Learning the Fundamentals of Poetry

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Let’s talk about poetry. With the rising popularity of free verse and other non-traditionally structured forms of poetry, it has become really difficult to talk about poetry in any sort of practical way. Classes and books on poetry generally stress creative freedom of expression without structure and while this can be very empowering in a general, it is not very helpful for building fundamental poetic skills, especially since it seems that many times these skills are either treated as mystical or self-evident.

This is because poets generally make for lousy teachers. Luckily, the fundamental skills of English poetry are not difficult to learn and like anything else in writing or literature, just require a little explanation and a lot of practice.

We’ll begin with meter. Despite the recent popularity of poetry that does not rely on a strictly metered structure, meter remains the base element of English poetry. In this context, “meter” refers to the poem’s rhythm, a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example:

To be or not to be; that is the question.

“Be”, “not”, “be”, “that” and the first half of “question” are all stressed syllables. If you are musically inclined, this might be pretty easy to understand, the stressed syllables are the “beats” of the rhythm. For others, delineating the stressed and unstressed syllables may be more difficult. The best thing to do is try reading the line in a variety of different ways.

To be or not to be; that is the question.

In this reading, the emphasis is on the first half of infinitives, a conjunction, and an article, which is what makes it sound so odd. In natural speech, we tend to emphasize concrete language, nouns, verbs, and the like, while de-emphasizing the connective elements of grammar.

Another way you might read that line is:

To be or not to be; that is the question.

This is a bit trickier. In this reading, the right sort of language is being emphasized and the stresses roughly match iambic pentameter, the type of meter Shakespeare was most known for, but the lack of emphasis on “that” means that the subject of the second half is being de-emphasized. The result is that the line loses impact.

One thing that might help in finding the pattern of stressed syllables is to separate the syllables entirely:

Whe ther ‘tis nob ler in the mind to suf fer

By separating the syllables of this line, we can see clearly an internalized pattern of words syllables ending in “er”. This gives us a good hint on what needs to be stressed:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

And as you can see, once again we’ve avoided emphasizing conjunctions, articles, and the first halves of infinitives.

This practice of determining the stressed or “accented” syllables is the most basic technique for reading and writing metered poetry, but it’s just the beginning. Next time, we’ll go over the basic elements of poetry and how to use them. Until then, stay safe and keep writing!

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