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Next Word, Better Word
The Craft Of Writing Poetry
By Stephen Dobyns
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 Stephen Dobyns
All rights reserved.
approaching subject matter
the path of writing poetry begins with a love for the way sounds bang off one another, the hesitations and rush of rhythms, the unwinding of syntax, and the juxtapositions of meanings. But to keep moving down the poet's path, one must ask: What will bear the burden of all that noise? How does a writer first discover, and then approach his or her subject matter?
Perhaps a person believes that he or she has a story to tell, a love affair to describe, an argument to make. Perhaps someone turns to writing because he or she feels there is no other outlet for the mass of emotion and idea bubbling up inside. Pablo Neruda's first published work was an essay entitled "Enthusiasm and Perseverance" (Entusiasmo y perseverancia), which appeared in his hometown newspaper when he was thirteen. Neruda felt like an outsider in his family. His mother, a schoolteacher, died two months after he was born. His father, who worked for the railroad, had a low opinion of writing and literature, while the city in which they lived, Temuco in southern Chile, was still a rough frontier town. Neruda's primary confidant became a sheet of paper.
Or the young poet might have undergone a long period of convalescence, as with the Spanish poets Rafael Alberti and Vicente Aleixandre, who suffered from tuberculosis as children and spent the time reading and thinking. Or the sense of being an outsider might arise from great shyness (Hayden Carruth), or mental imbalance (Theodore Roethke), or he might be a stutterer like Philip Larkin, or a have sense of isolation like Emily Dickinson, or the young writer might belong to an ethnic minority, be gay or lesbian, an atheist in a town of believers or a believer in a town of atheists: anything leading to the acute sense that one is different and the feeling that his or her natural voice has been stifled. But it might be none of those reasons. James Dickey once said in a radio interview that he began to write poetry while serving in a U.S. army night fighter squadron during World War II. He had been writing love letters to a number of women back home, and then one day he took another look at the language of his letter, saw that it was good, and decided to write poetry.
The term "subject matter" is an abstraction. An idea is not subject matter, but it might become subject matter. A memory, a love affair—nothing by itself is subject matter, but may develop into it. In fact, anything can become subject matter. Poets like Baudelaire and Gottfried Benn showed that even the ugliest material may become subject matter. But nothing is subject matter by itself.
The subject matter of a poem is not simply its content, in the way a piece of journalism may be said to have a content, announced by its headline. A poem's subject matter is also the manner of its telling—its language and how that language is presented. In the best poems, matter and manner carry equal amounts of information. In fact, the more a poet uses his or her language only as the medium of expression at the service of content—using it journalistically, as it were—then not only does the poet diminish the possibilities of the poem, but he or she also discards many of its primary tools. One might also say the writer is not writing a poem but something else, or is simply writing a bad poem, especially if we define one condition of poetry as an equal combination of manner and matter.
This doesn't mean the language of every poem needs to be rich and noisy. The form and content of many of Frank O'Hara's poems are completely united under the umbrella of his particular aesthetic, which was to create a poem that had the appearance of a quick sketch that seemed spontaneous, off the cuff, and realistic. But it would be a mistake to think his poems were easy to write or easy to imitate.
One doesn't read a good poem for the sum of its content, its kernel of truth, but for the whole experience of which meaning forms only a part. The reading is not a means to an end—some epithanic moment—it is itself an end. The emotion that gave rise to the poem's articulation emerges out of thewhole, is integrated into the entire experience. Its meaning is not an answer, like two plus two equals four. A poem is not an essay; it cannot satisfactorily be paraphrased; it is always more than the sum of its parts.
One of the demands of poetry, especially of Romantic poetry and its off-shoots, is that it must have an appearance of spontaneity which creates the impression that the poem was flung off fully formed in a moment of inspiration. Any sign of scaffolding (such as obsessive reworking or refinement) might jeopardize its credibility. As Yeats wrote in "Adam's Curse": "A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught."
In addition, Romantic poetry demands a high degree of verisimilitude. "In order to excite rational sympathy, [the poet] must express himself as other men express themselves," Wordsworth wrote in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. I use the examples of Yeats and Wordsworth to stress that ostensible reality doesn't mean writing in nonmetered verse.
