SHAPING A POEM
by DVORA WAYSMAN
The definition of poetry that I’ve always liked the most is “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” If no profound feelings are involved, then the words could more easily have been expressed in prose. But sometimes prose just won’t do … the depth of emotion felt by the writer demands the poetic form.
The stimulus that inspires a poem is different for everyone, but you need to be observant and experience all your five senses, absorbing the sights, sounds, taste , smell and tactile impressions you encounter. Something is tingling inside you, maybe an excitement that you need to capture. According to a record left by Wordsworth’s sister, he was thrilled to see the daffodils seeming to dance at Ullswater, but it took two years for him to write the poem we all learnt at school: “I wandered lonely as a cloud…’His poems originated in stored memories.
Poems can come when we are joyful, dejected, angry, lonely, spiritual or loving. Your feelings color what you see and remember, and even though most subjects like nature, love, death, fame, war and the transience of human experience have all been covered through the ages, your view can still be fresh and unique. The subjects may be limited, but there are always possibilities to approach them in a new, imaginative way.
A poem is an intricate composition. There is the narrative poem, tied to events. A.E. Housman’s “Eight O’Clock” is an example. It moves you because it implies the public execution of an un-named man for an unspecified crime. A descriptive poem is different. It depends on conveying a scene, a sound, a personality or feeling, although you can combine narration and description. Many modern poets write persuasive poems deliberately to change attitudes, sometimes using satire. Although this type of poetry does not appeal to me, it often employs stark realism to shock the reader into changing his or her view on a subject. Randall Jarrell, Allen Ginsberg and James Wright employed this kind of poetic persuasion.
How do you start to write a poem? Usually you put your feelings into words, jot down images, metaphors, alternate phrases. The days are long past when verse had to rhyme and you had to contrive artificially to express your thoughts. Sometimes beginning with a structured form, however, is the best way if you need that deliberate discipline. Blank verse is an alternative, comprised of unrhymed lines, each line a pentameter of five metric feet. Each foot is an iamb (a 2-syllable unit) with the second syllable stressed. Iambic pentameter couplets are also called heroic couplets.
Once when Somerset Maugham was asked how to write a novel, he said: “There are seven rules to writing a novel. Only no-one knows what they are.” I feel the same about poetry. Most of the poems I have loved have been in free verse, not committed to a predictable pattern of rhythm, rhyme or stanza. Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams wrote in free verse. This sounds as though it’s easy to write, but it’s only easy to write it badly. It may lack metrical precision but it should have cadence, with its own pace and rhythm. You can even find free verse in the magnificent translated Psalms in the Bible, and you should read T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, a long poem of irregular stanzas and lines; some surprising rhymes as in “fingers/malingers; ices/crisis”. You are always conscious of the poet’s change in mood, rhythm and vocabulary.
When you write prose, your first thought is clarity. With poetry it’s not always the most important choice. A certain ambiguity can sometimes enrich a poem. Also, you no longer have to start every line with a capital letter .e.e.cummings dispensed with them altogether. Punctuation, too, is optional. If you wish you can let line endings and breaks between stanzas indicate a pause.
Naming your poem is like naming your baby. Bestowing a name is an act of magic, to give reality to a hope or wish to be fulfilled. You can dispense with a name in a very short poem like a “haiku”, but a name confers value, Usually the title emphasizes an element of the poem.
Although I always loved poetry and memorized hundreds of lines, writing poetry came to me late in life. Maybe, as we mature, we feel things more deeply. All the emotions that bring tears to your eyes or joy to your heart are stimuli for poems. When I turned 70, the three score years and ten allotted by the Bible, it was a time of deep introspection, particularly thinking of dreams unfulfilled and how short a time was left. It was truly therapeutic to verbalize this sadness. I just let the feelings flow, and surprised myself with a poem:
When autumn lays out her lush carpet
Of scarlet and gold and brown
I’ll think back to spring and summer
And of all I let slip by.
I had my chance,
But so many times I hesitated,
Afraid of consequences
That may never have happened.
We do not regret the things we did
In this life, that passes so rapidly.
No, it was when we failed to grasp the moment
The one that never came again.
To you who are still young,
Take life with both your hands;
Laugh and love, travel roads untrodden
Or, like me, face a winter of regrets.
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