Poetry, at its best, goes beyond anything we can put a finger on to something we can only say has an emotional force we can’t forget. That is why I believe it is a sacred art form and why it has lasted for so many centuries. As with all the arts, it’s the feeling a poem gives us we can’t forget and want to feel again. It’s the reason we return, again and again, to lines that effectively capture something in the deeper reaches of the collective soul.
In attempting to reach this deeper “something”, it greatly helps to master all the tools and techniques the craft of poetry encompasses. Whether writing dialogue for a play, prose, free verse or formal poetry, it’s all enhanced by mastering the craft. The craft of poetry’s basic elements are form, meter, rhythm and rhyme.
Forms like sonnets, villanelles and sestinas are like human bodies that can perform who knows how many different kinds of dance. While the content of a dance or a poem can be old and stale or new and exciting, the instrument (the body or form) can be used to express anything from the past, present or future. Any whole body is capable of performing any kind of dance. All poetry, all art has a form. It’s just a question of how well the form suits what the poet seeks to realize.
Meter describes where the accents fall and how many unaccented syllables there are between them. As the poet, Timothy Steele, points out in “Prosody for 21st-Century Poets”, because different words carry lighter or heavier accents, the variety of rhythms that can be superimposed on any given meter is endless. A poem’s meter is like a musical time signature. How many different tunes can be written in 4/4 time, for instance? Any number. How many lines can be written in iambic pentameter, say? The answer is the same. What makes one line better than another (among many other things) is how well the poet harmonizes meter and rhythm. When they are working together, a memorable line is more likely to result.
However constraining meter might feel when a poet first uses it, with practice, any discomfort wears off in time. Practicing with meter using different rhythms is like playing a musical instrument. At first, nothing feels more clumsy than finding the right words within the strictures of meter. Like any other discipline, however, practice and experience make it feel far more natural until it becomes second nature. After all, no one expects a neophyte skater to leap and spin with perfect form and it’s no different with meter and rhythm. The more conscious you are of them, the better the effects you produce will be. People often remember the melody of a song even when they’ve forgotten the words and it works the same with poetry. The rhythm of a line is recalled more readily than its words and that’s due to the feeling it instills. Different meters which are all variations on the human heart beat, elicit different emotions and emotion is at the heart of the poetic art and the profound effects it can have.
Finally, rhyme. Rhyme can help propel a reader through a poem or turn him/her off completely. At its best, it makes a poem more memorable (as with nursery rhymes) and gives much pleasure. At its worst, it can weigh a poem down and be irritating. Like all the other techniques, it takes practice to get good at using it. The trick is to surprise the reader with rhyme or, at least, give them a sense of completion and inevitability. When rhymes are predictable or seem to be forced or unnatural, they lose the power they’re capable of exerting.
Just how powerful can a poem’s force be? Can a few words on a page really change anything? The Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, was once asked if the Nobel Prize was his greatest satisfaction and he said, no. His greatest satisfaction was when another Russian emigre showed up at his apartment in New York City to say he had been in the Gulag and found it so crushingly difficult, he was ready to commit suicide. However, another prisoner gave him one of Brodsky’s poems which he found so moving and so powerful, it restored his will to live. He had managed to survive the experience and get out. He had come to thank Brodsky for saving his life. At its best, that is how powerful poetry can be.
This article was first published at Author Essentials on April 23rd, 2014.
Timothy Victor Richardson
A poet for over 30 years, Timothy Victor Richardson was originally educated as a special needs teacher and psychologist, the background from which his novel, “Ceremony of Innocence“, was derived (sample review). The strongly metrical language of this novel is an indicator of the author’s major focus: poetry.
Richardson’s work has impressed some of the finest poets of the 20th century including former U.S. Poet Laureate, Richard Wilbur, Pulitzer Prize winners James Merrill and Anthony Hecht, Guggenheim fellow and MacArthur recipient, Rosanna Warren and Nobel Laureate, Joseph Brodsky among others. Some of Richardson’s poems have been published by “The Partisan Review”, “Harvard Divinity Bulletin” and other publications, but more of his work has led to films: eight complete and two in progress.
“The Force of Poetry” captures a Richardson poetry reading and presentation on the meaning, mechanics and significance of poetry. Digital technology is employed to convey traditional and complex poetic forms as they are explained. In its endorsement, Maine Public Broadcasting said; “The effect is to inject life and heartbeat into what is often thought of as an inert, hard-to-read art form, and the result is both educational and entertaining.” “The Force of Poetry” is available here. A taped presentation about Richardson’s epic poem on the inner life of Abraham Lincoln , “Mandala”, has been shown on cable channels. Short films of single poems are available on Internet sites with a CD of poetry readings by the actor Jeff Flint in progress.