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Day 1: Screen, Haiku, Alliteration

oday’s form: haiku

Haiku at a glance: A traditional Japanese form, now popular around the world. Normally (but not necessarily) composed of three lines of verse containing five, seven, and five syllables, respectively.

Looking for a more formal challenge? The first poetic form we explore in Writing 201 is the sashimi of poetry, 17 syllables into which we fold the essence of sound and meaning: haiku.

The structure of haiku is preset for you: three lines containing five, seven, and five syllables, respectively (or, in more modern haiku, three lines following the long-short-long pattern):

first line goes here.

The second one is longer.

Then it’s short again.

But the form’s simplicity belies its creative potential, as well as its artistic challenge: to say something meaningful and moving in such a limited space.

Looking for some inspiration by example? The Haiku Society of America’s website offers enormous collections of haiku.

Of course, if you feel that one haiku cannot contain what you wish to express in today’s poem, feel free to branch out a little. Write a sequence of haiku. Combine haiku with its meatier cousin, tanka, which follows a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern. Or write a three-stanza poem, with the first and last stanzas shorter than the middle one.

Today’s device: alliteration

So much of poetry’s power is about sound — even when it’s printed, we hear poetry as much as (if not more than) we read it — so it comes as no surprise that repeating the same sound makes for a powerful effect. Today’s device, alliteration, is all about using the same consonant multiple times in close proximity: think “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,” or “Take me down to the Paradise City where the grass is green and the girls are pretty” (thanks, Axl!).

In more pedantic ages, alliteration was expected to occur on the stressed first syllable of words. You can follow that rule, of course, but feel free to loosen up if you wish: the sounds can show up anywhere as long as they’re close enough to each other to leave an aural imprint (the technical name for this, since I know you won’t sleep well tonight if I don’t tell you, is consonance).

Even if you don’t care much about meter, it’s helpful to know how to tell stressed and unstressed syllables apart. Here’s a user-friendly guide that might help you train your ear to detect stresses.

There are no strict guidelines on how to use alliteration effectively, though one thing does come to mind. The power of the device is exponentially stronger if it amplifies or works alongside something else in the poem:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers

That’s a lot of Ps! My ear is definitely pricked, but does it mean anything? Hard to say.

This whole place still smells like
Your cheap perfume

Whoa, Bon Jovi — double alliteration? Call me crazy, but doesn’t that repetitive S sound in the first line remind you of three quick nozzle presses on a bottle of (cheap!) perfume? And isn’t there palpable contempt in those two adjacent Ps in the second verse?*

And now, it’s your turn to lull us, like lemmings, into the luxuriant, lush, alliterative landscapes of your haiku.

Day 2: Acrostic – Simile

Today’s form: acrostic

Acrostics at a glance: An acrostic is any poem in which the first (or last) letters of each line combine to spell out a word or a phrase, or follow the order of the alphabet.

Today’s (totally optional) form, the acrostic, highlights the fact that poetry, at heart, is wordplay — it’s language playing tricks on your readers. Acrostics have been around for millennia: they’re a creative way to give order and convey multiple meanings at once while staying fairly subtle.

There have been two prevalent ways to create acrostics. In one, you follow the sequence of the alphabet, beginning each verse in your poem with a different letter from A to Z (or to whatever letter you choose to reach — you’re not obliged to cover the entire ABC). This type of acrostic emphasizes the idea of seriality, of accumulation, or of a preset order.

The other type of acrostic is one in which the first (or last) letter of each verse together spell out a message: a short sentence, a word, a name (for example, medieval poets loved writing love poems with acrostics spelling out their beloved’s name). Here’s a famous, self-referential modern acrostic, by the ever-troubled Edgar Allan Poe:

An Acrostic

Elizabeth it is in vain you say

“Love not” — thou sayest it in so sweet a way:

In vain those words from thee or L. E. L.

