Poetry Knowledge Zone > Class 1

The Poetry Tool Kit

Can an art be taught? Someone recently remarked to me that poetry can't be taught. It is an inborn talent. You are either born with it or don't have it. And frankly speaking this had been my notion too till recently. The idea that poetry can actually be taught to someone was far from my mind. Recently I read a book by Bob Ross the painter in which he teaches amateurs to paint step by step. It was a paragraph in that book in which actually revolutionized my thinking.

I quote from the book, "Perhaps we should redefine talent and examine the notion that many of us seem to have that one must be talented in order to paint. What is talent other than a pursued interest."

This set of the thought if painting, why not writing in my mind. After all isn't poetry painting an image with words. With some thought and hours of surfing the net, I came to the conclusion that poetry can be an acquired art too. And that is exactly what I am doing to do during the course of the following few months. Teach you to try your hands at poetry. I cant guarantee that you will write a great poem at the end of it but if you follow my columns carefully and do the exercise I suggest, you would have a decent poetry in your hands and from there taking it from decent to great is an improvisation task which continues through out the life. And to people who already write poetry, my columns will help you to improve your poetry and try your hands at various different styles of poetry.  I tried my hands a few months back at writing a new style of poetry every day, the results weren't award winning but it was an enriching experience to me as a poet. 

So grab a pen and paper and follow me as I take you on a tour of the poetry world. Treat these columns as your own. Don't read them in a disinterested quick sweep of eyes. Take a printout, scrawl notes all over the page or if you feel more comfortable, use a word processor. Only, don't read it as you would a novel, that wouldn't help. I need you to get involved and learn. Make a list of questions and doubts you have and mail them to me. I will try to answer them as best as I can. Every week I will introduce very few new concepts as I understand most of you lead busy lives and can't only put in a little time. If you feel I am going too fast, again let me know and I will slow down. I plan to make these columns totally reader driven and as interactive as possible. The end point is you have to learn or improve your poetry skills, so go ahead and make the most of it.

Today in the first column, we are going to go right down to the basics of poetry and will think about what do you need to write a poem? Think hard about it. Many people think that their poetry is formed out of thin air by magic and they don't exactly use anything to make it flow. Not exactly true, whether you are consciously aware of it or not, every poet from William Shakespeare to the 'sometime-poet' has their own poetry tool kit in common.

Now what does this poetry tool kit contain? 

Let's start by making a list of the basic things we would need to create a poem.

  • An idea which forms the core of the poem.
  • Words which clearly express the idea and make them understandable even interesting.
  • More thoughts to build upon the idea.
  • Some metaphors, similes, alliterations and antithesis to add a little zing to the poetry would be nice.

All these are called figure of speech. I will be writing a separate column on just figures of speech next week. So for now let's just have a brief explanation of these four. Metaphor and Simile are similar in the sense that both of them are comparisons between two objects. However metaphor in an indirect comparison while simile is a direct comparison using the words 'as' or 'like'. Alliteration is repeating of the sounds of the first letter of a word. E.g. Smitha sounds stupid sometimes. And antithesis is using opposite words in the same line. Say, the good and bad to be pondered.

If you want to use a poem which has a rhyme scheme, you nee to keep track of rhyming. Though you can use a thesaurus, I prefer to use the online tool available at http://www.rhymezone.com. It is fast and easy and saves me the trouble of having to browse down tiny words in a thesaurus. You can find rhyming matches by syllables and letters. 

Now what is a syllable?

It is really tough to define a syllable as such. Wikipedia defines it as syllable is a part of a word, and consists of phones, or phonetic segments. Each syllable consists of at least a "nucleus" (middle) and, optionally, "margins" (edges). Vowel sounds occur in the nucleus of a syllable; mostly, consonant sounds occur in the margins (semi-vowels, which are phonetically identical to a corresponding vowel, may appear in the "margin"). In English, syllables can begin or end with consonants or vowels.

Now that we have the idea and words for the poem, we need to arrange it in a way which makes sense. The order of the words in the poetry makes as much sense as the poetry itself. Talking of order and form, I would like to introduce the concept of enjambments and caesuras here. 

Again I take Wikipedia's definition. Enjambment is the breaking of a linguistic unit (phrase or sentence) by the end of line between two verses. It is in contrast with end stopping, where each linguistic unit corresponds with the line length., An enjambment is used to create a feeling of acceleration and to smoothen the edges of the poem. Without proper enjambment a poem ends up feeling choppy and abrupt. Meaning flows from line to line and the readers eyes are pulled forward.

Consider this Shakespeare Sonnet number 11

As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow'st
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow'st,
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this folly, age, and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish:
Look whom she best endow'd, she gave the more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:
She carv'd thee for her seal, and meant thereby,
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

This sonnet uses heavy enjambment. Usually an enjambment is marked by the use of a comma, colon or semi-colon. As you can see Lines 1, 2, 3, 4 are all enjambed while line 4 is an end stopped line. Enjambments can be cleverly used in a poem to make it more interesting and even create e feeling of suspense which prompts the user to go and read the next line to see what happens. It also stops a poem from being just a sequence of related sentences. 

Now what is a caesura?

A caesura is similar to a enjambment that it breaks a thought but this time it is within the same line. There are three types of caesuras.

Initial caesura, meaning the sentence is broken at the beginning.

In one of thine, from that which thou departest;

You can say it breaks the sentence into two unequal parts with the first one being the smaller one.

Medial caesura, which breaks the sentence into two almost equal or equal parts

If all were minded so, the times should cease

Terminal caesura, which occurs near the end of the line.

Look whom she best endow'd, she gave the more

There can be more than one type of caesura in the same line. Again, there can be a poem without any caesuras.

These are just some random things which would make up your tool kit. Each poet has a different tool kit. If you think hard you can come up with your own toolkit. I am adding a post on the forum about the poetry toolkits. What I would like you to do is make up your own kit and post it there. 

And as an additional exercise, I would suggest you pick up any poem you like and mark the enjambments and caesuras and pay attention to the rhyme scheme and words used. I suggest you use classic poets like Shakespeare, Shelley and so on as they have mastered the art of poetry. One way to write good poetry to recognize good one and that comes from reading many. Also, after you read a poem don't just close it, think about it, make up your own review and try to find flaws in it. When you learn to pin point flaws in a poem, you know what you have to avoid in your writing. 

Every week I will answer the questions addressed to me in the previous week at the end of the column, so the questions can benefit everyone. When you write to me, include Boloji poetry, in the subject line. I get a lot of mail and tend to delete the ones which have no subject line and are from people I don't know. At this point don't send me any poems to review. I promise to do that too but later on. Right now I will answer questions about poetic techniques and most importantly what's in this week's column. If you have any further information, send them to me and I will put them up if I think they will be useful.

Most of all have a fun time.           

Image (c) Gettyimages.com

Smitha Chakravarthula


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