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Olly Buckle
October 20th, 2012, 10:20 PM
I met someone on a train, I am the sort of man who meets people on trains, who told me he wrote poetry. He knew nothing about poetry, indeed he expressed a desire to remain ignorant about formal poetry. He wrote for his own satisfaction and felt the formality might spoil it, "I just want to write" he said, it seemed strange to me. If he wished to be able to draw would going to art classes and learning how to produce a reasonable likeness of something spoil the experience? I don’t think so. In fact I can’t think of anything we do, from practicing brain surgery to playing cricket, that isn’t improved by knowing more about it. Learning something about the structure of poetry is only a restriction if you make it one, it can also be a wonderful aid if you want it to, or simply add to the understanding of other people’s poetry.

Where to start? Well the smallest unit of the poem is a foot, using a particular type of foot defines the metre of the poem, and gives a certain feel to it.

Feet are defined in terms of stressed and unstressed syllables, though, personally, I find the stress quite hard to hear sometimes, I have found it gets easier with practice. The simplest foot is usually defined as an iamb, that is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, though why that is simpler than a trochee, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed, I could not tell you.

The different sorts of feet each give a different ‘feel’, writing in iambic pentameters, that is five iambs to a line, gives a very natural, ‘conversational’ feel, it is the basic metre of Shakespeare’s plays. An anapaest is a foot consisting of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed, writing in that gives a feeling of ‘movement’.

“If MUsic BE the FOOD of LOVE play ON”
Is in iambs (and a pentameter), as are most Shakespearean quotations.

“The AsSYrian came DOWN like a WOLF on the FOLD”
Is in anapaests, though I find the last two much easier to see, or hear, than the first two.

I think you should see there is a difference in the ‘feel’ the two forms give to their lines there, and ‘feel’ is very important in poetry. Of course ‘conversational’ and ‘movement’ are terms to which one can apply poetic license, limericks are in anapaestic metre.

If you stick rigidly to the form it can get a bit tedious and predictable after a while. That is why Limericks make a good starting point for practicing writing in feet, their basic metre is anapaestic and they are very regular, eight or nine syllables in lines 1,2 and 5 and five or six in lines 3 and 4, and at only five lines they don’t have time to be anything but fun.

See if you can pick out the stresses and feet in this,

There was a young lady from Ryde
Who ate some green apples and died
The apples fermented
Inside the lamented
And made cider inside her inside.

Remember it is anapaestic, but only eight syllables in the first two long lines, so the last foot is cut short by an unstressed syllable, the rest is straight anapaests.
Some people find it easier to take the meaning away and simply recite the stresses,
De de Dum de de Dum de Dum,
It is not for me, I prefer the actual words, but whatever helps is good. Here is another,

There was a young man from Bengal
Who went to a fancy dress ball
He thought he would risk it
And go as a biscuit
But a dog ate him up in the hall

Perfect regularity is okay with five line limericks, and limericks are folk art originally, one of the hallmarks of folk art is that in some way you know what is coming, products of a cultural growth rather than an individual inspiration. Ballads are another example, usually written in perfect Iambic pentameters the lines are in rhyming pairs, known as ‘Heroic couplets’. But, without the amusing content that has you waiting to see what will fill the space, the poetic form is quite boring.

People don’t want to write the sort of poetry you could tap out a monotonous rhythm to, ker-bonk, ker-bonk, so irregularity is not an error, not if it is deliberate. Well used it not only holds the ear’s interest, it accentuates the meaning, just as the anapaests ‘movement’ enhances the Assyrians descent. The famous ‘to be or not to be’ speech from Hamlet has the verse pattern of iambic pentameter, but that line, “To be or not to be, that is the question”, is irregular.

Hamlet’s problem is whether to live or die, and that shows where the stresses should lie, to recite it with the stress on the ‘be, not, be, is, qu,’ syllables like regular iambs would sound wrong, the stresses come on ‘be, not, be, that, qu’; and the last word has at least one extra syllable on the end (Elizabethans may well have separated qu-es-ti-on, making it two). Also the stress is not equal all through, the strongest stress comes on the inverted fourth foot,”that is”, (It gets called an inverted iamb rather than a trochee because the overall metre is iambic) and the qu is not nearly so strongly stressed.

