English 252: Introduction to Poetry

Thoughts on Poetic Form, by Al Drake

Alfred J. Drake. Hours: Cyber Cafe M/W 10-11

Quote: "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling." (Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist")

Tip: Always read a poem out loud at least once, and without distractions. The ancients seem to have done so, although silent reading has been around for a long time. Modern poets, too, are very interested in how their poetry sounds. We reflect silently on philosophy and other kinds of discourse, but poetry asks for more active engagement--it has something about it of magic and enchantment. Such a description need not imply, of course, that poets, or artists of any kind, merely turn important ideas and events into hazy mythology or "pretty rhymes."

What is a Genre? The OED says it's "a type of literary work characterized by a particular form, style, or purpose." Synonyms would be "kind, sort, style." The word comes from the Latin genus, and implies the precision of scientific classification. The C18 botanist Linnaeus ranks groups from broad to specific: kingdom, classes, orders, genera, species. So human beings might be classified as follows: kingdom animalia, class vertebrata, order primates, genus homo, species sapiens. Poetry might be classified that way, too:

kingdom: human expression and communication of all sorts
class: language (speaking and writing)
order: fiction (anything not primarily factual)
genre: poetry (rhythmic utterance or writing)
species: the three main kinds of poetry: lyric, dramatic, narrative
sub-species: the further subdivisions--epic, elegy, ode, sonnet, etc.

Usually, of course, we just say that poetry is a genre with many overlapping sub-genres. But it helps initially to think in scientific terms because that reminds us to ask, where does poetry come from, and what is it for? The accounts I have read suggest a few initial purposes: namely, that oral poetry was a formalized version of folk stories set to rhythm and music. A bard would recount old tales, and thereby transmit the history and values of a local culture from one generation to the next. Without writing, it seems hard to imagine how else people would retain a sense of themselves as belonging to a stable group over time. Another purpose has to do with religion--at least as far back as the Paleolithic Lascaux cave-paintings (about 15,000 years old, the Magdalenian Age), art seems to have had some relation to religious ceremony. Could the remarkably accurate paintings on this French cave have been a kind of mimetic prayer? That is, did artist-hunters draw the animals they were about to hunt in order to get some of their power, or to honor them as fellow beings? In any case, the link between art and the sacred seems strong, and is only reinforced by the common understanding that Greek tragedy developed from the choral performances of annual Dionysian ritual. By Aeschylus' time (500 B.C.E.) tragedy had come to be an affair of actors exchanging dramatic dialogue with one another, while still retaining its religious significance as part of the rites owed to Dionysus, the God of wine, song, and ecstatic, communal surrender of the self to a broader power. Already, by the time of Homer and Sappho (C8-C7 B.C.E.), poetry had become a sophisticated medium, and later on critics such as Aristotle and Horus were already theorizing about the motivations underlying poetic creation and the social value ascribed to it. Whenever we look to the past to find simpler (and more admirable) versions of ourselves, we are in for a surpise. Was poetry ever just a way to pass along culture, or magic harnessed only for the hunt--or the hunt itself just an utilitarian enterprise? Beginnings are almost never as simple as they appear.

One C19-20 attempt to capture the value of poetry deserves mention for its continuing usefulness: the modernist and formalist notion that poetry is the mode of language where language itself is most intensely the object of reflection. Poetry, in other words, foregrounds the workings of language itself. It's true that poets sometimes try to point us beyond words and towards the world of people, things, spiritual truth, etc. Still, good poets meditate intensely on their medium, whether or not they think of poetry as purely self-referential and therefore not "communication" or "expression" at all. One fine poet of my acquaintance says that poetry is first and foremost an encounter with language, whatever uses may be found for it later on, for better or for worse. Even aside from poetry, the contemporary view of language is profoundly anti-instrumental: language is not seen as an instrument for the communication of meaning but instead as the medium that lets us be "us." Many things could be said for and against such notions, but they certainly encourage close attention not only to what poets write about (i.e. content) but also to how the poem appears on the page and how it sounds when real aloud--its rhythms, rhymes, and various formal qualities.

