Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Improving the Quality of Our Suffering: Poetry

I originally presented this as a sort of crash course for my writing group over Hangouts. So, a lot of the examples were chosen because I knew members of Nevermore would dig them.

Robert Frost said a poem "begins in delight and ends in wisdom". Now, don't misunderstand and think that means poetry should be, like, delightfully happy. That is definitely not what I'm saying.

But I am saying it should satisfying. That's the delight. I mean, let's look at Poe. He is, IMO, the master of poetic devices. He's all about the meter and the rhyme and... everything, really. Look at this excerpt from Annabel Lee. Read it. Read it out loud. Feel how these words feel as they fall off your tongue.

Oh, and spoiler alert, I guess, for a century-and-half old poem.
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
 It just feels good to read, right?

Pretty frequently, I see people treating poetry like it's some kind of magic. It's not. I promise. No matter how arcane or wonderful something is, you can learn how to do it. Even poetry. It's all about the bass. I mean literary devices.

Let's start with my favorite.

Alliteration and Assonance

Both of these things deal with the phonetic sounds of words. Alliteration is, basically, when the consonants in a word sound the same, assonance is the vowels.

Let's take a look at Mean by Taylor Swift.
You, with your switching sides
and your wildfire lies
and your humiliation
Alliteration! We've got it with the Ss in switching, sides, and lies. We also have the L in wildfire, lies, and humiliation. And for assonance, we've got the long I in sides, wildfire, and lies.

Let's do some more. Pretend like we're in high school and see if you can guess them before I tell you. Here's a bit from Contagious by Night Riots.
Don't be, don't be so cold
Bones rust, decay, and mold
Head first, it is what it is
Youth lost, kicks us to live
We've clearly got some rhymes here. That's technically a different thing, but we're going to ignore it for now.

We have an alliterative D in don't, decay, mold, and head. There's also the T in don't, rust, first, it, and lost, but it's not as noticeable.

The assonance is pretty strong with the long O of don't, cold, bones, and mold. There's also the short I in kicks, it, is, and live.

Make sense? Sorry, I can't hear you if the answer was no. So, I'm going to assume it was yes and move on. Feel free to ask questions, though. I'll answer them as best I can.


There are two main kinds of rhyme-- true and slant.

Looking at the Night Riots example, "cold" and "mold" are true rhymes while "is" and "lives" is slant. So, true means it's the exact same ending sound and slant is... close.

Check out Partition by Beyonce. She's all about the slant rhyme in there.
Every girl in here got to look me up and down
All on Instagram, cake by the pound
Circulate the image every time I come around
"Pound" and "around" are true while "down" is slant.

Everyone still with me?


Okay. This one is pretty big and easy to miss. My best friend likes to harp on this one a lot. The imagery is how you're going to convey the theme and mood of your poem to the reader. Not all poems, and certainly not all songs have much concrete imagery, but if you can work it in, you'll make the piece at least 20% cooler.

Take another gander at Contagious up there. It's all entropy and death, culminating in the line, "Youth lost, kicks us to live". The next few lines are, "I am contagious, I am breaking down. Flesh of the fathers, I am no one's fault." Literally speaking, I have no idea what they're talking about. But the picture they're painting with those descriptions evokes depression and desperation.

If they'd just said, "We're sad and it's not your fault", the song might still be musically cool, but lyrically pretty basic and boring. It's all about making the reader see something that will then make them feel something. 

Blue October pretty regularly kills it in the imagery department, so check out this verse from Come in Closer:
Come dancing with devils
need not know their names
and we'll waltz like an army
for the fear of our pain
Our souls become useless
as the day they were born
in the rusted arm rocking chair
away from your storm
Again, if you look at the words literally, it's basically nonsense. Like, okay, these people are going to waltz with some random devils because if they don't someone will hurt them? And it renders their souls useless? But they're sitting in an old rocking chair (or maybe the souls are) while a storm rages somewhere in the distance.

If you listen to the whole song, there's a distorted voice near the end that says, "You cheated on me with another woman". I think, with that knowledge, it's pretty easy to read those lines to be more like temptation, ruin, and impeding consequences.