It might be a while before we get to his standard, in the meantime come to the limerick thread in poetry prompts and have a practice, or even write your own, whole, limerick. It is a first step towards adding to your poems by using metre creatively, ‘Learn the rules before you break the rules’ as they say.

WhitakerRStanton
October 21st, 2012, 12:26 AM
~

patskywriter
October 21st, 2012, 12:39 AM
Why is that so strange? I never attended a music conservatory, but somehow I'm able to play jazz guitar. I suppose my playing would be more in line with other players if I took formal lessons, but I chose not to. For me, it's more fun to play by ear rather than sign up for classes. As much as I love music, the thought of formal music study bores me to tears.

I can't imagine that there's only one universally sanctioned way of expressing oneself through poetry. I don't know an awful lot about poetry, but that can't possibly be right.

playingthepianodrunk
October 21st, 2012, 04:10 AM
The best musicians and I'm sure the best poets and painters and so on were naturally gifted at their chosen art. You can learn music theory all you want doesn't mean you can play the guitar. As deep as I go with studying poetry or literature is reading it. Besides that I feel like I do have some kind of knack for writing. I don't like many poets so I write the poetry I would like to read. Right, wrong or indifferent it is my approach. Just like I mentioned with music, just because you know the fundamentals of an art form doesn't mean you have anything to say. And I think that is what art is about in the end saying something pick your medium, instead of some kind of exclusionary club. My favorite example would be the work of French painter Henri Rosseau, critics in his day said he painted like a child but there is something about his work that is undeniable. He is not technical like a Monet. You don't have to write like James Joyce. I actually think it helps not to. To be muddled down under countless allusions and symbols is truly tiresome. There is a happy medium.

Olly Buckle
October 21st, 2012, 08:37 AM
"You don't have to write like James Joyce. I actually think it helps not to. To be muddled down under countless allusions and symbols is truly tiresome. There is a happy medium."

"Learning something about the structure of poetry is only a restriction if you make it one, it can also be a wonderful aid if you want it to, or simply add to the understanding of other people’s poetry."

I don't think there is really a fundamental disagreement, my argument is that knowledge widens your choice. ignorance restricts it, what your choice is is a matter of personal taste. Rousseau's imagery may be 'childlike' in some ways, his technique is not, he has learned to make the paint do the things he wants.

"Language, and this can be argued, is the first thing human beings begin to learn. We learn speech before we grasp meaning. Then we are educated on proper language and all it's rules."
This is intuitive learning, it takes you a long way, but look at it this way, go to see a Shakespear play and it will be good, go to literature classes and learn about all the subtelties of meaning and references obscured by time first, and it will be better. The formal study adds a layer of understanding.

Thank you for your comments everyone. I feel I have failed with my intro, I added the first part as an introduction after I had written the rest, in an attempt to make the content more accessable, it seems to have worked mainly as a point of disagreement and a distraction from what I was originally trying to get across.

Squalid Glass
October 21st, 2012, 10:36 AM
I really appreciate you posting this, Olly. It's an important question to tackle. Personally, I can see merit on both sides. Talent and creativity is, in my opinion, mostly a natural ability, but learning structure can do wonderful things for one's art. The deconstructionist in me says structure is a limitation and words are just endless signifiers, so I tend to fall more on the feel side of the argument. When I write, I rarely pay attention to metrical units, and I never think about stresses and the like. To me, it's much more about the natural feel of the words. If what I write comes out rhythmic, then I am happy. Usually this happens without much thought. It's those wonderful moments of inspiration when you create juicy rhythms and subtle internal rhymes you never even thought about. To me, that is what a poet should strive to accomplish - the natural, stream of conciousness art that can be sculpted later.

Now, that being said, I suppose I'm a hypocrite because I'm teaching my students all about iambs and anapest and how Shakespeare manipulates beats to create disruption and emphasis. But, as I tell my students every day, it's no fun to live in black and white. Always embrace the grey!

