Nuts and Bolts of Poetry Writing
“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words” – Robert Frost.
How not poetic is the title, that reads puts nuts and bolts, those steel, heavy, lusterless, dabbled in black grease things with something as beauteous, as soft, as sophisticated, as classy a thing like poetry! Well, if we separate the bulk of poetry that is written for self consumption, or say consumption of those unsuspecting roommates or the doe-eyed lover, what remains is pieces of art that have nuts and bolts which work together, with an intent, towards producing ‘good poetry’.
For most of us introduction to poetry occurs in elementary school. Some loved them others did not. I loved poetry. The ability to say so many things, having multiple layers of narratives, in only a few words, often craftily used, intrigued me. Then the rhyming of those words, more often than not in those poems in the school textbook added to the lyrical beauty. A few lines had the power to take you from the uniform riddled classroom with wooden benches and desks to just about anywhere and transform the mood to just about anything. And it was that power of poetry that was alluring.
And that ushering into the world of poetry was a lovely experience for regulators (ICSE, CBSE, etc) did a good job recommending books that had Eliot to Keats to Tagore to Ezekiel. And they covered nature, love, war, pain, mirth and scores of emotions.
‘On the Grasshopper and the Cricket’ by John Keats (CBSE Class 8)
On the Grasshopper and Cricket
The Poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
In summer luxury,—he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.
But I often thought why someone would absolutely dread such a lovely form of expression. Why would someone abhor attending an English poetry class? Among many, notwithstanding few that had to do with disdain for the teacher or timing of the poetry class, the generic one I think has been the difficulty to ‘interpret’ the abstract, which however is the staple examination question.
The appreciation of poetry got lost in the curricular requirement. The curricular requirement since could be met by the innumerable ‘guide books’, did not incentivize deep thought, analysis, critical appreciation and understanding.
To the Indians Who Died in Africa
by T. S. Eliot
A man’s destination is his own village,
His own fire, and his wife’s cooking;
To sit in front of his own door at sunset
And see his grandson, and his neighbour’s grandson
Playing in the dust together.
Scarred but secure, he has many memories
Which return at the hour of conversation,
(The warm or the cool hour, according to the climate)
Of foreign men, who fought in foreign places,
Foreign to each other.
A man’s destination is not his destiny,
Every country is home to one man
And exile to another. Where a man dies bravely
At one with his destiny, that soil is his.
Let his village remember.
This was not your land, or ours: but a village in the Midlands,
And one in the Five Rivers, may have the same graveyard.
Let those who go home tell the same story of you:
Of action with a common purpose, action
None the less fruitful if neither you nor we
Know, until the judgement after death,
What is the fruit of action.
Eliot, T. S. “To the Indians Who Died in Africa.” Collected Poems 1909-1962.
‘To the Indians Who Died in Africa’ by T S Eliot (ICSE Class IX)
I dabbled with writing poetry since an early age. Few of them were assignments. Few of them were an effort in trying to impress someone or the other (assuming the other had the intellectual bent for such art form). Few were to try different forms of poetry, of which the 14-liner sonnet appealed the most. The dabbling paid dividend during my graduation years in Bangalore. In a ‘Creative Writing’ competition in the annual college fest I wrote a poem for a topic ‘Do boyfriend/girlfriend have an expiry date in today’s world?’ (that was in 2007). I bagged the first prize for it.
I was happy with my effort. However I was deeply aware of my shortcomings, which were plenty. I have always put pen to paper to write poems with a decent frequency. I have posted few on my blog (sambitspeak.blogspot.com), but that would perhaps be because it doesn’t cost a dime. What I write could well tuck itself in a diary which has a thread around to hold it not escape to the view of others.
‘Poetry Workshop by Arundhati Subramanium’. Seeing the announcement in the all-exchange-users of the university was delightful. I had to go for it, however strange the concept of a ‘workshop’ for ‘poetry’, which otherwise is so subjective, so personal, so intimate, sounded. Go I did.
Poets have that ‘aura’ of a mystic whose gaze goes beyond the threshold of the immediate into the oblivion to conjure images and words and weave them into the tapestry that is both mystical and mundane. Arundhati Subramanium was that and was not that. A day long of indulgence (safe to term it so because who spends a day to learn poetry writing who wouldn’t become a poet) had some significant takeaways.
The 5 essential features that makes a ‘good’ poem, as the acclaimed poet told the small audience, and as I remember it now, which is three weeks and a lot of non-poetic work later, and which I hope makes sense to anyone who wishes to polish their craft of poetic writing, are:
“I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of beauty” – Edgar Allen Poe
How does the poem sound, what does the texture feel like, does it have a flavor,
rhythm, texture, does it impart a flavor, a taste… These are few questions one should ask while reading a poem or white writing one.
To rhyme or not to rhyme. That’s the question.