Zantippe’s talents had enforced so well:

Ah! if that language from thy heart arise,

Breathe it less gently forth — and veil thine eyes.

Endymion, recollect, when Luna tried

To cure his love — was cured of all beside —

His folly — pride — and passion — for he died.

Some interesting ways to use acrostics include writing a poem that asks a question to which the answer is the spelled-out word; or one in which the “hidden” message contradicts or otherwise complicates the content of the poem. I’m sure you can find many more uses for this form.

If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can try creating acrostics using both the first and last letters of every verse — this is called (shocking!) a double acrostic.

Today’s device: simile

A simile, like its name suggests, makes a connection or introduces the idea of similarity between two concepts that aren’t intrinsically connected, leaving an interesting mental image in its wake. It’s a fancy name for saying that cake is like poison, or that a baby’s wails are as loud as thunder. If you’re up for it, include a simile in your poem today.

Make sure the things you compare are conceptually different enough. Don’t compare apples to oranges: compare apples to planets, or animals, or sounds.

The main requirement for a simile is to be explicit: it’s a tell-don’t-show kind of device that allows you to state that X is like Y.

What makes a good simile? Opinions vary, of course, but there’s a lot to be said for balance. Bring together two ideas that are already very close, and it’s just boring:

This pearl is shiny like a diamond.

Force into proximity two concepts that share very little terrain, and you risk making no sense at all (though the risk might pay off sometime):

This diamond is shiny like uncle Moe’s glass eye that I just took out of saline solution.

Link two things that don’t normally go together, but whose connection makes sense in the context of your work, and you might be on to something. Thanks, Rihanna / Sia:

We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky.

Day 3 Prose Poetry, Internal Rhyme

Today’s form: prose poetry

Prose poetry at a glance: A prose poem is any piece of verse written using the normal typography of prose, while style maintaining elements of poetry, like rhythm, imagery, etc.

Today’s suggested form might sound like an oxymoron: the prose poem. Unlike some of the other forms we’ll experiment with in this course — say, haiku — a prose poem, by definition, has no fixed rules. Whether a reader sees the prose or the poetry in it hinges on a variety of factors beyond your control.

Still, often enough you can tell a prose poem when you stumble on one, like these lines from In Provincetown, and Ohio, and Alabama by Mary Oliver:

How I Go to the Woods

Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable.

I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours.

Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds, until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.


If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.

In Provincetown, and Ohio, and Alabama

Death taps his black wand and something vanishes. Summer, winter; the thickest branch of an oak tree for which I have a special love; three just hatched geese. Many trees and thickets of catbrier as bulldozers widen the bicycle path. The violets down by the old creek, the flow itself now raveling forward through an underground tunnel.

Lambs that, only recently, were gamboling in the field. An old mule, in Alabama, that could take no more of anything. And then, what follows? Then spring again, summer, and the season of harvest. More catbrier, almost instantly rising. (No violets, ever, or song of the old creek.) More lambs and new green grass in the field, for their happiness until. And some kind of yellow flower whose name I don’t know (but what does that matter?) rising around and out of the half-buried, half-vulture-eaten, harness-galled, open-mouthed (its teeth long and blackened), breathless, holy mule.

© Mary Oliver 2010. Reprinted with permission from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2010).

Death taps his black wand and something vanishes. Summer, winter; the thickest branch of an oak tree for which I have a special love; three just hatched geese. Many trees and thickets of catbrier as bulldozers widen the bicycle path. The violets down by the old creek, the flow itself now raveling forward through an underground tunnel.

The words may be arranged typographically like any piece of prose, but the sounds, the rhythms, and the imagery all pull us in the direction of poetry. (Looking for another example? Charles Baudelaire, one of prose poetry’s earliest masters, has a crushingly good prose poem on… being drunk.)

If you’d like to read a few examples of contemporary prose poetry, Elsewhere is a well-produced literary magazine dedicated to the form.

