Whipping Up a Poem
Whipping Up a Poem
by Rod Miller
The great French writer Émile Zola once said, “There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.”
Zola is talking, of course, about innate talent and learned skill. It’s likely that if you’re taking the time to read an essay on writing poetry, you have talent—you’re a “born poet” with poetry in your soul, drawn to put into words what you think and feel. So what we’ll talk about is craftsmanship—learning the skills that will make us artists at poetry.
Poetry is, in a way, like food. You can stuff food down your throat without paying much attention to what you’re eating. But people who really enjoy food, people who love to eat, savor every morsel. Beyond that, they ruminate about recipes, cogitate about contents, learn to identify spices and seasonings, and to recognize cooking methods.
Likewise, people who really enjoy poetry—whether writing, reciting, reading, or hearing it—do the same kinds of things. They learn to identify poetic tools and techniques. They study poems to determine how and why a poem works. All this involvement in, understanding of, even obsession with poetry makes it more enjoyable and satisfying—just like a good meal.
And, like cooking, the more you learn and the more you practice, the more you improve your skill.
Not everyone, of course, worries much about what goes into their mouths. And not every poet worries much about what goes onto the page. A well-known poet and outstanding writer once told me about a letter she got from a student who participated in one of her workshops on writing better poetry. This student said she appreciated learning about all the things poets do to write better poetry, but that she “didn’t do that stuff.” And she thought that was a good thing—that it made her poetry different, made her poetry stand out.
Suppose you applied the same logic to making biscuits. Rather than relying on the tried-and-true ingredients and recipes for baking up a batch, you could pooh-pooh the idea of fat, flour, and sourdough and go your own way, throwing whatever came to mind into the mix. Your “biscuits” would be different. They would stand out. But it’s unlikely that what you call a biscuit would taste anything like the real thing.
So, you’ve got to want to whip up better poetry. You’ve got to want to know how delicious poems are made. Because all the lectures, all the workshops, all the textbooks, all the essays won’t fire up the oven if you’re not willing to roll up your sleeves and go to work.
It’s not easy. At least not always. It means learning about ingredients, studying recipes, experimenting with seasonings and spices, throwing out bad batch after bad batch, learning from your mistakes, and trying again.
Perhaps a reminder of some of the ingredients that go into good poetry will help. It will require wading through some fancy, highfalutin textbook names for poetic parts. It’s necessary, to a degree. Because, on the one hand, you won’t get far with cooking if you don’t know salt from cinnamon. But, on the other hand, once you know what the ingredients do, and how and why they work, it doesn’t much matter what you call them, or even if you call them anything at all—just so you use them, and use them well.
Onward, then, to the ingredients in the recipe for tasty poetry.
“What” you say versus “How” you say it
Poetry, more than any other kind of writing, requires a concentrated effort to create beautiful sounds, to use the music in our language to fullest effect. In other words, it’s “how” you say it that matters.
Most of us have a tendency to concentrate too much on what we want to say in a poem. But, really, in poetry, “what” takes second place. If all you want to do is send a message, write an e-mail or pick up the phone. But pay attention to “how” you say it if you want to make poetry.
That’s it, really.
If you remember that one simple thing you’re on the way.
But, just for fun, let’s work up that list of ingredients—some of the things the “chefs” of poetry put into tasty poems. It will be incomplete, certainly, but a good start. We’ll skip some of the essentials—meter and form and rhythm, for instance. Those are topics for another day. But don’t forget them, and use them as needed. What follows are other basic ingredients that will add flavor and texture to your poems.
Repetition of Sounds
When we talk about repetition of sounds in poetry, we automatically think of rhyme. In fact, in cowboy poetry, we think about it so much that we often overuse that ingredient. We tend to get trapped in AB-CB, AA-BB, or AB-AB patterns, all with accented end stops.
And that’s fine.
But, just as the same dish served meal after meal gets monotonous, overusing the same patterns of rhyming and repetitive end stops becomes boring and gets insipid. And, sometimes, just like too much salt, it can ruin what might have been a tasty poem.
The truth is, there are plenty more ways to rhyme. Look to Charles Badger Clark, Jr., for one, for inspiration. He was a master at creating interesting patterns, and softening rhymes by letting one line flow into the next (enjambment) rather than stopping at the end of every line with a rhyme. He, and other poets, use internal rhymes, sometimes in formal patterns, sometimes just for fun. Try playing with various kinds of near- or slant-rhymes, such as reverse rhyme, and pararhyme. As with a recipe, you can always experiment with the ingredients to achieve a different flavor.
But there’s more to repetition of sound in poetry than rhyming. Adding a dash of assonance, a cup of consonance, or a few ounces of alliteration can add flavor to a poem, creating savory aftertastes of sound.
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds. Charles Badger Clark, Jr. demonstrates effective use of this technique in this stanza from “From Town.” (Note, as well, the use of end rhymes in the second and fourth lines, and the internal-end rhymes in the first and third lines.)
