Finding Your Feet

Brick wall 3Rhyme and meter are the building blocks of poetry, and metric feet are the building blocks of meter. It’s important to be able to identify what kind of ‘foot’ a word has – and not just in case you’d like to write a sonnet. Understanding the metric profile of your writing style can help you develop it, understand it, and refine it as you write. Whether you’re a poet or an aspiring prose master, this list of metric types can serve as a handy reference.

  • An iamb carries its emphasis on the second syllable. “To be,” “Rotund,” and “Astride are all examples of this poetic foot, which is frequently formed across two words.
  • trochee carries its emphasis on the first syllable. Unlike the iamb, it’s easy to find a trochee that is only one word: pizza, movie, lady, pirate, hamster, driver, and soda are just the beginning.
  • With the anapest, we move into three-syllable feet; the anapest carries its emphasis on its last syllable. Like an iamb, an anapest is likely to be composed of more than one word: from the lake, condescend, tearing up, and bedding down are some examples.
  • The dactyl, the anapest’s counterpart, carries its emphasis on the first syllable. These are more likely to be one-word feet than anapests, because plenty of words like galloping, contraband, terrorize, and even Instagram fit this pattern.
  • The spondee takes us back to two-syllable feet, but with a twist: the spondee is never used to carry a line. This is largely because it’s night impossible to arrange English words in such a manner that every syllable is accented. The spondee is usually used as a gap filler, or as a label for a word that doesn’t fit in with the rest of a poem’s meter. Examples are typically an odd arrangement of syllables, but sometimes you’ll encounter a single word like humdrum or lampshade that does the job.
  • If you suspect that the trochee might be a two-syllable foot with both words unstressed, then you’re correct! This is a more common gap filler than a spondee, and usually shows up in explanatory phrases like “son of” and “comes from.”

It’s certainly possible to imagine poetic feet with more than three syllables, but it’s most efficient to think of them in terms of the two and three syllable feet. Armed with this knowledge, you can approach formal poetry with a handy tool for understanding and interpreting it.

It’s Like a Metaphor, See?

Pair of pearsWriters are constantly drawing comparisons between apples and oranges. It’s an important part of our job – part of the delight of reading, for many readers, is seeing the similarities between two concepts that may appear to be completely unrelated. It’s clever. It’s interesting. It helps us maintain the illusion that there’s some order and purpose in the universe.

Many of us (myself included) think of “metaphor” as a catch-all term for comparisons made between unlike things. However, that’s not really true; we make a metaphor only when we make that comparison implicitly. “Your grandma’s a fox,” for example, is a proper metaphor. The reader knows from the context of common speech that the speaker really means “Your grandma is attractive and glamorous,” so no further clarification is needed.

That’s the thing about true metaphors: they lack explicit comparative signals, so you need some kind of interpretive context if you don’t want to lose the reader. If you don’t have the space for that context, then what you need is a simile. It does the same job, but it uses “like” or “as” to give you reader a clear signal that a comparison is being made. For example, “Your uncle is as mean as a snake” doesn’t leave the reader wondering how the uncle is like a snake; the comparison is drawn without excessive work on the reader’s part.

Whether you use a metaphor or a simile really does come down to how much effort you want the reader to put into understanding your comparison. This isn’t always an unpleasant effort – indeed, many of us enjoy reading poetry for the challenge of figuring out all the complex metaphors. However, if you don’t want the reader to be distracted by the comparison, or if you think the reader might be confused by it, then a simile is generally your best bet.


Getting Started on Sonnets

Red rose clusterAlthough prose and poetry are two very different kinds of writing, becoming more proficient in one can help you become more proficient in the other. There are many ways for prose writers to improve their language skills by studying poetry. A good place to start this literary cross-training is the familiar form of the sonnet.

A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Modern poets have loosened this definition, but most beginners will find it easiest to stick with a more traditional version of the form. Traditional sonnets have a rhyme scheme which divides the poem into segments. An Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnet follows an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme that divides the poem into three quatrains and a couplet; a Petrarchan sonnet, on the other hand, follows an ABBAABBA CDCDCD rhyme scheme which divides the poem into an octave and a sestet.

Even if you don’t have lofty ambitions for the sonnets you compose, writing them is an entertaining exercise that can truly test your abilities as a writer. The combined restraints of the rhyme scheme and the meter force you to choose your ideas and vocabulary very carefully. Many writers find that composing sonnets helps them learn to rearrange sentences in order to make their rhythm work better. This can not only make your ideas conform to the requirements of an Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnet, but also help you get a sense of how your sentences’ cadence helps your reader understand your ideas.

