ENJOYING POETRY - by John Enright

working copy of a talk given at the IOS (now TOC) summer seminar

including some parts I skipped, and probably including typos, too.



1.  How Poets Make Sense


a.  "saying what isn't so"



Let's start with some lines you've probably heard.


Stone walls do not a prison make

Nor iron bars a cage.


Let's stop right there.  What is this guy talking about?


Stone walls do not a prison make.   That is, Stone walls

don't make a prison.


Has he been to a prison lately?  In his day, in fact, stone

walls were exactly what prisons were made from.


Nor iron bars a cage.


That is, iron bars don't make a cage, either.


They don't?  What makes a cage then?


Is he denying that prisons have stone walls and that cages

have iron bars?  Is he... speaking nonsense?


No.  Of course not.  But he's got our attention by making

bold statements that SEEM to contradict the obvious.  But

that somehow sound as if they contain a higher truth.


Oops.  Think about what I just said.  Seems to contradict the

obvious.  Sounds like it contains a higher truth.


If you heard this in a different context... say in a

discussion of some New Age religious text... you might very

well say:


What rank mysticism!  You don't get to truth by contradicting

the obvious!  You have to begin by accepting the reality of

the obvious.  And you build FROM the obvious up to higher

levels of conceptual knowledge.


So here - for many people - is the first obstacle to the

enjoyment of poetry.  Most poetry includes non-literal

statements, the meaning of which may be hard to figure out.


Why bother?


Because these non-literal statements, at their best, WORK for

us.  They grab our imagination and they stir our souls.


A good illustration is found in Rand's introduction to the

Fountainhead, where she offers a quote from Nietzsche.  She

says this quote is "perhaps the best way to communicate The

Fountainhead's sense of life".


She says: "I cannot endorse its literal meaning: it proclaims

an indefensible tenet - psychological determinism.

But if one takes it as a poetic projection of an emotional

experience ... then that quotation communicates the inner

state of an exalted self-esteem...".      [2:19]


Let's turn the page, and look at the full stanza - that is,

the full verse-paragraph - these lines appear in.


Stone walls do not a prison make,

  Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

  That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love

  And in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above

  Enjoy such liberty.


Let me pause, and say, by the way, that I really like these



I've been talking about how poets make sense, and how poetic

meaning is often non-literal.  But the building blocks of

poetic meaning are, nonetheless, particular words, all of

which come with literal meanings as well as a host of

associations or connotations.


If you don't know what a particular word means, if often

helps to look it up.


There's just one funny word in these 8 lines.  Hermitage.

It's not a word in common usage right now.  It has 2

dictionary definitions, closely related.  It means the

place where a hermit lives, or any secluded dwelling place.


I want to mention, while we're on the subject, 2 other funny

facts about the word in this poem.


One: It's preceded by "an" not "a".  This has to do with the

British tendency to treat leading aitches as silent, so that

hermitage, or rather ermitage, then sounds like it begins

with a vowel.  And it's the sound of the word that determines

our usage of "an" or "a".


Two:  Hermitage doesn't exactly rhyme with cage.  It LOOKS

like it might rhyme.  But it doesn't.  There's a special name

for this.  It's called an eye-rhyme.  And we'll come back to

it later when we talk about rhyme.


Now, back to the poem's meaning.  I asked, earlier, has this

guy ever visited a prison?


So he tells us that he did.  The title of the poem, is "To

Althea, from Prison."


And a trip to the Encyclopedia tells us that the author,

Richard Lovelace, lived in 17th century England, was twice

imprisoned because of his political opinions and activities.



So this is a poem of defiance, by a man who has been locked

up, proclaiming that even though he is physically confined,

he is still free in what matters most to him - his heart and

his mind.


But it sounds better - has more emotional impact - when he

says it than when I summarize it.


Why is this?


It's partly because he uses a wealth of direct images.  Stone

walls and iron bars are things we can directly perceive when

we encounter them in real live.  Stone walls and iron bars are

real to our senses.  Especially as compared to "physical confinement"

which is a rather abstract phrase.


Ayn Rand's theory of art holds that art works by taking important

issues in human life and presenting them with apparent physical

reality - so that big ideas are brought down to earth - so that we



   grasp and feel

   as real

   what in fact

   is abstract



b.  metaphor & simile



One way - or perhaps two ways - in which poetry often does this is

through a couple of rhetorical devices known as metaphor and

simile.  I've got to mention them, but I have to warn you that



  and simile

  are about as similar

  as can be


Both involve finding resemblances.


Let's start with examples.


  O, my love is like a red, red rose

  That's newly sprung in June.


That's a simile.  And it's a simile because that "like" is in there.


If Robert Burns had said instead:


  My love IS a red red rose


That would be a metaphor.


The distinction's not really very important.  What's important is

that the poet is expressing his feelings about his love by

presenting us with an image of a red, red rose.


He's speaking apparent nonsense, of course.  How much apparent

resemblance is there, really, between his love and a rose?


