Monday, March 22, 2010

Summary of Saturday's Meeting

We met last Saturday, March 20, at the Villa. Elizabeth gave a talk on poetry and there was a good discussion/question and answer session. For anyone who couldn't be there, here is what Elizabeth spoke about (although a few more examples were provided during the actual talk):

On Writing Poetry
How I write poetry: I always start a poem with an image. Sometimes, I see something that strikes me. Sometimes an image just pops into my mind. Sometimes I use a prompt. I prefer picture prompts or short, two or three word prompts. Looking at the striking object or the prompt, a phrase and a general feeling will come to me. I usually use that first phrase as the first line of the poem. Then I build on that line with more lines, using the general feeling as a guide to them. Usually, for longer poems, I'm telling a story.

After a line or two, I have a sense of which form I want to use for the poem. I want to mention here a few things about forms. I have a set of forms I like to use. If I read a poem in a new form I like, or read about a new form, I usually try to write a poem of my own using the form to see if it fits my style. Using forms really improved my poetry, because a form is a pattern, and provides patterns that are pleasing to the reader. I'll talk more about specific forms in a moment.

Occasionally, I won't pick a form after the first couple lines. I'll write the whole poem in free verse, then go back and fit it to a form. I usually do this when I'm not sure right away what I'm trying to do with the poem. I'll discuss a little more about how I do this later.

I often go back as I write and change already written lines to fit the further lines, and how the poem is developing. This is a little tricky sometimes, because with or in addition to the form, I always try to have a syllable or meter pattern going on. Some forms are defined by these patterns, some are not, and if I'm using a form without a pattern, I try to make sure I create one of my own.

Once I have a poem, I read it again as an editor, making sure that it flows the way I want it to. Sometimes, especially if I'm just dashing something off for practice, I'll leave it here. Otherwise I'll keep working on it. If I'm not happy, I set it aside. I don't always finish a poem in one sitting. I write notes to myself about where I see the poem going, and what I hear in it already, and then I set it aside. I'll come back and work on it more later.

I know Amber wanted to know about punctuation in poems, so I'll talk about that next. It's really just like prose. A period is a full stop, a comma is a pause before a new phrase or idea. A long dash is used as a pause, but not a full breath like a comma. Or think of it like this: A period is to start a new idea entirely, a comma is to insert a new idea without finishing the old one and a long dash is to add a comment to the idea. And just like prose, colons set off lists, and semi-colons separate the items of the list if commas are used within the items. These last two are used rarely. Also, avoid the temptation to punctuate the end of every line. The end of a line (and a stanza end, too) is a natural break, and a pause, so you don't need to add anything unless it fits naturally.

Next, I want to talk about forms and meter so you have an idea what they are and how I like to use them, and then I will walk you through a poem I wrote and show you where the ideas came from and how I fit it together.

First, a little about meter. Mary Oliver explains it much better than I can, so please see the first handout you have. This is from her book, A Poetry Handbook.
These are just my favorite forms that work best with my writing style. There are lots of other forms out there, some of which I have tried. Each poet needs to work out for herself which forms work best for her. You can find forms by searching on the Internet, or in books. I particularly like Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms by Babette Deutsch and A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry by Mary Oliver. Both these books have lots more information on poetry than just the forms.

Haiku: Three lines, using syllable count. I like it for writing short descriptions of an object.

Pantoum: A repeating form. It's a French adaptation of a Malaysian form. It's good for telling stories, particularly ones with repeating themes. Each stanza is four lines. After the first stanza, each stanza's 1st and 3rd lines repeat the 2nd and 4th lines of the preceding stanza. The final stanza uses the 2nd and 4th lines of the preceding stanza and the 1st and 3rd lines of the first stanza, as couplets, either the lines of the preceding stanza and then the lines of the first stanza, or vice versa. I letter the stanzas, and number the lines, so I can keep it all straight. There are usually 4 or 5 stanzas, but there can be as many as the author likes. No rhyme or meter is necessary, but I often try to use a meter (either the same one for all lines, or alternating. Using an alternating meter pattern means the pattern will reverse in each stanza, e.g. tetrameter/trimeter in the first stanza becomes trimeter/tetrameter in the second, and so on.) You will see variations on this form, particularly in the final stanza. When repeating lines, you can change a word or the tense, or change punctuation, but each repeated line needs to be essentially the same as the original.


B1 A2
B3 A4

C1 B2
C3 B4

D1 A3
D2 A1
D3 C2
D4 C4


D1 C2
D2 C4
D3 A3
D4 A1

Rictameter: A nine line poem using syllable count in a pattern:

The first and last lines are identical. I like rictameters for describing a scene, or a brief story.

Syllabic Verse: From Mary Oliver: “The number of syllables in each of the lines in the first stanza is exactly repeated in the following stanzas. . . . Because of the strictness of syllable-count, and the inevitable variety of stress-pattern, syllabic verse creates a music that is highly regular and at the same time filled with engaging counterpoint.” I like syllabic verse for subjects that do not lend themselves to repetition and yet I want a regular pattern to fit the story to.
Now, how I write a poem. This one was in response to a prompt, a photo of a blue lake among sand dunes and it was supposed to be a four line poem.

It started out:

Cool water, shaded
A blue gem hidden between sand dunes
What a precious treasure.

It was only three lines and a little dissonant and without pattern. I decided to use a meter. Changing the first line to

Cool water, shrub-shaded

was more descriptive and in iambic trimeter (three feet per line). The middle line was in iambic tetrameter (four feet per line) and I decided that would fit the rhythm I wanted better. So I rearranged the lines, looking for tetrameter, resulting in:

A blue gem among sandy dunes
Sky reflecting, shrub shaded,
Cool water for thirsty drinkers
What a precious desert treasure.

But 'precious' is too long, so I changed it to 'lovely.'

A blue gem among sandy dunes
Sky reflecting, shrub shaded,
Cool water for thirsty drinkers
What a lovely desert treasure.

You'll note that the poem goes straight from disorder to tetrameter. I couldn't have done that a year or so ago, but when I started trying to use meter and syllable count in my writing, the easier it became. Now I just need to have a meter or syllable count in mind, and the lines will usually match what I want, or be very close.

1 comment:

  1. Elizabeth,

    Thanks for posting this. Now those who were not there have the opportunity to see what they missed. You did a great job!