Adventures in Poetry

After many years of writing poetry, the experience has greatly changed for me. I would like to note down some of these changes, and a bit of what caused them.

In the beginning, I wrote poetry because it was fun to be clever with words. Since “poetry” seemed to connote rhyme, everything I wrote rhymed. It is a good thing that almost nothing from those days survives…

Not knowing what made poetry “good”, I neglected to realized this also meant I did not know what was “bad”. Like most beginning poets, since my own verses were nothing like the famous poets, I assumed they were terrible. I wrote trying to imitate, if not the exact sound, at least the “ring of authenticity” those poems had. Which of course achieved nothing of the sort, and just made me more frustrated.

A few lines from one of the poems of those days is:

Seven men, with seven needs, but fourteen wants and half the time,
sit mindlessly before their doors, waiting for the set-down chime;
that signifies the mothership's arrival on her destined course:
the mission of that fated crew, a correlated Trojan Horse.

A society bereft of evil broke apart from common ways,
founded on the Io moon, distant from the mind decay.
Named themselves the LES: Society of the Leading Edge,
their need for money, law and doubt falling into voids of age.

This mode of writing continued for several years, in which I knew that I was not writing with “my voice”, but I did not know how to find it. It is funny, now knowing how simple it is, that despite every effort it escaped me. For the real blockage was not in finding my voice, but accepting the voice that I had.

Once all the bad rhyming started to sound too awful, I avoided the ugliness of the problem by moving to free verse. It was many years before I started to write rhyming poems again. Free verse seemed to have an air of originality that was attractive – and also deceptive.

It continued that I wrote bad free verse several years, not knowing how to progress. I strove for lines that had something of greatness in them, that sounded as if they could be great. But what is great? By why standard do we measure it? Knowing that greatness often defies the standards of the day, I was sometimes impressed by lines that did not sound good at all, but because they were odd or unique. Yet none of those poems could stand the test of time. I read them today and they appear lifeless, as though grasping at something they could not achieve.

After thirteen years of sporadic writing, nothing much changed. Then came a time when I started to think about quality, and about what makes good things good. It would lengthen this essay too much to cover those ideas here. The basic summation is that something is good if you find it to be good. That is, does it please you?

This turned out to be revolutionary in terms of my writing, because it undoes the need for a standard entirely. Instead of writing verses that longed for something outside myself, I begin to pen whatever it made me happy to write. This in turn made the experience of writing enjoyable, and I learned my first genuine lesson about poetry: that it satisfies the soul in its own way.

Here is the first poem I ever wrote without reflecting on how it might sound to others. It was a joy to write, and changed my experience of poetry from that day forward:

Without the light
it would not be seen;
without eyes
it would not be seen.

Between these two forms of nothing
a being of phenomenon
neither in the object
or the eye or the light.

But there... a subtle shading of rose
shaped into a smile
beneath eyes
like my own hope given form.

There... what is that shaft
pushing its way into the labors of my heart?
ruining the moment's peace
and offering something
I would live without peace for
day upon day again.

Between two different kinds of void:
a thing to die for.

After this poem, I learned what “voice” is: Whatever gives expression to your soul. Now I write, think, edit, rewrite, until each line rings like a bell. When it resonates with my state of being, I consider it complete. Sometimes I cannot find the words I need to make a poem ring. Sometimes it is not hard at all. It seems to depend on a great many factors. But the quality of “ringing” has to be there, or the experience of writing does not fulfill itself. It feels like not being able to express a thought clearly.

With the freedom of this idea, I realized quickly that free verse is just one way of writing, and that in fact I prefer rhyme most of the time. Most of what I write now has some sort of rhyming structure, because it makes the poem more enjoyable to me. I even started to play with rhyme, to experiment in different ways, seeking an ever richer “tone”.

The first experiment along these lines was inter-line rhymes, in addition to rhymes in the usual places. These are unexpected rhymes that add music to a verse without creating too much of a pattern. For example, from an excerpt:

The seals below bump their heads,
the bears in white coats rumble their hunger;
against the black night, the white fox howls
and the rabbit hears him in the echoes of sleep.

Here “rumble” and “hunger” are tied by the vowel in the stressed position; “night” and “white” in the second line; “hears” and “sleep” in the last. The creation of such rhymes is not always done consciously, but I do notice and improve them while editing, trying to achieve a musical feel without burdening the poem.

The next kind of rhyme is done using assonance and alliteration in much the same way:

A family of ill ones
still tucked in their beds,
sipping coughsyrup cocktails
to lighten their heads,

Here, “ill” and “still” are rhymed, as well as the expected “beds” and “heads”. The sound of “sipping” is meant to fit with “still”, making the verse feel more coherent when read. “coughsyrup” and “cocktails” are obvious, while the “to” of the last verse is paired with the strong “tucked” in the second verse.

It is harder to make these rhymes than end-of-line rhymes, because they must be subtle. I give up if a word cannot be found that both contributes to the meaning and the song; but already I have been surprised by the flexibility and richness of the English language, and how many things may be done with it. Being surprised by one’s own poetry has been one of the best parts of writing it.