But you know what? Here's the part where poetry is kind of magic. With the imagery, maybe, for you, it isn't about the temptation of adultery. Maybe it's about running away, addiction, dealing with a difficult decision... the possibilities are endless. And what's even cooler is that it can change.

When I first listened to Come in Closer, I was playing a character in a World of Darkness game that prophesied to blah blah blah, whatever. The song felt like it was about him. Later, when life was kicking me in the shins, the song started to feel like it was telling me to just get out already.

There are so many examples of wonderful, evocative imagery that I could talk about this for hours. Sometimes I do, much to the chagrin of everyone I know who doesn't care about the deeper meaning of pop music. But whatevs.

If we don't want to be stuck on this for days, we should probably move on to...


A lot of the examples I've used so far have been songs. In a song, a singer can manipulate the words and warp the meter to be whatever they want it to be. But there are still some great meterists out there.

Like The Barenaked Ladies on Who Needs Sleep?.
My hands are locked up tight in fists
My mind is racing, filled with lists
of things to do and things I've done
Another sleepless night's begun
Okay, so now you might wondering wtf meter is. The easiest way I can think to explain it is this: meter is the rhythm of the words, formed by the stressed and unstressed syllables. When you look up words in the dictionary, you see something like this: an·oth·er - əˈnəT͟Hər. That not only shows you how to pronounce each letter, but also where the stress on the word is.

I'll admit, I didn't look up each of these in the dictionary to find out exactly where the accented syllable is. I just read it out loud and marked where it felt right. If you're completely new at meter, you might want to check, get a little comfortable with it. This should be about right, though.
My MIND is RACing, FILLed with LISTS
What we have in Who Needs Sleep? is called iambic. That means it is one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed. Iambic is the most common. It's how most people tend to speak naturally. It's easy to get into and easy to identify. There is a name for pretty much every combination of stressed and unstressed you can imagine. I'm not going to get into that because I want to do other things with my life and no one is paying me for this.

Not all poetry has meter. Those pieces are called Free Verse. However, meter is kind of like salt. Not everything needs it, but it's almost never a bad idea to add it. Even most cake and cookie recipes call for salt.

Robert Frost was kind of a master of this.
but I have PROMisES to KEEP
Poe also killed it.
ONCE uPON a MIDnight DREARy while I PONdered WEAK and WEARy
OVer MAny a QUAINT and CURious VOLume of FORgotten LORE
And, even One Direction can be pretty good at it...
WE're ONly GETting OLDer BABy
and I'VE been THINKing aBOUT you LATEly
There's actually a pretty cool dissection of Night Changes by 1D on this podcast I really dig called Switched on Pop. I'd love to talk about the fact that there are no rhymes and what that means, but they already said a lot of it and I feel like this post is already running long. Which might be okay, except that my brain is starting to vibrate and I can't really tell where I should end sentences anymore and we still need to talk about the fact that...

Everything You Do is a Deliberate Choice

So, this is always true in writing, but especially so in poetry. One of my professors once said that poetry is telling a story in the least amount of space possible. Every word, line break, and piece of punctuation means something.

There's this Emily Dickinson poem called Wild Nights. I got into a pretty heated discussion with a classmate about it. I read it and immediately thought, "Oh, well, this is clearly about sex". But my classmate, she was of the opinion that Dickinson would never write about that.
Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!
Okay, sure. Whatever. Maybe it's a poem about reckless abandon on a little boat called Eden and then mooring... in... uh, thee. Which is clearly the dick--I mean dock. Right?

But seriously, for my classmate, this really was just a poem about a boat. And that's fine. That's what she saw. For me, though, this poem is bubbling with excitement. The exclamation points and the em dashes make it feel breathless and urgent. Sure, maybe that's because the narrator really loves rowing. Maybe the em dashes are meant to show the exertion of that very family friendly activity. But there are twice as many as exclamation points as there are stanzas.

When you're working with something as compact as poetry, everything must serve a purpose. Which sounds hard, but it's really just the same as writing. When you're doing prose and you want to describe the setting, you're also setting the mood for the scene. If you can write a scene, you can write a poem.

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