Monday, February 27, 2012

Modern Poetry: What Makes a Good Poem Great

Recently some of our members have tried their hand at writing poetry, and said they weren't sure if it was coming out any good. So maybe this will help.

How do you write a good poem these days? Always before there were rules that needed to be followed; a strict meter, a defined stanza length, a set rhyming pattern, and the poems seemed to contain more of a narrative. These days everything is the opposite. Rhyming is frowned upon, and stanzas have become loose; writer-defined lengths and meters. I struggled with this once. After reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost in University, I decided to try writing my own version of the fall from grace in a more modern style, yet keeping the original perspective – Satan. Here is stanza 2 from a poem that takes just over 2 pages.

My eyes swept across the land, encompassing
The outer edges of Paradise, and
The band of Cherubim guarding the gates.
I leapt off the mountain, landing gracefully
At the Western edge of Paradise, my six
Wings flaring as I bounded over the wall
Of rock at its lowest point.
The sun shone down at its zenith, bathing
The land in its warm glow, turning
Everything a glittering green-yellow as
It filtered through the foliage of the trees.
I walked past the roses, red as fresh blood,
Refusing to inhale their heady scent,
Past the trees which lie at the centre
Of that garden, the smell of one so familiar,
The scent of home, the apples of Heaven,
The Fruit of Life, my heart ached at
That fragrance, and I grew cold.

This is a bad example of modern poetry. There is too much narrative going on here, and it reads like prose cut up into lines. Prose can be a good place to start, to get the idea in your head if you struggle to write poetry, but you don’t want to be bound by this early attempt. It is also too literal, poems these days have hidden meanings; you don’t want to spell it out for the reader, you want them to discover the meaning for themselves – that way it means more to them since everyone will read a piece slightly differently. Also you never want to start a modern poem with capital letters. In a modern poem, capital letters follow the prose rules; they are for the first line only, unless you have a full stop in which case you have one on the next word.

I gave the poem another attempt, this time disguising the theme of Original Sin within a modern setting.

The path glittered beside us
yellow, green as we lay
on a bed of pine needles.
My blood pumped hard
through my adolescent body.
I caressed her strong muscled thigh
in the late afternoon sunshine.
The plucked red rose
rested on her bosom,
blood petals strewn around her.
She inhaled its heady scent;
enchanter of the woods.
The apple from the hidden tree
lay discarded and broken.
Need to return her home,
past Sunday curfew,
she just lies there free
from the rules of society.
My lips brush this unadorned Venus,
savour the taste
of that apple on my lips
and wish I could have it
once more.

This is a good example of a modern poem. There are only capital letters at the beginning and after a full stop, the stanza length is uneven – specified by the poem and the individual sections, and the meaning is slightly veiled. There is still a narrative here – which I think is needed, though not everyone will agree – but it no longer reads like chopped-up prose. The trick to modern poetry is in the images. Do not tell the story, show it to them and let them work it out for themselves. Do not tell them “She lost her virginity”, show them “The plucked red rose/ rested on her bosom, /blood petals strewn around her.”

Although I updated the setting of this poem, I still kept the integral parts of Paradise in there. They are still surrounded by nature, there is still a hidden tree with an apple; however these have become symbols and the apple, as it always has, represents her innocence and her virginity. You need to try and find new images to show something which is why I used the image of the rose. Yet this is a double meaning line, many people will read it simply as a rose, so I included the short stanza below with more traditional imagery to reinforce the message “The apple from the hidden tree/lay discarded and broken.”

Each poem will be unique. Don’t try to force it into a mould, let the mould flow around it. Each of my stanzas are determined by the imagery, the sections of the narrative. I did not decide in advance what the format would be; I told the story and let it fall where it was meant to.

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