Since you can’t use the page (or screen) the same way you do with regular verse — you simply write to the end of each line — the power of the language needs to come through via other channels: repetition, well-chosen consonants, striking similes and metaphors, or any other device you feel might tip the scale toward poetry.

Today’s device: internal rhyme

We don’t talk a lot about rhyme in this course — it’s a such a huge topic in its own right. It also tends to elicit strong reactions from poets who shun it in favor of free verse, as well as from those who are passionate about the minutiae of true, slant, feminine, masculine, or eye rhymes (among others).

Internal rhyme, though — the poetic device on offer for your exploration today — should appeal to all poets. It adds a level of sonic complexity and playfulness without calling too much attention to itself the way end rhymes (i.e. rhymes appearing at the end of verses) do.

Internal rhymes can occur within a single line of verse (and in definitely more than 50 ways):

You just slip out the back, Jack

Make a new plan, Stan

You don’t need to be coy, Roy

Just get yourself free

They definitely won’t sabotage your underlying message:

I can’t stand it I know you planned it

I’m gonna set it straight, this Watergate

But they can also make more subtle appearances across different lines, creating echoes and connections that stay with your reader, even if subconsciously:

Some will win, some will lose

Some were born to sing the blues

In your poem today, try creating some internal rhymes — a device that’s particularly well-suited for prose poetry. You could start with a pair of words that have an interesting connection, and sneak them into your lines. Or you could decide, first, what kind of pattern you’re going for — same-line rhymes? Rhymes that cross from one line of verse to the next? — and go from there.

If you’re ever short on internal rhyme inspiration, just listen to any old-school hip hop artist: virtuosic internal rhyming was a cornerstone of the genre.

Day 4 – Limerick, Enjambment

Today’s form: limerick

The limerick at a glance: Limericks are traditionally composed of five lines of verse. The traditional rhyming scheme of a limerick is a a b b a — the first two lines rhyme, then the next two, and the final verse rhymes with the first couplet.

Named after the town in Ireland where it may or may not have been invented, the limerick is sometimes pushed to the margins of poetry, as it carries with it connotations of frivolity, light-hearted entertainment, and, well, lots of drinking.

You can tell a limerick from miles away:

It rarely takes a lot of time

To make the first two verses rhyme.

The third line is short.

The fourth? A mere snort.

You can sell limericks three for a dime.

But it’s precisely because of this baggage that limericks can actually be a fascinating form to dig into — their established rhyme pattern and sing-song rhythm can twist and turn in unexpected directions. Consider this one, from Tyler McCabe’s disturbing collection of Sad Limericks atThe Toast:

All Therapy is Rehabilitative or Preventative

My therapist’s name is Jan

and she says I have planned a good plan:

One, work on my rages.

Two, finish these pages.

Three, don’t vandalize Karen’s van.

Write a limerick — or two or five, if you wish to create a narrative cycle — and inject this form with something personal and surprising. Break the pattern if you need to — and if it serves the purpose of your poem.

If you prefer free verse over rhymed poetry, your challenge is particularly interesting: can you write a five-line free-verse poem that’s clearly a limerick?

Today’s device: enjambment

Today’s poetic device is all about the arrangement of words on the page, and how that arrangement affects the pace of our reading:enjambment. It may sound like a mouthful. But what it describes is a really simple phenomenon: when a grammatical sentence stretches from one line of verse to the next.

I’d really love to finish this sentence here, but

The rest got kicked over to this line.

Since creating enjambment is so easy — just click the “Enter” button mid-sentence, and, presto! — the tricky (and interesting) part is using it in the right spot(s) in your poem. Think about the suspense you’re creating: you’re forcing your readers not to know how the sentence ends for a whole split second! (I’m not being ironic: a good enjambment feels like hitting your car’s breaks at 80mph.)

There’s a lot you can do with enjambment: surprise or shock your readers by throwing in an unexpected word. Restore peace by introducing a full stop right after the first word of the second line. Or bring closure by simply adding the word(s) that were missing to convey a fully-formed thought or emotion.

