Introduction to Poetry

There is a young poet I have been working with recently who inspired this post.  He is new to his craft and eager to learn.  This will not be an explanation of poetic style, anyone can Google what makes a sonnet a sonnet according to structural guidelines.  This is instead an explanation of the subtle things, the non-classroom learned lessons.  So, let’s begin with the form.

Poetic form often emerges as it is written.  However we do, on occasion, establish an idea of what the piece should look like or read like, prior to writing a word.  We have discussed how to determine the format a piece should take based on intended result in previous posts, so let us instead stick with the free thought method, writing as it comes.  The moment comes, you are inspired.  Words begin to form in your mind.  How many words, would you call it a sentence?  Speak it aloud.  Now write it down exactly how you spoke it.  Did you pause, would you put in a comma?  Make that a line break.  Eliminate unnecessary words.

John went to the store today and he said it was it was cold outside.

John went to the store today
he said it was cold out.

Remember the reader will pause slightly where you break your lines.  With that in mind try to avoid ending lines with incomplete thoughts.  If you do, it is customary to write it as follows (for example)
John went to the store and he-
said it was cold outside.

The thought is broken, but it is at least notated that it should be one thought by the hyphen at the end of line one.  This is permitted to maintain format, you don’t typically want one line that’s far longer than all the rest within a piece.

Now you have two lines, how long are they?  Do they rhyme?  Do they follow a tune?  Go with what you see, count syllables, look at everything.  Unless of course, there is already more to write.  Follow the pattern you set and write until it’s done.

What about punctuation and capitalization?  How much is necessary?
Punctuation is a tool, like rhyme or any other.  As a wonderfully brilliant critic recently said “It is but a color in your box of crayons.  We do not only paint in a single color, do we?”  Use punctuation to add emphasis, or aid the flow of a piece.  If it’s not needed, don’t put it in there.  Use no punctuation at all to give a more free flowing stream of ideas.  Many poets use a limited form of punctuation.  They will include periods at the end of a statement, though not at the end of every thought.

Capitalization is the similar.  Use it for emphasis and flow.  You may begin a new thought with a capital, but then then previous thought should be ended with proper punctuation.  You may capitalize every first letter of every first word of a line, but it does detract from emphasis that could be given.  You decide what is necessary.

I would be remiss to make a post about capitalization in poetry and not mention E. E. Cummings.  He made a conscious choice to present his works in such manner that we would not be distracted from the meanings.  I would like to display a piece of his that we may examine the principles above.   See below:  “a man who had fallen among thieves” by E. E. Cummings.

a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat

fate per a somewhat more than less
emancipated evening
had in return for consciousness
endowed him with a changeless grin

whereon a dozen staunch and Meal
citizens did graze at pause
then fired by hypercivic zeal
sought newer pastures or because

swaddled with a frozen brook
of pinkest vomit out of eyes
which noticed nobody he looked
as if he did not care to rise

one hand did nothing on the vest
its wideflung friend clenched weakly dirt
while the mute trouserfly confessed
a button solemnly inert.

Brushing from whom the stiffened puke
i put him all into my arms
and staggered banged with terror through
a million billion trillion stars

Complete Poems, 1913-1962
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
New York

Now in this piece, notice the memorable lack of capitalization?  There are in fact, two places Cummings inserts punctuation, both are followed by a capital as he begins a new thought.  Even the instances of “i” are left lowercase.  Why is that?  The”i” of the piece is unimportant.  Cummings doesn’t want you wondering about him, he is telling you to look where he points.  This is how we are able to lose ourselves to a piece, we allow ourselves to be led, and we drift along as the poet brings us deeper in.

Notice also, his line breaks.  Let’s look over that first stanza:
a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat

The breaks are flawless.  Let’s alter it a bit and see why.

a man who had fallen among thieves lay
by the roadside
on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat

There’s no flow here, it hiccups at lines 2 and 3.  Also the added length on line 1 detracts.   The thought in line 1 is no more complete than it was before.  What if we broke up that first line?

a man who had fallen
among thieves
lay by the roadside
on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat

Better than the first, but flawed.  Now we’re also getting different imagery.  With the end of line one being “fallen”, we examine that image more closely than below, where the thieves are introduced, they now seem almost a side-note.

It’s all about how you want it to read, where are you directing the attention of the reader?  Remember when writing poetry, every detail, or even the absence thereof means something, and it tells the reader something.  Know your works inside and out.  So, play with format, change up your styles, see what challenges you and what comes easily.  This is how we learn and grow, from the most inexperienced to the most knowledgeable of us.  Never be afraid to try something new, you just might love it.


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