If the internet is full of anything, it’s crap — a good bit of it calls itself poetry, too.  Also, a good bit of it also calls itself “how-to-write-poetry,” and, alas comes off as misinformed.  Instead of linking to certain offenders, or conjuring up “crap poem dejour” from somebody’s  LiveJournal or blog, I figured it might be useful to do a series of posts about how to effectively write a poem.  Before I do so, potential readers should realize a few things.  This is only the thinking that has guided me over the years, and beyond that, I’m a relatively obscure writer with little or no reputation.   I do have an alternate motive, however.  Recently, I began to privately solicit poetry for a new anthology, and once I get a tentative table of contents worked out, I was going to open submissions to the public.  So, in that regard, these next few posts are meant as easy reference, if anybody were to ask me what my biases are.  Anyhow, here goes:

Metrical Poetry

The common misconception here is that it has to rhyme.  Anybody who has read Shakespeare’s blank verse in iambic pentameter would know that.  Of course, the commonly held misconception about poetry in general is that it has to rhyme.  It doesn’t.   However, there are certain misconceptions leading to poorly written metrical poetry, and that’s by writers who actively forget that it’s a meticulous system based in syllables.   The unit of organization relies solely around groups of syllables.  For Shakespeare, for example, the unit is the iamb, which is one unstressed and stressed syllable:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

If I super impose the iamb, the pattern is this

/ Shall I / compare /thee to / a summ / er’s day?/

“Pentameter” means a five foot (unit) line.  If you scan out Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, you will find the syllabic language falling into this patter, with 5 2-syllable units (feet).  This is uniform, with no deviation.  That’s the essence of his meter.  Not all metrical poetry follows iambic patterns, though.  It’s just one type of meter.  For instance, here is a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven (note my emphasis on the Trochaic meter):

/Once u /pon a / midnight/ dreary, / while I / pondered /weak and / weary, /

Trochaic meter is the reverse of the iamb, and with different effect.  Shakespeare sounds stately, and Poe sounds breathlessly manic.  The organization in this regard is no accident.  Which brings me to reading poetry slush: I read a lot of “accidents” that the submitter thinks is the pinnacle of poetry, when, as it turns out, it’s absolute crap.  Doing metrical poetry wrong leads to a special kind of failure.  It’s usually bombastic, arrogant, and full of pretense.  The writer thinks they are saying great things, but they’re actually just looking absolutely foolish.  There’s a reason for this.  Meter elevates language — ancient history (in the West) has poetry as either part of religious spectacle, or recited by a bard.  (Homer, for example).  Bardic traditions, basically, had people memorizing epic poems and reciting them as a means of transmission either for entertainment or, as a novice bard, learning the poem.  If you’ve ever tried memorize anything, you’ve usually ended up trying some type of mnemonic device to do so.  A standard beat, in iambic meter for example, helps with that, in terms of

taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM.

You could beat a drum to that.  That’s kind of the point, though.

This brings up another standard problem in poetry slush: people who obviously do not know what they’re doing.  Poetry, as an entertainment medium, has long since fallen on darker times.  People are much more prone to spend their free time with a TV Show, a movie, a novel or a song.  Unfortunately, this has crept into high school curriculum, largely too.  The recent history of poetry largely gets ignored, in favor of teaching “The Classics.”  So, the average high school student spends more time with John Keats, Lord Tennyson, Byron, and Shelley than with poets like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and contemporaries like Adrienne Rich, Charles Simic, or James Tate.  So, while the history of poetry has moved onwards, the novice approaching poetry for the first time doesn’t know this, as much, and plugs in the Romantics he/she was taught in high school.  That’s fine, if a person is writing sheerly for personal enjoyment.  Once you start posting it in public and start sending it out to journals and anthologies, you’re openning yourself to a wider sense of scrutiny.  This leads to all sorts of problems — ones that test my patience as a poetry editor.  Here are some red flags that almost instantly kill a poem, in terms of how quickly I might reject it:

Antiquated Language

betwixt

‘twixt

‘Tis

‘Twas

Thee

Thy

or contractions like

O’er

There are many others.  But the problem, here, is simple.  If you’re using these words, you’re actively dating yourself.  Writing back to an editor and saying, “But Shakespeare used it!” just furthers your descent into perceived ignorance.  Anytime somebody says, “But Donne [or Wordsworth, Pope, or __________ insert a centuries-dead poet here] did it!” I respond with, and “When was the last time they actually breathed?”  Snarky?  Yes.  But the truth is, as speakers of English, we don’t live in the time of Shakespeare, John Donne, or even Edgar Allan Poe.  Language evolves; it changes.  And if one is so hot to stick “Betwixt” into a poem, step back and ask, “when was the last time I heard that used in everyday langauge?”  Last I checked, two guys getting into a fight didn’t scream “Coxcombe!  I bite my thumb at you!”

And therein (!) is the point of this particular post.  Contemporary poetry and antiquated language are not meant for each other.  Meter can be used badly, but part of the problem is that the potential submitter/poet doesn’t actively know (or have read) any contemporary metrical poets (like Marilynn Hacker, X.J. Kennedy, Dana Goia, or the late Thomas Disch, to name a few of a very many).  Meter can and has been written successfully in recent years, but it’s only been written by poets sensitive to the language the world speaks around them.

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