Spoiler ahead—you had better read the poem “Faye” before reading about how I wrote it.
Sometimes an idea for a poem sits in the back of my mind for many months before springing to life. I may recognize it as a good idea when it first occurs to me; but for some reason, I am not seized by it. I might even try to sketch a few lines before leaving it alone, on the back burner, as it were, to stew.
Faye was actually the product of what I had thought were two separate ideas knocking about the back of my head for some time. I had wanted to write some fun adventure poem, some narrative about a knight fighting an ogre or a dragon—but I wasn’t sure exactly what the theme of that poem would be. Probably courage, I thought. Meanwhile, I also had been trying to figure out how to write a lyric encouraging young women to be selective in choosing a spouse, rather that rushing into a relationship because they were afraid of getting old and alone. Rather important, I thought; but difficult to do in a pleasing manner. And then one day I realized that this was the theme of the adventure poem: a knight would go to do battle against a dragon for the hand of the fair princess, but she would have to reject him as an unworthy suitor. But to make it a happy ending, and to tell a good tale, I would use the magic 3: have three knights, with the first two being rejected and the final one being found worthy.
I think I realized that these two would be the same poem while thinking about the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: What is the chief end of man? The answer, To glorify God and enjoy Him forever, falls into a natural anapestic (3-beat) meter. Rephrase the question just a little—What is the greatest pursuit for a man?—and now that’s in 3-beat meter as well. So those were the first lines I wrote for the poem Faye, which now had a theme, and a narrative, and a meter to give it life.
Next I had to select my knights. Sir Michael (Hebrew for Who is like God?) would be my triumphant knight. Sir Hector (named for the hero of Troy) would represent the classical ideal of glory. And Sir Richard (Wagner, whose Romantic operas extolled the power of love to renew the world) would represent our modern ideal of a mate. And each would have some especial sword and/or armor—Sir Michael would wear the armor of God (from the New Testament).
With my three parallel characters, I wrote this in parallel, instead of from beginning to end. That is, I would develop a phrase for one hero, and then switch to the next hero to develop the corresponding phrase. I knew that one of the keys to writing this narrative would be the use of repetition, in order to provide familiarity and build a sense of anticipation. So
Deep in the forest Sir Hector rode forth,
Determined to rescue the unhappy Faye,
With helmet and shield and so mighty a sword
The hero had honored the blade with a name
Introduced each of my heroes, and provided me a hook to present their characters. Switching between each of the heroes, I began to build the adventure. I had to be careful, of course, to make sure that the action was not diverted for the sake of a rhyme; so many lines had to be proposed and discarded before I could be satisfied that each line, each word (including the rhyming ones), was appropriate for the content. Half-rhymes (like forth/sword, lips/this, and villains/kill him, which all have assonance—that is, the same vowel sound) were important for accomplishing this. (I shall have to write a blog post sometime on the effective use of rhyme and half-rhyme.)
As I began to think about the heroes’ respective answers to the question, What is the greatest pursuit for a man? I decided that varying the rhyme scheme would help differentiate the sections within each hero’s story, while connecting those sections to their corresponding parts in the other heroes’ stories. So while the main narrative would run abab, for example, the conclusion to each section would be in couplets (which should give said conclusion more oomph).
A few other formal adjustments also helped produce changes in tempo to frame the content. “Tell me What is the greatest pursuit for a man?” had to be unrhymed, so it would stand out and create a tension for the answer. And the quatrain featuring Faye’s immediate response to each suitor’s answer would end in a line with only 3 beats instead of 4, as in
At hearing these words, patient Faye gave a start— (4)
Was Michael the suitor she’d been dreaming of? (4)
“Not a Name?” tested she, “Or Passionate Love? (4)
Are neither of these on your heart?” (3)
The reader feels the pause generated by the missing beat, setting them up for the answer following.
I spent about 7 hours working on this poem one Saturday, followed by another 6 hours the day after. I immediately penned a copy and mailed it to a friend of mine I desired to encourage (her middle name is Faye)—who, I think, had already found her Sir Michael by this point, but I didn’t know that. Ah, well; I hope it can still be an encouragement to other poetry-reading ladies, somewhere. (And maybe an encouragement to men, too, for them to pursue the right things.)
Anyway, those were some of the tho’ts that went into the creation of this poem. Naturally, there’s a lot more that can be described, but a blog entry shouldn’t demand so much of your patience. So, after reading the poem, you have any other questions about how it was constructed, or why I made such-and-such choices, leave a comment below, and I’ll reply as best I can.