Category Archives: writing

Can writing poetry make you smarter? (revisited)

I’ve posted before about one way that writing poetry can make you smarter (although I should have said “wiser”); here is another:

 

Sometimes when people first begin to attempt to write poetry, they complain about the metrical rules (or “constraints”) of formal meter, and they may even abandon formal meter in favor of free verse, which allows them to write whatever they will (as for whether they write well or write poorly, let another judge). Yet when a person does this, they miss out on a great opportunity for intellectual growth.

 

Throughout our lives, in diverse environments and seasons, we are subject to rule systems. Some are quite reasonable, while others less so; but they all exist for some positive purpose, and following (or not following) them yields recognizable and even predictable results. Some people navigate these systems very well, recognizing not only the reasons for obeying, but also noting when one kind of obedience would actually violate the spirit of a rule, and how to avoid that. Meanwhile other people just attempt to buck the system continually, and while they are smart enough to recognize that sometimes the rules don’t work, they fail to recognize when and why they do work.

 

This same kind of rule recognition and navigation is practiced when learning how to write poetry in formal meter. What at first glance appears an arbitrary and useless constraint, becomes known though practice as a structure for producing certain kinds of effects. It may still be to some extent arbitrary (for example, we might have had a predominantly accentual-alliterative style instead of an accentual-syllabic), but not entirely so (for the prosody we use flows out of the phonemic structure of the English language); and that discovery—understood fully only through practice—changes the rule system from something meaningless to something meaningful.

 

A new poet writes a short piece in iambic meter, then rewrites the poem in anapestic meter; and lo! they perceive how the change of one rule alters the feeling and impact of the subject matter. They write in rhymed couplets, and then attempt the same work in tercets, and behold! they discover that this, too, alters the reader’s reception of the subject. So it continues, as the developing poet explores each rule, each skill: practice and experimentation with prosody gives us an experience of discovery, which—if we will—may be applied to our non-poetic lives.

 

Why are our schools structured in the way that they are? Why is our news delivered to us in such a format? How do our sitcoms transmit cultural knowledge and values? What is the purpose of a joke made in the midst of a serious debate or religious or philosophical instruction? All of these questions have to do with the rules and structures of communication; and taking the time to master one form of communication, like poetry, can give you insight into the others.

 

Unfortunately, not everybody attains such insight—indeed, for the pretentious, writing poetry can just make you stupider instead of wiser. But the aid to wisdom is there, available to us, if we would take advantage of it.

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Examples of Feminine Rhyme

I’ve posted once before on Feminine Rhyme, but as some visitors have been looking for more examples of it, I figured it was time to post some more. Which isn’t the easiest to find, actually—for the vast majority of English poetry is written in Masculine Rhyme.

“Masculine” rhyme refers to rhyming words with their stressed final syllable (for example: cat/mat, refrain/complain, respect/collect, learn/return). “Feminine” rhyme refers to rhyming words by their stressed penultimate syllable (for example: keeping/weeping, smarter/barter, fire/desire, collection/correction). Since most English poetry is written in iambic meter (with a rhythm that goes – / – / – / – / ), the final syllable in each line tend to be stressed, resulting in masculine rhyme. One contributing factor in this in English there a more word choices for words with final stress (including all single syllable words) than there are for words with penultimate stress; and many of the words with penultimate stress are that way because of suffixes like –ing and –er, which the poet may not wish to overuse.

However, some important and commonly-used words still have penultimate stress, such as fire, power, forever, and beauty; so a poet must be able to master feminine rhyme if he or she means to use them. Often, poems that are otherwise dominated by masculine rhymes will have a few lines of feminine rhyme specifically to accommodate these kinds of words. For example, Sir Philip Sydney uses feminine rhyme in the sestet of his sonnet on Desire:

.           But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought,
.           In vain thou mad’st me to vain things aspire,
.           In vain thou kindlist all thy smoky fire.
.           For virtue hath this better lesson taught,
.           Within myself to seek my only hire,
.           Desiring naught but how to kill desire.

And he uses the same rhymes in his Sonnet From the Aged. Meanwhile William Wordsworth used feminine rhyme in the octet of his sonnet on London, 1802:

.           Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
.           England hath need of thee: she is a fen
.           Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
.           Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
.           Have forfeited their ancient English dower
.           Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
.           Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
.           And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.

When feminine rhymes are used more frequently, they can alter the tone of the poem. In the following poem by Ben Johnson, the feminine rhyme actually creates the framing for each stanza of the poem—and gives us a narrative voice that is more personal and less pedantic:

Those Eyes

Ah! do not wanton with those eyes,
.           Lest I be sick with seeing;
Nor cast them down, but let them rise,
.           Lest shame destroy their being.

Ah, be not angry with those fires,
.           For then their threats will kill me;
Nor look too kind on my desires,
.           For then my hopes will spill me.