For the young poet these requirements of apparent spontaneity and verisimilitude can be a trap; they may create the impression that any utterance can be a poem if the writer calls it a poem; they may make it seem that the language of poetry is indeed no more than a vehicle. Of course, the more the poet reads, the more he or she will see that form is a hugely complicated business, but at the beginning the poem's apparent spontaneity and verisimilitude may seem ample evidence that all one needs is a story to tell and a burning desire to tell it.
The writer who set me thinking that form and content could carry equal amounts of information was the philosopher and aesthetician Susanne Langer. Certainly I knew that form carried information about subject matter, and I understood that the poem was always more than the sum of its parts. And I knew that it did not simply use metaphor but was itself metaphor. But I wasn't quite clear about how these elements fit together. In her book Problems of Art (1957), Langer wrote:
The import of a work of art—its essential, or artistic import—can never be stated in discursive language. A work of art is an expressive form, and therefore a symbol, but not a symbol which points beyond itself so that one's thought passes on to the concept symbolized. The idea remains bound up in the form that makes it conceivable.
Reading this, I found four crucial points. First, the import of a work of art cannot be stated or paraphrased in the language of analytical reasoning. Second, a work of art is a symbol of an expressive form. Or, as she says elsewhere, it is the "symbolic presentation of subjective reality." Third, the symbol doesn't point beyond itself in the way that the symbol of the cross points beyond itself; rather, it is complete in itself. Fourth, the idea is bound up in the form, and only with the form is it possible to conceive the import of the symbol.
Here is William Blake's "London" that appeared in Songs of Experience (1794).
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
Blake saw himself as presenting an objective portrayal of what he had seen, and he gave us one of the earliest political poems in English. But even though one might paraphrase the poem's general ideas, so much would be excluded that it could hardly be called a paraphrase at all. And although Blake is aiming at objectivity, the poem is also a perceptible form expressive of human emotion. It is subjective, not objective.
The nature of the poem's expressiveness is mostly experienced in the sounds and rhythm of the poem. Does the symbol point beyond itself? Well, yes, Blake is describing London, but the language is not simply a vehicle for the idea; we remain within the symbol to experience the totality of the poem. And the idea remains bound up in the form that makes it conceivable. Nuance in a poem is mostly managed by elements of a poem's form. "London" is written in eight-syllable lines, iambic tetrameter; yet nine of the poem's sixteen lines use metrical substitutions or have headless lines, that is, they are missing an initial unaccented syllable. And there are four spondees, feet consisting of two stressed syllables, in lines 8, 12, 13, and 15. (For these and other technical terms, see the Glossary, page 263.)
The poem's first two lines feel leisurely; the speaker is wandering, not walking. In both lines the four stressed syllables are of long duration, which create a relaxed tone, and the initial consonants are soft: w, th, ch, n, ch, th, and fl. But as the speaker takes notice of the people around him, he begins to use syllables of shorter duration, harder sounds and repetition—mark, meet, marks, weakness, marks. This change to harder sounds and a stronger rhythm indicates a change in the speaker's emotional state—the beginning of anger, indignation, and sorrow.
These emotions continue to build in the second stanza. If one imagines four degrees of stress instead of two, with one being the strongest and four being the weakest, then one sees that most of the unstressed and stressed syllables in the first two lines of stanza 1 are quite close together, say, 3–1, 3–1, 3–2, 3–1 and 3–2, 3–2, 3–1, 3–2. This is called the Trager-Smith method of noting metrical stress, which doesn't mean they invented it. They simply named it. You can find stresses working the same way in Chaucer. In any case, the relationship between the stressed and unstressed syllables at the beginning of the poem represents the speaker's calm. But the twelve feet of the first three lines of stanza 2 are all a vigorous 4–1, 4–1, a vigor that is heightened by repetition and parallelism.
One could point to other formal elements in the first two stanzas—alliteration and internal rhyme—to say nothing about the formal elements in the last two quatrains. All express emotional nuance as well as creating tension and energy. In addition, the poem's four sentences use syntax to delay the most important elements of meaning until the fourth line of each stanza to create an impression of the speaker's gradual sense of discovery. Added to this, each line in each stanza increases in intensity through its eight syllables, in terms of both meaning and sound, making the last word in each line the strongest and most important. The only exception might be the word "blast" that begins line 15.
The poem's last line—"And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse"—uses the same sort of long-duration syllables as the poem's first two lines but with opposite effect; while the first two lines were leisurely, the slow pace of the last line is due to stunned horror. What happens in the thirteen lines in between represents the speaker's education.
