Hello. I'm Donn Taylor, here again to talk more about poetry writing and ways to achieve the "higher voltage" that distinguishes poetry from most prose. We've talked about putting strong words in emphatic places, use of images, and a little bit about figurative language. Reserving that last for further treatment later, today we'll begin looking at ways to organize a poem. Those ways are infinite, or course, so we'll confine ourselves to some of the most common. Today, only one.
First, some generalizations: In narrative poetry, the structure of the story becomes the structure of the poem. That leaves us lyric poetry: that is, poetry that expresses the poet's thoughts or emotions. (We hope those will be significant enough to interest the reader.) I like to compare a short poem to a paragraph: it has a main idea that may be stated or unstated, and everything in the poem points to or develops that one idea. (There are, of course, impressionistic poems that don’t follow that principle.)
A single striking figure of speech can become the organizing principle of an entire poem, as in this example from Emily Dickinson (1830-86):
My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
In Corners—till a Day
The Owner passed—identified—
And carried Me away—
……………………… (three stanzas omitted)
To foe of His—I’m deadly foe—
None stir the second time—
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—
Or an emphatic Thumb—
Though I than He—may longer live
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die—
Remarkably, this turns out to be a poem about faithful love. The speaker’s life is unused until the lover takes possession of her. Then she becomes fiercely allied with the lover and protective of him. At first reading, we’re tempted to understand the Owner as God or Christ, but the last stanza’s idea of her living longer than he eliminates that possibility. There’s also a wonderful image and figure in the next-to-last stanza—the Yellow Eye image for the firing of an aimed gun. And the figure in the last two lines is paradox.
This poem illustrates the use of a single startling metaphor to dramatize an abstract concept: a lifetime love that defines one’s entire existence.
Here is one of mine that also develops a single figure of speech into a complete poem:
Notation (© 1995)
What is man that Thou art mindful of him?
–Psalm 8:4 (KJV)
I am a single note, sounding but once
And not sustained, a transient passing tone
Too briefly audible for resonance,
One moment's quick vibration, quickly flown—
Not a suspension, bold to stand alone,
Alien and strange to the prevailing chord,
Subsiding into consonance, yet known
Distinct in selfhood—I have not explored
Some fresh key's flavor, nor can I afford
The thrusting dominant's drive to rest again
Upon the keynote, certainty restored.
I'm one slight scratch from the Composer's pen,
Yet by that scratch preserved forevermore,
One part of His divine eternal score.
This is only one of many ways to develop a poem. We will look at more of these ways in future blogs. www.donntaylor.com