Ah! do not steep them in they tears,
.           For so will sorrow slay me;
Nor spread them as distraught with fears,—
.           Mine own enough betray me.

You can note in this poem that feminine rhyme can work across multiple words (as in kill me/spill me and slay me/betray me), since they are still rhyming the second-to-last syllable on each line.

Johnson’s poem was written in iambic ( – / ) meter, adding the additional unstressed syllable at the end of his lines to get the feminine endings. A poem written in trochaic meter ( / – ) has the same alternating stresses, but ends with every line feminine. I’d estimate about 90% of English verse is written in iambic, with the remaining 10% divided between purely trochaic verse, anapestic verse ( ~ ~ / ) , and the rarer dactylic verse ( / ~ ~ , which results in rhymes that are easily perceived as comic). But I do have for you the following example of trochaic verse, by Thomas Campion, written in tercets:

Think’st thou to seduce me then with words that have no meaning?
Parrots so can learn to prate, our speech by pieces gleaning;
Nurses teach their children so about the time of weaning.

Learn to speak first, then to woo; to wooing much pertaineth:
He that courts us, wanting art, soon falters when he feigneth,
Looks asquint on his discourse, and smiles when he complaineth.

Skillful anglers hide their hooks, fit baits for every season;
But with crooked pins fish thou, as babes do that want reason:
Gudgeons only can be caught with such poor tricks of treason.

Ruth forgive me, if I erred from humane heart’s compassion,
When I laughed sometimes too much to see thy foolish fashion:
But, alas, who less could do that found so good occasion?

And finally, one more example of trochaic verse—although in this case, the poet only rhymes every other line:

Sorrows of Werther
by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)

Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as word could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.

Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing for to hurt her.

So he sighed and pined and ogled,
And his passion boiled and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more by it was troubled.

Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.

Hmm, I suppose I can’t really mention trochaic verse and feminine rhyme without referencing Poe’s The Raven, which uses a great deal of internal feminine rhyme (that is, rhyming insides of lines, instead of only at the end). But instead of reprinting that, you can listen to it here.

For those of you interested in this kind of rhyme (or just writing a report on it for school), I’ll provide a few more examples in the next entry. And for those of you who are already well-read, I invite you to suggest some examples in the comments section.

Seeking Criticism

One of the most important—and difficult—factors in becoming a better writer is the willingness to accept criticism of your work. Now I am not for a moment talking about superficial criticism (“I liked it”/“I didn’t like it”) or pejorative criticism (“it sucks”), but about substantive criticism of form and content, which can identify why something in a poem is more or less effective. It is important because without this kind of feedback, a writer is likely to continue to make the same mistakes and encounter the same difficulties. It is difficult because first, you have to know a critic who knows what they are talking about, and second, you have to be not be so danged sensitive.

 

That second issue is more than simply common among aspiring poets; I rather think it represents the normal attitude. For our contemporary culture regards artistic creation as a highly personal experience (indeed, we have quite spiritualized it), identifying it so much with the person that any criticism of their art is perceived to be a criticism of their person. But once upon a time, poets knew better; and could have their work criticized as any craftsman, composer, or architect could have their work criticized. We need that clarity of mind now: the object of criticism is the work, not the author; and it focuses on the developing the skills of that author, not their personality.

 

A poet’s work may indeed be a work of self-expression; but when we are thinking clearly, we remember that when one expresses themselves, they are hoping to be understood by another. So the first task of criticism is to clarify meaning: what did the reader understand the author to mean? Is the understanding of the critic acceptable to the author? And if not, what might the author do to clarify his or her meaning?

 

The emotional hurdle to overcome at this point is the author’s assumption that the critic simply missed the point (which is possible; but I hope you are consulting perceptive critics here). “Oh, you just don’t get it,” the author may huff. Why? Is the critic imbecile? Biased? Lacking important information or experience? Or perhaps, just maybe, the author left something out, or was overly cryptic. Consider the possibilities.

 

After the meaning has been worked out, the critic may also point out some structural issues or word choices that affect the rhythm, flow, impact, or atmosphere of the poem. Some of the criticisms at this point will be based upon rules (or guidelines) of established poetry; other will be matters of taste. Each prompts a different set of emotional obstacles.

 

Regarding questions of rule (for example, on metrical anomalies), an author may feel insulted (for nobody likes being told that they are less skillful than they think); and a common retreat is to simply reject the rules, or claim that this is a justifiable exception to them. Now, indeed sometimes an exception is more effective than the normal rule; but usually not. I advise newer authors to be humble about this, and consider: the rules (or established patterns of use) are not arbitrary, but reflect a purpose.

