, without preaching or moralizing or being prosy, without saying the same thing the same way with the same words that several other people have already said numerous times before?
For instance, there are far too many poems out there rehashing the Christmas story, saying nothing new, writing about it from the same perspective. Or poems about love—lost or otherwise—essentially saying, Oh boo-hoo, woe is me—unless it’s just the best thing since ice cream, fiddle-dee-dee. Ho-Hum.
Too often we try to write about an experience or a feeling or idea by coming at it head on. Crash right into it. Shove it in the face of the reader. Explain what you’re going to say, tell all about it, then summarize it. I repeat: Ho-Hum.
Instead, before you write anything, try circling around your thought, see it from all sides, top and bottom. Decide what the most important aspect is. Now sidle up to it—don’t approach it directly. Nudge it with one word, and if it seems too obvious, nudge it with a different one. Don’t tell, but show. Or if you do tell, tell poetically—not as prose in broken lines trying to pose as poetry. Explore an example of a theme. For instance, in one contest I responded to the theme of “Longing.” I never used that word, or “I miss,” or anything similar. My poem won second place—in a contest I had never won in before.
Know where to begin your poem, and just as importantly, know when to end it. You’ll often have a stronger poem if you end it sooner rather than later.
 from Spring/Summer 2016, No. 36, No. 1

Let’s talk about prose, prose poems, and prose trying to pass as poems. I’m as guilty of writing the latter as anyone.

Of course, you can call anything you want a “poem,” but that doesn’t make it one. Poetry is always changing, but prose with broken lines trying to pass as poetry is still prose—stories, articles, essays, etc. (Unless you spell it “pros” and then you have an abbreviation for “professionals.”)

So how do you tell the difference between prose and prose poems? Not always easy. Poetry isn’t a straight history lesson; it’s not a lecture; it’s not preaching or a political platform; it’s not just a story; it’s not a dissertation on anything.

Poetry isn’t just a bunch of words broken into lines. And Prose poetry isn’t just a bunch of words in paragraph form. Bet that clears up things for you.

Poetry gives you concentrated images, exposed feelings, dramatic occurrences, colors, metaphors, similes, lyricism. Sometimes it has meter, rhyme, shape, and form.

Prose poetry can and should be all those things—but in effective paragraph or column form. Steve Kowit writes in In the Palm of Your Hand, “… we could call it a little poem in prose. … It could be called a vignette, a tale, a short-short story, a sketch, an anecdote. … That it is written in prose doesn’t mean it isn’t poetry; it only means that it isn’t verse.”

Kowit also says, “Though there is no hard and fast boundary between the two, short stories usually involve a number of related incidents extended over a period of time, while the narrative element in poetry often concentrates on one incident briefly conveyed.”

Verse is called verse because it is broken into lines. Verse does not mean “light” or rhymed—although that connotation seems to be prevalent nowadays.

Prose that gets to the essence of its subject using poetic devices is probably a prose poem.

I’m not sure that helps you anymore than it helps me, but maybe it is a place to start.
from Fall/Winter 2015, Vol. 35, No. 2

“There is in you what is beyond you.”

So says Paul Valéry, a French poet, essayist, and philosopher, born in 1871. (Really, I had no clue who he was until I googled him.)

Essentially he is saying, “So knock it off with the self-doubt already.”

We are writers. We are poets. For good or bad, for better or worse, ‘til our printer ink runs out … except we have the option of buying more.

The Poet’s Companion, by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, says: “Find that positive place inside of you that is at the heart of your desire to write. What is that place all about?”

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t won any awards—although awards are certainly nice. Some people don’t like to enter contests anyway. Doesn’t matter that other people may write better poetry than you do—partly it’s a matter of perspective. There’s a lot of incomprehensible literary stuff out there that is praised out the kazoo by the literary paparazzi, which makes it no better or worse than the classical poetry that we don’t understand either.

The point is, if you enjoy writing poetry, quit being so hard on yourself. Just enjoy it.

All too often the expectation is if you do something, you should do it well. Personally, I’m a horrible singer, lousy piano player, and an ungraceful dancer. But I enjoy doing all three. As long as I don’t inflict it on anyone else, I’m good!

But remember this, too. When you love something enough, you usually want to get better at it. This is why I urge poets to write form poetry, not just free verse. It can force you to find better ways to say something. It can take you in directions you weren’t expecting. It stretches you as a writer.