Take a look at this stunning, hairpin turn-like use of enjambment in Marianne Moore’s The Fish:

The entire poem keeps crashing on us like wave upon wave (simile alert!) of seawater.

Try out some enjambment in your poem today — it usually takes some experimentation, but it’s a fun process (and one which you can repeat during, as well as after, the writing of the poem — you don’t have to get it right from the get-go).

A simile can be as short as “black as coal” and as elaborate as full-blown mini-stories. It’s up to you, really: be creative. Try out a few alternatives. See what works.

Day 5 – Map, Ode, Metaphor

Maps tell stories — about places we know and others we wish to visit, about technology and the speed with which we can traverse vast distances, and about the things we’ll see (or avoid) on our way from point A to point B.

Whether you choose to write about an actual map, an imaginary one, or just about a particular route that means something special to you, make today’s poem about a space you inhabit (or wish to. Or would rather avoid).

Today’s form: ode

Odes at a glance: An ode is a laudatory poem celebrating a person, an object, a place, etc. In the past, odes followed strict formal requirements — like the (Greek) Pindaric ode or the (Latin) Horatian ode. These days (and for quite some time), odes can come in all forms and sizes — it’s the subject matter that tends to distinguish a poem as an ode.

The ode started out as a fairly fixed form in ancient Greece: a three-part stanza written in specific meters. Over the centuries, however, “ode” has become a more general term for any poem celebrating the good qualities of people, objects, places, animals, and personal traits.

At their best, odes are both a compelling portrait of something and an investigation (tacit or explicit) of the poet’s own relation to that thing. Here’s John Keats, who wrote some of the most canonic examples of the form, like this one, Ode on Melancholy:

Melancholy might sound like a strange concept to celebrate, yet Keats’ ode makes it plausible — especially once he introduces a character — “him whose strenuous tongue can burst Joy’s grape” — which could very well be a poet (any poet, or a specific one — like, say, the author of this ode).

One way to go about composing your ode would be, first, to make a list of the qualities and details you’d like to highlight, and then try to work them into a poem, crossing off those you’ve covered. Another: write as if you’re shooting a movie, following the subject of your ode from top to bottom, from left to right, etc.

For your poem today, focus on details — the things that make your chosen object unique — but also on the effect it produces on others (you or someone else):

I’ve got a Dungeon Master’s Guide

I’ve got a twelve-sided die

I’ve got Kitty Pryde

And Nightcrawler too

Waiting there for me

Yes I do, I do

If someone could write a convincing, heartwarming ode to his garage (thanks, Weezer), I’m sure you’ll do well, too.

Today’s device: metaphor

You knew it was coming. The prince of poetic devices, the thrill up every poet’s spine. Yes: hello, metaphor. Metaphors are everywhere in poetry and in everyday speech (“I’m drowning in work,” “This problem requires brain muscle,” and on and on). They’re so ubiquitous that most people find it hard to explain what they are. So let’s try.

If you think you’ve never encountered a metaphor, think again.

A metaphor brings together two terms that aren’t normally connected, yet make sense once they are (its greek roots mean “to carry over”). Unlike its less subtle cousin, the simile, metaphors don’t need connectors like “as” and “like” to link the two things together. They just smash them into each other and hope for the best.

You know you probably have a metaphor on your hands (that’s a metaphor too!) when you try to visualize the concepts you just described but can’t really, at least not without descending into nonsense. How can I picture a metaphor laying in my hands? Or actually drowning in work? Or my brain getting bigger biceps? I can’t.

How to avoid bad metaphors? Nothing beats experience and honest critics, but these six tips are very helpful, too.

