Poetic Considerations

On January 1, 2020, Alyce wrote, How do you write songs and poetry? I’ve tried, and if it’s not a haiku I can’t manage. I just can’t seem to get more than a couple rhyming lines out, usually not even that. I can memorize poetry just fine, and make any rhymes I want (one of my characters blurts out anything that rhymes with the word she’s actually thinking of). I just can’t make those rhymes make sense most of the time. Or if I can, they don’t come out the way I want, and they don’t pass the message I want (or anything, really, they’re just a lot of impressive-sounding nonsense). Does anyone have any suggestions?

Erica wrote back, Why do you find a haiku easier than other poetry? If you can write haikus fairly easily, then I would recommend trying either limericks or free verse next, depending on what your precise difficulties are. If your problem is just that your rhymes don’t make sense, try either blank verse or free verse for your poems.

I’m with Erica on trying poetry that doesn’t rhyme.

Songs are a different matter. They should use meter, and, usually, rhymes. I say they should be metrical because meter provides rhythm. And rhyme helps with rhythm too. There is no law. If a song or poem works, it works.

Meter means a regular sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. I just looked online for a link that lays out kinds of meter in a straightforward way, but the subject is complicated, and I couldn’t find a site that I thought is perfect, but please google poetic meter and see what you get.

I’ll take a short stab at it, though, using iambic meter as an example. In iambic meter, an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. In this line from Shakespeare, I’m capitalizing the stressed syllables:


Another term you should know is poetic foot. A foot is the unit of stressed and unstressed syllables. So in the sentence above, a HORSE is a foot. The second a HORSE is the second foot. Notice that a foot can end in the middle of a word, as in the third foot above, my KING. dom is in the next foot. There are five feet in this Shakespearean line. A five-foot iambic line is said to be written in iambic pentameter, pentameter for the five feet.

The ballad form may be something Alyce and others will take to. Each stanza has four lines. The first and third lines have four iambic feet, second and fourth three iambic feet. The second and fourth lines rhyme; the other two don’t.

Trochaic meter uses a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. Feet aren’t always two syllables long, either. An anapestic foot, for example, is three syllables long, two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.

If you come up with your song’s melody first, you can figure out the beats and find the words to go with them.

Another way to get rhythm is to take a poem or song that already has a rhythm you like. Analyze the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables and follow them in your own poem or song with different words.

A thesaurus is great for finding words with the stresses we’re looking for. For example, suppose in our poem somebody goes crazy, but the first syllable of CRAzy is stressed and we need the second syllable to be the stressed one. The thesaurus will offer us inSANE as an alternative.

For rhyme, there are rhyming dictionaries. I use RhymeZone online: https://www.rhymezone.com/, which offers near rhymes too, like rhyming street with free. Near rhymes, also called slant rhymes, are often just as good or even better than exact rhymes. Better because there are more words to choose from. The ear will pick up the similarity in sound even though the match isn’t exact.

In general, simple rhymes work best even in sophisticates songs and poems. Complicated rhymes can seem forced. And simple ones make the poet’s life easier.

But, returning to the beginning, in poetry one does not have to rhyme! Most contemporary poems don’t. There are other ways to achieve poem-iness.

Image is a tool of poetry. Doesn’t have to be a beautiful image either. For example, someone stretching to reach a high shelf can add a poetic note.

Sonic elements also contribute. Alliteration–the repetition of initial letters, like blue bowl–makes a sound pattern that pleases the ear. Same for assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. This also works for internal perfect rhyme or near rhyme, rhyming words that aren’t at the end of the line.

Repetition is a poetic device too: words or phrases that keep coming up. Some poetic forms add structure without rhyme, generally by using repetition. I love pantoums (they don’t have to rhyme but can), which repeat specific lines in stanzas. Triolets operate similarly. Wickedly hard is the sestina, which repeats the last word in a line according to a sequence. The tritina is sestina-light, because it follows the same principal with many fewer lines.

By studying her poems I discovered (or think I have) a strategy used by one of my favorite poets, Lisel Mueller (high school and up). She’ll pick a theme for a poem and explore it in different ways (reminds me of my beloved lists). For example, in her poem “Necessities” she considers a different necessity in each of five longish stanzas. Each necessity is italicized: A map of the world; The illusion of progress; Answers to questions; Evidence that we matter; the old things first things.

