The Blog of John Hewitt

Write a poem using syllabic verse – 31p31d

Day 12 of 31 Poems in 31 days

A simple form

A Sugar Skull bell from Ben's Bells, sporting their slogan. "Be Kind"

A sugar skull bell from Ben’s Bells, sporting their slogan. “Be Kind”

There are many types of poetic meters and forms. One of the most straightforward is syllabic verse. Syllabic verse sets a specific number of syllables per line or per stanza, but does not focus on stressed or unstressed feet. This type of meter has been more popular in languages with less of a focus on stressed syllables, such as Japanese and Spanish. Haiku, with its pattern of five, seven and five syllables, is one of the most common examples of syllabic meter.

The benefit of syllabic meter in English language poetry is that it is less restrictive than meters that focus on stressed and unstressed feet. Syllabic verse gives a poem structure, but avoids the patterned, sometimes singsong qualities of popular English meters such as iambic or dactyl. Syllabic meters can be as simple as ten syllables per line and can grow quickly in complexity from there.

A poetic compromise

Those who dislike syllabic meter feel that it doesn’t provide real structure, that the English language is far more focused on stressed and unstressed syllables than on the number of syllables. Their contention is that most people don’t notice the number of syllables in a line, only the number of stresses, therefore, determining line length solely by the number of syllables is meaningless.

In my opinion, syllabic meter is a reasonable poetic compromise between image-based lines and metered poetry. While length-based word choice still enters into consideration when writing syllabic verse, you don’t have to torture yourself trying to replace the most appropriate word with one that fits the meter. Syllabic verse “looks” like poetry because the line length is patterned, but it allows you the freedom to experiment within the line.

Poetry Assignment

Write a poem using syllabic verse. You can assign length ether by line or stanza. If you are stuck for a way to begin, start with this two-word ten-syllable line:

Historically Antithetical

Write a poem in the first person that makes a definitive statement – 31p31d

The big tent

Bukowski's BMW

Bukowski standing by his BMW

In the comments these past few days, I have had a discussion with one of our participants, Rosemary, about poetry in forms and one poet in particular, W. B. Yeats. W.B. Yeats is widely recognized as a master. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, and most believe his best work happened after winning the prize. That said, I don’t particularly care for Yeats. It is easy for me to acknowledge his skill, but he writes in a style that leaves me cold. Reading his work feels like reading an English assignment. It brings me no pleasure. Rosemary does not agree with me. She’s not alone.

While I like to think of the poetry community as one big family, I don’t necessarily think of it as one big happy family. Just because you are in the same family doesn’t mean you have to like each other, although I certainly like Rosemary.

Feuds and expectations

Alexander Pope was by all accounts an insufferable little man (At 4 foot 6, I do mean little) who was loved by half the literary world and despised by the other half. Any poet his disliked, he insulted and parodied within his poems. Even poets that were his friends rarely escaped his poetic wrath. He was perhaps the best poet of his age, and he had no humility about that fact whatsoever.

In modern times, one of my poetic heroes, Charles Bukowski, was forever insulting the beat poets, and took great offense whenever his work was lumped in with theirs. On the surface, their work had many similarities, but Bukowski felt as if the beats were conspicuously trying to embrace the lifestyle of the poor and downtrodden, while for him that was simply the reality of his life. The moment he had money, he embraced it with both hands and wrote about it conspicuously. That ticked a lot of people off too. They wanted their poor, downtrodden poet to stay poor and downtrodden.

Write the way you write

Some people believe (or at least believed) that you cannot have poetry without meter. They believe that patterns are the very heart of poetry and that meter is the way of determining and defining those patterns. For most of the history of poetry, few poets questioned that poetry and meter were inextricably intertwined. In the twentieth century, however, poets began to reconsider the idea of meter. Poets such as William Carlos Williams began to focus on image over meter. They wrote poetry in which line length was determined by the image or the impression the line was meant to create rather than patterns of syllables, word lengths, sounds or stresses. This was a controversial act. Today though, this style is the dominant approach to poetry.

My point is that you will never please everybody. Some people will like your poems and others will, most decidedly, dislike them. You have to write what feels true to you. Embrace your voice, whether the crowd likes it or not.

Today’s poetry assignment

Write a poem in the first person that makes a definitive statement. Stand behind something you believe or tell a bold lie. Either way, embrace what you have to say.

Write a poem with meter and without meter

Thoughts on Meter

Street Lamp on a Cloudy Day

Street Lamp on a Cloudy Day

I rarely focus on meter when I write poetry. In my college days I took many of my style cues (though not my content cues) from William Carlos Williams, Charles Bukowski and others who wrote in an imagistic style. Meter will always have a place in poetry, but in the 20th century the move was away from forms and meter and towards less structured styles. The beauty of poetry though, is that there is room for everyone. If you want to write sonnets, you are still welcome at the party. If you want to write stream-of-consciousness free verse, that’s fine too. People who rhyme? Well that’s kind of like inviting smokers to the party. You still like them, but you just wish they would stop (that’s a joke).

Here are some arguments for and against the use of meter and form:

What are the reasons to use meter?

  • It adds structure. It is a framework on which you can build a poem.
  • It forces you to think about word choice and word order. This helps you develop and reinforce language skills.
  • By dividing a poem into beats and feet, you create the same patterns as music. For many, this musical quality is one of the primary reasons to listen to poetry.
  • It was the choice of poetic masters for thousands of years and some consider it to be the only true poetry.

What are the reasons to avoid meter?

  • Structure adds predictability. I love Emily Dickinson, but I am distracted by the fact that I can sing any of her poems to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas”.
  • Meter can force you to avoid the most meaningful word or phrase in favor of a word that “fits”.
  • Meter often forces people to use “padding” words to fill out a line.
  • After 4000 years of iambic pentameter, we could use a little break.

