Everyone Thinks They Know What Poetry Is

… and what it is for.

Even those who are fanatical about it, who can quote lines, or whole poems, of their favorite poet. Who have shelves stuffed to the mixed metaphors with waxed hardcovers, AEG (all edges gilt) and an inset color plate on the front, probably of a posy.

I’m assuming you’re a writer, so if you’ve never given it much thought, you probably think the same as everyone else about poetry: that it’s a specialized form of artistic expression where an artist (called a ‘poet’) uses language alone to conjure truth, beauty and love.

Or horror, ugliness and hate; either way, poetry is all about using specialized language (often called heightened) in order to find a means of expressing problematic or difficult topics, or just to express thoughts, feelings and words that seem to go beyond normal language.

If you have given it some thought though, you’ll soon come to a crucial conclusion: if a poet is going to achieve this aim, then…

They Better Be Pretty Damn Good At Using Language

Actually, there are two groups of people who know what poetry is really all about:

  1. One group you’re probably aware of, dimly. They’re the people who go to public poetry nights, where groups of enthusiasts get together and read their latest stuff to an audience. It may seem pretty niche, but those folks have some serious courage (read: balls of steel). And they also know that writing something that is even close to good enough to be read aloud to an audience is a serious challenge; and the ones who step up to the challenge soon learn what poetry is really about.
  2. The other group is other writers who are keeping quiet about the truth they already know:

    Poetry is the ultimate means of becoming a master of your language.

    And if you want to be a professional writer, of any kind, you better want to become a master of your language.

How Does It Work?

It works by teaching you to think about language in new ways. It forces you outside the box, drives you out of your comfort zone, and takes you to a place where every word matters, in its meaning, its sound, its shape, it’s spelling and it’s precise position among other words.

Now, poetry can eventually become about making beauty through language.

But before you can do that, you have to learn how to achieve an objective, within a set of arbitrary rules. Every time you meet the objective within the rules, you will have expanded your capacity to use your language, and developed your capacity to step beyond the boundaries.

You’ll have learned more; about reaching for the right word, about the way that sound and rhythm contribute to affecting the reader in prose, how words can be stark and plain, but how associating the right words and sounds in the right places, bark the right word and the reader will feel your pain, and hark, again and again, not only to the immediate sense of your words, but to the broader sense of your meaning, and the broadest sense of what you want the reader to feel.

That Is Why I Have Created This Poetry Challenge

As the challenge progresses it becomes more complex and more difficult. But do it in order and you will feel your linguistic ability expand into a new space, and challenges that today seem impossible will become possible through working your way through earlier challenges.

The Poetry Challenge is divided into three sections. Beginner and Intermediate are freely available right here (and will be published over the next 30 weeks – starting today, January 4th, 2016).

The most advanced lessons, in the Iron Poet Challenge level, are available only as part of a complete course that you can get for a one-time fee of $97, or you can get the entire course (with supplemental audio lessons, and the joy of hearing me declaim my original works in my delicious British accent) inside the Library for only the cost of monthly membership.

Not a member yet? Grab a Library Card today and join the other members taking the Iron Poet Challenge!

The Basic Rules

Poetry is structured language. Each poetic form is defined by a set of rules. The vast majority of poetic forms are defined using one or more of three types of rule:

  • Syllable count
  • Rhythm
  • Rhyme

Syllable count and rhythm combine to form what we call scansion – which is the distinctive rhythmic structure of a poetic form.

Syllable Rules

A syllable is a unit of sound*. All words are composed of syllables. Typically a syllable contains one vowel sound, with one or more consonants.

“hat” is one syllable.
“water” is two syllables.

Syllable rules in poetry dictate how many syllables a poem may have in total, and may also dictate the number of syllables per line.

* if you have studied linguistics, you will recognise that this is glossing over an abyss of knowledge. But fortunately, not everyone has studied linguistics.

Rhyming Rules

In poetry, rhyme is when words at the same place on different lines (usually the last word in a line) share the same final syllable, or several syllables, or vowel sounds, or have very similar syllables.

Rhyme is usually described as a pattern. Patterns are usually represented by uppercase letters, each of which stands for a shared syllable.

Amazing Grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see

Sound and found rhyme; me and see rhyme. To describe the pattern, we call the first rhyme “A” and the second rhyme “B”, and describe the pattern as ABAB.

When the rhyming word is repeated, the letter is underlined: ABAB indicates that the second and fourth lines end in the same word.

When a whole line is repeated, it is numbered: AB1AB1 indicates that the second and fourth lines are the identical.

Rhythmic Rules

Rhythm in its simplest form arises from the characteristics of syllables. Syllables may be either long or short and either stressed or unstressed. In some poetic forms, long syllables are considered the same as stressed syllables, and short syllables are considered the same as unstressed syllables.

Formal Notation

There are many systems of notation for representing the rhythmic pattern in poetry. I favour the classical form since that was the first one I learned. It uses four main symbols:

¯ “macron” (also written above a letter “Ā”) – a long or stressed syllable (tum)
˘ “breve” (also written above a letter “Ă”) – a short or unstressed syllable (ti)
A long or short syllable that may be stressed or unstressed is known as an “anceps” to scholars of classical and old-English poetry. Various symbols are used for it, and in Tumpty Notation (see below) it is called ‘tim.’

// caesura (a pause)

So what is meant by long and short, stressed and unstressed?

Ămāzĭng Grāce hŏw swēet thĕ soūnd

Most of the time it’s no more complicated than the length of the sound itself. The four lines of the first verse of Amazing Grace can therefore be written as follows:

˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯
˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯
˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯
˘¯ ˘¯ ˘¯

Tumpty Notation

There’s a clear pattern here. When speaking aloud, I find the easest way to identify a rhythmic pattern is using “tumpty notation”. In this case, Amazing Grace is rendered as:

ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum
ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum
ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum
ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum

Specific combinations of short and long syllables have names. For instance, ti-tum is known as an iamb, tumpty is known as a trochee. Collectively these are known as feet.

A pattern of feet is known as a metre. Amazing grace has two alternating metres. An iambic tetrametre is what we call four iambs. An iambic trimeter is what we call three iambs.

A Couple of Other Terms

In poetry, verse refers to any text that is consciously written poetically. In many situations, the word verse is synonymous with the words poem and poetry.

A paragraph in poetry, which roughly corresponds to the verse of a song, is known as a stanza. This is mostly useful to avoid the confusing use of the word verse by poets, though many poets will get downright uppity if you use the word verse instead of the word stanza. You have my permission to tease them about this.

“Ornamentation” is a general word given to any additional rules added to a poem. Rhyme is often considered ornamentation, while rhythm and syllable count usually are not.

What To Expect

Over the next thirty weeks, you’ll find a new Poetry Challenge update every Monday. The Beginner section is only the first ten forms, which are all very approachable.

Post your work after each challenge so we can monitor your progress and give you feedback.

Best of luck to everyone.

This series is so long, it needed it’s own navigation!