Okay, sure, you might be able to find some points of resemblance

if you really looked.  But, for scientific purposes, they'd be

rather far-fetched resemblances.


Aristotle, that sober Greek, had something interesting to say about

metaphor when he wrote about poetic style.


"Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to

something else;"                  [poetics 21]




"But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.  It is

the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is a sign

of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception

of the similarity in dissimilars."            [poetics 22]


So, let's look a little at Burns' rose and ask where the similarity

might lie.


  O, my love is like a red, red rose

    That's newly sprung in June.

  O my love is like the melody

    That's sweetly played in tune.


The easy answer that comes to my mind is that the point of resemblance

lies in beauty.  Being beautiful is one of the standout features of

roses.  That's the quality people most prize them for.


So he's saying his love is beautiful.


But Burns says more than that his love his like a rose.  He says it's

like a red rose.  And not just red, but "red red".  What is the effect

of this?


Repeating the red like that is a way of intensifying the quality

of the red.  It's a very simple, almost childish way of saying "very

red".  Like when a kid today says "it was really really red."


Repeating the red draws our attention to a particular visual

quality, of deep redness.


Then Burns tells us something else about the rose:  That's newly

sprung in June.  He's giving us the rose's life story so far.  It's

a nice fresh rose that just burst forth on the scene as the climate

warms up.


We could go on exploring.  We'd find that people, if they put their

minds to it, can read a lot into these two lines.  Someone might

mention the implication, for example, that love is a natural healthy

process, like the springing forth of a flower.  Poetic comparisons

tend to be open-ended - poets leave us to fill in the blanks - to

fill in the points of resemblance - based on our own experience.


How do we do that?


We mostly do it subconsciously.  Rand gave a nice description of

the basic process, though it wasn't particularly poetry she had

in mind:


"a process of emotional generalization, which may be described as

a subconscious counterpart of a process of abstraction, since it is

a method of classifying and integrating.  But it is a process of

emotional abstraction: it consists of classifying things according

to the emotions they invoke--i.e. of tying together, by association

or connotation, all those things which have the power

to make an individual experience the same (or a similar) emotion."

                           [philosophy and sense of life, p 27]


Of course, not everybody comes up with the same associations and

connotations.  If you somehow have never seen a rose, you're going

to draw more of a blank when it's time to fill in the blanks.  Or

if you somehow associate roses mostly with their flesh-ripping

thorns, you may think that Burns is making a claim that love is

painful.  The remarkable thing, in a way, is what a good job

of communicating poets actually do manage to do with metaphor.



c.  irony & ambiguity



Inherent in the use of metaphors is a certain kind of ambiguity

- a certain kind of open-endedness of meaning.  And other kinds

of ambiguity frequently creep in as well.


To be ambiguous, is to possess two or more meanings, or, to be

vague in meaning.


Ambiguity has a close cousin in irony.


To be ironic is to possess incongruous meaning.


Some statements are both ambiguous and ironic.


Consider, for instance, the following line:


Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.


Standing by itself, it may seem neither ambiguous nor ironic.

But these qualities will emerge for you when we place the

line in context.


It's from near the end of a poem by Shelley.  It's a poem

about a giant statue of a tyrant.  And I'm going to tell you,

one thing Shelley hated was tyrants of all varieties.


Anyway, it's a very ancient statue, and it's out in the desert, and

all that's left of it are two enormous legs of stone, and nearby, a

head that's half-buried in the sand, on the face of which can still

be observed a "frown / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command"


And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair."

Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.


So, let's look at that sentence again, and it's

two conflicting meanings.


Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.


First, let's paraphrase it into contemporary English.


Hey!  All you other powerful people!

Plunge into a state of depression as you stare

at all the stuff I've done!


The tyrant's original intent was to impress people with what a great

guy he was.  Other people, particularly other rulers, were supposed

to despair in the face of his competitive greatness.  They were

supposed to give up any hope of ever out-doing this Ozymandias guy.

They were supposed to walk away from this monument muttering

something like: "Gee whiz, that Ozymandias is truly unbeatable."


Presumably, too, there were other works of his in the area, something

besides this statue.  He doesn't just say look at this statue, he

says look at my works.  They must have been there once.  They're just

not there now.


So the original meaning of despair is something like:

Despair of ever outdoing me.


The ambiguity comes in, because he doesn't say that.  He just tells

them to Despair.  Period.


And, by the time this poem gets written, it turns out there's

something new to get depressed about.


Namely, that the statue's wrecked, and all his other works are gone.

Completely gone.  Wiped from the face of the earth.  By the sands of

time, so to speak.


This immediately puts the original claim in an ironic context.

That is, the situation described undercuts and contradicts the

original intent.  Shelley pointedly tells us that there's nothing

here to actually impress us anymore.


And the new ironic meaning that emerges for our line is something



Hey.  All you other heartless ruler types.  Look at my wrecked

statue.  Look how all my public works are gone and forgotten.  Give

up on making a lasting impression with big stupid monuments.  They

don't last.