You can of course stretch metaphors too far (even though “a stretched metaphor” is a pretty solid one). Is there a rule for avoiding that sad fate? Nope. It’s a question of context, of taste, and, ultimately, of a reader’s particular mood at the time of reading. One person’s wine is another’s rotten grape juice. So go ahead, don’t overthink it, because…

Baby, you’re a firework

Come on, show ’em what you’re worth

Make ’em go, “Aah, aah, aah”

As you shoot across the sky-y-y

I’m sure you’ll make us go “Aah, aah, aah” with your metaphors today.

Day 6: Faces, Found Poetry, Chiasmus

Before we learn how to read words, we learn, intuitively, to read faces. In today’s poem, take a single face or a multitude of them as your point of departure.

Image: Ilinca Iurascu

It doesn’t even have to be a real-life, flesh-and-blood face you’re writing about. Faces are ubiquitous in the texture of our daily lives, after all, from portraits in the museum and the banknotes in our wallets to billboards and street art and online profile pictures.

Today’s form: found poetry

Found poetry at a glance:

  • A found poem is composed of words and letters you’ve collected — randomly or not — from other sources, whether printed, handwritten, or digital, and then (re)arranged into something meaningful.

Remember that staple of kindergarden arts, the collage? Found poetry, today’s optional form, is the language-based variety. Like a blackmail letter in a sordid crime novel, a found poem is made up of words and letters others have created. It’s up to you, the poet, to find them (hence the name), extract them, and rejig them into something else: your poem.

The classic way of going about the creation of a found poem is scissors and newspaper in hand: you cut out words and phrases and arrange them into your poem. You can then either snap a photo and upload it to your blog, or simply transcribe the resulting text into a new post.

That said, you can control the degree of randomness you impose on your available stock of words, as well as on the procedure you follow to create the poem.

You could even recycle your tweets (one online tool will actually do it for you) and other social media messages and turn them into a poetic meditation on… anything, really.

You can photocopy a page from a book (even a book of poetry!) and select every fifth word on the first ten pages. Orrepurpose one of your unpublished drafts into something new. You can even use your books to create some book spine poetry. The world is full of words: use them!

Today’s device: chiasmus

Today’s device is one of my favorites: chiasmus. At its simplest, a chiasmus is essentially a reversal, an inverted crossing (it got its name from the greek letter chi – X). How can we use it? Let Snoop Dogg show us the way:

Laid back, with my mind on my money and my money on my mind

Or how about this one, from Dr. Samuel Johnson:

The two most engaging powers of an author, are, to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.

From a fairly straightforward reordering of words — where A and B are repeated as B and A — a chiasmus can develop into more complex structures: instead of words, phrases. Instead of phrases, ideas or concepts. Chiasmus is effective in poems because it’s a form of repetition — and by now we all now how crucial repetition is for poetry. But the reversal injects the repeated words with freshness, and allows us to play with (and radically change) the meaning of a line.

If you’re into rhymed poetry, one of the most common ways of introducing chiasmus is in the rhyming scheme — ABBA is a straightforward one (i.e. the first and fourth verses rhyme, as do the second and third). You can go all out, though: ABBA CDDC CDDC ABBA, for example.

So: for your found poem (or whatever poem you decide to write today), shake things up. Literally and figuratively, figuratively and literally. Chiasmi aren’t always easy to pull off, but then again, this is the second week of the course. I know you can do it!

Day 7: Neighborhood, Ballad, Assonance

What do you think about when you think about your neighborhood?

Today’s form: ballad

Ballads at a glance:

  • Ballads are dramatic, emotionally-charged poems that tell a story, often about bigger-than-life characters and situations.
  • Ballads had their roots in danced songs, and were traditionally composed using ballad meter and ballad stanzas. (do check these links if you’d like to challenge yourself on the form front today!)
  • Their history notwithstanding, by now there are no strict rules governing the structure of ballads — they can be long, short, rhymed, or unrhymed — though it’s still common for ballads to have a refrain.

When you think of a ballad, what comes to your mind? Since the 80s happened to coincide with my formative years, instinctively think of a big-hair (male or female) singer on a stage, shrouded in smoke, belting out a sappy tune about a sappy love story accompanied by just-as-sappy strings (yes, I know, too much alliteration). Or I just think aboutMeat Loaf.