The Three Categories or "Species" of Poetry:

Lyric: short and often personal, as in the sonnet, ode, and elegy. Such poetry was probably first composed for accompaniment with the lyra (the lyre). Sappho is amongst the earliest and finest of lyric poets. Here is a brief sample reconsruction of Sapphic Lyric by Paula Sapphire of Butler University. The description of lyric poetry as "personal" doesn't necessarily mean "natural--sounding." Some modern lyric poets--Pound and Yeats, for instance--chanted their poetry rather than speaking in normal intonations. And William Hazlitt, who knew Wordsworth and Coleridge, writes that they "chaunted" their poems, each in his own distinctive way. For a fuller treatment, see Ted Nellen's Essay.

Dramatic: tragedy and comedy, and in Greek the satyr play accompanying tragic trilogies. Tragedy developed from Greek religious choral performances into the multi-actor exchanges we know today. Tragedy is often cosmic in scope, emphasizing the relationship between the human and divine and the most intractable problems human beings have encountered, while comedy tends to center on domestic concerns. Another form to include here is the 19th-century dramatic monologue, in particular Browning's skillful psychological studies.

Narrative: Longer poems like epic, mock-epic, and full-length ballads. This kind of poem has a narrator rather than a first-person speaker, and there's often, though not necessarily, more emphasis on action than on states of mind. There are many styles of narration, from the omniscient where the narrator knows everything the characters do and think to the participatory where the narrator is a limited character in the text, just as apt to be wrong as anyone else; and from the high-serious Virgilian of The Aeneid, which links the glories of Augustus to the Fall of Troy, to the playfully cynical, metapoetical style of Ovid in The Metamorphoses that turns the very notions of narratival authority and cultural continuity into a joke. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are the most famous early instances of long narrative poetry. I will offer a reading or two in class, but here is an interesting reconstruction of a passage ("The Song of Demodokos") from Book 8 of The Odyssey: Homeric Singing.

The Various Sub-Genres of Poetry

Ballad. A narrative poem at first made for singing. Ballads resemble folk songs, a form of oral transmission of culture. The narrator begins with a climactic event and relates the tale by dialogue and action, avoiding self-reference and personal expression. The rhyme scheme is usually abab or abcb, and the length is alternating iambic tetrameter (4 feet) and trimeter (3 feet). This form, then, aims to do something like what oral song and poetry did in ancient times: pass along and memorialize something important about local or broader culture. Continuity or remembrance, not originality, is the goal. For a fuller explanation, see Ted Nellen's essay.

Blank Verse. Iambic pentameter without rhyme. Blank verse is supple, offering the advantages of freedom from rhyme and adherence to the discipline of metrical restraint. Shakespeare found it a perfect vehicle for dramatic dialogue, Milton for dignified epic narration, and Wordsworth for elevating the language of self-exploration to epic and philosophical status, as he does in The Prelude.

Choral. Originally, the chorus sections of tragedy. These were often highly structured and set off in complex verse forms that differed from the iambic trimeter of dramatic dialogue.

Couplet, Heroic. Neoclassical poets such as Pope use this rhymed unit: "True wit is nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." Such a neat form bespeaks (wishfully or assertively) the assumed stability of the poet's world-view and values. The French syllabic Alexandrine line is similar in effect. See, for instance, Racine's Phèdre: "Noble et brillant auteur d'une triste famille / Toi, dont ma mère osait se vanter d'être fille" (lines 169-70).

Dramatic Monologue. M.H. Abrams describes this form as "a poem in which a single speaker who is not the poet utters the entire poem at a critical moment." Someone in the poem, and we, are listening to what the speaker says, so this type of poem often results in character revelation, intentional or otherwise. It is psychological poetry, emphasizing a speaker's sometimes twisted reasons for doing things far more than the things themselves. Browning and Tennyson are perhaps the best practitioners of the dramatic monologue. To paraphrase essayist Michel de Montaigne, "it is our interpretations of things, and not things themselves, that we most need to interpret."

