Rules for Poets: 3 — Poetry is Poetry Not Because of What It Says But Because of How It Says It

“If there’s a DNA to poetry, it’s the double-helix of style and sense.”

— Michael Lista

“A poem’s subject matter is also the manner of its telling—its language and how that language is presented. In the best poems, matter and manner carry equal amounts of information.”

— Stephen Dobyns

I remember reading a quote by W.H. Auden which, of course, I now can’t find despite an extensive search, to the effect that a young poet would fare better concentrating on words rather than on ideas.

Here’s the closest I can get to the actual quote:

“W. H. Auden was once asked what advice he would give to a young man who wished to become a poet. Auden replied that he would ask the young man why he wanted to write poetry. If the answer was ‘because I have something important to say,’ Auden would conclude that there was no hope for the young man as a poet. If on the other hand the answer was something like ‘because I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another,’ then that young man was at least interested in a fundamental part of the poetic process and and there was hope for him.”

John Ciardi, in How Does a Poem Mean? (Houghton Mifflin, 1959).

After teaching poetry writing, I realized Auden wasn’t putting ideas down; rather, he was recognizing that most would-be poets come to poetry already full of ideas (in the form of life experiences, obsessions, traumas, spiritual and political beliefs, heartbreaks, and all such). What they lack is the half of the equation that makes poetry poetry: style, manner, or, as a shorthand, form.

Auden himself went on to say as much:

“One demands two things of a poem. Firstly, it must be a well-made verbal object that does honor to the language in which it is written. Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective. What the poet says has never been said before, but, once he has said it, his readers recognize its validity for themselves.”

Poetry is poetry not because of what it says but because of how it says it. At the same time, empty words are not poetry either. Almost always, though, beginner poets emphasize meaning over form or, less commonly, form over meaning.

The trick is to have both form and meaning working on behalf of the poem. Here, I am using “form” in its broadest possible sense to encompass not only meter, rhyme, and fixed forms (such as a sonnet or a haiku) but all tools of language available to the poet: onomatopoeia, metonymy, synecdoche, alliteration, assonance, enjambment, caesuras, relative stresses, syllable duration and sound quality (not all syllables are created equal), line length and consistency or variation thereof, and on and on and on.

Only through conscious attention to both form and meaning can we aspire to write successful poems. The good news is that, for all the hullabaloo I’m making about it, being mindful of form as it relates to a poem’s overall effect is surprisingly easy.

Let’s go back to Williams:

The Red Wheel Barrow:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Note each stanza has two lines. That’s form at its basic level: the poet has chosen a particular way to break up the words in the poem so it’s not just one long sentence. In fact, the poem IS one long sentence, a fact the poem further undermines by not capitalizing the first word.

That formal choice works because the poem’s “how” (its form) is working together with the poem’s meaning: here’s a deceptively simple statement that can’t just be taken at its literal, face value; this is not just a sentence — this is a poem about deceptively simple things.

Williams keeps the poem short (just 8 lines) and breaks up each two-line stanza into a longer first line of 3 or 4 syllables and a second, shorter 2-syllable line. Even though no punctuation is used, the line breaks force the reader to continually stop as he or she reads the short, choppy lines. From a single, unpunctuated sentence, the enjambment creates a set of “steps” one has to climb down somewhat haltingly.

Again, this is form at work, with syllabics and enjambment creating a series of short, halting phrases that slow down a sentence that would otherwise rush by so fast one might miss it. And this “style” or “manner” of the poem (i.e. its form) works together with its sense or meaning: slow down, take a look, you could miss some very important things if you don’t pay close attention — such as, for example, the seemingly commonplace wheelbarrow that is the poem’s subject.

Not coincidentally, each stanza resembles a wheelbarrow, with a “handle” and a”wheel” suggested by the shape of the lines. Williams loved to do this sort of thing. One time, as Donald Justice used to tell it, he saw Williams peering intently at a piece of paper in a typewriter. When Justice asked what was going on, Williams answered he was trying to make all the lines in a poem the same length. Playing with the shape of lines on the page interested Williams and so it became part of his form and part of what is charming about his poems. It’s not mind-blowing — just mindful. We know the poet gave thought to the shape of the lines.

