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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Writing Metrical Poetry

If you have studied poetry in school or taken my poetry course and/or read its e-book version, you have a sweeping view of poetry that has most likely helped you to improve your poems and enjoy the works of other poets on a richer level. You probably have an idea of scansion, too, and know that scanning a poem can help you to write metered poetry and better appreciate traditional, metrical forms.

But what if you want more? What if you want to teach a class or workshop on traditional English poets and poetry? Or, what if you want to study and learn from classical and contemporary poets whose poems continue to be welcomed by poetry students, poetry lovers, and poets like you and me? Or, what if you want to be able to identify the forms you find scattered in e-zines or journals, such as Measure, that feature traditional poems?

Reading Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry led me to discover their online book catalog where I saw Writing Metrical Poetry by William Baer, a professor at the University of Evansville in Indiana, a prize-winning poet in his own right, and former editor of the journal, The Formalist, which, unfortunately, is no longer being published. Obviously, Professor Baer knows his stuff! More importantly, he knows how to present what can seem like complicated information in a clear, highly readable way. With that in mind, I wrote the editor of Measure, Rob Griffith to request a review copy, which he kindly had sent to me.

As the Preface to Writing Metrical Poetry explains, “All poets… wish to be artists, but all art begins with craft, and this book is about the craft of writing poetry in the great tradition of English-language poetry, which extends from Geoffrey Chaucer to Larkin and Richard Wilbur.” That brings us, the readers, from the earliest poets who wrote in English, developing language along the way, to poets of our lifetimes. What we can easily see from either extreme is that poetry has a long history with a huge variety of poetic forms in usage for centuries – and now!

Like a well-made antique, traditional literary forms seldom go out of style. And, as with furniture, you can mix these vintage literary forms with your contemporary interests and timeless, universal needs, arranging lively, eclectic lines that include your readers yet express the true you.

But here’s the real beauty! By becoming familiar with time-tested patterns, we can experiment with new usages, say, for writing a screenplay in blank verse or writing a book-length series of sonnets to address controversial issues, presenting both sides intelligently and poetically before drawing conclusions in the final couplets or quatrains.

In case you fear you’ve forgotten everything you knew about forms and meter, don’t worry! Professor Baer leads readers through, beginning with the Introduction, which not only refreshes memory but helps us to understand the effects meter can bring to our poems.

For example, the subtitle “What Distinguishes Poetry From Prose?” lists and clearly describes these three important differences:

• Emphasis on the line
• Emphasis on rhythm
• Emphasis on compression

The chapter on “Meter” lists and defines the primary feet (iamb, trochee, etc.) used to measure metered poetry, but, more, it opens with causatives that help us to understand the thinking behind the poetic measurements established by each country. As the text explains:

“The fundamental nature of every language determines its meter (the underlying rhythmic structure of its poetry) and the study of meter is called prosody. Different languages use different methods to create their sonic patterns; for example, accent is used in German, duration in Latin, and syllable-counting in Japanese.”

As soon as we can call on the basics of meter, we’re ready to follow the poet-author’s lead into studying patterns based on line count – quatrain (4), couplet (2), tercet (3) – and/or based on line length (meter) and rhyme schemes (sonnet, villanelle) and/or type of foot used (iambic, trochaic, anapestic, etc.)

It sounds like a lot! But the truth is, you mainly need to become familiar with only five foot-measurements (the iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, and spondee) and the rest is as easy as 1, 2, 3! Honest! It’s like cooking. Just learn the difference between a tablespoon (T) and teaspoon (tsp.) and the rest is in the recipe book.

While I highly recommend that every poet who wants to write traditional poems reads this book straight through, doing assignments along the way or after, I also want to emphasize that you do not need to know or remember these forms and patterns! Professor Baer knows them, presents them well, and provides you with a well-indexed book where you can look up a rondeau or clerihew or triolet when you’re ready to write one and need a trusted recipe.

What a difference this makes in the outcome! What new doors open! For, when your traditional poems are done, you’ll have delicious results much easier to predict than when you freely throw together ingredients and hope everything turns out to your liking and the tastes of your readers.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is also the poet-author of Outside Eden and Living in the Nature Poem in print and in an e-book on Kindle.

Writing Metrical Poetry, Writer’s Digest Books

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