Make a beautiful sound.

Poetry is not from the heart.  The idea behind the poem might be, the thoughts might be heartfelt.  The poem itself is crafted – like any other art.  There is intention.  There is purpose behind each word, each line break, each syllable and break in each syllable.  A poem is attention to detail, to the sound of sounds in proximity as well as the connotations or denotations of the words themselves.  It is symbology from sound.

article-1316136-00829B8500000258-671_233x328If one has been writing a while, the craft is part of the drafting process.  Revision draws the writer into the meditation of the technical details and the writer loves these details the way a painter loves a specific brush, desires only a specific amount of turpentine to be added to the paint for a specific texture.

Here’s an exercise to help focus you on tools other than your own intent, or meaning.  Consider writing a poem in a made-up language.  Maybe write a piece in your native tongue but then “rewrite” it in the Assyrian you never learned.

Here’s the Epic of Gilgamesh being read in Babylonian.  There’s also Assyrian poetry as well.  Or go listen to some Russian Akhmatova.  The sounds of words are part of the poetic experience.

Consider writing a poem only from a made up language.  What would it sound like?  What kind of structure would you impose upon it?  What kind of “reasons” would be behind specific sound choices?

The Names of Things

One reason I write the weekly poetry exercise is to simply spend the time thinking about the craft.  Another reason is to give my dead brain something to rise for, to begin thinking so I actually write something new.  I have writing buddies who know the end of their poem before they put pen to paper.  Me, erm, not so much.  I have to start out with a literal pen in my hand and a blank piece of paper.  I have to move that hand across the paper.  It’s only when words begin to surprise me that I begin riffing on them, playing.  Then, I have to write until I get to an end.

This week’s writing “thang” is not about a form, but a topic.  It would be a useful writing topic for most short forms of writing, but I think it would work best with poetry because in poetry you don’t have to be so literal, so linear, in the structure.  Moving from Point A to logical Point B isn’t required.  It might be good as a piece of prose, either as a flasher, or a quickie – either fictional or memoir, but the end would have to be quite pithy.  The pitfall if written in prose is that it could be a didactic piece, or fall into being too “telly”.  If you take this topic on with a poem, you can play with imagery – make a “charade” game out of it, or play with rhyme.  The “thang” is to write a poem about your name.  Where it came from, what it means, anything really.  First name, last, both, it doesn’t matter.  Just play with writing a poem about your name.  There could be fun with nonce words, or maybe make an “Ode to Thyself”,  I think a poetic form would be unique in making a theme like this particularly interesting.

Many of us have chosen our names in this genre of erotica.  Writing a poem about the “why” you chose your name makes you go stop, and remember your thoughts, then work your phrasing so it’s not just:

“I chose ‘Nettie’ as a diminutive of ‘Nettlesting’ while at the same time as being able to play with the name, ‘Annette.’  And I chose ‘Kestler’ as an anagram of ‘kestrel’ and because there weren’t fifty million Kestlers in google, so I didn’t think I’d end up with a cross-identity.”

Boring.  Might as well just put it in a form and stick it on a spreadsheet.  Anyways, this writing exercise came from one of the Guardian’s poetry workshops.  If I haven’t written about The Guardian’s poetry workshops, they’re worth reviewing.  They were run nearly monthly from 2004-2011 and had a variety of poets taking on a topic, writing their thoughts for an exercise, and then reviewing and commenting on a few of the submissions they felt had sufficient quality. They’re a great resource to return to when you’re burnt out and need something to grab onto for a topic.

Here’s the source idea for doing this exercise:

Colette Brice’s Poetry Workshop – “What’s in a Name”

Back to basics: Time to start the clean-up. Revising my work.