We can do something similar, approach the poem we’re trying to write by looking at its topic in as many ways as we can think of. Let’s say the topic is escape. We can ask, escape from what? And we can come up with alternatives: our house, our thoughts, a conversation, the world of cause and effect. What do we have to say about each of these? We can ask about methods of escape and apply the same process. Same for destination, what we’d take with us. And so on. We don’t have to use everything we come up with, but as long as whatever we come up with connects with our topic, our poem will be coherent.

Poetry is a big subject, so I’ve only scratched the surface. A book that I use again and again to help me find forms to hold my poetic ideas is The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett. If you check it out, look at the chapters on meter and rhyme, which are in alphabetical order: Foot, Rhyme, and Rhythm.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a poem with escape as its theme, and try the method I propose above.

• Write a ballad about a particular escape, because ballads usually tell a story. Here you’ll be using rhyme.

• Write an entirely new poem that uses the same meter as William Blake’s “The Tyger.” You don’t have to write as many stanzas as he did, or you can write more, and you can decide whether you want your poem to rhyme. (I’ve always wondered how Blake pronounced symmetry.) Here’s the poem, which is in the public domain:

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Have fun, and save what you write!

Singin’ in the… Tale

First off, I begin my tour for The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre on Monday, and the book releases on Tuesday. If you haven’t already, click on In Person, and see if you can come to any of the events. If you can, please be sure to let me know you found me because of the blog. I will be so glad to meet you!

Second off, on the last post, April Mack said she was having trouble posting her gravatar image on the blog. David can’t find the problem on our end, so I’d like to know if anyone else is having trouble. Please speak up and maybe we can get to the source of the problem.

And now for the post. On November 12, 2016, Margaret Anne wrote, A lot of books have songs in them, like Ella Enchanted, Fairest, then other books like Harry Potter and Hunger Games. How do you write songs to put in your stories? In a book I am writing, there is a tune that a character plays on the piano or hums a lot, but I want there to be words to the song. Any tips?

Two writers weighed in.

Christie V Powell: Study songs of the type you’re going for. Hymn? Folk song? Listen to several and listen to the music. Write down phrases that catch your attention. You can also read poetry for ideas, and check out books or do other research on writing poems. I’m reminded of Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy” or Ann McCaffrey’s “Dragonsong” trilogy, where each chapter opens with a song.

Song4myKing: I have a character who (like me!) often thinks in song. Because she’s in our world, I use real songs. One is an old folk song, and therefore no problem with copyright stuff. Another is newer, but I keep it because it expresses the changing attitude of the MC over the course of the story. I had another modern one that she sang only once, but I realized that, although the lyrics said exactly what she was feeling, I really didn’t need that particular song (and its copyright). So I made up words that conveyed the same idea. I have found that almost the only way I can write decent poetry is if I have an inspiring tune to start with. So I did. The tune isn’t mine, and in the end doesn’t even fit the words that well, but what mattered was that I had an original set of words that sounded (sorta) like song lyrics.

If you are thinking of a real tune, consider what mood it gives. If you don’t have a real tune, I suggest you find one or make up one! What mood do you want the words to have? Do you want the song to be sung at a particular time? Could the song in some way include a symbol for the story or romanticize a part of the setting?

On using real songs – My sister and I read the book Chime (Fantasy in our world, probably high school and up). My sister noticed that one of the characters whistled one of the songs in the book. She looked it up, saying that if it could be whistled it was probably a nice melody. It was. We both love it now. This last week, she re-read the book, and noticed another song. She looked it up too, and has been singing it all day. Both are old folk songs. It was like an added bonus to us that we could find tunes for them, and that they’ve actually been sung for generations.

Oh, my! I wish I thought in songs! (Wish I could sing them, too.)

I love the idea of considering mood, because music and most songs are fundamentally emotional. Please remember that I’m not musical, but I think mood in music is conveyed mostly through tempo and instrumentation. If there are words, the singer expresses the emotion in her voice, if emotion is what she’s going for. The late, marvelous jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald wasn’t skilled, in my opinion, at expressing sadness. You can hear her smile through the saddest lyrics. I think she was too happy to be singing for anything else to come through, but I also think she was going more for technique than feeling.

