Rules for Poets: 4 — Poetry is Language on Fire

(The title is from a Twitter comment by @GaytheistGospel)

Language is a poet’s entire toolkit. That’s all we have: no pictures, no music, no actors, no paint, no nothing but language. No wonder Auden placed so much importance on a poet’s relationship with words as the sine qua non of poetry, as I mentioned before.

But language is a very powerful thing. Human brains are basically language machines. Hellen Keller went from having no idea that there was such a thing as language to greedily learning new words (in sign language, of course) in about thirty days. Thirty days. Think about that. One could say that what makes humans human is our use of language. And we respond to it in very powerful ways.

Poetry is all about using language as unforgettably as possible. Not surprisingly, I am about to tell you that the primary objective of a poet is to set language on fire. Everything else that happens in a poem succeeds or fails on the poet’s ability to do just that.

A poem must, of course, endeavor to say things that resonate, to use words and statements that surprise and yet seem inevitable in retrospect, and to create memorable phrases that linger in the memory. Thus, avoiding cliched and dull language is a great first step, and coming up with clever and interesting things to say is a second great step.

But language is not just about using words for their meaning, though word choice and word order are very powerful tools. More than that, I am talking about the very texture of language: syllables can be long or short, hard or soft; the length of clauses and sentences can create all sorts of rhythms, from galloping to staccato; playing with sentence construction (subject-object-verb in English) can make all sorts of interesting things happen.

And, ultimately, poetry comes down to the qualities of words themselves apart from their meaning: their sound and fury, their fire.

Let’s go back to Seamus Heaney’s “Limbo:”


Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of the cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

I’ve already touched upon the layers of meaning in the poem, but Heaney uses language so effectively that we really don’t care what the poem is about as we read: the strength of the language carries the poem forward. We just can’t stop reading.

The poem is in the tradition of the alliterative verse of Old English poetry that Heaney loves (he has even translated THE Old English poem of all Old English poems — Beowulf). Here, Heaney adapts the form for his purposes by using two (and occasionally three) strong accents per line instead of the traditional four, thus:

FISH-ermen at BALL-y-SHA-nnon
NET-ted an IN-fant last NIGHT
a-LONG with the SAL-mon.
an ille-GI-timate SPAW-ning

a SMALL one thrown BACK
to the WA-ters. but I’m SURE
as she STOOD in the SHA-llows
duc-KING him TEN-derly …

And so on. This pattern creates a somber rhythm, sparse and pointed, almost martial, which happens, and is re-enforced, on a line by line basis. That rhythm comes through as an entity in itself; it has a life of its own. It is not just language: it’s poetry.

But note that to avoid creating a too-predictable (and thus boring ) pace, Heaney uses three strong accents instead of two in 6 of the 20 lines, including the first two and last two lines of the poem. Such variations can really make things interesting to the ear.

(I remember Gwendolyn Brooks say at a reading that it took her a while to learn that writing in perfectly metered lines was something she needed to avoid. None other than Shakespeare was criticized because he didn’t stick slavishly to form, and for my money, no one comes even close to his mastery of English.)

Also in the tradition of alliterative verse, Heaney uses alliteration (and assonance, for good measure) to make the language come alive. Note the “sh” sound in the first line, along with the “er,”/ “men,” “ba”/”sha” pairings; how the “t” sound of “at” leads to the second line’s “netted,” “infant,” and “night;” the repetition of the “l” sound in “along,” “salmon,” and “illegitimate” in the third and fourth lines; and the various shades of “ah” in “Ballyshannon,” “salmon,” “spawning,” “small,” “back,” “water,” and “shallows.” And on and on.

Also note the length of Heaney’s sentences and how he mixes short and long ones to create tension. The first two sentences set the scene; they are short (3 and 2 1/2 lines respectively). The third sentence is an emotional whopper, and it goes on for 6 1/2 lines. Then the poem ends in a series of 4 short, emotionally charged sentences. Note how those last four sentences, relative to each other, are long, short, long, short (2, 1, 3, and 2 lines respectively). That micro-level of variety keeps four short sentences next to one another from becoming boring

The tension created by the sentences (short, short, long, short, short, short, short) suggest to me a build-up and release of emotion that leads to the phrase “tearing her open.” Having reached that painful image in a slow, long sentence, the poem then unpacks its emotional wallop in four quick “jabs” which are not so much a second release of emotion as a further increase of it. The last four sentences are fast, emotionally charged, even violent. There is no catharsis here, only further pain. They work so well because they follow that long third sentence and are in stark contrast to it.

A quick summary:

— Pay very close attention to each word you use.

— Use words for their sound quality and not just for meaning. Alliteration and assonance are powerful indeed.

— Try to use all elements of language meaningfully, including word order and sentence structure and length.

— Avoid cliches and boring language like the plague (a moribund joke).

— Try to only write things you haven’t heard or read before.

— Don’t underestimate the power meter can bestow on a line (whether accentual, syllabic, or accentual-syllabic). The same goes for rhyme.

–Don’t be afraid to adapt meter for your purposes. You are also free to create almost any metric pattern you think will help a poem. The sky’s the limit (don’t forget: no cliches). The same goes for rhyme.

— Don’t be afraid of variations in your poem’s form, sentence structure, and sentence length. In fact, create them intentionally and place them for maximum effect.

I again 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: 3 — Poetry Is Poetry Not Because of What It Says But Because of How It Says It

Rules for Poets: 5 — Write at All Costs


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