I finished NaPo and this month was particularly difficult.  Part of it was because I had the SEAF event, but also the theme was just impossible to maintain.  But now that the first drafts are done, it’s time to start the revisions.  Oddly enough, one of Untitledmy pieces, “Love, Lust, and Sex after Sixty” was written before I found out that the photographer who inspired the work, David Steinberg,  was going to be at SEAF.  I really need to pay attention to details, but whatever.  His work has inspired several pieces of mine over the years as he photographs humans and the intensity of their enjoyment of being in their own skin and the taste of their lover’s skin. Having now made the thirty days and thirty poems, it’s time to begin the culling, the cutting, and scraping the lipstick off those pigs.  Sometimes, yes, at this stage in my writing a piece comes out “whole,” but  – well, never.  No, I always find a tweak, a word to change, some rhythm to smooth.  Do I put all the pieces out for critique?  No.  Do I accept all the comments:  yes.  And then I say, “Thank you,” as I was taught at PFFA.  Do I revise per all the comments:  no. The most important focus in this work is the poem itself.  If I, as the writer, allow my hubris to stand in the way of strengthening the work, then I’ve crippled my own “child.”  But it is a fine line the writer must tread because A)  Not all criticism is created equal, B) Not all criticism will strengthen the piece, and C) It is entirely up to the writer to choose – unless you’re working under contract in which case, do what your fuckin’ editor tells you to do, goddamnit..  Even Yaweh’s words were edited down to create The Old and The New Testaments. Get over yourself and kill your babies.  Strike the purple from your prose.  Identify each and every cliche and pick them out like you’d pick nits from your hair.  Abstractions such as “love,” “soul” (there are more than five.  Line through every single modifier, every adjective, and adverb.  Select only one to add back in.  Pay attention to pronouns.  Reread to make sure you’re referencing the correct he/she/it. Read your work aloud.  Don’t whisper it.  Read it aloud, in a normal voice and listen to yourself.  Put the work away.  Hide it in a drawer for six months.  Then look at it with “fresh eyes.”  “Fresh eyes” take time.  There’s no escaping that. This is the process I’m about to embark on with my “Thirty Poems of Love and Other Disasters.”  Wish me luck.  I’m targeting the Walt Whitman contest this year (but I say that every year and never get everything ironed out).

Stressing about stress

I failed in understanding the rules for metrical stress when discussing poetry in high school or college.  I thought trying to evaluate metrical works an insurmountable obstacle based upon a rhythmic deficit which runs through my family.  I inherited my father’s singing voice.   I have a tin ear, and couldn’t carry a tune if I you gave me a bucket. When I tap my foot, I sound like a heart attack.  Not even my husband wants to dance with me.  So, it was a surprise to me that when I was studying in the posh halls of the early internet bulletin boards, I found people who could break rhythm and stress down for me to evaluate.  They showed me an almost mechanical approach to evaluating or drafting works for stress.  I don’t see that as an insult.  I’m an engineer, so of course I love mechanics.

I’ve found these little cheats, little ways of looking for, writing with, or evaluating rhythm work for the most part workable.  The variances though, would fall down along the lines of any dispute about literature.  And since I ain’t an English teacher, I doan worry ’bout it.  If you’ve already got a sense of rhythm, maybe this will help explain what you do unconsciously.  I couldn’t carry a rhythm through an entire poem without conscious evaluation to save my life.  This is just how I do it.

To demonstrate the steps of evaluating for stress in a line of poetry, I’m going to use a stanza of mine from an exercise.  I wrote the poem with 3 lines for each stanza unit (technically, this is called a tercet because there is a rhyme scheme as well) and I wanted each line to have four stresses.   Here is the stanza we will use for evaluation.  It comes from the muzdawidj I wrote called, “Spring Melt”.

He goes to her in the darkness found
in midwinter; slips between the down-
filled duvet and her body, warm

In my simple brain, there are basically 4 steps in the evaluation, with the fifth step being an “excuse”.

To start:

Step 1)  For multi-syllabic words, break the words into their phonetic syllables.

he goes to her in the dark ness found
in mid win ter; slips be tween the down
filled du vet and her bod y, warm

Step 2)  Show the primary & secondary stress on those multi-syllabic words by ALL CAPS the syllable.  When I write stuff by hand, I underline.  When I type, it’s the CAPS.  In an English class you would use the accent mark (‘) to show a stressed syllable and a little curled thingy above an unstressed/less stressed syllable.  This is not an English class.  This is the internet.  For all I care, you could highlight in lipstick.  But if you would like feedback from me, using this email system – just indicate stress using ALL CAPS.

