02 October 2007

Poet as Dictator

Ever wonder why poets break up their poems the way they do? There are a bunch of reasons, but some of the more popular have to do with control. The poet isn’t always there to read the poem to you, complete with personal emphasis and breath-taking pauses. Rather than send his/her baby out all alone into the world to be misread and unappreciated, the poet puts cues in on how the piece was intended to be read. Of course there are those who work in rigid forms, their line breaks are mostly dictated by the form. Others let the lines fall where they may, and leave everything open to interpretation.

A majority of poets use time tested techniques to dictate the reader’s experience. Depending on how the lines and even words are stacked together, the pacing can be sped up or slowed down. Certain words lend themselves to the process. Compare the word “below” and “chick”. Same number of letters, but 'below' begs to be drawled out in slow motion. The letter ‘o’ is good at this. “Chick” is an impatient word, it wants to be spit out and proceed merrily on its way. "Pick a chick flick" snaps out with staccato rhythm. "Let's go below, Joe" takes a while to meander its way out.

The tempo of the poem can be changed by placing roadblocks like ‘below’ in a fast paced poem. “Chick” cuts off and emphatically ends the line. “Below” can be used to draw the line out and lead into the next one. Words can jar the reader from complacency, make them uncomfortable, or lull them into a trance. Some poets use stream of conscious writing, what is thought of is what you get. Others revise and tweak to tighten the poem to the exact meaning they had in mind. It's a personal choice, both methods lend themselves to exciting poetry.

Line breaks can also be used to enhance rhythm and sound. Line length and breaks work as road signs for the reader. Poems can resonate because they are rhythmic and easy to remember, the line breaks fall logically in a pattern.

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.

Each of Frost’s lines is an independent thought, like a painter he builds the poem, layer by layer to the conclusion. The repetition of the final line seems a logical conclusion to the poem, drawing the reader to a gentle close that fits the depth of the poem.

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.

Compare this to a short poem by Lucille Clifton. Her words are deceptively simple and straightforward, but they pack a punch. Carefully placed line breaks and word choice directs the reader and drives the point home in a poem where the power is in its simplicity – and resonance.

"why some people be mad at me sometimes"

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and I keep on remembering

© Lucille Clifton
Blessing The Boats (BOA Editions, 2000)


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. Not exactly what I expected when linking over from SFReader forums . . . but what a terrific and delightful surprise! My wife blogs poetry, and my own blog seems to be favoring poetry more each passing day.

Constance Brewer said...

Hermit, thanks for stopping by! My blog hasn't been as much poetry oriented of late as it has in the past - doing double duty between writing fiction and poetry. My 'self-assignments' are to write on writing, either poetry or otherwise, half for myself and the rest for some readers who don't write, but are curious about the process.

I'll have to go check out you and your wife's blogs. Feeling lost since Poetry Thursday went under.

Gabriele Campbell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gabriele Campbell said...

It went under? That's a pity; I liked your poems.

In German, you can also use syntax to enhance certain words/images. It doesn't work that well in English because some things tend to sound too wrong to pass as poetic license. Take this:

Ich sah des Sommers letzte Rose stehn,
Sie war als ob sie bluten k├Ânne rot.

I saw the last rose of summer standing,
She was as if she could bleed (so) red.

The images draws its strength of the fact the blood comes before the colour.

If I aimed for a decent translation, I won't keep the snytax that way but look for a different means of conveying the image. But it's one of the poems that has refused to cooperate for a translation so far. :(

Constance Brewer said...

It must be difficult to capture all the nuances in translation. The German version has a nice rhythm to it that even my miniscule knowledge of the language can detect. As translator, you have a harder job than the poet!

Carla said...

Interesting post, thank you for the analysis. I like the example of 'below' and 'chick' - that helps get the point across.

Constance Brewer said...

Carla, I'm pretty much a hands on learner. I figure if I need examples to understand, others might also. :)

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across your blog today and I just wanted to let you know that I find it really interesting. I have a blog in which I write on poetry as well and it's great to see someone else's perspective/analysis on how they look at poetry. =)

Constance Brewer said...

Hi redhead, thanks for dropping by. The blog has been poetry light of late due to other commitments, but hopefully I can get back at it after the new year.