So when some high-collared herrin’ jeered the garb that I was wearin’
’Twasn’t long till we had got where talkin’ ends,
And he et his ill-bred chat, with a sauce of derby hat,
While my merry pardners entertained his friends.
Hear the assonance in the repeated “ah” sounds throughout: garb, ’twasn’t, long, got, talkin’, sauce, pardners. Now, it’s doubtful Clark deliberately set out to repeat the “ah” sound. More likely he chose those words instinctively, because they created better sounds in the lines. And they do. Imagine if the second line read, instead, like this:
Pretty soon we reached the place where yakkin’ ends
Same meter. Same meaning. The rhyming word at the end of the line is the same. But that line lacks the music of Clark’s line. And that music comes from all those “ah” sounds in ’twasn’t, long, got, and talkin’. That’s alliteration.
Consonance is similar, except consonant sounds are repeated rather than vowel sounds. I’ve bold-faced and underlined every “t” in these lines from
It gives a man a soter different feelin’ in his heart.
And he sometimes gits a little touch of shame,
When he minds the times and places that he didn’t act so smart,
And he knows himself he played a sorry game.
Thirteen of the thirty-three words in the first three lines say the “t” sound. They contribute to the rhythm of the lines, and add zest. Beyond that, they help set up the payoff of the idea that comes in the fourth line—the absence of “t” sounds in that line gives it a subtle contrast and emphasis; making it stand apart from the other lines to help the poem make its point with flavorful sounds.
Alliteration is related to assonance and consonance. Alliteration is created by repeating a sound—usually consonants, rarely vowels—at the beginning of successive or neighboring words.
(an alliterative name) uses alliteration beautifully in this stanza from “The Prolapse From the Black Lagoon” (I’ve italicized the alliterative phrases):
It came from outta nowhere, like a prolapse in the night.
Which, in fact, it was, my friends, the cow vet’s scourge and plight.
That pudgy pink projectile from those monster movie scenes
Like some whopping giant burrito filled with attitude and beans.
(You can add prolapse and plight to the alliterative artistry, as well.)
Some words sound like what they describe. Bang! Buzz. Hiss. Pop. Murmur.
’s “Maybe It’s Your Callin’” uses onomatopoeia well in these two stanzas (italics added):
It could be the slap of leather
The jangle of bridle chains
The cadence of the hoofbeats down the lane
There’s that friendly cowboy banter
And the planning of the gather
Some spittin’ and some razzin’ to sustain
In “Let Me Tell You ’Bout Weanin’”
makes entire phrases, not just words, mimic the sounds of what they describe (again, italics added):
They’ll hang on that gate
for a day maybe two
creatin’ a ruckusin’ hullabaloo.
Then on a sudden
no reason no rhyme
they stroll away thinkin’, “Hell, that calf ain’t mine.”
And never again so much utter a moo
bawler a holler or mutter an oo.
Without doubt, metaphor is one of the most savory spices in writing. Metaphor is used to say something about one thing by comparing it another, unrelated thing. This screed, for example, uses an extended metaphor—comparing the writing of poetry to cooking.
There are various kinds of metaphor available to the writer. With pure metaphor, an object is presented as something else—stronger, in a way, than a mere comparison. In these lines from Doris Daley’s “Goodnight to the Trail” she longs for her pen to become a bird:
I wish my pen could find the wings
To soar with rhyme when the nightwind sings
But words are often feeble things
To get that job done right.
Simile is similar, except the comparison is made using words such as “like” and “as.” In these lines from “As Birds Fly From the Nest,” Yvonne Hollenbeck also uses our feathered friends for her comparative, saying, with simile, that time is like birds:
As the evening shadows lengthen and the sun sets in the West,
you’ll find that time has flown away like birds fly from the nest.
Synecdoche and metonymy are other figures of speech related to metaphor.
With synecdoche, some part or aspect of a thing is used to represent the entire thing. Say “broomtail” and you’ve said mustang. Write “the long arm of the law” and you refer to the entire law enforcement system. Say the “the hand of God” to represent all of divine providence. The part stands for the whole.
With metonymy, the writer uses the name of a thing as a substitute to represent some related thing. When we say “the White House” said or did this or that, readers know we mean the President, or someone in the administration, actually said it—not the building. “Headquarters” is often used to mean the management of a ranch, or the boss. When Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote “the pen is mightier than the sword,” the pen, of course, metonymically represents the written word, and the sword stands in for military power.
Words can be evocative if well chosen. Writing something well can trigger a response among readers by stimulating one or more of the five senses. With a good description they can “see” what you’re talking about. Some will “smell” baking biscuits or burning hair at a branding if you depict those scenes well. They can taste bacon and beans if you describe them in an appetizing way. Likewise with hearing and touch—you can hear the roar of a range fire in your imagination, and feel its heat. That’s called sensuousness in writing.
Jane Morton uses sensuousness to good effect in her poem “When the Grass Greens Up This Spring” as evidenced in these two stanzas:
Let me smell the rain-drenched sagebrush,
breathe in air that’s clear of smog.
