Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Case For Structured Poetry

          Poems that rhyme are past their time
          Some folks would have you think,
          But I still feel such poems are real
          And not at all extinct.  - Loegel

Since this is still National Poetry Month, I am going to expound a bit on my personal feelings about rhyming poetry.

I believe that metered, rhyming poems not only produce a sound that is pleasant to the ear but also offer a challenge to the poet to work within a given structure.

A poem doesn't have to be long to tell a story or evoke a feeling.  Consider the following poem by Robert Herrick:

  Whenas in silks my Julia goes
  Then, me thinks, how sweetly flowes
  That liquefaction of her clothes.

  Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
  That brave vibration each way free,
  O how that glittering taketh me!

Liquefaction.  What an amazing word.  Add to that vibration and glittering, and in just six lines Robert Herrick paints such a vivid picture one can almost hear the rustling and see the billowing of Julia's silk gowns.

In this four-line poem by Edwin Markham, called Outwitted, we have story, contrast, conflict, and resolution, all in thirty-one words:

 He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

Working within a metered structure presents a unique challenge which free verse doesn't offer--putting a given number of syllables in a line with the proper stress on each syllable.  I had to work out this problem in a Shakespearean sonnet, written in iambic pentameter.  This required ten syllables to a line and every other syllable stressed.  There was a further requirement that every other line must rhyme.  Here is part of my sonnet:

         Way deep within my lonesome, beating heart
          Rich soil awaits the fragile, tiny seed
          Which will, when planted, give my life a start,
          Fulfilling every yearning, every need.
  I could have gotten the same message across had I written:

           Down inside
            my empty heart
            rich soil awaits
            the fragile seed
            that once planted
            will give my life a start
            fulfilling my every need.

However, there is very little challenge in free verse as I'm not bound by any strict rules of structure.  It took me two minutes to compose the above stanza in free verse; yet, the original stanza took hours to get not only the right words but the right syllabic stress in each word, and then a rhyming scheme on the last syllable of each line.  Definitely a challenge.

The rhythm of a structured poem creates its own music.  Take, for example, my lilting little poem at the beginning of  this paper:

Poems that rhyme are past their time
Some folks would have you think
 But I still feel such poems are real
 And not at all extinct.

You can almost skip to its beat.

A structured poem rolls right off one's tongue.  Listen to these two lines from Leigh Hunt's poem: Jenny kissed me when we met/Jumping from the chair she sat in.  Now imagine if it were written without a specific meter:  Jenny kissed me when we first met/Jumping up from her chair.  The second version is jarring, an abomination to the ears.  Rhythm is everything in poetry.  It's cadence carries one on a wave of feelings unmatched in any other form of the written word.  The poem's rhythm can put the reader in a lighthearted mood or in a somber mood, depending on its structure.  For example, the first and last stanzas quoted here from a ten-stanza poem called Memory, by Abraham Lincoln:

My childhood's home I see again,
And sadden with the view,
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There's pleasure in it, too.

I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I'm living in the tombs.

Another poem I'm especially fond of is The Blind Men and The Elephant.  It tells a story with a moral and uses a lot of dialogue to personalize the poem.  Also, the poem was written by John Godfrey Saxe, my great, great, great, great, grandfather , born in 1778.

Another benefit to rhyming poetry is the mnemonic value of making things easy to remember.  How many of us would know how many days there are in July if it weren’t for “Thirty days hath September….?

Free verse is a fine form of poetry, of that there's no doubt.  There are times when the full impact of a poem can be felt only when presented in free verse.  However, metered, rhyming poetry not only presents a challenge to the poet to work within a given structure, but also such poetry literally sings to the reader and touches his soul.  What more can one ask of a poem? 

Now go write a four line rhyming poem and let me see what you come up with.

To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.
Emily Dickinson

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