 

(Note: if you are writing free verse, beware—it appears lawless, but there is method to such madness, and the best free verse poets have hidden “rules” or their own. Now if free verse better suits your purpose than metrical verse, good luck with that; but don’t fly to free verse simply to escape the rules or meter. That’s a recipe for bad writing there.)

 

Regarding questions of taste, the author must be willing to entertain opinions, even if he or she will, after consideration, disregard them. For in such matters, one critic may deplore what another applauds; and no poem will suit all audiences. But take note if all your critics express similar thoughts on such matters: for if your work suits only your taste and none others, you may want to consider a different tact. After all, if you want to communicate (and I am assuming that all words are for communicating with others, and not narcissistic self-gratification), you cannot expect to do so on only your own terms.

 

Naturally, it will be impossible to satisfy every critic—but it is very possible to satisfy some. Which critics an author seeks to satisfy will affect what audiences that author can effectively reach. I don’t expect every author to speak to the same audiences; but I encourage them all to learn to at least speak to more than an audience of themselves alone.

Feminine Rhyme

Quick, rhyme the word “lever.” What did you get? Sever, never, endeavor… any others? Maybe some half-rhymes, like leather, weather, heather, feather, together. (Half-rhymes keep the same vowel sound, and allow for a minor deviation in the sound of the consonant—in this case, both the /v/ and the voiced /th/ sounds are voiced frictives, similar in sound.) But are we left with any other rhymes that keep the /v/ sound? Lever… how about river? Does river work?

 

Many a novice rhymester will attempt to “rhyme” words like lever and river, content to have an identical /-er/ at the end of each word; but in fact these words to not rhyme. For in English, rhyme is based upon the stressed syllable in a word, and with these words, that stress falls not on the last syllable, but upon the one preceding it. And since our ear notes the stress/emphasis as we speak, this is the sound that needs to be matched. In technical terms, we call this a “feminine rhyme.”

 

Since the vast majority of English poetry is written in iambic (-/) meter, the vast majority of our rhymes are “masculine” rhymes—that is, rhymes of the final syllable. (Moderns, please do not take issue with these terms; they refer to nothing sexist, and are less meaningful than “masculine” and “feminine” nouns in Spanish and French.) Nevertheless, even when a poet writes in iambic meter, they might chose to finish a line or two with an extra unaccented syllable in order to use a particularly choice word; and the following rhyme needs to match.

 

The rule here is to match the stressed vowel sound, as well as the syllable following. This can be done with single words, as in our opening example, or with multiple words, as in this short Rondeau by Leigh Hunt:

 

Jenny kissed me when we met,
.    Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
.    Sweets into your list, put that in:
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
.    Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
.    Jenny kissed me.

 

Any poet worth their measure needs to be adept with feminine rhymes; otherwise they will find themselves forced to end every line with a stressed syllable. Which would not do at all for this little gem, as “Jenny kissed me,” is the whole point of the poem, and therefore the necessary ending of that line.

 

For a good example of expertise with feminine rhyme, I might direct you to Poe’s The Raven—but I’ve featured that poem several times already in this blog. So consider instead To a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which features both masculine and feminine rhymes.

 

I suppose some of you won’t naturally click the link without a more compelling reason, so here’s an excerpt from To a Skylark that might whet your appetite. This is the stanza that caught my attention once, and made me want to read the whole poem:

 

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Variations in Line Length

While some poems may be written in pentameter (5 beats on each line) or tetrameter (4 beats on each line), other poems are built from lines of different lengths. Such structure is no mere decoration or novelty, but can be used to support the content of the poem itself. This can be used to accomplish a variety of different effects, ranging from serious to comic, from melodic to jarring; today we will look at one example of using line length for emphasis.

In the poem below, the poet starts with tetrameter; but after 4 lines of this (rhyming abab), he presents us with 2 lines of only 2 beats each—and then finishes the stanza with a tetrameter couplet. Why does he do this?

As you read the poem, notice the effect upon the rhythm. The quatrain (the four lines rhyming abab) presents us with the idea, and establishes both the mood. Once we have the expectation of rhythm, the shorter lines become the more pronounced for violating that expectation. Consequently, we get a sense of musical crescendo: there is both a suddenness and a building of tension that emphasizes the words.

 

 

The Glories of our Blood and State
by James Shirley (1596-1666)

The glories of our blood and state
.           Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armor against fate;
.           Death lays his icy hands on kings:
.                       Scepter and crown
.                       Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

Some men with swords may reap the field,
.           And plant fresh laurels where they kill;
But their strong nerves at last must yield;
.           They tame but one another still:
.                       Early or late,
.                       They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath,
When they, pale captives, creep to death.

The garlands wither on your brow,
.           Then boast no more of mighty deeds;
Upon death’s purple altar now,
.           See where the victor-victim bleeds:
.                       Your heads must come
.                       To the cold tomb;
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.