Bloggsworth
October 21st, 2012, 12:23 PM
WRS,

I see you adopt the Chomsky view, that we are born with language, if that were true there would be one universal tongue, I think that that theory has now been debunked. Babies learn many things before they learn to speak the language they most often hear; self-preservation, how to move; how to distinguish faces, smells, tastes and other things important to their well-being. Learning to use the tools of any endeavour is critical to effective prosecution of the endeavour, whether it be writing poetry or brain surgery; knowing the rules allows a poet to break them to better effect.


Pianoforteplunker,

The playing the guitar thing is a classic syllogism. Presumably you didn't spend your life never having heard any music at all, then picked up a guitar and started composing your own tunes and playing them; no, you heard a lot of music, music written within very formal constraints (The diatonic scale, unless you are playing oriental jazz), from your listening you had a fair idea of how it was made; then you hummed or sung along with tunes you liked while listening to Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt or your guitarist of choice, and the tunes they played you incorporated into your repetoire; then, after a lot of practice and trial and error, you perfected your technique while working within the constraints of form, that is to say, jazz. The musical equivalent of reading and practising writing poetry, you didn't get where you are now in a bubble disconnected from the outside world, and of course, there is the remote possibility that you might have become an even better player had you attended a few masterclasses...

Bachelorette
October 21st, 2012, 03:15 PM
He wrote for his own satisfaction

I see little wrong with this, even if I don't agree with his statement that learning about poetry would "spoil" things for him. If he's just writing for himself alone, and for no other reason, he has the right to do it how he wants - he should just accept that the result will likely not be very good if he ever puts his work up for critique or tries to get published.

It reminds me of my dad and his dad, my grandfather. Both of them own acoustic guitars, and neither of them know a single thing about music. They don't know any chords, they can't read music, they can't pick out melodies by ear, their tastes in music, IMO, are not very wide-ranging... so you may be wondering what it is that they DO with their guitars. I guess they do what is called "noodling" - they pick out a few random notes and maybe strum tunelessly for half a minute, and that's it. I for one don't see the point, but if it makes them happy - and, apparently, it does - I'm not going to ruin it for them. It's to their credit, though, that neither one claims to know how to play the guitar.

So, if this guy writes poetry without knowing anything about it, and he's honest enough to admit that he doesn't really know how to write poetry, but just does it because it's fun and he enjoys it, I see no harm in that. The problem is when people like that go around claiming to be poets, yet they stubbornly refuse to learn anything about poetry writing. Experienced poets can spot these characters a mile away, but non-poets he shares his work with will just be under the impression that all poetry must kind of suck, which is unfortunate, but it's no real crime, I suppose.

~*~

Digression: If this guy reads poetry, and can learn from what he reads, he might even do all right - he would be, in essence, teaching himself some of the formalities of poetry without even realizing it. Most people, I would think, don't write poetry unless they read it. Of course, some people learn little or nothing from what they read, and just do what they want regardless, thinking that, since it's poetry, it's about self-expression and nothing more - which is also something I don't agree with. But others will argue against that, and have - though not very successfully, IMO.

I have had no formal training in poetry myself, and while I certainly don't claim to be an expert, or even that good at writing it, I find that I learn best by reading more accomplished poets and using what I glean from their writings in my own. You can decipher what a sestina or a villanelle or a sonnet is just by studying the form. Meter and rhythm, I think, are the most difficult technical aspects to learn on one's own, but if you read enough poetry, you can, like Glass indicated, develop a "sense" for it without fully understanding the underlying technicalities.

I guess, in the end, it all depends on what you're going to do with your poetry once you've written it. If you want to share with an audience that knows something of poetry, be it critics or teachers or other poets, you'll simply look like what you are: an ignorant novice, and the experienced will call you on it. Then it will be up to you to decide if you want to improve, or if you stubbornly want to remain ignorant because you believe - IMO, wrongly - that poetry springs unbidden from the very SOUL, and therefore it cannot be judged.

If, on the other hand, you keep what you write to yourself, or share it only with people who are close to you and who will just tell you that what you've written is "good" because they don't want to hurt your feelings, then I guess I don't see what the harm in doing so is.

Other than robbing yourself of the chance to write something well, as opposed to merely writing something, of course.

playingthepianodrunk
October 21st, 2012, 06:31 PM
Good mention of musicians. You are right except my point is you don't need classes the best way to learn to play guitar is to play guitar. Same with writing poetry. Of course I have those who I admire because I love poetry. It is something I am passionate about but the interest is all my own not something that has been forced upon me, not something I do to get a good grade.

