Monday, February 25, 2013

The Joy of Prosody: Dissecting poems of successful poets

By Liz Mastin

Photo of Blue Heron by Patrick Balester
Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge, Virginia/North Carolina

In my columns, I very much enjoy sharing the many things I learn about writing good metrical poetry. I find studied metrical verse to be very rewarding. In fact, the more I study it, the more I love it. As poet laureate Richard Wilbur noted: “It is easier to gauge the quality of a metrical poem than (it is) a free verse poem, which is mainly subjective.” With metrical verse you ask yourself these kinds of questions: is the poem written correctly or not, according to the form? Has the poet spent time studying his craft?

Does the poet use appropriate number feet: five iambic pentameter feet per line for a sonnet, and correct number lines: fourteen lines to a sonnet, eight to a triolet, etc. Does he maintain the rhythm? Does he make use of the poetic tools? Does he use alliteration, assonance, consonance, inner rhyming, and enjambment? In what form is the poem written: is the poem a sonnet or a sestina? Is it blank verse or syllabic verse? Maybe it is a quatrain poem. Are the quatrains Sicilian or Italian?

Most famous poets have written metrical poetry. I thought it would be fun to dissect some good metrical poems of famous poets to see just how they did it!

Theodore Roethke according to Wikipedia, was an “American poet, who published several volumes of influential and critically successful verse. He is widely regarded as among the most accomplished and influential poets of his generation. His work is characterized by its introspection, rhythm and natural imagery.” A poem he wrote that you might recognize is “My Papa’s Waltz.” He wrote many excellent poems and here is just one of them. I thought this poem would make a good (relatively easy) poem from which one can learn.

The Heron
by Theodore Roethke

The heron stands in water where the swamp
Has deepened to the blackness of a pool,
Or balances with one leg on a hump
Of marshgrass heaped above a musk-rat hole.

He walks the shallows with such antic grace.
The great feet break the ridges of the sand,
The long eye notes the minnow’s hiding place.
His beak is quicker than a human hand.

He jerks a frog across his bony lip,
Then points his heavy bill above the wood.
The wide wings flap but once to lift him up.
A single ripple starts from where he stood.

We can dissect this poem to understand some of the mechanics of it, beginning with the line:

1.The he / 2. ron stands / 3. in wa / 4. ter where / 5. the swamp

Note how there are five iambic feet across the line? This is iambic pentameter. An iamb sound like this: da dum!  Pentameter means five strong stresses across the line.

There are four lines in each stanza. The rhyme scheme is abab. The first line in each stanza rhymes with the third line, and the second line in each stanza rhymes with the fourth line. When you have this particular rhyme scheme, it is a Sicilian quatrain. (Now an Italian quatrain is enveloped, with the rhyme scheme being abba.)

Roethke skillfully uses enjambments (when) he runs a thought from one line into the next. It is often more intriguing when rhyming words are not located the end of a “thought!”

The heron stands in water where the swamp    (swamp is enjambs with has, in the next line.)
Has deepened to the blackness of a pool,    (pool is enjambs with Or, in the next line)
Or balances with one leg on a hump    (hump is enjambs with Of, in the last line of this quatrain.)
Of marshgrass heaped above a muskrat hole.

Note: In the first stanza, Roethke made use of slant (or imperfect) rhyme by rhyming “swamp” with “hump” and rhyming “pool” with “hole.”

Now, one can look to see if the poet has made use of other poetic tools. Are there alliterations, internal rhyming, assonance, consonance etc. Metrical poetry is so intriguing and with some study, not difficult, but very rewarding.

Liz Mastin Bio
Liz Mastin is a poet who lives in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho during the summer and Bullhead CityArizona in winter. She thrives on the study of the great poets, their biographies, the schools of poetry to which they adhered, and the poetic conventions of the times in which they lived.

While she enjoys free verse as well as metrical poetry, her main interest lies in prosody. She notices that most of the enduring poems are those we can remember and recite. Liz enjoys poetry forms such as the sonnet, the sestina, the couplet, blank verse, simple quatrains, etc. and she hopes to see modern poets regain interest in studied metrical poetry.

Liz is currently putting together her first collection of poems which should be completed this winter. The poems are a mixture of metrical and free verse poems.  She wrote the following poem five years ago when she first moved to her winter home in Bullhead City, Arizona; an area which, she says, "gets a lot of wind that channels through the canyons of Lake Mohave."

I Love the Wind
by Liz Mastin

Like a child, I love the wind.
It hugs me all around, perchance;
It loves to dance and arm in arm
It sings to me of high romance.

This gust I feel upon me now,
This breeze that swirls about my knees
Has rummaged foreign lands I know 
To offer me its gypsy dreams.

It blows the sun into my pores
Then circles round my head and there
Makes sea shell sounds upon each ear
And sends to sailing all my hair!

Like a child, I love the wind.
It charms me when it’s blowing glance,
Whispers “time to take a chance!”
It sings to me of high romance. 

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