Incredibly enough, the 80s were right: from the start, ballads were all about telling dramatic, big stories (though the smoke machine was, indeed, a later addition). Robin Hood started out as a ballad in the 15th century. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? You guessed it — a ballad. Here’s a taste of Oscar Wilde:

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
  And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
  No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
  The hangman’s hands were near.

A ballad has something removed from daily life about it — though everyday topics can definitely be given the ballad treatment. The secret is to find the drama, the struggle, the heightened emotions of a given situation and use them to tell a story.

If you’d like a few more concrete ideas on how to go about ballad-writing, here’s a handy tutorial. As always, you can take or leave any and all pieces of advice when it comes to poetry.

While many traditional ballads (and lots of modern power ballads) are written in rhyme, you by no means have to write yours that way. And while many ballads are longer pieces of verse, taking their time to develop their narrative arcs and their moods, yours can be as long or as short as you see fit — it’s about channeling a story and its emotional weight, not crossing off items from a checklist.

Today’s device: assonance

We’ve tackled alliteration last week — the strategic repetition of consonants in close proximity to each other. Today, let’s give assonance a try. It’s the same thing, only with vowels.

Different vowel sounds apparently affect our mood. Choose yours wisely!

Assonance is subtler than alliteration, but can have a profound cumulative effect on a poem, especially when the repeated sound resonates somehow with the topic you’re writing about:

He opens his mouth, but the words won’t come out
He’s choking how, everybody’s joking now
The clock’s run out, time’s up, over, bloah!
Snap back to reality, Oh there goes gravity
Oh, there goes Rabbit, he choked
He’s so mad, but he won’t give up that
Easy, no

That rounded O sound in Eminem’s Lose Yourself — isn’t it a great way to underscore the feeling of choking for words, of making false start after false start?

Reading your work out loud is always a good idea, but even more so if you’re trying to use assonance. Exaggerating the sound of your vowels will help you see how they affect the overall feel of your poem.

A good assonance doesn’t have to stretch over multiple verses containing multiple instances of the same vowel. It can be just as effective in creating quick links between words and tying together separate clauses of the same sentence. Show us how it’s done, Emily Dickinson:

My best Acquaintances are those
With Whom I spoke no Word

Whether you go for the full-on assonance treatment, or decide to use it sparingly in choice spots in your poems, thinking about assonance can really help you focus on the pace and rhythm of your lines. Give it a try!

Day 8: Flavor, Elegy, Enumeratio

From the simple (butter on toast, a childhood-evoking bubblegum) to the more complex (insert your latest dinner party triumph — or fiasco — here), flavors occupy a crucial place in our memories, in our stories, and in our social interactions.

Today’s form: elegy

Elegy at a glance:

  • Originally requiring specific meters, nowadays elegies come in all shapes and sizes, though they are united by their (often melancholic) focus on loss and longing.

Today’s form, the elegy, can trace its history all the way to ancient Greece. It started out as a poem that could be about almost any topic, as long as it was written in elegiac couplets (pairs of verse, with the first one slightly longer than the second). Over the centuries, though, it became something a bit more specific: a (more often than not) first-person poem on themes of longing, loss, and mourning.

Just because it has a pensive focus doesn’t mean an elegy is necessarily sad (it can even be bawdy, if not downright sexy — check out 17th-century poet John Donne’s Elegy XIX). As much as it can mourn something that’s gone forever, it can also celebrate it, like Goethe does here in his Roman Elegies, extolling the glories of ancient Rome:

Now the glow of brighter air shines round my brow:

Phoebus, the god, calls up color and form.

The night shines bright with stars, echoes with gentle song,

And the Moon shines clearer to me than Northern day.

