Friday, May 27, 2011

Poetry Revision 101, Lesson Two: Countering the Bobblehead Reflex

When I was about 13 or so, I wrote this poem:

The Poet,
before the invention of tweezers.
Amber are the eyes of love
Through them I see a blazing fire
As I look at you with wild desire.

Topaz shine the tiger’s eyes
Before he leaps upon his prey
I will hunt you night and day
And love you till the sapphire moonlight goes away.

Like diamonds shines the morning sun
As it illuminates an onyx sky
And turn it aquamarine,
First low, then high.

The night is gone
But soon it will come,
And again they will shine,
lapis lazuli, moonstone, and diamond.

Ah, finally got that published!

It’s a testament to how satisfied I was with this poem when I wrote it that, 25 years after, I can retype it from memory. Though I have no copy of it anywhere that I’m aware of, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how it went. To this day it remains the only poem of mine I know by heart.

The reason is obvious: the rhyme scheme is so heavy, the poem is easy to recall. That was the original function of rhyme, of course. In the days before stories were easily transmitted via print, they had to be memorized, and the rhyme prompted the lines you might have otherwise forgotten. Rhythm, meter, had the same function, and the poem above, although not perfect, has a pretty steady rhythm to it. This is also the reason why you may know so many song lyrics, and yet not a single poem. Rhyme, meter, musicall these aid recall.

But do they make for good poetry?

That, my darlings, is the question for today, and the brief answer, as my teen angst ditty so aptly reveals, is, not by themselves, no.

So here is Poetry Revision 101, lesson two: if you employ rhyme, meter, or any other formal devices in your draft, rewrite without them, and see if you still have a poem.

Let’s test this premise using my old poem. You can seequite obviously—that I attempted to “poeticize” my hormonal stirrings in as many ways as I could. I still remember finding the article on gems in my old World Book encyclopedia and copying down the list of all the gems. My goal—and I achieved it!—was to use all the gems mentioned in the article, including those, like lapis lazuli, I had never heard of at the time (imagine my distress when I eventually noticed that the article was not a definitive list, that, in fact, it oddly omitted common gems like rubies and emeralds!). Something in me had clued me in to the fact that a good poem needed to have some good content, and off I went, geek that I always have been, to the comfort of the sort-of-leather-bound World Book, where all the world’s knowledge was neatly organized alphabetically in twenty-six volumes. Hey, it was a start. What I failed to realize, however, was that making information rhyme was no more poetic than listing it alphabetically. I had a nifty concept, I had some nice SAT words, I had a good ear, but I had NO POEM. Take away all these devices, and I had a tired analogy, woman:man :: tiger:prey (did I get that from the Flashdance soundtrack???).

Such a faux pas is easy to see in a thirteen-year-old’s work, but not so easy in an adult’s. However, the difference is just a matter of degree. The adult writer can just as easily be lured into thinking a poem’s great because it sounds great, or because it has a nifty concept. This is especially easy to fall for if you’re working in form. You’ve written a classic sonnet, by golly, in perfect iambic pentameter and everything. It just rolls off the tongue like . . . well, you know. Its clever phrases haunt you like jingles. But is it any good? There’s only one way to find out.

Please note that I am not suggesting you never write in form or use rhyme and meter. That would be pretty silly. What I’m saying is that these are components of a good poem, and not enough by themselves, in the same way that a profound revelation sloppily written would not be a good poem either. A good poem must both have good content and good form. However, rhyme, in particular, is so satisfying to the ear that it can cloud even an experienced poet’s judgment. You might not notice that your content is poor or that you are employing cliché, because you are so thrilled by the sounds of your words that all your attention is taken up by your ears. Think of it as bobbing your head along to a song without listening to the lyrics. If, on the other hand, you write a test draft without rhyme, meter, or whatever other cutesy device you employed in the first draft, and you still have a good, satisfying poem, then, by all means, continue working in rhyme and meter or other devices in subsequent drafts.

Scary. I know. But you should know that a poet’s—a writer’s—worst enemy is self-satisfaction. Murder your darlings, Arthur Quiller-Couch used to say. Poems like my gem poem are often fun to write—the rhyme urges you on, and, even when you get stuck, finally finding a way to keep the poem going according to the plan can be like getting the right answer in Final Jeopardy. The poem came so easily, sounds so good—how can it not be? One thing you can do is use the shelf method. Put the poem away and don’t look at it for at least a couple of weeks. When you return to it, the initial thrill is hopefully gone, and you’ll be able to evaluate it more objectively.

Hopefully, it won’t take you twenty-five years.

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