The next type of rhyme is much more difficult. I call it “hidden rhyme”. British and Australian readers will recognize it, due to their “rhyming slang”. Basically it consists of finding a word that ryhmes with another word not present in the poem, but unconsciously obvious because of the poem’s meaning. For example:

The lilt of your gentle voice,
its dulcet tones,
its warm, mellifluous sound...
to a man's ears, what balm,
what anodyne peace;
I linger there in memory
until the pain of absence
grows profound.

This poem is about the sound of a woman’s voice, and the pain I feel when she is not around. That is, the pain is due to her silence. It would be poor (or rather, too perfect) to write:

I linger there awhile
until the silence
grows profound.

Written this way, “in memory” is changed to “awhile”, to balance with the syllable count of the middle line and to construct a rhyme between “awhile” and “silence”. But the new verse is too obvious in its meaning: Of course there is silence if I’m writing a poem. Since silence is often described as “profound”, the mere fact of using that adjective is enough to suggest to an educated reader that silence is meant. This frees me to use a different image, while still protraying the painful silence:

I linger there in memory
until the pain of absence
grows profound.

Now “absence” is rhymed with “silence” – even though “silence” appears nowhere in the poem. “memory” is used to better dsecribe where I am lingering, and because it has a softer vowel, allowing the strong sound of “pain” to come through. But none of these sounds are so sharp as to obscure the final “profound”, which refers clearly to the earlier “sound” – the subject of the poem. This verse is also a bit overful, which makes it seem to falter a bit. This effect is talked about later.

There are other hidden rhymes in my poems, but I soon forget them, and the experience becomes unconscious for me as well. But what they add is a suggestion of depth and richer meaning than is presented by the words themselves. I find this satisfying.

The most recent technique has been to play with broken rhythm. This is when I intentionally use a less perfect syllable pattern to make a line seem more “humble” with respect to another.1 For example:

Recall me to myself, for I soon forget
once thoughts of you have cast their net.

The first line of this couplet has too many syllable (four more than the following), and when scanning the verse feels awkward. Yet this awkwardness is intentional: because the first line talks about me, and the second about the one I love. When read slowly, the weakness of the first line makes the writer seem awkward, troubled, unsure; while the brevity of the second line drives home exactly what is making him feel that way: “thoughts of you”.

Making the language used reflect the emotional content of what is written causes parts of the poem to seem imperfect, in order that the poem as a whole can achieve a higher perfection. The goal is that the reading of the poem provokes a sighing, wishful quality – so I play with techniques to give the poem more of this. Dissonant rhymes can help that effect, by emphasizing or enhancing the beauty of a contrasting euphonous line. It is like the effect of placing a flower in an empty room to heighten one’s awareness of space.

Some of these latter techniques I borrow from looking at life, and the ways nature and man-made creations achieve a greater effect than the individual parts. A poem with perfect lines is fine, and sometimes had a coherence and overall effect that is quite pleasant; but other times too much perfection is stilted and lifeless: just as real people are never so perfect. Little smudges, combined with invisible or other structures in the poem, present a texture and richness that defy the reader’s perception, but all the moreso affect his soul.

Lastly, I am finding that love for the subject of a poem – whether nature, a person, or an idea – contributes more than anything to its final quality. If the heart that writes a poem is lifeless, often in my case the result is lifeless. Writing about a beloved subject is like pouring that love into a vessel of words. They come more easily, and the various techniques I’ve learned can be applied without as much conscious effort. Like mastery at anything, once you have the basics perfected, your mind understands how to follow the bidding of your heart.

I leave with one of my favorite couplets, recently written:

Where banners once flew in proud disdain
a king now weeps for his kingdom's bane.

There is a vowel rhyme between “proud” and “now”, and a very subtle consonant rhyme between “flew” and “weeps”. The basic rhyme of “disdain” and “bane” is pronounced, with the effect that it makes the wistfulness in the other syllables more pronounced, as if to convey the image of an airy castle under attack. Similarly, the “banners” that once flew (a strong word) are insensibly compared to the new-found weakness of the “king” (a weak word). “king” is also repeated to emphasize the plaintiveness at what has been lost. But the loss is not so terrible: the king has fallen in love with his conqueror; and so the final “bane” is the word that sticks in memory. There is even a subtle pairing between “banner” and “bane”, to suggestive a transformation of interest on the king’s part.

Not all of these correspondences were made consciously. But as I mentioned above, the more one writes – and especially about a beloved subject – the more his mastered techniques will come into play without thought. However, I do notice many of these things in the intermediate results, and use that consciousness of them to ensure the effect is right, and that the poetry “sings”.

At the end of it all, it matters only that what you write makes you happy, or expresses your soul and relieves it of its solitude. Some of my recent verses I have even started to memorize, because it causes me joy to recite them. That, I think, is the true test of one’s poetry.

  1. A few days after writing this I learned about the Japanese idea of “wabi-sabi”: “Wabi-sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional… A related term in literature and the arts is”clinamen”, the act of deliberately breaking a stylistic rule to enhance the beauty of an otherwise perfect whole.”↩︎