Cran
October 21st, 2012, 08:23 PM
Who said anything about classes?
Who is still so ignorant that to believe that learning (only) happens in schools?
Who wants to equate knowledge with grades?
Who can't learn something without a teacher to do the spoon feeding?

If this is you, then why bother with what the rest of the world thinks?
Go back to your doodles and your twiddles,
and remain a legend in your own mind.

Olly Buckle
October 21st, 2012, 08:25 PM
If one learns about metre and rhythm and such and then applies it as a learnt lesson, as seems to be suggested in places, I agree that would make for an artificial and contrived poetry. Okay that might be the way of it at times as one is learning, but surely the aim is to internalise these things, then they just start happening. It is like someone said to me a little while ago , their family were critical because they were starting to make their everyday speech rhyme, or like when you are learning French, then go to france and after a few days speaking it find you start dreaming in it. It takes a positive effort to learn the formalised systems, but then you adopt them and they become part of you rather than a deliberate effort anymore. Think of small children getting muddled with numbers and having to think hard which comes next, you know that in a year or so it will just flow and seem seamless, and they will have forgotten there was ever a problem.
Sure you need to read and write poetry as well, but remember when you first tried getting your fingers into a chord shape that now just happens Mr pianoplayer? And my guess is that someone showed you that shape, "Try this, it's an E#".

WhitakerRStanton
October 21st, 2012, 09:41 PM
~

Squalid Glass
October 21st, 2012, 11:48 PM
As someone who has a degree in poetry writing, I do think the formal approach is valuable. But honestly, who are any of us to say "what you write is bad" or "what you write isn't poetry"? I don't know. I'm never going to be the person who says one person's poetry is more valuable than another's, because in my mind, poetry is more about self expression and the individual expression of emotion than anything else. If someone wants to write in their own way without any influence or suggestion from anyone else, who am I or who is anybody else to tell them they can't do that?

Olly Buckle
October 21st, 2012, 11:59 PM
Far be it from me to tell anyone they can't do something, well, no swearing without a disclaimer maybe. Seriously, there is a difference between telling someone 'you can't do that' and suggesting to someone 'you might be able to do that better if ...', or even 'I am pretty darn sure you could do better if ...'. No reason why I shouldn't have an opinion too, and I reckon I can validate it.

playingthepianodrunk
October 22nd, 2012, 01:31 AM
Who said anything about classes?
Who is still so ignorant that to believe that learning (only) happens in schools?
Who wants to equate knowledge with grades?
Who can't learn something without a teacher to do the spoon feeding?

If this is you, then why bother with what the rest of the world thinks?
Go back to your doodles and your twiddles,
and remain a legend in your own mind.

Like I said I learn on my own. No need to get personal.

playingthepianodrunk
October 22nd, 2012, 01:38 AM
If one learns about metre and rhythm and such and then applies it as a learnt lesson, as seems to be suggested in places, I agree that would make for an artificial and contrived poetry. Okay that might be the way of it at times as one is learning, but surely the aim is to internalise these things, then they just start happening. It is like someone said to me a little while ago , their family were critical because they were starting to make their everyday speech rhyme, or like when you are learning French, then go to france and after a few days speaking it find you start dreaming in it. It takes a positive effort to learn the formalised systems, but then you adopt them and they become part of you rather than a deliberate effort anymore. Think of small children getting muddled with numbers and having to think hard which comes next, you know that in a year or so it will just flow and seem seamless, and they will have forgotten there was ever a problem.
Sure you need to read and write poetry as well, but remember when you first tried getting your fingers into a chord shape that now just happens Mr pianoplayer? And my guess is that someone showed you that shape, "Try this, it's an E#".

There are many ways to play an E major chord and how you reach that is all up to you. All I need to know is those notes. EGB. Honestly all you need to play music is to understand the musical language and the better you understand the better potential your music will have. We all speak a language so us writers already have a leg up. Good writing is a string of words that make an impression on your soul not some kind of linguistic Olympics. Through many years of playing or writing you can create your own style or system. I've been doodling and mumbling for less then two years now and many if I keep it up I'll accomplish something. Maybe I won't and it just wasn't meant to be and that is fine as well. You can put poetry on a pedestal but it is important to remember they were just people writing words in a fancy way to make themselves feel better about what they lacked in the outside world. And much like me they were highly deluded individuals.