Let me see the white-faced babies
with their amber eyes agog.
Let me watch a herd of pronghorn
flowing over sunlit plains.
Let me listen to the swallows
and the cries of sandhill cranes.
Sometimes you can say things better by referring to the work of others; to let them say it for you. These references are called allusion. Poets—and other writers—often allude to familiar works of literature, myths and fables, well-known tales, songs, and other writing to make a point. Charles Badger Clark, Jr. alludes to, or refers to, Old Testament stories from the Bible in this stanza from “From Town”:
Since the days that Lot and Abram split the Jordan range in halves,
Just to fix it so their punchers wouldn’t fight,
Since old Jacob skinned his dad-in-law of six years’ crop of calves
And then hit the trail for Canaan in the night,
There has been a taste for battle ’mong the men that follow cattle
And a love of doin’ things that’s wild and strange,
And the warmth of Laban’s words when he missed his speckled herds
Still is useful in the language of the range.
In that use of allusion, Clark reveals the meaning of his poem, and if you don’t know those Bible stories, you may well not understand his message. Even though the poem seems to be a celebration of sorts—a cowboy boasting about his crew’s wild time in town—the allusions in the poem show the cowboy is feeling something else altogether.
Conflict is at the heart of every story. A character wants something, and something, or someone, is in the way, hindering the character’s ability to get it.
To use some of the poems cited here as examples, in Clark’s “From Town” the narrator faces verbal and physical conflict with a townsman, and, later, conflict with his own emotions. Likewise, Kiskaddon’s character in “Alone” is at odds with his past behavior.
“The Prolapse From the Black Lagoon” is a rollicking tale of conflict between the narrator and a cow’s prolapsed uterus. And DW Groethe’s “Let Me Tell You ’Bout Weanin’” is based on the emotional conflict a cow faces with the loss of a calf, and the humorous resolution of that conflict.
The conflict in Doris Daley’s “Goodnight to the Trail” comes from the poet’s inability to find the right words, and in Yvonne Hollenbeck’s “As Birds Fly From the Nest” it’s the realization that passing time interferes with our enjoyment of our children.
And so on. Whether lighthearted or serious, poetry or prose, ancient or modern, every story worth telling (or hearing) includes conflict.
Phil Kennington manages, in just a few lines, to create layer upon layer upon layer of conflict to set up his poem “Cowboy Granola”:
I’m a-startin’ this poem just the other day.
My wife’s in the kitchen when I hears her say,
“I’ve been a-readin’ your notes and lucky for you,
I’ve discovered an error or two.”
Well, the only error that I’d ever known
Was them like Geronimo shot from his bow.
But my wife, she’s from Boston, so I thought it best
To give her a listen since I’m from the West.
The schools in the city are better, I hear.
They learn you to talk proper and write so it’s clear.
Said she’d edit my poem if I agreed
To read it back to her—so I proceed.
Note how the poet builds the conflict—there’s the eternal clash between man and woman, heated up a few degrees as man versus wife. Then unsolicited, unwanted, unwelcome advice is thrown into the pot. Misunderstanding based on language appears. Add a portion of East versus West, and a dash of disparity in educational levels and you’ve established enough conflict for a fine story—and it only gets better from there, as Kennington continues to create laughter out of increasing conflict throughout the poem.
Turning Up the Heat
Those are some of the ingredients we can all use to whip up tasty poems. There’s more to it, of course, than a list of ingredients.
We must carefully weigh and measure each word and sound and technique.
We must mix and blend and stir them together in the proper portions that each poem calls for.
We must put the fire to the poem, then set it aside to simmer for a while—a day, a week, maybe longer. Then come back to it for a taste test, and maybe adjust the ingredients, add some more seasoning, spice it up a bit before sticking a fork in it. Otherwise, without proper care and attention, our poems are likely to come out half-baked.
No poet is required to learn the ingredients and recipes and techniques that lead to good poetry. As the workshop participant mentioned earlier, you can ignore it all and imagine the lack of discipline, the lack of craftsmanship, will make your poems “different” in a good way, or good in a different way.
All poets who aspire to the title have an obligation to their readers and listeners to serve up flavorful poems that leave the audience well fed and feeling satisfied.
More important, all poets who aspire to the title have an obligation to themselves. If we want to call ourselves poets, we must be willing, even eager, to slave over the hot stove of poetry if only to satisfy our own appetites.
This quotation from the great American poet Emily Dickinson is a restaurant review, of sorts, of poetry. It will help us understand when the ingredients we’ve whipped up have made a poem:
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
That describes the kind of poetry we ought to cook up—the kind, like a really good pot of chile verde, that will blow the tops of our audience’s heads off.
And if we can’t stand the heat it takes to do that, we ought to stay out of the kitchen.
© 2010, Rod Miller, All rights reserved
See our separate feature about Rod Miller here, which includes some of his poetry.
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