Elegy. The elegy is lyric in species, and formally laments an esteemed person's death. Jack Lynch writes of the term, "in antiquity it referred to anything written in elegiac meter, which consisted of alternating lines of pentameter and hexameter. The category can include the threnody, the monody, the dirge, and the pastoral elegy. The last of these, an important Renaissance form, combines elements of the verse pastoral with the elegiac subject." Excellent modern examples: Milton's "Lycidas," Shelley's "Adonais," Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," and Swinburne's "Ave atque Vale."

Epic. "The epic is a long narrative poem involving heroic figures in the performance of heroic deeds, usually extended over a wide geographical area; it is written in a heroic or grandiose manner" (Norton and Rushton). The epic is "a long narrative poem presenting characters of high position in a series of adventures which form an organic whole through their relation to a central figure of heroic proportions and through their development of episodes important to the development of a nation or race" (Thrall and Hibbard). For a fuller description, see Renaissance Epic Conventions. See also Ted Nellen's Essay.

Epigram. Webster defines the epigram as "a short poem treating concisely, pointedly, often satirically, a single thought or event, usually ending with a witticism." Martial was the master of the Latin epigram. Here's one in the form of an elegiac couplet: "Quem recitas meus est, o Fidentine, libellus; / sed male cum recitas, incipit esse tuus!" Translation: "Fidentinus, the little book you read is mine; / but when you recite the text so badly, it begins to sound like yours!"

Free Verse. Poetic lines without any fixed rhyme or metrical scheme. Whitman employs it brilliantly, as does Allen Ginsberg in Howl. This ubiquitous C20 form suggests an evolution in the very definition of poetry. Milton had long ago insisted that rhyme was "no necessary addition" to verse, and Samuel Johnson's delightful idiot-poem "I put my hat upon my head / And walked into the Strand, / And there I met another man / Whose hat was in his hand" underscores the silliness of chaining the definition of poetry to rhyme and strict metrical scheme. But free verse isn't formless un-poetry. Good writers of free verse are seldom unlearned in the ways of their predecessors, and in any case "liberation" makes no sense without something against which to rebel. To draw the measure of the complex argument between proponents of formal restraint and freer expression, see, for example, Wordsworth's comments in "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" concerning the value of meter as a device for distancing readers from the rawness of emotion. This poet's style was new and radical in comparison to eighteenth-century "poetic diction," but he wouldn't deny that meter and other technical constraints provide the disciplinary pressure behind effective poetry. Alexander Pope himself made fun of fellow C18 poets for letting elegant abstractionism strip their language of any connection to natural beauty or to the varieties of human character. Read his "Eloisa to Abelard," and you'll see that it is not impossible to convey strong passion in stylized verse. Homer was a fine nature poet even in dactylic hexameter. Those who favor placing formal constraints upon language say that doing so forces us to remain attentive to it rather than letting our powers of meditation, observation, and emotional responsiveness go slack. As the Modernists say, "make it new." The first proponents of free verse were something like the Wordsworthian radicals of their day, advocating greater freedom for the expression of new ideas while still considering "poetry" special.

Limerick. A light or funny form of five lines in which lines one, two and five have three feet and lines three and four have two feet. The rhyme scheme is "aabba."

Nursery Rhyme. A rhymed poem for children, often based in folklore.