Squalid Glass
October 22nd, 2012, 07:10 AM
Olly - of course, but honestly whose business is it to enfringe on another's business when the other's business is their own business? Woah, I just got a little dizzy there.

Olly Buckle
October 22nd, 2012, 09:28 AM
Honestly all you need to play music is to understand the musical language and the better you understand the better potential your music will have.
Honestly all you need to write poetry is to understand the poetic language and the better you understand the better potential your poetry will have.

So what is the argument?
My daughter is at university, she spends a couple of hours a day practising flute, three hours a week taking lessons in playing and nine in theory lessons, she has talent and wants to be good, and she is. If someone wants to strum the guitar a bit and provide backing to a few Dylan songs that's fine by me, but I refuse to believe they will ever become a Django or a Segovia. If someone wants to write for their own cathartic satisfaction that also is fine by me, but if they tell me they don't need to understand feet, metre and rhythm it all just comes naturally because they have natural talent I can't see them ever getting to write like a Wordsworth or an Owen, you can't just start writing perfect blank verse or invent rhyming systems without understanding what went before. I am not saying you have to make an effort, only that you have to if you want to achieve something better. Making an effort is entirely up to you, if you don't want to you don't have to, but my experience is that it improves the quality of life, I am glad I got that lesson across to my daughters, even if I can't seem to here.

Sorry, rant over, go back to strumming and doggerel.

Cran
October 22nd, 2012, 11:02 AM
My daughter is a university, ...
She's a big girl!

Gargh
October 22nd, 2012, 11:31 AM
The more information and opinions on all types of writing I hear, the better I am able to define what I like and improve my voice - so thanks for starting off this debate, I've enjoyed reading it! I personally started off writing for pleasure and it hit some notes but many people who I wished would understand did not. Learning some formal structure has helped me use my writing to speak to more people which is what I wanted to do and still want do. I also think, why spend your life making the same mistakes as other people for want of a little education? It all comes down to what you like though in the end. I love the idea of being given a poetic form and trying to fit my ideas to it - it's a challenge. Other people can't stand that constraint and view it as suffocating. That is very personal and I don't think there will ever be much common ground there! BTW Olly, it is reassuring to hear someone else had trouble hearing feet because I often still do until someone else reads to me... it is very frustrating!

playingthepianodrunk
October 22nd, 2012, 06:25 PM
I am young and probably still dumb so I will defer. What are somethings I should learn? Where is a good place to start?

Angel101
October 22nd, 2012, 06:53 PM
This has certainly been a fun debate to read! I'll put in my two cents by stating what feel are the similarities between writing good poetry and writing good music, since that has been brought up a few times.

Firstly, I've been studying music for years now. I started by singing and then by playing the piano. I did everything by ear. I had a nice voice and I took to the piano quite easily. But when I actually started studying music, I was taken aback by how much I learned and how quickly I began to improve. I even got better at playing things by ear because I actually KNEW what I was hearing. Now, after years of training, I can look at a piece of music and know how to play it. I can sing a song I've never heard before by just looking at the sheet music. Now I can WRITE music because I know so much more about how it works. I used to write music before I started taking lessons, and my songs were fine. Were they even close to the level they're in now? No. Of course not. Now I have the same "feel" I had before, but I also have knowledge, and that knowledge has helped me take my natural ability to levels that it wouldn't have gotten to otherwise.

I feel very strongly that poetry works the same way. You can have a gift or a knack for it. You might even scribble down some pretty good work just by writing enough or because you read a lot of poetry. Some people are just good at things. But when I see people like that, I think, "God, just imagine how good they would be if they spent time learning about poetry, if they spent real time in a workshop environment." If I'm being honest, it pisses me off. It feels like such a waste. Why are you born with a gift you're too stubborn to actually use?

But if people want to write just to write and they suck anyway... Well, I guess I don't have a problem with that.

Kyle R
October 22nd, 2012, 07:32 PM
Knowledge is power.

I can become a master craftsman with a hammer alone. But if I had many tools? I could do even more.

