Deconstructing the poetic form and putting it back together.
Some Poetry Nuts and Bolts and One Bucolic Example
All good writers—at least those serious about improving their craft—seek input, suggestions and critique from their creative colleagues. For example, before I post any blog entries, I share the draft with three or four fellow writers who’ll give me candid reactions, copy edits and a good proofreading. I want my work as polished as possible before putting it out before the readers. And my colleagues seek my assistance as well,
whenever it might seem beneficial.
The other day a dear friend and superb novelist was trying her hand at poetry once more and solicited my opinion regarding her latest effort. It concerned a free-verse rendering of a childhood memory of a farm setting and her sneaking out into the night barefoot with a sibling to experience the glowing magic of the prairie and the stars. The imagery was compelling and beautiful, but I had some minor reservations about the mechanics of the verse. She asked for some detailed explanations and so I replied with some prosody “nuts and bolts” that I thought she might consider in approaching her revisions. Furthermore, I included a poem I’d written long ago that coincidentally expressed a similar theme and setting, and, I felt, embodied many of the elements I’d addressed in her work. And for the benefit of any aspiring poets who might glean something useful from my comments to my friend, I decided to reproduce below the essence of my observations along with my aforementioned poem.
First of all, I cautioned her not to use capitals at the beginning of each line—that’s pretty much passé now with free verse, and even rhyming stanzas. The lines seemed fairly short, more typical of a lighthearted rhyming stanza format. But, of course, it was free verse, and that brevity might confuse the expectations of some readers. Most lines were end-stopped, and could have benefited from more enjambment (running-on), as I did with mine. It gave the lines a halting feel rather than a smooth rhythm. Also, it would have helped to have had more alliteration and assonance in the phrasing—that’s one way to add to the sense of rhythm in free-verse lines. Some of the imagery, too, might have been stronger if expressed in metaphorical construction rather than simply flat, empirical statements, which made them lean toward the prosaic. I suggested reading it out loud and seeing whether the ear could detect a certain music in the flow of it or not. Poetry, after all, has its roots deeply in the oral tradition.
Finally, be certain, I told her, that the “paraphrasable content”—or narrative line—is clear. I wasn’t completely sure who all was in the poem and what the relationships were. And, as I indicated above, I ended with my poem, “August Night,” while although not a great poem, does strive to exhibit much of the previously offered advice. Hopefully the poetry lovers out there will find it both enjoyable as well as instructive.
The little Kansas farm with the creek
beside the corn rows and a pasture hill
above the red barn was for me
both womb and cradle. As I grew greenly
into boyhood, it traced endless paths
for my eager feet and paced the pulse
of my young heart. On August nights
when the day’s heat held the darkness
breezeless and fireflies danced above
coyotes’ howl and crickets’ song,
my mother would leave my father’s bed
to make a pallet on the living-room floor
by an open window facing north
to catch some air. I in my Roy Rogers
pajamas would steal in and nestle down beside
the silken curve of her warm body and
womanly fragrance. In those moments we were
like mare and foal together in straw.
Sometimes she would whisper to me,
laugh softly and touch my hair.
We’d listen as the train eight miles away
whistled, passing through the little
town of Allen, heading west toward California.
We had distant cousins in California who
sent us exotic gifts at Christmas, and I
dreamed of one day going there
to bring back palm trees and sea shells
to give my mother. I loved her like a goddess
and longed to grow up quickly and make her proud.
I’d lie awake in the summer stillness
beside her gentle, measured breathing,
and when I’d hear the train whistle, I’d make
a mighty wish that I could grow instantly to be
a giant like ones in stories she read to me.
If only I could burst out the window onto
moist, soft grass and stand taller than
our house and cedars in my bare feet.
Then I could step over the garden and vineyard
and hog-wire fence as I grew taller
and stronger with each pace.
I’d see the gravel road like a silver belt
beside me in moonlight and feel
wet slews and streams between my toes.
Faster I’d go, spanning pastures and hedges,
past windmills, haystacks and telephone lines,
until the shy, twinkling lights of Allen
lay before me and the searing locomotive’s headlight
cutting the night. Then, as it passed the
blinking-red crossing, I’d leap astraddle its
thundering engine above the pumping round wheels.
I’d cry out, “All aboard!” My voice echoing
in the blackness from hills and valleys and
lonely farmsteads. Charging toward mountains
and desert and dream’s end. Wind and smoke
racing through my hair. My arms spread wide
to gather in the stars.
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