Ode. Originally a poem to be sung, as in the odes of Pindar and later Horace. (The Greek word is aoide.) The terms "Pindaric" came to be associated with an irregular, loose format, while the Horatian ode was associated with more regular structure. In ancient drama, the chorus sang choral odes. The OED defines the modern ode as follows "A rimed (rarely unrimed) lyric, often in the form of an address; generally dignified or exalted in subject, feeling, and style, but sometimes (in earlier use) simple and familiar...." The ode is lyric poetry, but longer than, say, a sonnet. Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats wrote some of the most remarkable modern odes, broadly defined as a long lyric poem with a serious, even philosophical subject: "Tintern Abbey," "Intimations of Immortality," "Ode to the West Wind," "Ode on a Grecian Urn." For a fuller explanation, see Ted Nellen's Essay.

Pastoral Forms. Idyl, Eclogue, Georgic. Poems with a rustic or country setting and subject. (In Latin, pastor means "shepherd.") The OED describes the idyl as follows: "A short poem, descriptive of some picturesque scene or incident, chiefly in rustic life.... Rustic or town life, legends of the gods, and passages of personal experience supply the idyllist with subjects. Generally there is a narrator, and in so far the Idyll is epic; its verse too is the hexameter." The eclogue is longer and dialogic, and consists in two or more shepherds alternately celebrating the joys of pastoral love and leisure and fretting about their labors and insecurities. Virgil's Eclogues are a brilliant example, and Edmund Spenser offers more recent work. The georgic, unlike the eclogue, is primarily concerned not with leisure (Latin otium) but rather with the tasks of the gentleman farmer upon whose steady labor so much of ancient life depended. It is, then, a longer poem that aims to ennoble farm work. Again, Virgil gives us the finest instance of georgic. Many kinds of poetry may have a strong tinge of pastoral, as does Milton's "Lycidas," a pastoral elegy, or Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It, with its magical green place, the Forest of Arden. Sidney's Arcadia is sometimes called a pastoral romance, and so forth.

Pastoral poetry is seldom naive or even focused entirely upon nature. Even the most beautiful rustic settings can stifle human aspirations and social needs. Pastoral poetry often pays tribute to humankind's variability, to our need for variety of scene and intercourse, and at its best it meditates not only on the relationship between humans and nature but also on our prospects for happiness either in the countryside or in the city, whether at work or at play. The age-old problem of desire, that is, constitutes a major part of the interest in pastoral poetry.

The British romantic poets indicate the complexity of art that takes nature for its partial subject. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats attribute much to nature, but not all. If Wordsworth describes nature as "the guardian of my moral being," the Coleridgean speaker writes that "in our life alone does nature live," and Shelley, driven by desire and sore tribulation, strives with the Sky-lark and the West Wind. Keats writes wistfully of a desire, never entirely realized, to escape into the consciousness-free world of animals--"Oh for a life of sensation!" Perhaps the romantics' strength comes from their understanding that we can never return to nature because we were never there in the first place. Returning to nature has been a fantasy of city folk from time immemorial--it was already quite old by Theocritus' time (third century B.C.E.), and older still when Hollywood came up with "Gilligan's Island." Castaway, starring Tom Hanks, pays homage to pastoral. And where does the trapped hero of The Truman Show want to go to get away from his idyllic hometown? Fiji. Where else? Mention of these films in connection with Theocritus and Virgil should remind us that pastoral art often contains a strong element of social critique, disguised or otherwise. Pastoral's lovely settings and innocent-seeming characters provide artists cover for criticizing certain aspects of city life, or certain things about the political regime under which they live, and so forth. A great deal of poetry and literature makes reference to nature and to what other artists have said about it, sometimes treating it metapoetically as a figure for poetry itself--a troubled, permeable refuge from the cares of culture, politics, and urbanity. Even outright rejection of nature--as in the French symbolistes or fin de siècle authors like Oscar Wilde--does little to lessen its significance as a subject of permanent interest.

Rondeau. A French form of 10 or 13 lines with two rhymes; the initial phrase is repeated as the refrain of the second and third stanzas. The English roundel has three triplets with a refrain after the first and third. Webster's Dictionary defines the rondeau as follows: "a species of lyric poetry so composed as to contain a refrain or repetition which recurs according to a fixed law, and a limited number of rhymes recurring also by rule."

