My twelfth packet of MFA homework was due earlier this week. For once it was submitted without any all-nighters, drama, or emotional meltdowns. I had plenty of time to do the quantity and quality of work I knew I had in me, and that is a priceless gift.
Does that mean I made the right choice to become a full time student? My husband says yes. He tells me I am literally talking slower these days, a sign of how very wound up and stressed out Super Jen had been. What I’ve noticed is that I’ve been thinking deeper in my critical thesis, my creative pages, and – a brave new frontier – poetry.
Here’s the honest truth: my education glossed over poetry so quickly that I really knew nothing about it. There’s a language associated with poetry that can really intimidate those who aren’t fluid in it, causing them to veer far away. My wise advisor suggested A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver. Among many other things, it covers two basic aspects of the poetry vocabulary.
Most of us are aware of vowels and consonants. But did you know that consonants can be divided into semivowels and mutes? That semivowels can be further divided into liquids and aspirates? Memorizing the terminology isn’t as important as knowing how these different letter sounds can be used as tools in poetry and other creative writing. The way these sounds feel as you speak them can impact how the reader feels during a particular sentence.
Beyond the letter sounds themselves, there are sound devices. Onomatopoeia (words that sound like the noise they define) and alliteration (repetition of the first sound of words) are the two I’d heard of before. There are many, many others writers can utilize to create mood and emotional resonance.
The basic unit of poetry is the foot. Every line can be divided into feet, which can be further divided into syllables. Depending on the number and stress of the syllables in a foot, it might be an iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, or spondee. Those names felt like gibberish to me until I saw examples of poems with the stresses and feet marked, and then attempted to mark them in my own writing. Iambs are the most common rhythm for a poem, and any of the others can be used to change the feeling of the line.
Depending on the number of feet in a line, the line could be considered monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, heptameter, and octameter. These names were more intuitive for me because they follow mathematic conventions. I was intrigued to learn iambic pentameter is the line a person can comfortable say in one breath. Anything longer leaves your reader feeling breathless.
Once I learned the basics of the language of poetry, my advisor suggested The Aspiring Poet’s Journal by Bernard Friot. I’m not sure if this book is still in print, but I had no trouble tracking down a used copy, and it was worth the hunt. This book contains 365 writing prompts, one per page, with space to write and doodle. The pages are illustrated with inspiring art, quotes, and poems. An aspiring poet could immerse herself with a year of poetry self-study.
I’m not sure yet if that’s a journey I’m about to embark on. Let’s dip our toes in with the writing prompt from Day 1:
Let’s start by writing. That’s right –
Write your first poem of the year using
The following words:
Write – first – poem – year.
If you need a nudge, read the bottom
Of the page.
You can write a “list poem” beginning
With one of these phrases:
In one year . . .
I will give you . . .
A poem for . . .