You don’t have to be a better poet. But if

you want to be a better poet, you have to work at it.

That’s why I’m such a great editor…


from Spring/Summer 2015, Vol. 35, No. 1

Let’s talk about syllables.

Whether you write form poetry that requires syllable count (sonnet, rondeau, etc.), or judge form poetry—or both—you not only need to be aware of syllables, but you cannot assume you know how many syllables are in some words.

People pronounce words differently in different parts of the country. In your own head, you might hear “fire” as two syllables: fi-er. I know I do. But officially, according to the dictionaries, fire is one syllable.

So is Oil. It is not Oy-il. Oyl: one syllable.

Autism. Two syllables, not three—not aw-tis-im.

Toward is two syllables, even though you might pronounce it as “tward.”

Some people might hear and pronounce omniscience as om-nis-ee-ense—four syllables, when there are only three.

Chocolate can be either two or three syllables, whether or not you apostrophe-out the second O.

Pop Quiz: How many syllables do flour and flower have?

Flour has one.

Flower has two.

Go figure. But that’s English for you.

That’s what happens when you and/or the judge assume. I had one judge note my syllable count was off because she counted flour as two syllables. That same judge counted hours as two syllables—ow-ers—when it is only one. She assumed I had two seven-syllable lines instead of the six syllables required by the form—and this was a poet/judge with experience.

It’s bad enough when you send off a poem and belatedly discover an error on your part, but it is frustrating and aggravating when your entry is mis-judged, and the ranking is demoted because of a judge’s error. And there’s not a darned thing you can do about it.

All poets and judges should have a Word Book. It’s easier and faster to use than a regular dictionary. No definitions—just words broken into their syllables. It is an invaluable tool. I found one at a used book store for a buck. You may have similar luck.

From Fall/Winter 2014, Vol. 34, No. 2

Robert Pinsky writes in The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide:

“… poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art. The medium of poetry is a human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is just as physical or bodily an art as dancing.”

Poetry, of course, began as an oral art—both spoken and sung. If you truly want to appreciate The Odyssey by Homer, check your library for the audio version read by Ian McKellen. The sheer musicality of it is something that can’t be fully appreciated in a silent reading.

Search Youtube.com for poetry read or performed by famous poets like Billy Collins. Or do a search for slam poets like Jerri Hardesty of Brierfield, Alabama.

Poetry out loud is poetry massively different from poetry in silence.

That is why when you write a poem, you should read it out loud. Don’t just mutter it under your breath, don’t rush through it, but read it as if you were standing in front of an audience. Really hear what your poem says, and how it says it.

If you stumble over certain words or phrases, you probably need to rework them. Even though we all stumble over our words at times, good writing should flow easily off the tongue. The way our brains and eyes hear a poem is not the same as how our ears hear it.

If you doubt eyes hear, just remember the phrase, “Hears looking at you, kid.”

P.S. That is also why you should not rely on your computer’s spell check, but proofread your work.
From Galaxy 34-1, spring/summer 2014

Some contemporary “authorities” sneer at the word, “verse.” Some claim rhyme is dead. I’m here to say verse and rhyme snobs need to get off their literary high horses.
Here’s what A Prosody Handbook, by Shapiro and Beum, says:
The term verse is sometimes used by critics to denote an inferior type of poetry (“mere verse”) … . In the singular, “verse,” refers to a single line of a poem; and by extension it sometimes means a stanza or a whole poem or a section of a chapter in the Bible. …We take verse to mean simply metered language: that is, language in which some quality of the syllables, such as stress or quantity, is either strictly or at least relatively regularized. The determinate pattern is called meter; the resulting kind of poetry is verse.

Much of the world’s poetry is verse: the Iliad, Odyssey, Shakespeare, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Robert Frost, etc.

Although the words Meter and Rhythm are often used synonymously, it is useful to maintain a distinction between them. In speaking of verse, we ought to say, “This meter is iambic,” not “this rhythm.” Rhythm is the total quality of a line’s motion, and is a product of several elements, not of stress or of quantity alone. … Meter is a matter of mechanics; rhythm is almost unanalyzably organic.

Free verse lacks the melodic and mnemonic qualities of rhymed verse. It is such a spare medium that it must compensate by showing extreme deftness of rhythm, or vivid imagery, or expression that is in some other way especially engaging.