By the time I got around to writing my first poem fifty years ago, the rules, forms and techniques for writing poetry had been around since the Greeks. I was, however, unaware of them. Gazing at the Hudson River one day, words and images sprang to mind:
The river stands still
reflecting the hill
I wrote this without plan. The quatrain and rhyme seemed intrinsic. The metaphor surprised me.
Defining a poem is not easy. It is easier to list aspects of a poem such as meter, rhyme, metaphor, symbol, alliteration, personification, irony, etc, and to describe poetic forms: quatrain, tercet, couplet, sonnet, sestina, etc. Poems express emotions and thoughts using imagery, the senses and metaphor. The form of a particular poem can be anything, from a shape, to a paragraph, to free verse, to any of a dozen invented forms such as sonnet, sestina, villanelle, etc.
American poets have followed the meters, tracks and forms of English. The English language itself, however, has undergone as many changes as Proteus, and is still a growing language.
When the Romans colonized England, the native Anglo-Saxons, Britons and Celts had a variety of languages and poetic forms. But through Roman literature, and Christian monks who kept Greek alive, the “barbaric” peoples came in contact with the epics of Homer, the lyrics of Sappho,and Greek theatre which the Romans had copied and dropped these seeds into its colony of Britannia.
Native Anglo-Saxons had developed a language, composed of a runic alphabet of twenty-four letters, and wrote poems about pagan mythologies.Alfred the Great, (849-899 C.E.),brought the Bible into the mother tongue. A Christian convert, he imposed his regional Wessex dialect on the conquered tribes, forming the basis of the English language. Furthermore, he commanded that it be written in the Roman alphabet. United in a common language, the Anglo-Saxons mingled Christian beliefs with pagan mythology in their poetry. One of the earliest known poems in Old English is Beowulf, tellinge a tale of a mythic hero, Beowulf, defeating a pagan monster, Grendel.
Old English looks like this:
Hwæt, we gar-dena in geardagum
ðeodcyninga ðrym gefrunon,
hu ða aeðelingas ellen Fremendon!
(some Old English characters are not available on my computer).
This means essentially, “So, the Spear-Danes in days gone by/and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness!/ We had heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns!” (translation by Seamus Heaney). The form of this poem is a heroic epic. The lines are divided into half-lines, an “on verse” and an “off verse.” They are bound by alliteration and by a balance of “lifts”or emphasis.
When the Norman invaders took over the rule of England in 1066, the French-speaking Normans added this language to Alfred’s Old English, along with the Latin of the Roman invaders centuries earlier. From then until the time of Chaucer, 1350, it developed into Middle English. Here is a sample of Chaucerian Middle English. Note the rhymed couplets and iambic pentamer:
Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr;
Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth. . .
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages. . . .
(Chaucer, Prologue, The Canterbury Tales)
English continued to evolve during the Renaissance which began in Italy and France in the Middle Ages and spread steadily north to England by the 1300s. By 1550, Shakespeare was writing what is considered Modern English. Here is a bit of Shakespearian English:
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
(Hamlet, I,ii, 129-134)
The author of Beowulf wrote in a language called English, but we no longer can read or understand, nor would he understand the English we write in the Twenty-first Century. Chaucer’s Middle English is still mostly understandable, and Shakespeare’s Modern English can seem contemporary. What these English writers have in common is the form in which they wrote: poetry, not everyday prose. (Shakespeare does write prose passages in his later plays.)
My first awareness of this overwhelming heritage did not occur until after I had begun writing my own poems. I did not think about form. I just wrote words for images and sounds. I realized I wanted to know what made a poem tick. Why had I chosen this particular form to describe a feeling I had staring at the Hudson River at slack tide?
In the fifty years I have been writing poetry, I have made a lazy, roundabout study of forms of poetry, wondering what defines a poem. I learned the history of the English language, and how American poetry was based on a long and varied course of English writing, and how the rules have evolved. Here is a poem that could have been written today:
Westron wind, when will thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
(Anonymous, circa Fourteenth Century)
This poem has music, metaphor and memory—essential to a timeless poem.
Most of the poems I write are in free verse, some are in couplets, some in quatrains and tercets, and a few in sonnet form. I truly envy Robert Frost and W.B. Yeats who can write so easily in blank verse. A few months ago, after a bad winter, I wrote a villanelle, because it was challenging and I’d never tried it before.
“So, has anything happened to start this tailspin?
I thought of you, but don’t know why or what.
You’ve caught me off guard again, on a plane.”
Hurricane Irene flooded my heaven-haven,
cut off all connections, erased contacts—
friends and enemies, anyway, sunk in Bog Pond.
My bent neighbor Mariette went missing,
smuggled off to rest in the night,
caught off guard while weed-pulling.
I fell out of bed when one leg spasmed
and the other crumpled like a matchstick kite—
I gasped in pain, at the bottom of the tailspin.
Caught off guard, I reached for a hand,
but it wasn’t there. Spinning and sick,
I wrote my name on the whirlwind.
I keep losing words like loose buttons.
I think of you, but don’t know why or what.
Love, the lunatic, clings to my shrinking brain—
a leaking reservoir where wild fish drown.
So, how does the form of a poem affect its expression? I can’t imagine a poem like Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art,” in free verse. I can’t imagine Ginsberg’s “America” in a sonnet. Nor can I imagine Whitman’s Biblical lines squeezed into any specific tight pattern. His music dominates. Emily Dickinson’s poems fit into hymnal quatrains like a hand-made shoe.
What are the essentials of a poem? Music, metaphor and memory. I think.
© Barbara Adams 2012
(Last year, Barbara Adams published a terrific memoir, The Stone Man and the Poet. She’s a retired professor. I wished I’d taken her class.)
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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.