Many prose writers like having the freedom to use whatever words and cadences they please. However, everybody can benefit from learning to work within the strict limits imposed by a traditional sonnet. Using sonnets as a writing exercise can help you improve your vocabulary, be more flexible with your sentence structure, and better understand the natural cadence of your writing.


Yes, You Can Use Synecdoche in Your Prose (and Sometimes You Should)

Peaches in a bowlSynecdoche is generally defined as a poetic device; it describes what we do when we describe an entity by referring to one of its parts. Despite its classification as a poetic device, we use synecdoche frequently in prose as well as in everyday speech. A rancher uses synecdoche when describing his two hundred head of cattle, and a ship’s captain uses it when he speaks of the seventy souls on his vessel. A skilled prose writer uses synecdoche to draw the reader deep into the world of a written work.

Synecdoche does so much more than just add variety to our descriptions. It also reflect the speaker’s thought process and the world that shaped it. We can tell a lot about a speaker from the words he or she uses as shorthand for other concepts. A single mother in Victorian London may occasionally refer to her four children as four hungry mouths, while a warlord in an ancient Mesopotamian setting may refer to his loyal followers as his six thousand spears. In both of these instances, we get a glimpse into the character’s innermost thoughts. The words they use to represent the concepts of “children” and “followers” tell us which aspects of these concepts are (at least momentarily) most important to them.

Synecdoche is a subtle yet powerful tool for describing a character’s thought process and attitude toward an object, another character, or a situation. Using this device skillfully can enliven prose and shed light on a character’s personality without the need for excessive description. When the time comes to use a synecdoche in your prose, think carefully about which parts of a concept mean the most to your character. Although there are many common uses of this device that work well in prose, you may occasionally find it rewarding to invent a synecdoche that you haven’t seen in use before.


Take that walk

730087The record oscillates as
an eyesore rug,
inviting and rough,
scathes against my palms.

The ceiling is
afraid to blur or turn, it dangles,
comatose, stares right through me,
yellowing and cracked.

I live inside
what I cannot change or borrow,
flipping through identity cards
which do not match my face,
my traits, my date of birth.
I am young and I am disgusted.
What’s worse,
I can’t even explain my reasoning.
But listen anyway;
my hell should be your ultimate priority.

I will not sugarcoat my lips
or blunt my tongue
or spare you;
I’m taking the plunge
and you’re coming with me.

Brain on a budget

I sowed the seeds.842061
I am utterly capable
of growing golden trees
on my inner skull;
but with the branches torn,
there’s nothing to catch
the lovely language
I am learning.

Like sand, like water,
crushed or running thin,
the distractions make me stupid.
I cannot scrape enough coins or time together
to gather designer brand knowledge.
The mundane mornings
are washing the colours
out of my mind.

The hours are scarce,
but look at this space.
I am putting it
all to waste.

July 19th – Poem

It feels like a Saturday.854075
There’s orange pulp in my water.
I’m depressed about my weight.
She says ‘sing cos it’s obvious,’
but how or why it’s so obvious
I can’t fathom.
I’m really far from home.
I never learned piano.
A walk around the block
sounds like too much
in this heat.
I spilled a drink on my phone.
I can no longer type the letter ‘k.’
I’m sick of Special K.
I’m glad I never got roped into trying
the other Special K when I was younger.
Outside it smells like bins.
Nonsense poetry is not what it was.
Whoever came up with the term
should’ve thought about how
it could be abused.

Is an Ivory Tower a des res?

Ivory Tower - 1It’s an evocative image, a tower made out of milky white ivory, too high and too slippery to assail and with a distant and distorted view of the world below it. A great many writers have inhabited one or perhaps, more to the point, been accused of inhabiting one. But what effect does residence in an ivory tower have on a writer’s output?

It would be tempting just to look at the negative. A writer in an ivory tower is out of touch with the real world; he or she doesn’t walk the streets and talk the talk; they’re devoid of passion; their work is out of date and ultimately irrelevant.

So what do they actually write about? The answer is: all kinds of things. The human imagination is immensely fertile and some of the best works of literature have very little to do with mundane reality. No writer, not even one whose writing desk is behind ivory crenellations, is devoid of experience, feelings and opinions. If he or she writes about lofty matters it may not be that they’re incapable of understanding the current concerns of fellow humanity.

Writing isn’t necessarily a newspaper. Very often inspiration springs from cold, pure sources and is subsequently crafted to aesthetic perfection. This is particularly true of poetry, one of whose functions is to be uplifting.

It’s probably true to say that the smaller, sharper and least wide-reaching of works are the easiest to produce from an ivory tower. A great sprawling novel, depicting the best and worst of humanity and the setting within which they interact, is of its very essence an excrescence from the world’s surface.

