Friday, January 3, 2014

Pick Apart a Poem

By Susan

Most fiction writers I know love to experiment with wordplay. Whether it's the use of recognizable literary devices or creating poetry in your paragraphs, playing with the snap and pace of your chosen words is half the fun. Finding ways to make your prose stronger can start with a solid exploration of poetry. And don't be intimidated: you don't have to emulate Shakespeare to incorporate a little poetry into your work!

Silas House, a Kentucky writer, teacher and activist, says, "every single sentence must be a poem." As I've pressed deeper into my own works and revisions, I've tried to distill the poetry from the mash of my manuscript. In the process, I've written a few stand-alone poems and have done a small amount of research on what it takes to create better rhyme, meter and flow to my prose.

Today, as I begin my first residency for my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Tampa, I'm spending even more time thinking about what it takes to build a good poem, as I'll be spending my workshop time as one fiction writer in a group of four poets. In preparation of my time in workshop with this class, I've gathered some notes and resources for myself, and I thought you might be able to use them, too.

Here are some things to look for when reading, writing, or critiquing a poem:
Sound play -- repetition of initial sounds and similar vowel sounds or consonant sounds
Figurative language -- use of metaphors and similes and personification, if any
Tone of the speaker -- Is it consistent, meaningful, aloof, gentle, engaging, etc.?
Lines and rhythm -- Do the lines tend to end with the end of a thought or do they break in jarring fashion?
Meter -- Is there a pattern to the rhythm -- duh-DA, duh-DA or duh-duh-DA or DA-duh?
Form -- How does the poem look on the page? Are the lines of similar length, suggesting order, or do they have irregular length, suggesting some tension or dynamic nature? Stanzas can be arranged in four-line quatrains, suggesting solidity and order. The three-line stanzas may suggest a more spiritual nature (three as the divine number) while two-line stanzas tend to reveal some sort of dichotomy. 

If you're ready to read some recent releases to inspire yourself, here's a short list of American work that came out in 2013. Enjoy!
Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver
Aimless Love, by Billy Collins
New Collected Poems, by Wendell Berry
This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems, by Wendell Berry
The Gone and the Going Away, by Maurice Manning

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