I do is work with a dictionary (heresy!  heresy alert!).  My favorite is Wordsmyth.net.  It is American Standard English, so other English variants will not be reflected here.  I love this site because it shows stress with the use of underline & BOLD on the characters in the syllables.  The syllable with the most stress will be underlined and bolded, other syllables which might have stress, but a “lesser” amount (secondary stress) will simply be bolded.  Simple.  Easy to read.  Easy to understand what the heck is going on with the word.  You don’t need a legend.  It’s also got a great thesaurus function.

So, CAPs the multi-syllabic words showing their stressed syllables:

he goes to her in the DARK ness found
in mid WIN ter; slips be TWEEN the down
filled DU vet and her BOD y, warm

Step 3)  Stress is given to parts of speech in progression:  verbs, nouns, prepositions, modifiers, pronouns, articles and so on. So, my next step in evaluating my tercet is to evaluate for verbs and nouns.  I’m starting with just the verbs and nouns and after that will make another pass for the other parts of speech.

he GOES to her in the DARK ness FOUND
in mid WIN ter; SLIPS be TWEEN the DOWN
FILLED DU vet and her BOD y, warm

Evaluate the lines at this point to check if “they’re complete”:

he GOES to her in the DARK ness FOUND
This line evaluation is NOT complete b/c there are only 3 primary stresses and at least three syllables in a row which are the same level of stress – i.e., no 3 unstressed together, no 3 stressed together. Those are: “to her in the”

in mid WIN ter; SLIPS be TWEEN the DOWN
This line is complete b/c there are 4 primary stresses on the line and no 3 syllables in succession with the same “level” of stress shown- i.e., no 3 unstressed together, no 3 stressed together.

FILLED DU vet and her BOD y, warm
Line evaluation NOT complete b/c there are 3 syllables left with the same “level” of stress shown.  Those are “vet and her”

Step 4)  Here’s where the rules start to get sticky.  I have what I call (and others, but not as pithily as I phrase), “The Rule of Three”.  When I was being taught scansion, the guy who was teaching me told me that in English there was difficulty in holding the same level of stress for three words in a row.  So, the quick way to look at a cheat, was three unstressed syllables in a row, middle one gets “promoted”.  Three stressed syllables in a row, middle one gets “demoted.”  So, I just call out Rule of Three in my head when I’m faced with certain choices.

he GOES to HER in the DARK ness FOUND
*** I promote “her” because it is a pronoun and because of the Rule of Three. This finishes the evaluation because there are no further syllables left with the same “level” of stress.

in mid WIN ter; SLIPS be TWEEN the DOWN.
** already completed, so not evaluating

FILLED DU vet and her BOD y, warm
** This is an interesting line. We cannot ignore the stress of the primary syllable “DU” in the word “duvet”, but then we have a lot of light syllables in the middle “vet and her”. I would argue that the word “Filled” should be demoted while the word “and” be promoted because of the Rule of Three. There are a variety of levels of stress here. Often times, you’d see exercises numbering the levels into 1, 2, or 3 instead of the simple (binary) “unstressed” / “stressed” version I’m introducing here. The discussions surrounding the stress levels can be quite heated. Me, I’m not a dogmatist. So, yes, I would agree that “filled” does have “some level” of stress, but I’m really about keeping my scansion simple. So, I’m going to show a demotion on “filled” because the word “and” gets more stress to my mind because of its relative position. I also promote “warm” because it is an adjective.

So, the line looks like this to me now:

filled DU vet AND her BOD y, WARM

One last final “rule” to consider:
Step 5)  You can have fewer than 8 syllables on a line with four strong beats.  That’s because a missing syllable at either the begin or the end of the line could be “counted” as an unstressed syllable.

So, to summarize (bends over, puts hands on her knees, takes a breath)…

To analyze your metrical works:

  • The basic unit is a line
  • Break all your words into their phonetic syllables
  • Show the primary (and if it exists, secondary) stress on all multi-syllabic words
  • Show stress on your verbs and nouns
  • The “Rule of Three” – begin evaluating the remaining syllables based upon three unstressed syllables or three stressed syllables in succession.  Promote first based upon parts of speech, but also, commonly, the word in the middle is either promoted or demoted.