There is nothing wrong with writing poetry in a metered form. Just don’t become a slave to the meter. Also, be bold enough to move beyond iambic pentameter to some of the lesser used and often more interesting styles of meter.

Today’s Assignment

Write a three or more stanza poem that uses a metered style for the first two stanzas and a non-metered format for the remaining stanzas. As always, feel free to post your poem in the comments section for others to see.

Write a poem using a specific meter

I’m no expert on meter, but it makes for a nice diversion from concepts such as voice and social relevance. Here’s a list of terms related to meter. Learn these and you can show off to your friends!

Terms You Should Know

The Space Age Restaurant in Gila Bend

The Space Age Restaurant in Gila Bend

Poetic Meter: Word choices that create a pattern of sounds, stresses, word lengths, syllables, or beats that are repeated to create a line of poetry. In English the focus is generally on stresses and beats, but all patterns make for possible meters and other languages often focus on different types of patterns.

Beat: The smallest reducible part of a meter, such as a syllable.

Foot: A repeated unit of meter — usually two, three or four beats.

Stressed Syllable: The syllable a speaker emphasizes in speech. Shown here in Capital letters: CARpet, RABbit, oPEN, PATsy. Stressed syllables are also called long syllables.

Unstressed Syllable: The syllable a speaker demphasizes in speech. Shown here in lowercase letters: CARpet, RABbit, oPEN, PATsy. Unstressed syllables are also called short syllables.

Additional Terms

Amphibrach: A foot that consists of a stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables. This meter is most commonly seen in limericks. There ONCE was a HAPpy young PASTor.
Anapest: A foot that consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a long syllable such as Double UP double DOWN.

Caesura: A notable pause or break within a line of poetry as opposed to at the end of a line of poetry.

Choriamb: A foot that consists of four syllables: stressed,-unstressed,-unstressed,-stressed such as FIGHT for your RIGHTS.

Consonance: The repetition of two or more consonants using different vowels. For example: fast tryst.

Dactyl: A foot that consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. HAPpily

Dimeter: A meter that consists of two feet.

Elegiac Meter: A meter that consists of two lines (a couplet) the first in dactylic hexameter and the second in dactylic pentameter.

Heptameter: A meter that consists of seven feet

Hexameter: A meter that consists of six feet

Iamb: A foot comprising an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable such as TYrant. This is the most commonly used foot in English poetic meter.

Iambic Pentameter: A meter that consists of five feet of iambs. This is the meter common to sonnets, epics and Shakespearian plays.

Internal Rhyme: Words within a line of poetry (rather than at the end or beginning of a line) that rhyme with words within other lines of the same poem.

Molossus: A foot that consists of three stressed syllables such as SHORT SHARP SHOCK.

Octameter: A meter that consists of eight feet

Pentameter: A meter that consists of five feet

Refrain: A phrase, line or group of lines that gets repeated within a poem.

Tetrameter: A meter that consists of four feet

Trimeter: A meter that consists of three feet

Trochee: A foot that consists of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable such as PLAYpen.

Today’s Assignment

Write a poem using a specific meter. The meter can be of your own choosing or even your own making, as long as you put a pattern into place. As always, feel free to post your poem in the comment section of this post.

Today’s Recommended Poet

Diane Lockward is a poet, teacher and an active blogger. Her poetry is feminine and feminist. She is smart and funny. Here poetry probes the politics of family, motherhood and food with affection and a bit of exasperation.

Temptation by Water 2010

What Feeds Us 2006

Eve’s Red Dress 2003

You might want to read her blog entries about voice vs. tone here and here. She also has a poetry tutorial: The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop

Write an Elegy – 31p31d

Day 8 of 31 Poems in 31 Days

Because of the sores in his mouth,   
the great poet struggles with a dumpling.   
His work has enlarged the world   
but the world is about to stop including him.   
He is the tower the world runs out of.  
– From Dean Young’s Elegy on a Toy Piano

Writing an Elegy

Poetry has, from its beginning days onward, been a tool of remembrance. From Homer’s Iliad through Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade to Pinsky’s 9/11, poetry has been used to remember people and events, both heroic and tragic. Poems of this type are called elegies.

Taken at Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery  on Memorial Day 2014

Taken at Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery on Memorial Day 2014

As a form, the elegy is very flexible. The term elegy should not be confused with the similar term, eulogy, which is a speech given at a funeral. An elegy is a poem of mourning and reflection. The original elegies were written in elegiac meter. Elegiac meter consists of couplets composed of a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of dactylic pentameter. That traditional meter (we will discuss meter in greater depth soon) is no longer required for a poem to be an elegy. All that is required is that it remembers a person’s death or other tragic event such as a battle or a natural disaster.

Poems of this type tend to carry a lot of emotion. The feelings one has about a significant event, especially a tragic one, can be complex and even contradictory. You might mourn a friend or relative but still be angered by the choices they made. You might admire the heroism of battle but recognize its flaws. Poetry is one way to work through those emotions.

When approaching material of this sort, it can be emotionally draining but also cathartic. Many people carry around these emotions and thoughts without ever being able to express them or consciously deal with them. As a poet, you can at least put your thoughts on paper, which allows you to process those thoughts and come to some sort of emotional closure.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

Write an elegy about a person or event that is meaningful to you. You don’t necessarily have to approach the most tragic event in your life. Don’t try to take on an event that is still too difficult for you to deal with. Look for something that you can handle.

Today’s Recommended Poet

Dean Young is a poet whose influence seems to increase with each new work. His poetry tends toward the surreal, but is always insightful and often genuinely funny. His poem Elegy on a Toy Piano is written for fellow poet Kenneth Koch, one of the Twentieth Century’s true greats.

Poems on the web

Books by Dean Young