In words, meaning predominates. But sound can support meaning. Onomatopoeia is one device that can help. Think of words whose meaning seems embodied in their sound. In school, the example we were given was tintinnabulation. Beep sounds like what it means. To my ear, the same goes for blip. Also, extended vowels, like oo and ee, sound mournful when combined with a sad meaning. Boom sounds ominous. Short vowels, short syllables, and percussive consonants set up a staccato pace, possibly for a martial song or a happy one.

A wonderful sad poem is W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” which you can find online. It’s worth studying to see how its effects are achieved. The meter, with a few variations, is iambic (unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, da DUM, da DUM), a common meter in songs. Try singing it.

Sound also adds a poem-y, song-y feel. Maximize alliteration (repeated initial sounds, like red rose) and assonance (repeated vowel sounds, like green leaves) and rhyme, in the middle of lines as well as at the end. You can use a thesaurus to find the sounds you’re looking for if the word you think of first doesn’t contribute sonically. The sound repetition doesn’t have to follow immediately; even if several words come between, the effect will still be felt by the reader or hearer.

If you have a tune to work with, consider the beat to figure out where your stressed syllables should go. When you start to write, a thesaurus will help here, too. The first word you think of may not have the stresses in the right place, but a thesaurus may give you alternatives that fit the bill. This can be slow going. In my books that include songs or poems, writing them took longer than writing the prose did.

An easy and popular form for songs is hymn or ballad or common meter, found in, well, hymns and ballads, but also in blues and rock songs, goes like this:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
da DUM da DUM we care
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
da DUM da DUM have hair

In other words: four line stanzas; iambic; eight syllables in the first and third lines, which don’t have to rhyme though they can; six syllables in the second and fourth lines, which should rhyme. “Amazing Grace” is in hymn meter, for example. Emily Dickinson’s poems are in this meter, except that she fooled around with it, broke it at will, and made it her own.

A shortcut to using rhythm in a poem or a song is to pick one that you like, analyze the stressed and unstressed syllables, and recreate the pattern with your own words. I did this in the first chapter of Writer to Writer. The verse below follows the witches’ incantation in Macbeth:

Mutter, mutter, dream and ponder;
Writer writes and fingers flutter.
Starting words of a startling tale,
On the paper, laugh or wail,
Days of joy and weeks of woe,
Mountains high and vales below,
Hero’s hope, villain’s might,
Evil’s plot, virtue bright.
With this spell of flash and thunder,
In a vision, write the wonder.

Contemporary songs are sometimes more complex, but often song lyrics are emotionally simple. Ideas that would seem cliched in prose are fine in songs. We find more moons than Jupiter has, more rosebuds than in a botanical garden, and enough broken hearts to occupy a hospital full of cardiologists. But it’s okay. The expression in melody, instrument, voice make it work. When we write lyrics we can be original or we can go with the tried and true, without embarrassment.

We can use songs or poems in many ways. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the poems are narrative–telling rather than showing–about the beginnings of the kingdom. In Fairest, there’s more of a range, with a lot of songs that express feelings. So we have options. We can use songs to tell, to show emotion, to reveal character, to create voice, to describe a setting. A few minutes ago over the radio I heard about a band that bases some of its songs on–recipes!

Here are four prompts:

∙ Try your hand at a poem or song in hymn meter. Write at least five stanzas. Sing it. Set it to music if you can. (This is beyond me.)

∙ From a WIP, have each of three characters write a love song–just words, or words and music. How would their songs differ in mood, feeling, thoughts, vocabulary?

∙ Tell a fairy tale as a ballad. You can use hymn meter for this, or not. Include a refrain that encapsulates the theme of the fairy tale.

∙ I just spent a pleasant two minutes on YouTube, watching and listening to the song “I Can Do Anything Better Than You” from the ancient musical Annie Get Your Gun. Write a song with the voices of two characters interacting. You can make up the characters on the spot or import them from a WIP.

Have fun, and save what you write!