View Full Version : Writing poetry

Olly Buckle
November 27th, 2011, 11:47 PM
Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity—it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. John Keats

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. T.S. Eliot

All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity. William Wordsworth

I thought I would start with things recognised poets have said about poetry to break me in. I advocate the writing, or at least the appreciation, of formal forms in poetry, though sometimes the thought arises but is not uttered. I am not alone, there is a consensus that understanding and practising traditional forms helps writers produce better poetry, even when they don’t stick to them.

Sonnets are one of our oldest forms, they were introduced to England over four hundred years ago, and have been in continuous use ever since, so seem an ideal form to use for demonstration.
Here is my sonnet about them;

Sonnet writing

Fourteen full lines, all in pentameters,
The thought should fit without squeezing of course,
Iambic feet in strict parameters,
A thought with the import to make one pause,
And dense enough that the padding is lost.
Try to impress, don’t repeat or digress,
Rhyming schemes vary, but must not be forced,
The meaning clear, without having to guess.

Each generation has made its own verse
Conventions remain, form has persisted
Each generation for four hundred years
Expressed themselves thus, change was resisted
Those poets all used it, they understood
The length is just right, the form is so good.

Fitting a poem into a sonnet’s scheme is not easy initially. On the other hand the length is about right for many poetic thoughts, and fourteen lines is not too daunting. The intellectual exercise might be compared to doing the cryptic, rather than the easy, crossword.
The end result of ‘recollecting emotion in tranquillity’ makes the attempt worthwhile. An emotion a little deeper than that of ‘Sonnet writing’ should produce a poem that is pleasing, and short enough to be learned by heart.

I am taking a break to define some of the terms here.
An iamb is a metrical foot of two syllables, the first of which is weaker than the second, so, for example, un/clear; mis/spent; or, the/ form.
Meter describes the type of line, so an iambic pentameter is a line of poetry which is made up of ten syllables in five iambuses, (Penta - five as in ‘pentagon’).

Iambic pentameters are used in genres as different as sonnets and blank verse and are the commonest form of line in English poetry. For good reason, they work; they fit into a single breath when spoken, yet are of a length to carry a thought, or split into two parts. I said that it wasn’t easy initially, there is a lot of counting syllables and adjusting, but it is not long before you find lines are in the correct metre as first thought of.
A sonnet is made up of fourteen lines in iambic pentameters, these may be grouped in various ways but commonly there is an octet, eight lines, after which there is a change, a volta, and the following six lines, or sextet, express a different aspect of the idea. Alternatively there may be three quatrains (sets of four lines) followed by a couplet (a rhyming pair), with the change either at the last quatrain or at the couplet.

Let’s have a look at what a real poet can do with the form, I didn’t want something archaic, so I picked this sonnet by J.C. Ransom; a contemporary of e e cummings but a much more formal poet. The theme is an old one, the young and beautiful confronted by death, the unexpected visitor. The volta is achieved by hearing first death, then the maiden.

Piazza piece
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
To make you hear, Your ears are soft and small
And listen to an old man not at all,
They want the young men’s whispering and sighing.
But see the roses on your trellis dying
And hear the spectral singing of the moon;
For I must have my lovely lady soon,
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.

I am a lady young in beauty waiting
Until my true love comes, and then we kiss.
But what grey man among the vines is this
Whose words are are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream
I am a lady young in beauty waiting.

Firstly the imagery, the roses are a symbol of youth and passion, but they are dying, the moon is the symbol of Diana the huntress, virginity and death. The dustcoat also suggests dust to dust death.

The symbolism is poetic, but the vocabulary is prosaic, there are no archaic ‘poetic’ words. On the other hand read it aloud and the melodious nature becomes apparent. The words have been carefully chosen for their sound qualities and assonance and consonance carefully placed.
Then there are no antique constructions or inversions of words for effect, the nearest we come is, ‘listen to an old man not at all’, not inappropriate for an old man, and the command, ‘Back from my terrace’, also appropriate in context.

The very simplicity of the language adds to the message and it is the sense of that message which arouses emotion, the poet does not rely on ‘tricks’ or ‘devices’ to amplify it where amplification would lead to distortion, he relies on tonal and rhythmic qualities to set the mood. Look how the multi-syllable words are placed, they place emphasis on the –ing rhyme and the alliteration in the octet (listen is the exception, and not obtrusively bi-syllabic) and on the first and last lines of each part

One might at first think that there is repetition, the first and last lines of each stanza are the same. But the thought is not carried through after the last lines, resulting in a change in sense. The old man’s attempts become like the schoolboy’s reports; ‘Trying; still trying; still very trying’; the young lady is left waiting aimlessly.

