Poetry – A Beginner’s Guide

Poetry.

As I write this, I am considering doing a series on poetry.  As it so happens, a friend of mine and I were discussing poetry this morning; specifically, she was asking for help in writing poetry, and how one might approach and learn it from the aspect of one whose experience is very limited.

In this, I am going to be thorough, but will be avoiding some of the more intricate details that really don’t matter unless there is a desire to understand at a high level.

Freeverse vs Form

First, let’s separate freeverse poetry from form poetry.  Simply explained, freeverse is loose, and follows no set parameters – whereas form poetry is structured, following a certain set of rules, which vary from form to form.  In the world of modern poetry, many poets have a tendency to consider anything rhyming as form poetry, but this is not the case.

Form poetry is often built around ‘meter’ which we will delve into shortly.

Freeverse poetry is simple, but incredibly difficult to do well.  There are a great many ways to say something, and what has come to be the popularized ‘slam’ poetry, and any type of freeverse that even remotely resembles such “poetry” is something that I shy away from (indeed, you might hear my disdain for it more than once if ever sat in a discussion with me regarding poetry).

Form poetry follows a set of rules.  Sonnets are fourteen line poems that are written in iambic pentameter.  Within this set of poems are subsets, including but not limited to, Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, both with their own rhyming scheme.

Common measure is written in iambic tetrameter/trimeter, alternating in quatrain sets.

Meter

But, I am going to save specific forms for their own post.  Here, I want to go into meter, and why it matters.

The beauty of the English language is how easily it is find that melody, that lilt, which serves to make meter easier to master than in other languages, as it is almost natural, even if we never notice it.

The following are some rules to remember when writing form poetry:

  1. Poetry, and especially form poetry, is as much meant to be spoken as it is to be written. This means that it is vital to speak it out loud in order to hear the cadence of the words as the poet might read or speak it.
  2. The message is more important than the form itself. This isn’t to say that a 16 line poem can be called a sonnet, nor can a poem that is written more like prose.  With this said, however, my favorite poet, William Wordsworth, gained some notoriety in his form poetry for not sticking strictly to iambic meter, instead choosing to keep his message, even if that meant adding a spondee or a trochee (both of which I will go into soon in discussing meter).
  3. What is the message? This is different from the above in that different forms offer different services to the poet’s voice.  A limerick is often a single quatrain written in common measure, and has most often been used for short little quips, and often meant for humor.  A sonnet has more range, because of its length, and a rondel might be in between these two, as it focuses on a very particular message.

Meter –

Simply defined, meter is based on what is called a ‘foot’.  It is important to remember that the end of a line is most often considered on the last stressed syllable.  A ‘foot’ is most often two syllables as seen in the following:

  1. Iamb – one ‘foot’ of an unstressed and stressed syllable, in that order.
    • Think of the word ‘unstressed’ and say it out loud.  Do you hear how the ‘un’ feels short, and ‘stressed’ feels long?  This is an example of an iamb.
  2. Trochee – one ‘foot’ of a stressed and unstressed syllable, in that order.
    • Let’s use ‘garden’ as an example.  Again, say it out loud and listen to the lilt.  ‘gar’ is stressed (long), and ‘den’ is unstressed (short).
  3. Spondee – one ‘foot’ of two stressed syllables.
    • Spondees are almost never found in single words, and in a poem are often two stressed single syllable words strung together, as in ‘swift sweet’.
  4. Pyrrhic – one ‘foot’ of two unstressed syllables (although it is commonly taught that a ‘foot’ requires a stressed syllable to be considered a foot).
    • I found this example, although this is a tricky one, because when speaking it out loud, while technically pyrrhic, we will still have a tendency to stress the first or second syllable, depending on the other stressed syllables in the line.
    • This is important when writing form.  In the following, the bold words are the pyrrhic feet, “To a green thought in a green shade.”

The above are the most common, but there are also three others to keep in mind.  Because those feet already aforementioned can easily fall into any of the following, and vice versa, depending on what the poet wishes to achieve, I will not give any examples.  These are more than two syllables:

  1. Dactyl – Because a ‘foot’ requires at least one stressed syllable in order to be a foot, this is an instance where the stressed syllable comes first and is then followed by two unstressed syllables. Because of the way the above ‘feet’ are defined, this could very easily be overlooked, and often is.
  2. Anapest – Similar to a dactyl, but the other way around. This is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.  Same thoughts which apply to the dactyl apply here.
  3. There is also the Amphibrach, which is an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed, followed by an unstressed.

Next is how these are used in a line.  As you saw above, I had mentioned some of these, such as trimeter, or pentameter.  So I’m just going to break these down, at least for the most common uses of lines:

  1. Monometer – Just as the name implies. One ‘foot’ line.
  2. Dimeter – Two ‘feet’ line
  3. Trimeter – Three ‘feet’ line
  4. Tetrameter – Four ‘feet’ line
  5. Pentameter – Five ‘feet’ line
  6. Hexameter – Six ‘feet’ line

And I’m sure you get the point.  It is rare that forms really go beyond pentameter, although they do exist.

In Practice

And so, I’m going to place here both a common measure poem and a sonnet to help understand the line length and the meter.

Here is the link to my sonnet, Falling Castles.  Tear it apart, line by line, and let me know what you see?  Is it written in perfect iambic pentameter?  Or did I take some liberties with it?

https://shadowyembrace.com/portfolio/falling-castles-2/

The following poem is Tale of the Whippoorwill’s Sorrow, a poem written in common measure, but instead of a limerick, I instead decided to use the common measure help tell a story in a much more melodic way, as this form lends itself to such a sway.

https://shadowyembrace.com/portfolio/tale-of-the-whippoorwills-sorrow/

With all of this said, there are so many forms.  Villanelles, Rondeaus, Rondels, Quaterns, Haiku, Trijan Refrain, Rubaiyat, etc, etc…each with their own rules to follow.  Understanding meter is simply the first step to gaining a firm foothold into form poetry.

Here is the first poem I ever wrote.  A freeverse poem, written from the eyes of love, as I understood it at the time.

Through Love’s Eyes

But of love, which if a mouth it had
from whence it was born,
Would speak, painfully clad,
only in scorn
Except to that which is beautifully adorned
And to think of all this
Is to make the heart miss
what only mattered most
As though it were a splendid kiss
long forgotten, a shadowy ghost
But lo! Behold!
Love, for love to no longer run cold –
must dream,
Dreaming dreams of heavenly beings
Then a smile doth appear across love’s face
For joyous is the thought in love’s embrace

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