Cran
October 22nd, 2012, 09:36 PM
I am young and probably still dumb so I will defer.
Young, yes, but not dumb (in either sense).
You just happen to be where we oldies were once upon a time,
at that point in our lives when we knew more than we ever did,
and just before we realised how little that was ...
with experience*, you will eventually surpass us, and then ...
you'll do what you can to encourage those coming after you.

*that thing you get just after you needed it.

Olly Buckle
October 23rd, 2012, 09:46 AM
I have had a day off with another sinus headache (Bane of my life at the moment) but it is interesting the direction the thread has taken, it certainly has been lively at times. In retrospect that introduction is going to have to change, in a way it is ideal for a situation like this where it can lead to discussion, but someone reading it in isolation might well simply read the intro. and get no further, I want to make it prick the curiosity of those who believe in the intuitive approach.
Sorry, rant over, go back to strumming and doggerel.I apologise for this line, it was the result of a degree of frustration, but probably not at all helpful, my aim is really to get people on board, not to alienate them.

Playingthepianodrunk, to start is where I have in th op, with feet and metre. I found a few of books on poetic criticism in the second hand shop, some were quite readable and some were very difficult to follow, but all of them are likely to be a bit dated now, I will look out the best ones and give them a mention (I can't remember titles and authors off hand), but there are probably better modern equivalents. My advice then would be to do what I have done here and when you have learned something write about it, it helps internalise it wonderfully and makes it part of your knowledge rather than someone else's that will always be a bit separate from you.

Thank you everyone for all the response, in many ways it is most heartening.

Abbey08
October 29th, 2012, 01:34 AM
Olly,
As I read this thread, I was reminded of something I read that was attributed to Georgia O'Keefe. Roughly, the gist was that as she was becoming an artist early on, she never copied anyone's work because she wanted to her work to be uninfluenced by the habit of the time of copying famous works.

Relating this to writing, or in fact any kind of creative work: Everyone with that creative spark wants what he does to be unique. Usually, he wants to have his own voice, his own style, although early on, he may copy works in his genre that he admires. However, even if all the budding writer does is read, anything and everything, his work will be influenced. Perhaps it will be by vocabulary that is new to him. Perhaps it will be the rhythm of the words and the way the author put them together.

I can remember early on, when I felt I was not writing as well as I could, I read some of the Great Books. It always helped. But....I will say that it was a shock when a friend pointed out that in a rough draft, I had started out with perfect iambic pentameter; it was not intentional.

Lorraine

Olly Buckle
October 29th, 2012, 09:08 AM
Abbey08, You have just caught me, I have an eye op tomorrow to remove a cataract and will stay at my daughters for a day or two, so must be brief. We are all influenced, a vocabulary is acquired so early on words will have strong personal relationships with events. Even feral children, raised by animals, differ according to the type of animal that has raised them, wolf or antelope for example, the uniqueness, if it is in the construction, usually comes from understanding what went before and seeing where that leads. Individuality of content is another thing, coming partly from the individual experience, partly from the Zeitgeist of the time.

Iambic pentameters have a conversational, natural feel, you are obviously a natural :)

Abbey08
October 29th, 2012, 03:42 PM
Iambic pentameters have a conversational, natural feel, you are obviously a natural :)

You are far too kind, although I will say that I write the way I talk. There is a saying(I forget whose, so I will paraphrase)in the teaching of young children to read that says essentially: If I see it, I can say it; If I can say it, I can write it; If I write it, I can read it. This has to do with having children learn to read by making an expression in art, dictating to the teacher what they want to say about it. The teacher records the dictation at the bottom of the artwork and then shows the child how what the child said can be read. I believe it was the "Language Experience Approach" to teaching young children to read in the 70's; I'm not sure if it continues to be used or not. I used it extensively with pre-school children as a way of getting them ready to read and I liked the approach.

Writing poetry for me is a painful process. Finding that fresh way of writing about things that have been written about forever using fresh images and language is not easy. I'd rather concentrate on making images photographically. And then it happens: there's something I want to comment on that cannot be done with a visual image; out comes the poetry!

Best to you with your surgery; enjoy your time with your daughter. See you when you get back over here :)

Lorraine