We have grown up with poems that rhyme and perhaps that has an indelible mark when we attempt to write one, often searching for pair of words like sun-fun, near dear, bake-lake, etc. It has been a late realization but perhaps rhyming is not a cornerstone in poetry writing. Also free verse is not prose with few ‘Enter’ keys.
The example of perhaps the most popular poem of all times is the one by Robert Frost. Note the rhyming there. Just brilliant.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Form of the poetry, iambic pentamer or sonnet or anything else might and ideally should come later in the stage of poetry writing. That, unless one is too smitten by a form and cannot help but think and write comfortably cocooned in it.
An example of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry (free verse).
(“With a glance of your eyes…”)
With a glance of your eyes you could plunder all the wealth of songs struck from poets’ harps, fair woman!
But for their praises you have no ear; therefore do I come to praise you.
You could humble at your feet the proudest heads of all the world;
But it is your loved ones, unknown to fame, whom you choose to worship; therefore I worship you.
Your perfect arms would add glory to kingly splendor with their touch;
But you use them to sweep away the dust, and to make clean your humble home; therefore I am filled with awe.
A good poem, like what a good prose does in numerous lines, should make the reader see an image that the writer wishes to project, and only in a few lines.
The effective way of getting to do that with your poem is to follow the image. Stay with the image and follow it. Showing the reader should be the intention, not telling.
This can be inculcated by being reflective, by following a thought, by seeing through the eyes of mind the vividness of a scene.
Observe this example of a Luke Pretlusky poem. The colors have so wonderfully been attributed to other things that one can almost visualize it as one reads it.
There lived a green giant whose name was Sam.
His hair was the color of strawberry jam.
He had one brown and one blue eye,
And a beard the color of pumpkin pie.
His coat and pants were gay and bright,
Like a peppermint stick, all red and white.
His shoes were as brown as a chocolate drop.
His stockings were yellow as lemon pop.
His hat was the color of ginger bread
With a tall, tall feather of raspberry red.
While this is an example of literally adhering to the imagery as we best know it, with colors and everyday objects, a piece of poem should be able to build that image, practically of anything that is intended.
A piece of poem need not be read aloud by the poet to convey its tone. The choice of words, the flow of lines should attain that; it should convey the tone to the reader. Tone gives emotional access to the reader.
A melancholic poem should sound sad, a romantic poem should sound filled with love.
Thus while writing one, one should observe the tone. It might need some effort to get the tone right. Often reading the poem after having written it, and perhaps after many rounds of reading, one can see that the tome that initially the writer thought was conveyed has changed.
In this example of a poem by Nissim Ezekiel note the tone (ah, the words ‘note-tone’). Set in the Indian Emergency era the ten-lined poem drips with sarcasm.
(Every day I’m reading Times of India
To improve my English Language)
How one goonda fellow
Threw stone at Indirabehn.
Must be student unrest fellow, I am thinking.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen, I am saying (to myself)
Lend me the ears.
Everything is coming –
Regeneration, Remuneration, Contraception.
Be patiently, brothers and sisters.
Each word, as Arundhati put it in the workshop, should earn its place in the poem.
Using words to fill a piece up so that it becomes rhyming or use of words that doesn’t add value to the poem must be avoided. It is not as easy as it sounds.
A writer is compelled to believe that whatever he has written is print-worthy yet on revisiting one’s piece, on self-critiquing, one can observe that a poem can be shortened and it will still convey what one wanted to.
Here I am not talking about Haiku’s. They are a different genre and perhaps very tough ones to write. Though in the Twitter-land every other person may become a haiku writer, it is in actuality deeper than that.
The next example is of a translation (of a medieval Kannada poem) by A K Ramanujan. Notice the brevity, the economy of words.
Know no pangs
And what do the whole
know of the broken?
My lover-lord stabbed me.
I wring and writhe in the earth
his blade twist
broken in my flesh
How can you know me
Another example is by Emily Dickinson:
Surgeons must be very careful
When they take their knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit-Life!
All that has to be said about love has been written, all about hurt has been written, and all about God has been written. So a love rhyming with dove or pain rhyming with disdain might well be predictable and juvenile. So would be anything that the reader can anticipate. While a poem is not a murder mystery, the surprise element needs to be taken care of.
The surprise could be the narrative itself, in the beginning or the end but ultimately should hinge upon saying something like it hadn’t been said before.
Another Jack Prelutsky example for depicting surprise:
My Neighbor’s Dog is Purple
My neighbor’s dog is purple,
Its eyes are large and green,
its tail is almost endless,
the longest I have seen.
My neighbor’s dog is quiet,
It does not bark one bit,
but when my neighbor’s dog is near,
I feel afraid of it.
My Neighbor’s dog looks nasty,
it has a wicked smile
before my neighbor painted it,
it was a crocodile.
I am no poet, or at least I wouldn’t call myself one, but a day long indulgence with the nuts and bolts of poetry was a unique experience. It had those essential two components – unlearning and relearning.
Disclaimer: All poetry shared above is freely available online.