The sounds and rhythms of Blake's poem are entirely purposeful, as well as giving pleasure. As Langer said (above), "The idea remains bound up in the form that makes it conceivable."
But it is not necessary that a poem be formal in order to have its form and content carry equal amounts of information, as can be seen in Walt Whitman's "Poets to Come" (1860).
Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future, I but advance a moment
only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you
and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.
Written seventy years after Blake's "London," Whitman's poem uses lines ranging from eight to thirty syllables. We find no end rhyme, and the three stanzas have different lengths. Generally speaking, Blake's poem is easier to describe—four closed quatrains rhymed A-B, A- B and written in iambic tetrameter—but even though "Poets to Come" is without meter, it still uses stressed and unstressed syllables. It can't avoid it; it's a condition of the English language. And one can still imagine four different degrees of stress. Whitman takes advantage of this; his stressed syllables are heavily stressed, and perhaps more importantly, his unstressed syllables come mostly from an assortment of little words: to, is, and, am, me, a, for, or, the, and from, as well as the unstressed syllables in his two-syllable words—singer, answer, native, greater, and so on. This 1–4 ratio of unstressed to stressed syllables dominates every line but one.
The lack of meter contributes to the poem's sense of spontaneity and verisimilitude, but the heavy stress creates a rhetorical effect that makes the poem seem deeply felt. We are hearing a man addressing people who, oddly, do not yet exist. What I do today doesn't justify me, he says; it's up to you to justify me. That's his thesis statement. Then he presents evidence to support it with three metaphors each beginning a line with the word "I." The second metaphor expands upon the first, and the third expands upon the first and second.
Additionally, the third metaphor occurs in the poem's longest line and the line softens the 1–4 ratio of stressed to unstressed syllables. The evidence of Whitman's three metaphors is not the evidence of discursive thought (which I summarize in Chapter 8 as "if this, then that, with these consequences"). It is nondiscursive. The parallel structure of the three sentences, the accumulation of the metaphors, and the softening of stress in the third stanza persuade us that we are hearing something important. And Whitman, in these three metaphors, uses a series of internal partial rhymes that weren't in the first stanza. In the first metaphor he has: but, write, dick, and fute. In the second: but, ment, back, and dark. In the third: saunt, out, stop, look, up, and vert.
Whitman's rhythms were influenced by the preachers he had listened to in New York as a young man. The imperative address, the commands, the use of parallel structures were all affected by these experiences. The rhythmic, twenty-syllable third line is brought to an abrupt stop by the word "arouse" that begins line 4. Indeed, "arouse" wouldn't be so effective if it weren't such a contrast to the previous line and if it didn't contain the element of surprise caused by the line break. Whitman then backs away and reverses the great authority of the first stanza with the display of modesty in the first metaphor, which is then continued in the second metaphor, although the second half of the second metaphor is far more energetic than the first: "only to wheel and hurry back into the darkness."
The third metaphor, and longest line, creates in its rhythm the casual movement of sauntering. Most simply the line reads: I look at you and turn away. What the rest of the line attempts to do is enact that statement using rhythm and long-duration syllables: "I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face ..."
Then, just as he created a surprise with "arouse," so he creates a surprise with the poem's last two lines. The change in syntax and rhythm, the use of shorter-duration syllables to increase the speed of the line, and the internal rhyme catch us unawares. While the fourth line of the first stanza is basically iambic (the first four syllables are powerful iambs) with an ascending rhythm, the last two lines of stanza 3 are basically trochaic with descending rhythms (the first eight syllables of the penultimate line may be read as trochees; and even though the last line appears anapestic, the trochaic rhythm of the previous line with the second and third syllables of "expecting" continue a sense of the trochaic). At no point can we really say that Whitman is writing an iambic or trochaic line; rather, he may be writing a line in which iambs or trochees are found.
The effect of the metrical difference between the end of the first stanza and the end of the third is to change the demand in the first instance to a request and a hope in the second. We come to understand these changes, these elements of nuance, only by looking closely at the poem's rhythmic and sonic elements. And even if we don't bother to analyze the poem's form, we still feel the effects of that form. It helps to convince us of the sincerity and truth of the poem.
Excerpted from Next Word, Better Word by Stephen Dobyns. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Dobyns. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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