This mindfulness regarding form is also evident in Sylvia Plath’s “Metaphors,” which I discussed in the last rule. The poem’s first line sets up the challenge and the form echoes its ultimate meaning:


I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

Note that the poem has nine lines of nine syllables each. It’s nothing terribly complicated, just a nod to the poem’s meaning. Had the poem consisted of eight lines of eight syllables each it would have seemed random and not particularly meaningful. Nine lines of nine syllables each make sense in this context: form is working alongside meaning.

Also, note that Plath doesn’t break the poem into stanzas. The nine lines are allowed to remain together as a whole, reflecting the on-going process of pregnancy the poem describes: once it starts, you have no choice but to let it run its course. There are no breaks, no escape. The single stanza’s monolithic shape contributes to creating the poem’s overall effect.

Note also that every line ends in punctuation, with 6 out of 9 lines ending in full stops (i.e . a period). Also, 6 of 9 lines contain no internal punctuation: they run from beginning to end with no interruption. Again, the form here adds to the poem’s sense of an irrevocable, unstoppable process that has to be endured once it’s set in motion, month after month, end-stopped line after end-stopped line.

Finally, each line ends in a relatively open syllable that lingers after it is pronounced: say “syllables” and “house” and then “baby sit” and “hop” and you’ll see this relative length at work. Plath’s use of “long” syllables as line-ends reinforces the sense of time dragging on, of how the speaker (and the reader) are subject to its slow passing.

The marriage of form and sense is not unique to poetry. In commenting on D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Cheston Knapp notes how Lawrence’s style changes when describing different characters:

Mr. Morel is a rough-mannered, uneducated miner stuck in a difficult marriage with a woman, Gertrude, who dreams of leading a more refined life…

Lawrence describes the romantically minded Mrs. Morel in lush, lyrical paragraphs that are typical of what we think of as high D. H. Lawrence style, filled with flowery, languorous prose that borders on purple. A sample: “Her self melted out like scent into the shiny, pale air. After a time, the child too melted with her in the mixing-pot of moonlight, and she rested with the hills and lilies and houses, all swum together in a kind of swoon.”

However, when Lawrence shifts his camera lens to a scene showing Gertrude’s husband Walter waking up and making himself breakfast, the author’s language becomes clipped and coarse: “He toasted his bacon on a fork and caught the drops of fat on his bread. Then he put the rasher on his thick slice of bread, and cut off chunks with a clasp knife, poured his tea into his saucer, and was happy. With his family about, meals were never so pleasant. He loathed a fork.”

The verb “loathe” is a particularly strong one to aim at such an innocent material object like a fork, especially in comparison with other options like “dislike” or “wasn’t used to” or even “hate.” “Loathe” connotes a reaction evoking fear, nausea, even hostility. (In fact, its root is the Old English word “lath” meaning “hostile.”)

So forks provoke Mr. Morel’s hostility, even enmity. Why? Because these objects represent a world that’s both inaccessible and undesirable to him. Walter Morel wants to live simply, to eat with a knife or his hands. And yet the forks in his kitchen remind him that “modern” people, as Lawrence calls them, are supposed to eat in a more decorous, civilized manner. This all seems like a load of hooey to Mr. Morel.

from Tin House

Because poetry is such compact writing, form must carry even more weight in the overall sense of the piece.

If a poet does not pay attention to how form affects the poem’s overall effect, the result will be more than a lost opportunity. Form will always affect a poem, even if unintentionally. It’s just that unintentional form most often detracts rather than contributes to the poem’s overall effect.

For an excellent book on style/manner/form and its importance in poetry (and much, much more) I strongly recommend Stephen Dobyns’ Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry.


Rules for Poets: 1 — Poetry happens on the page

Rules for Poets: 2 — Poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out

Rules for Poets: 4 — Poetry is Language on Fire

Rules for Poets: 5 — Write at All Costs


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