What is being missed doesn’t have to be all that fancy, either. If you can say “Those were the best days of my life” about it, it probably qualifies for an elegy:

Standin’ on your mama’s porch
You told me that you’d wait forever
Oh, and when you held my hand
I knew that it was now or never

A moment, a place, a person, a feeling — your elegy can be about anything, as long as it evokes a thing that’s irretrievably gone. (And if you want to give those elegiac couplets a try, I won’t stop you!)

If you’re looking for something more specific than elegy, a related 19th-century form — obituary poetry — calls for an emotionally-charged poem on the passing of a loved one.

Today’s device: enumeratio

There’s a lot you can do with enumeratio — today’s suggested literary device — in your poems. As its name might suggest, it basically means constructing a list, a successive enumeration (duh!) of multiple elements in the same series.

The snappy rhythm of poetic lists lets them convey a broad range of emotions. There’s defiance and indignation in this bit from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books […]

W.H. Auden used enumeratio to great effect in his elegiac Funeral Blues:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

And, sure: you can also just list all the things you love, from raindrops on roses and brown paper packages to bright copper kettles and schnitzel with noodles (personally, I’d just skip straight to the schnitzel. But that would make for a lousy enumeratio).

Enumeratio often entails the repetition of conjunctions like “and” and “or” — you can use them in clever ways, for example, to create internal rhymes or assonance.

So, whether your poem is list-based in part or in whole, try adding some sequential punch to it with enumeratio

Day 9: Cold, Concrete Poem,Anaphora/Epistrophe

Today’s form: concrete poetry

Concrete poetry at a glance: Generally speaking, any poem that’s typographically arranged to represent a specific shape (recognizable or not) is a concrete, or “shape” poem.

Poetry is, of course, a word-based form of expression. That doesn’t mean, though, that the visual layout of a poem can’t affect the way we read it. Taking this idea to a playful extreme is today’s (optional) form to explore: concrete poetry.

Also known as shape poetry, the idea here is to arrange your words on the screen (or the page) so that they create a shape or an image. The meaning of the image can be obvious at first glance, or require some guesswork after reading the poem. It’s up to you to decide how difficult you want to make it for your readers.

Now might be the perfect time to revisit some formatting tools that are particularly relevant for concrete poems (hint: indentation, line breaks, and pre-formatted text are your friends).

Guillaume Apollinaire, Le Tour Eiffel (source)

Poets have long been fascinated with the potential of painting an actual image with their words — on top of the mental one those words evoke. A wave, a cross, a face, a letter from the alphabet: experimenting a bit with spacing, indentation, and line breaks will take you far. If you’re about to give up, don’t — you can always write/draw your poem by hand, then scan it or snap a shot of it with your phone, and upload it to your blog.

Wolfgang Wackernagel, Gilgamesh’s Irisglance (source)

At its best, concrete poetry helps bridge the gap between text and image, and underscores or plays against an element already within the poem: look at the slightly ominous, abstract-shaped eye in Gilgamesh’s Irisglance (above), by Wolfgang Wackermengel. Or Guillaime Apollinaire’s classic Eiffel Tower, from 1916 (shown above in both English translation and in the original French).

All that said, even just rearranging your words in a graphic, visually-minded way is fine, too — especially if it’s done in a way that forces readers to focus on something in particular, or to change the way they’d normally approach your poem.

Today’s device: anaphora/epistrophe

We’ve tackled the repetition of sounds before, but not that of words. Today, let’s explore the potential of creative redundancy with two neighboring devices: anaphora and epistrophe. You may have figured out by now that the fancier the Greek name, the simpler the device. And you’ll be right this time, too.

Anaphora simply means the repetition of the same word (or cluster of words) at the beginning of multiple lines of verse in the same poem. Epistrophe is its counterpart: the repeated words appear at the end of lines. Like most simple devices, though, the trick is in deploying them to their full effect. Repetition lends emphasis to words, adds weight, and leaves a deeper imprint in your readers’ memories. Think wisely about what it is you’re underlining.

