Poetry Workshop

Poetry Part 1 – Overview

It’s strange, I’ve been writing lyrics and poetry for so long,  and yet, when asked to explain it,  I can’t.   I mean, sure I can explain the mechanics of poetry: how its put together, but how do you go from rhythm and rhyme to something that actually touches the soul?  How do I do it?  How does anyone? 

How do you go from 14 lines in iambic pentameter, three quatrains and a couplet with a rhyming scheme of abab cdcd efef gg to… something like: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

It was then I realized: I really don’t know how I do what I do.

When I write poetry, I usually have a topic in mind, a topic and one or two lines that strike a chord inside my heart: something I can’t quantify.  It just ‘feels right.’

It sends a chill up my spine, and I feel… moved.  I grab a pen, or rush to my computer and fight to get the words down before I forget the lines, and it grows from there.

One poem, published here, was the result of a friend’s loss, and oddly my need for it came not too long after.  The words are as true now as they were when I first wrote them.  That is one of the important things about poems to me: they have to endure.

The first poem I ever wrote (that was even vaguely worth remembering) consisted of four lines:

Life is like a melody
Mine was written in a minor key
Won’t someone come
And modulate for me.

Obviously nothing to write home about.  It’s a cute little ditty, nothing more.  There is no mystery no soul striking truth, nothing memorable.

Compare that to one of my favorite Middle English poems (or what survives of it)

Western Wind

Westron wind, when will thou blow?
The small rain down can come.
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

There are different versions/translations of this poem, but it always sends a shiver up my spine, and memorable? Look at how long it has survived.

Part of why it works and is so haunting is because it speaks of longing, with no solution and, the voice behind the poem is a mystery: it is a landsman, during a drought or maybe a becalmed sailor?

You read it and you feel something.  Those four lines have soul and truth behind them: they strike a chord in our psyche.

When you write poetry, that’s what you’re looking for: that spark; a universal truth that strikes a chord and sends a shiver up your spine.

It is that ‘shiver’ I’ll be exploring over the next few weeks as I try and quantify what I do.

Please join me as I try and explain what I do, when the only way I can express my true feelings is in poetry and lyrics.

Poetry Part 1 – Words and rhythm

Windblown whispers in a tear soaked sea
At the edge of the ruin cries the poet
There are no more words left in his heart
and no more tears left to cry
The golden voice is silent now
and nothing can be heard
only the whisper of the winds as she sighs
A piper in the wind

The above is a sample of a scrap of poetry I wrote a very long time ago, and yet (for the most part) I remember it.  Unlike my ditty from my first entry in this series, this actually evokes an emotional response (at least in me)

As I write it out,  it I can remember the feelings I had when I first wrote it, and yet each person reading it will take something else away from it.

Windblown whispers in a tear soaked sea…

I think what I like most about this line is the minor alliteration.  ‘Windblown whispers…’ As you read them, you’ll notice that these two words have a nice rhythm to to them.  It’s more than just four syllables: when you say it in normal speech there is a slight syncopation to ‘whispers’:  ‘whis’ gets a little less value than ‘pers’.

Most teachers will call this difference an accent.  Being a musician, I call it syncopation.  Whatever you call it: it’s rhythm.

So the words themselves not only build meaning, but the way they sound together adds something to tickle the ear, and can help give the poem it’s ‘feel’

Try saying the line ‘Windblown whispers in a tear soaked sea…’  in a steady beat, each syllable being given the same value as the next.   It feels awkward.  Now try saying it naturally and clapping on each syllable.

The first pattern is mechanical, but if you’re like me, when you say the line naturally there’s this nice rhythmic pattern that goes with the line.  Rhythm is more than a beat, it’s how you fill the beat.

I don’t always rhyme, in fact I rarely do… but without rhythm it’s just words.

Take some time out of the day, and listen to how people speak, the way their words flow.  If you can, tune out the words and just listen to the sound of speech.  Listen to the tone, but most importantly feel how the syllables come together, not in steady progression, but in a complex rhythmic flow.

This is what the rhythm of poetry is trying to mimic.

Until next time!

