Friday, October 12, 2012

Poems are Hard

I'm not a poet by any stretch of the imagination.  The last time I wrote poetry, I was in seventh grade creating the sort of angsty, poorly structured, haphazard stream-of-consciousness emotion-filled drivel that is basically synonymous with being a teenager. 

I've always had a deep respect for poets, though, and I count a handful of poets among my "most influential authors" tab:  Robert Browning. T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman.  Although I tend to sneer at a lot of postmodernist writing in general, and amateur poetry specifically, I do have respect for the art form. 

Anyway, I decided I wanted to do a poem for the anthology I'm working on.  Neil Gaiman tends to include a couple of story-poems in his writing, and I've always rather enjoyed them.  I also had a story idea that was more visceral than plot-based, and I thought it would be better suited to poetry than a rambling prose rumination.  So I decided to try my hand at writing a poem.

And let me tell you, it's harder than it looks. 

I decided to use a fairly strict poetic form, both so that it would give me some much-needed guidance, but also so that I'd have a bit of buffer if it wasn't very good.  "At least the form will be interesting," I reasoned, "Even if the poem is terrible."  After researching several poetic forms, I narrowed down my criteria:  I needed something that didn't rely too much on meter (because my sense of rhythm is so bad that I am essentially meter-deaf -- a fact which always annoyed my professors) and would be long enough to convey plot, but not so long that it would get tiresome for readers. 

So, with all of that in mind, I finally settled on a French form: the Rondeau. 

The most popular rondeau-style poem is probably "In Flanders Fields."  Here's the format: 
  • Three stanzas of five, four and six lines each (making a total of 15 lines). 
  • The first half of the first line becomes a refrain that will end the 2nd and 3rd stanzas 
  • The rhyme scheme is AA, BB, A, AA, BB, refrain, AA, BB, A, refrain.  
  • Each line is between eight and 10 syllables long
Needless to say, the first line is really important because you have to simultaneously come up with something interesting enough to repeat twice as a refrain, but you also have to end with a word that you can find seven really good rhymes for.  

Anyway, writing the poem felt a little bit like solving a plot-filled sudoku puzzle.  First, I set up my format so I could remember which lines were supposed to rhyme with each other.  I wrote up a quick outline of what information I needed to cover in each stanza, then divided it up into separate lines.  Then I started filling in the blanks. 

I actually started the poem in the center, with a pair of lines that I knew I wanted to include:

I was kind, she said – and she loved me,
But she loved her first husband more. 

(If you're familiar with mythology, this might tip you off immediately that the story is about selkies.  This is basically the "punchline" of many selkie stories, after the seal-maiden finds her skin and heads back to the ocean.)

That informed me of what the "A" and "B" rhymes would be.  From there it was just an issue of figuring out what words I could use that would match the rhyme scheme and syllable count while still delivering the story I wanted -- no small task.  Once all that was done, though, I was faced with an even greater task:  editing it so that each word would invoke precisely the image or emotion that I wanted it to.  

In prose -- even flash fiction -- you can hedge a little.  In poetry, every word has to be exactly the right word.  You also have to have a keen grasp on grammar so you know how to bend and twist rules.  Inverted sentence order, for example, is something you have to deal with a lot more in poetry than in prose.  You also have to pay attention to things like line breaks, and the effect of having line breaks equal full stops vs thoughts running past the lines.  So many thoughts for 15 lines of writing!  Poetry demands an excellent vocabulary and extremely tight writing.  

Well, anyway.  The selkie poem needs quite a bit of editing before I'll be happy with it, and I'm not even entirely sure I'll stick with it.  It was, however, a fantastic learning experience.  Working on this anthology has definitely given me the opportunity to try some new things.  

If you've never tried writing poetry before, I urge you to give it a go.  Don't take the easy way out with a bunch of free-verse emo crap, though.  Find a few poetic forms with structure.  Try a sonnet or an ode or a limerick -- whatever.  Just choose something with structure.  It will help your writing a lot to focus on form and language in such a tight space.


  1. Rockin post, lady!

    Poetry IS hard. But, sometimes, it is the only form which will convey a concept effectively.

    Good on you for breaking the process down into its complicated, overlapping parts--and then giving it a go.

  2. That's fascinating! I'm halfway tempted to give it a go. ^_^