There are so many great examples of both devices. From Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I have a dream speech to Nirvana’s All apologies (“what else should I…”), anaphora is everywhere. Can’t think of a famous epistrophe? I beg to differ:

Cause if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it

If you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it

Don’t be mad once you see that he want it

If you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it

So: add some punch to your poem with verses that begin or end on a strong, emphatic note. Use the device sparingly, or throw it into each one of your lines. Let us know, by the time we’re done, why that word (or words) play such an important role in the poem.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, give symploce a try: it’s when successive lines of poetry contain both an anaphora and an epistrophe.

Day 10: Pleasure, Sonnet, Apostrophe

Could it be our final assignment already?! Let’s close this course on a note of joy, glee, and profound contentment.


Photo: Stig Nygaard (CC BY 2.0)

From the tantalizing to the satisfyingly sober, have your poems convey a sense of pleasure today. (Or, if you wish to keep it dark anyway, write about the lack of or longing for that sort of feeling.)

Today’s form: sonnet

The sonnet at a glance:

  • A sonnet is normally composed of 14 lines of verse.
  • There are several ways you can split your sonnet into stanzas (if you wish to), though the most common ones are 8-6 and 4-4-3-3.
  • Likewise, if you decide to use rhyme in your sonnet, you can choose between various rhyming schemes, like ABAB BCBC CDCD EE, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, or ABBA ABBA CDC DCD, among others.

You didn’t think we’d end a poetry course without a single word on (arguably) the most iconic form of them all — the sonnet? From Petrarch to Shakespeare to Lorca to Heaney, it’s a form that’s has endured dozens of vogues, backlashes, and comebacks — it will bury us all. It will outlive the cockroaches.

In some ways, the sonnet is easy: you get 14 lines of verse, usually grouped into four stanzas of 4-4-3-3 lines each (alternatively: two groupings of eight and six lines, respectively). Sonnets used to be written in metered verse (like alexandrines in French and iambic pentameter in English, for example), but many modern poets forego the meter altogether, or at least don’t use it consistently. Sonnets also tended to be written using any number of established rhyming schemes (for example, Shakespeare’s abab cdcd efef gg), but that, too, is no longer a formal requirement. (If you’re a sonnet purist, or the ghost of Shakespeare, please forgive me!)

Still, even with this progressive loosening of rules, sonnets are hard: they’re too short to say that much, but already long enough that they require some overall strategy. At their best, something happens between the first and last verse, and especially between the first eight and final six lines. You want your reader to have experienced something more than just a brief sonic pleasure. You want to present a fully-formed thought.

If you happen to be one of those who find sonnets easy, have no fear — you can still challenge yourself further. How about going for a crown of sonnets? Or branching out to the sestina, another structurally difficult form?

Go ahead — have fun with sonnets. It might take some time, it might take some shuffling around of words and verses, but there’s something pleasing about the challenge. It’s also a consolation to know that poets have been struggling with the form for centuries — enough to write meta-sonnets (like this one, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti):

A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,–
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own intricate fulness reverent:
Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night prevail; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:–
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue
It serve; or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

Today’s device: apostrophe

Most poems are addressed to an amorphous reader, if to anyone at all. Which is why an apostrophe can produce such a striking effect in a poem: it occurs when the speaker in the poem addresses another person or an object (usuallypersonified) directly.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee!

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Talking about a dagger? Easy there, Macbeth! Talking to a dagger? Now that’s truly dangerous.

You can write a poem that is made up entirely of one extended apostrophe, or switch back and forth between addressing your reader and addressing someone (or something) else.

An apostrophe can cover a wide range of emotions, from the warm pride of “O Canada! Our home and native land!” to the chill of John Dryden’s “Let me, let me freeze again to death!” (in his King Arthur libretto).

What tone and flavor will you choose for your apostrophe? Will it be plaintive, nostalgic, angry, admiring? The way you shape your address will greatly influence the feel of your poem.