But what about fantasy novels? Inventing a whole world in all its details is a cerebral activity, well suited to a state of isolation. But as soon as it has red-blooded, human characters, the walls of the tower begin to crumble.

Labelling someone as living in an ivory tower is usually an insult. But there is certainly a place, and a hallowed place, for works written in such circumstances. Sometimes writing ought not to reflect reality but instead should imitate the ideals for which we strive with our most exalted faculties.

When you least need Writer’s Block

Sink Plunger

A useful for tool for unblocking

Writing, in its broadest sense, is probably the last civilized tool to abandon a human being. I’m picturing here the educated prisoner holed up for decades in a dungeon, scratching poetry on the damp walls with a chip of stone.

Writing liberates; it gives a window beyond the present situation. It also gives substance to transient feelings, like love or despair. It’s the way the human mind gives shape to its thoughts, tracks them and gives them a certain permanence. It can stop people going mad and bring them back from madness, or sometimes it’s the outward manifestation of madness.

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a prisoner, deprived even of scratchable walls, who composes pieces in his head and commits them to memory. I would love to know how it works. Would each morning consist of a review of all the finished material followed by creating new work? Or would there be some compartment in the brain where the finished parts were stored so as to be retrievable at a later date?

There’s a Spanish poet called Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer whose volume of poetry, finished and submitted to a publisher, was lost in a political revolution. Not something which ought to happen these days if things are backed up properly! Anyway, he wrote out all his poems from memory. I don’t think many poets these days, when set rhythms and rhyme schemes are unfashionable, would be able to do the same.  (The original function of rhyme was in fact to make sagas memorable.)

People can achieve extraordinary things when they’re pushed into it. Like writing by batting an eyelid when the rest of you is paralysed. Or telling yourself stories when you’re supposedly brain-dead but in fact still very much alive in your coma and just not able to communicate.

The worst scourge to afflict anyone whose circumstances were so reduced would have to be Writer’s Block. There would be no alternative activity; nothing to distract. A person would surely go mad in such a situation.

But Writer’s Block in my experience is a mixture of boredom with the task at hand and self-generating demoralisation at lack of inspiration or success. It isn’t even because the job is too difficult; without the handicap of Writer’s Block multiple ways of circumventing the problems would present themselves.

To return to our prisoner, inspiration is like the plant which blooms in an adverse climate (for very sound biological reasons – the plant hopes its progeny will experience better times). Discomfort, loneliness, misery of every kind, can squeeze the best out of us. The important thing is to keep a spark alive because depression and dehumanisation are powerful enemies.

There’s another piece of Spanish literature – a medieval ballad supposedly written and sung by a prisoner who “doesn’t even know when night and day are except for a little bird which sang to him at dawn”. The bird has been killed by an archer; the ballad finishes by cursing him. There may be symbolism behind that bird and that archer, but I prefer to interpret them literally. Out of terrible, bleak circumstances has arisen the most beautifully poignant of poems which has survived down the ages and which must have accompanied many people through dark times.

The power of literature to alter your state of mind

Shoes and hand-bag

Not shoes to want to walk a mile in perhaps.

There’s an article on BBC News today discussing the effect of music on people who are grieving or depressed. Which works better, they ask, cheerful music to try to alter your mood, or sad music which reflects your mood? It made me think about literature in the same context.

Reading is a more cerebral and less visceral activity than listening to music. Its influences are more on the conscious level and can be more complete and detailed. It follows that the ways in which it works are more complex.

Let’s think of the medium which is possibly closest to music in the context: poetry. A poem can speak to the inner, quiet, individual mind like nothing else can, throwing up images in a similar way to song lyrics. It can also meet us on an intellectual plane, and sometimes it’s through the intellect that comfort is derived or the spirit is uplifted.

Small volumes and pamphlets of both poetry and prose exist to address the different emotions and situations which people struggle with during their lives. Mostly a rational mind tries, through their pages, to reach another mind which is trying to be rational. But sometimes it isn’t straightforward advice that breaks through to a person but a saying or ‘mantra’ which speaks to them and alters their life, or a desire to imitate a character, or personal identification with a hero or a villain.

“Never criticise a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes,” goes the saying. This could in theory change one person’s way of thinking about another. I personally prefer the rebuttal: If you’ve got his shoes and you’re a mile away, you can say what you want!

Literature can present a complete world for immersion and hence distraction of the troubled mind. Stories and novels lighten a humdrum life, relieve boredom or inspire hope. Dark tales of tragedy soothe through harmless schadenfreude.

Music stirs our entrails with irrational feelings but literature introduces us to other realities in which we can live, and heal. I would say that the primary value of much of literature, and certainly of fiction, is its power to alter your state of mind.