Not Yet a Poet?

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I have to admit that the very first genre I wrote in was poetry. I grew up with Whitman, Longfellow, and Tennyson. I could not get enough of Frost or Stevenson. Shakespeare’s sonnets were my nightly prayers and Shelley was my moon. A little later, I met Hopkins and Arnold, the Williamses and Eliot, Donne and Burns. They were not the only ones, I must confess. There were dozens of others and, for a while, I even pursued a cummingesque stage. It wasn’t always serious poetry, because I always found a way to return to Nash and Lear. A course on Japanese literature and culture renewed my interest in the short forms of haiku and tanka, and the purist in me cringes when I read haiku that don’t fulfill the original purpose of the form.

The best thing about poetry, and I say this to encourage all writers to try their hand at it, is both the freedom of the form as well as the challenge of expressing ideas, emotions, or incidents in very few words—unless you are writing epic poetry or some narrative form, in which case you could have a whole book, as was the case with Dante. It’s not likely we will return to writing drama in verse form as Shakespeare did, nor are do we see many lengthy contemporary poems that run over a few pages.

On the other hand, multiculturalism has opened up several forms of poetry not frequently observed in the canon of literature in English and we now celebrate Hispanic, Italian, French, German, and Arabic forms and writers. Not surprising is that a large proportion of that poetry is from the past century or earlier. Probably because it takes longer for poetry to establish a foothold in the classical literary canon. Regardless of the geographic or cultural origin of the poetry that move you, the fact that it does move you is what makes poetry succeed. Like any other great literature, it must have the power to move the readers, the power to connect with the readers, so readers recognize some universal truth in what they read.

Regardless of how you do or do not incorporate figures of speech, rhythm, or rhyme, if the poem resonates or strikes a chord in the reader, it succeeds. If you are not a writer of poetry, I encourage you to try your hand at it. Read some poetry and when you find something that resonates with you, use it as a model, as an inspiration to write one of your own—or many. Every writer has that yearning to express something more personal without having to write a sentence or more. Every writer has words and thoughts that tug at their hearts and need to be released. You could just fall in love with free verse and, if you are brave enough to wander towards the deeper end, you might just discover some other form that works for you. You don’t have to become a poet. You just need to learn to express yourself personally in fewer words. Not only is it good practice for writing more concisely, you just might become a poet!

Summer Hot? Write Poetry!

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So far, the summer has been mild, although in some parts of Canada and the US, the heat has become unbearable. Here on PEI, the heat hasn’t been too bad because of the occasional summer squalls. When it’s too hot to go out, or if it’s raining and you can’t hit the beaches or the parks, you know it’s the perfect time to write. Fill up that extra-large double-walled tumbler with your favorite iced drink, turn on your favorite mood music–or keep it quiet if that’s how you like writing, open a blank page, and write.

In the way nature and the seasons inspire poets, let me quote The Great Gatsby to give you a bit of summer writing inspiration:

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”

― F. Scott Fitzgerald

Let this summer be the start of something new to write, whether it’s a new chapter in a book you’re working on, a new story, a new angle to an old story, or a new poem. If you want to try something more challenging than free verse, try using rhyme and rhythm. Play with words and try simple rhyming patterns. You can end all your lines in a single stanza with rhyming words, or you can work with a simple pattern–the most common are ABAB, AABB, or ABBA. If you don’t remember these letter patterns, each letter simply represents a sound ending each line in your poem. You don’t need to have four lines in each stanza, although it helps build rhythm and it’s a simple way to practice writing in rhymes. You can start with couplets, or line pairs that rhyme, which is what Joyce Kilmer did in his famous poem, “Trees”:

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Notice that each couplet has a different rhyme from the previous one, and the first and final couplets share the same rhyme. This makes it easier to find rhymes. Note as well, the rhythm he uses. Each line has the same number of syllables (measure) and the syllables are stressed in the same pattern in each line (meter). Each combination of short (unstressed) and long (stressed) syllables (a foot or iamb) is repeated–in this case, four times, hence iambic tetrameter. Shakespeare used iambic pentameter quite frequently. The rhythm changes depending on the way words are combined and this gives poems that delightful lilting quality that rolls off your tongue when read aloud–as all poems are meant to be.