Poetry Part 1 – Words and emotion

A friend of mine expressed their sadness at a friend’s passing and lamented the fact that they never got to tell that friend how they really felt about them.

When I tried, and failed, to express my sympathies, I ended up sitting in front of my computer composing a poem (half poem, half lyric).  It’s kind of ironic that I chose poetry to express what I could not in words.

It’s a conundrum. I could not express my feelings in the normal patterns of speech, but the same words that failed me, opened the door to a very deep expression of what I was feeling.

That is what poetry is about.

Whether you choose alliteration, allusion, illusion, similes or metaphors; whether you sing it, say it or leave it to be read: the root of all poetry is emotion.

It conveys emotion, it evokes emotion. One of my favorite modern poets is Sarah Kay.  She’s a slam poet/spoken word poet… she’s a writer.  Listening to her poems, she can make me laugh, cry and simply nod my head knowingly … all in the same poem.

This is what poetry is.

Let’s take a look at a series of phrases:

Deep dark depression, dressed in basic black
sorrow stands in a black dress
sorrow stands, a black dress for us to wear
a black dress sits where the sun once shone
She stands, her sorrow wrapped around her like a black dress

The first line was from a journal I kept for a creative writing class.  I liked it because the alliteration tickled the ear.  There is no emotion behind it – just something nebulous: enough to give you a hint of things to come.  The other lines, I just wrote for this post based on the teacher’s advice to “let depression be a black dress.”

She was a lot more about metaphors, than I was at that time, but think about it: each line gives us a slightly different feel, evokes something (if I’m doing my job right) on a subconscious level.  It can either make you think, or make you feel.

And the interesting thing is… every person reading these lines, will take away something different.  Copy them.  Think about what they say to you, and then… write how you would say the same thing.

My feelings on the lines are as follows:

Deep dark depression, dressed in basic black   I’m getting a description.  The depression isn’t calling attention to itself – it’s in ‘basic black’ – not a blue-black, or an iridescent black – just your generic black.  It feels like it’s waiting for something.

sorrow stands in a black dress Here, we have another emotion, just standing there. To me it feels like the sorrow is all dressed up and waiting for a place to go.
sorrow stands, a black dress for us to wear Here I get more involved.  The dress is there for me to put on.  Sorrow has overtaken us and its something we have to willingly put on.

a black dress sits where the sun once shone

With this line it feels like the black dress has replaced the sun.  I haven’t said what the black dress is, but there is something dark to wear that has taken the place of the sunlight.

She stands, her sorrow wrapped around her like a black dress This line is another descriptive line, but it’s talking about, and comes out and says, that She, whoever she is, is wearing her sorrow… that makes me feel like she’s owning it.  It hasn’t overtaken her, but something she’s wearing like a badge of honor.

Play around with the words and phrases.  See what emotions they evoke if any, and then try and evoke them yourself.

Try on that dress.  Tell me what you feel wearing it.

Poetry Part 1 – Words and meaning

I’ve talked about the rhythm we can create with words and the emotion we can convey with them.  What I’d like to do now is talk about meaning.

The values we assign to words depend on our experiences, or point of reference and our culture– the key when writing, especially when writing poetry is to find the words that resonate on a very primal level.

Poetry takes us away from the head (unless you’re writing sonnets which are poetic word puzzles I have yet to master) and focuses on the heart, maybe even the spirit.

Pull out a thesaurus, and look up a feeling, like “fear.” Synonyms of fear include: angst, despair,  dismay, dread, panic, terror. They all mean fear, but they bring out different aspects of a very primal thing.  Take a minute to try them out.

Read them, speak them… taste them.  They all feel different, some stronger, some softer: each has a different value.

Fear is soft in comparison to dread but sometimes it’s the softness that is poetic.

Fear comes to me as a mistress cold
She grabs at me until I cannot breathe
And leaves my lungs aching for release
I scream, but there is no air to give my terror voice.

Here I gave the fear a human form and, if I did it right, gave the feeling we have in nightmares where we’re so afraid we cannot even scream. In prose, I would be left with describing it, but with poetry, I can paint the picture… guide the reader to my values and hopefully fill in some of the blanks, while allowing them to assign their own values and meanings.


