Roses are red. Violets are blue. Can you write a poem? Here's what to do.
What is a poem?
"Roses are red, violets are blue..." - many of us have probably tried to give the perfect valentines gift with a carefully written verse and tried to write the next two lines of this well-known rhyme used commonly for Valentine's Day. It is considered to be 'doggerel" which is a derogatory term used of poetry that is seen to be of little literary value, as with food only fit for dogs). So what is lacking from doggerel poetry that distinguishes it from a "proper" poem? The actual definition in the Oxford English Dictionary of the word “poem” is:
"a piece of writing in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by particular attention to diction (sometimes involving rhyme), rhythm, and imagery"
Many have attempted to define “poems” or “poetry”, but it still remains open to interpretation and can be a subjective matter of opinion, to the same extent as art. You might attempt your own definition of “poetry” – do you define it as involving “words”, do they need to be “written words”? Suppose someone used sign language to perform the poetry, the hand gestures could be chosen so that when they are performed, there is an element almost of dance – you might not understand the actual meaning, but you could appreciate the performance. Words in a poem are carefully chosen not just for their literal meaning, but also for their sound, their rhythm, the way they look, their connotations, their length, the way they scan and many other factors. The hand movements and shapes can be chosen for just the same reasons in sign language.
The actual study of analysing how and why the words technically work together is known as “stylistics” where students will examine the use of language devices, such as:
A word that sounds like the thing it is describing (see here the words to describe the clashing sounds of the sword fight “clashed” “clanged” “rang”:
“Dry clashed his harness in the icy caves
And barren chasms, and all to left and right
The bare black cliff clanged round him, as he based
His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang”
La Morte d’Arthur – Lord Alfred Tennyson
A half-rhyme where the words may sound the same in terms of their vowels or consonants, but they do not rhyme. Assonance and alliteration (see next point) were very common in Old English poetry, eg “fail” and “fall”
This is where 2 or more words start with the same letter for dramatic effect; this is often combined with the use of onomatopoeia to mimic the noise of what is being described, eg “six sizzling sausages”
This is often used in poetry to make objects or natural things seem as if they are human, as if they have the power of thought and control over us, eg:
THE SUN RISING
by John Donne
BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
There are many more technical devices that a poet or writer will use in his work to give his poem more emotion and powerful description and imagery.
The presentation and context of the poem can also be considered. Suppose I put a shopping list on the door of an empty fridge, for bread, eggs, butter. It’s not a poem. But suppose I add to the list “milk of human kindness”. Suppose the fridge just has a few cans of beer. Has my shopping list become poignant enough to stir an emotion in you? Are you wondering why the fridge and the note are like this and are you starting to think of my emotions, are you connecting with the words? Has the list become a poem? Think of the war poets writing in their trenches. The whole situation that the poem is written in gives a layer to the poetry.
Even the shape of the letters or the shape they are written in can be taken into account. Think of the layers of an onion, which go on and on. Shape poems are fun to write in the shape of the poem’s subject matter.
When it comes to the style of the poem, there are many different styles to choose from. Poems do not have to rhyme. Free style poems do not need a pattern or a rhyme scheme. Other poems have a very fixed structure such as:
Sonnets traditionally have 14 lines, which fall into an octave (8 lines), which consists of 2 quatrains (a quatrain is a stanza or complete poem that has 4 lines), followed by a sestet which consists of 2 tercets (lines of 3). Traditional Italian sonnets would put the proposition in the octave and the answer in the tercet. They were written in a abab abab (or later, abba abba) rhyme scheme for the octave and variations for the sestet included cdecde, cdccdc or cdcdcd and were written in iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter is the meter of the line, which counts the number of syllables and stresses in the line – iambic means the word is pronounced dah DUM, and pentameter means there are 5 dah DUMS in the line, eg
“When I do count the clock that tells the time” (Shakespeare’s sonnet 12)
Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and is probably one of the best-known sonnet writers.
This is traditionally a Japanese form of poetry with quite a strict format. English haiku are slightly different to Japanese, but generally they have 3 lines, of up to 17 syllables, they include a season word (kigo) and a cut or Kire to distinguish between two images.
This is a humorous poem that has five lines, with a rhyming scheme that goes aabba and the first, second and fifth lines have 3 feet or 3 syllables each, and the third and fourth lines are shorter with only 2 feet of 3 syllables. Limericks usually have some element of obscenity. Limericks were made very popular by Edward Lear in the 19th century.
A rap is a very popular type of poem that is set to a beat that involves spoken or chanted rhyming lyrics. There are a huge number of popular rappers performing today.
These are simply poems that are written in the shape of the thing they are describing. See some great examples of shape poems here:
Acrostic poems are written in such a way that if you take the first letter of each line and spell them out, they will form a word, which is usually the subject matter of the poem.
There are many more styles of poems, rhythms, rhymes, meters, literary devices. Why not try finding a favourite poem and analysing it to see why you think it works and try to use as many of the poetic devices as you can in your own poem.
To encourage young children (and adults!) to experiment with poetry, why not organise a poetry cafe event and read and write poems (use paper tablecloths for people to write on) or have some fun with magnetic poetry.