Have I inspired you to try your hand? Your effort may not be as perfect as ‘Piazza piece’, but it will probably be better than ‘Sonnet writing’. It will require some concentration, but only fourteen lines worth. It will probably result in a degree of satisfaction and a feeling of achievement, it will also increase your awareness and improve your poetry.

November 28th, 2011, 12:32 AM

Oh so banal your casual dismissal
delivered with such certainty. I turned
around, and in leaving tried to whistle
a cheerful tune, as if unconcerned.
I had cherished you for many years,
only to be dismissed like a servant,
with you yelling that loathsome word which rears
unwelcome when love cups just a remnant
of its former flame. Words designed to scorch
my fresh-forsaken heart. But gradually
as anguish abated, I cast that torch
aside, so no longer was I lonely,
my store of tears being now expended
my heart’s reclaimed, love’s exile ended.

November 28th, 2011, 03:26 AM
I quite enjoy sonnets -- for a while I was in the habit of writing one every day. Actually for several whiles. I can usually only keep it up for four or five days at a time, though. I challenge anyone else who fancies himself a poet to try the same. The main issue I ran into was that I ran out of ideas strong enough to sustain a poem after that many days. As Olly said, very good mental practice, though.

candid petunia
November 28th, 2011, 08:31 AM
Loved your "Sonnet writing", Olly. :)

I'd written a few sonnets in my immature poet days and they're, well, immature so I'm hesitant about sharing them here.
Meter is still a nightmare for me. :( I know all the rules, I know it theoretically but I mess up when I'm actually using it.

Olly Buckle
November 28th, 2011, 10:35 AM
Thanks folks,

A most encouraging response Bloggsworth, did you really come up with that in under an hour? Or was it something you had saved? Either way good to be taken seriously.

j.w. One a day seems wildly ambitious to me, 'writing sonnets' is not the most serious thing I have tried, and it still took me three days of fiddling around with it in between writing and revising the text. I have stopped rushing into poems since I read a thing about Wilfred Owen which said his notebook showed he was working on one over eighteen months at least.

candid. Thank you, you are, as always, the most appreciative audience possible. However it strikes me that 'Faint heart ne'er won fair maid' is not a bad subject for a sonnet in itself. Don't be shy, what I have seen of your poetry is considerably superior to that of many of the native English speakers who flood this forum with their efforts.
As I said in the essay, applying those rules is not easy at first, deliberately adopting a methodical approach does pay off though, good practice gradually becomes habit and one day you go to adjust the meter of a line and find you got it perfect first time, not to say you can not play with other things, sense, rhythm, emphasis and such. One of the joys, there is always something to look at and improve, you are lucky, you can practise where I wasted 45 years, wish I could be around to see the end result :)

November 28th, 2011, 05:30 PM
j.w. One a day seems wildly ambitious to me, 'writing sonnets' is not the most serious thing I have tried, and it still took me three days of fiddling around with it in between writing and revising the text. I have stopped rushing into poems since I read a thing about Wilfred Owen which said his notebook showed he was working on one over eighteen months at least.

Perhaps wildly ambitious if you think of each of them as a wonderful creation to cherish and share. But if it's just an exercise -- like doing a crossword puzzle -- it'll help you get down and dirty with the iambs and end rhymes, and can be fairly manageable. I usually also spend several days (or weeks, depending) on larger projects.

*Sigh* -- you've inspired me to think of sonnets again, so I'll go post one of my projects that needs revision. I wrote it in two days, but I've been revising it here and there for the past few years.

November 28th, 2011, 05:47 PM
Thanks folks,

A most encouraging response Bloggsworth, did you really come up with that in under an hour? Or was it something you had saved? Either way good to be taken seriously.

I had it in a mythical pocket.

March 4th, 2012, 05:02 PM
To Candid petunia, if you want to write sonnets, it is better to post your writings here so that you can hear what other people say and improve your writing skills. in my experience, to use meter and rhyme is easy. the difficlut part is to get the poetic ideas. Not every topic can be used in a poem. Hope to read some of the sonnets you have written.