Each word has a different meaning, but when you combine them, they lead the reader to yet another value… Afraid is one thing, but being unable to breathe, to have that which we need to survive denied us, and then, being unable to call out, to truly be trapped by that fear… that is the power of meaning.

The poet’s job is to convey that primal fear without losing it in words.

Just a thought.

Poetry Part 2 – Overview

In part 1, we discussed the basic building blocks of poetry, rhythm emotion and meaning and their relationship to words, but now its time to talk to their relationship to each other.

How does rhythm convey emotions? How do emotions color meaning?  How does rhythm affect meaning?

Funny you should ask.

The most basic, fundamental rhythm in our life is our heartbeat.  Think about it.  Think about the way your pulse races when you are angry or frightened.  Think about how a heartbeat can lull a child to sleep, and sooth an anxious puppy.

It is with us from the moment we first draw breath, until we breathe no more.  A strong heartbeat has always meant ‘strong’ in prose, while a syncopated heart beat can mean anything from arrhythmia to being smitten, as in my heart skipped a beat.

Tune in for this and more as we continue to explore poetry.

Poetry: Part 2 Interrelationships.

As stated in the overview, emotion, rhythm and meaning are building blocks of poetry.  In Part 1 we discussed them in relationship to words, now it’s time to think about their relationship to each other.

One of the best examples of this relationship is music.  Strip out the lyrics and you are left with rhythm and emotion.  Think about the love themes you’ve heard in movies – they’re tender: lyrical.  Even without words, they flow around you, they tickle your senses; they leave you wanting more.

Music does that with rhythm and the sound of instruments.  In poetry, the rhythm comes from the words you choose and the sound comes from the words themselves, and the reader giving them voice.  The meaning of the words themselves become secondary, bridging the gaps and filling in the blanks.

Think about the following in terms of rhythm, emotion and meaning.

I want you
I need you
You are my heart

To give it credit, the meaning is there- right up front, but it falls flat.  When I read it, it’s a steady beat with no syncopation and no real soul.  It’s full, flat and emotionless, and the first thing I want to do is forget it.

What are your impressions?

Let’s add a few words, mix up the rhythm, and give it a new meaning.

Why would I want you?
How do I need you?
Tell me, you are my heart.

The rhythm’s a little more complicated, and it’s given the words a whole new meaning and emotion. With the additional words, turning it into a question, the emotion and meaning behind it has changed as well. Now I’m asking… and it’s a little more confrontational… or perhaps its looking for confirmation. Asking the reader to help them figure this out.

How about this:

My heart beats
it’s wanting, it’s needing
You, you… always you.

In this one the order changes, and it engages the reader.  It gets you to think a little– it mixes things up and yet the message is there, drawing the listener in.

I think that’s actually the answer: it engages not only the readers senses– it engages their mind, it lets the brain work out the meaning and fills them with satisfaction when they do, and the more layers that are in there– the more engaged the reader becomes.

It’s something to think about.

 Poetry Part 2: Is there poetry without rhythm?

.The answer, in my not so humble opinion, is yes… and no.

Rhythm is in everything we do.  It is the tick of the clock, the movement of the pendulum, the very beat of our hearts is rhythmic.  Rhythm can be as simple or as complex as we want it to be, but it is a very important building block and it is always there: if we let it.

I once had a teacher try and abolish rhyme and rhythm from our poetry saying that it makes everything forced, and while part of me can agree with this, the musician/mathematician in me cries out in denial.

Poetry is a word puzzle, a magical thing that follows a formula (admittedly, one I ignore with great abandon).

Poetry conveys a truth shrouded in imagery and sound.  Take away the key pieces and you lose some of the power behind the words.

As I’ve said before… poetry tickles our minds and senses on many levels– take away some of those connections and the work is usually less than it could be.

And yet…

If the rhythm is forced, if the rhymes are false, that will kill the poem faster than not having those pieces.

It is a two edged sword, and to wield them to full effect, you must use them properly.  If you only cut with one edge: you will get the job done- but it will take longer and in the end, that edge will become dull.

Yet sometimes – the best rhythmic trick is the time change: because that too draws attention to what is said.

Something to think about.

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