Sestina. Creative Studios definition: "a poem consisting of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy, where the words ending the lines of the first stanza are repeated in a different order at the end of lines in each of the subsequent five stanzas and, two to a line, in the middle and at the end of the three lines in the closing envoy. The patterns of word-repetitions are as follows: 1 2 3 4 5 6 6 1 5 2 4 3 3 6 4 1 2 5 5 3 2 6 1 4 4 5 1 3 6 2 2 4 6 5 3 1 (6 2) (1 4) (5 3) Examples are Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Complaint of Lisa," W. H. Auden's "Hearing of valleys," and Donald Hall's "Hand it all, Ezra Pound, there is only one sestina." Sir Philip Sidney's "Ye goat-herd gods, that love the grassy mountains" and Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Sestina" are double sestinas."

Shaped Poems. Poems that attempt to embody their meaning partly in their very shape. Herrick's emblematic poems are one example, and a few of George Herbert's poems in The Temple, such as "Easter Wings" and "The Altar" are also fine instances. As in "Easter Wings," the patterned words of which contract and swell with the speaker's hopes for salvation and his wish to imitate the life of Christ, there is often in such poetry a metapoetic discussion of the relationship between the creative utterance and material things, spiritual states, etc.

Sonnet. There are two main types of this fourteen-line lyric poem. The Petrarchan sonnet consists of an eight-line stanza (octave) rhyming "abba abba" and a six-line stanza (sestet) rhyming variously as "cde cde," "cde ced," or "cdc dee." The English sonnet owes its form to William Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and its scheme is as follows: three four-line stanzas (quatrains) rhyming "abab cdcd efef" and a concluding couplet rhyming "gg." (The Spenserian runs "abab bcbc cdcd ee.") The key difference between the two forms is that the Shakespearean couplet encourages snappy conclusions--quick resolution, affirmation, or negation of the previous lines' claims. For example, in "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," Shakespeare spends twelve lines deflating Petrarchan overstatements about the beloved's charms, and in the final couplet offers the following twist: "And yet by heaven I think my love as rare / As any they belie with false compare." The sonnet has long attracted the efforts of excellent poets--most of them have felt the need to tackle this perennial favorite and put their own stamp on it. For a fuller explanation, see Ted Neller's Essay. For interesting examples, visit Sonnet Central and my Petrarchan Sonnet Guide.

Villanelle. An intricate French lyric form, the most famous modern example of which is Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night." The form consists of five three-line stanzas and a sixth stanza of four lines, for a total of 19 lines. Lines 1 and 3 become a refrain, with line 1 repeated in lines 6, 12, and 18 and line 3 in lines 9, 15, and 19. All the tercets rhyme "aba" and the quatrain rhymes "abaa." See Ted Nellen's Essay for further discussion.

Meter and Scansion, Stanzaic Patterns

Stanzaic Forms and Metrical Scansion. See Ted Nellen's Essay on meter and stanzas. See also my Scansion Guide and Quotations on the Sonnet.

Syllabic forms such as Haiku: Haiku is a Japanese form that offers a brief description of nature, and it contains three unrhymed lines of five, seven and five syllables. This is syllabic verse, unusual in the thoroughly Germanic and accentual English language. Accentual and accentual-syllabic verse (i.e. taking account both of stresses and the number of syllables) are most common in English.

Greek and Latin poetry, as well as poetry in the romance languages, are primarly syllabic, though of course these languages are not entirely devoid of stress. Most contemporary scholars hold that imposing quantitative meter should not lead to distortion of a word's ordinary pronunciation. In scanning Greek dactylic hexameter, for example, one goes by the length of the vowels: --uu --uu --uu, etc., with "--" standing for a long syllable, and "u" for a short one. Here is an example with long syllables bolded:

Andra moi ennepe mousa,| polutropon hos mala polla
Sing to me the man, o muse | the resourceful [Odysseus] who so many times...