I think Ozymandias is a good example of the use of irony and ambiguity

in the interest of clear communication.  But they are not the end-all

and be-all of poetry.  In twentieth century poetry criticism, however,

there has been a tremendous stress on ambiguity and irony as positive



There was a very influential essay called "Seven Types of Ambiguity"

by William Empson, extolling its virtues.  And other important

literary critics insisted that all good poems were ironic in some

way.  And students of literature were particularly drilled on looking

for ambiguities and ironies.


The danger is pretty obvious.  If the poem is too loaded with

ambiguities and ironies, your message gets lost.  Multiple levels of

meaning are great, as long as they somehow end up making sense of one

sort or another.



d.  compression



Multiple levels of meaning are one way of achieving another

characteristic feature of poetic style: compression.


Compression is the art of saying a lot with a little.


A good example of this is found in a couple of lines of poetry

which were among Ayn Rand's favorites.


  And the world began when I was born

    And the world is mine to win.


You'll note, right away, it's another good example of a poet

making his point by saying what's not so.  But, ask yourself,

how much is compressed here?  You might feel like there's

a philosophy of life squished in there.


Let's look at the whole stanza.  It's the beginning of "The

Westerner" by Badger Clark.


My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains,

  And each one sleeps alone.

Their trails may dim to the grass and rains,

  For I choose to make my own.

I lay proud claim to their blood and name,

  But I lean on no dead kin;

My name is mine, for the praise or scorn,

And the world began when I was born

  And the world is mine to win.


Let me say right off, this is not an example of especially

compressed poetry.  As a matter of fact, this is not particularly

compressed at all, and it's rather easy to understand, as poetry



My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains.


His fathers?  No one has more than one father.  So he means his

forefathers.  They sleep.  Not really.  They're dead.  Sleep as

a substitute for death is nothing radical, but it does suggest a

benign sort of acceptance of the fact that they're dead.


On the sunrise plains.  What does that mean?  I think that's short

for "on the plains that lie in the same direction as the sun comes

up."  Namely, east.  And what's the title of this poem?  The Westerner.

So he's saying his forefathers are buried on plains to the east.

And each one sleeps alone.  So perhaps they have been part of this

country's westward migration, or perhaps he just comes from a line of

loners none of whom stayed to live in the place they were born.  Each

one sleeps alone.  This could sound lonely.  But what he seems to

be establishing for himself is a family tradition of striking out

on your own.  A tradition of leaving traditions behind, if you will.


So he hasn't defied his fathers' traditions by leaving them behind.

He has honored them by doing so.


Saying they're sleeping on sunrise plains is kind of odd in one way,

since sunrise is associated with waking up, but they're obviously

going to stay asleep.  Of course, it's just sunrise relative to the

speaker.  But he's associating their ends with his beginning, in

a positive way.


Their trails may dim to the grass and rains

  For I choose to make my own.


This part about the trails is a bit compressed.  What he means, I think,

is something like: My forefathers' trails may get overgrown by grass

or washed away by rain, because I'm not bothering to maintain them,

because I'm out blazing my own trails.


Note that we get the feeling that it's all right that the trails should

fade.  It has none of the air of calamity or disaster that was present

in the case of the fading of the empire of Ozymandias.


Let's skip to the third to last line, because there's a typical

sort of grammatical compression going on in that line.


My name is mine, for praise or scorn.


Actually, the line starts off with a funny sort of logical

redundancy.  My name is mine.  Well, of course it is.  The underlying

thought here is that he is the owner of his own reputation.  And

"name" is a nice short striking stand-in for "reputation."


This phrase "for praise or scorn" seems compressed, too.  What does

it mean to say is name is "for" praise or scorn, exactly?  I suppose

that's one of the things a name is for.  The phrase is also rather

reminiscent of the phrase "for good or ill".



e.  interpreting



Now let's look at that "the world began when I was born" claim

in context.  He says this after talking about his fathers who were

here before him.  So he clearly doesn't mean it literally.  But he

does mean something.  What is it exactly?  As we ask that question,

we step into the task of interpretation.


Actually, we've been dancing in and out of this task for quite some

time.  We've been interpreting metaphors, ambiguities, ironies and

compressed expressions.  We've been going through the nuts and bolts

of interpreting a poem.


The basic procedure is really just a more intensified version of what

we do everyday when we have normal conversations with people we know.

Because the people we know do use metaphors, ambiguities, ironies and

compressed expressions.  They just don't use them with the same

sort of frequency that we find them in poetry.  And, very importantly,

we get to ask our friends what they mean when we don't understand them.

Then our friends explain by giving us more words.  But once we've

read a poem, it's given us all the words it's going to.


However, if we know who wrote the poem, we frequently do have access

to more words, after all.  A reading of the poet's other poems, or

or his letters, or fiction, or reading a biographical account of his

life... all these things give us a big context for understanding

his intentions in writing the poem.  Of course, you've got to be

pretty damned interested to do that.


Back to "the world began when I was born", I'd say in context it's

clear that the meaning is something like "I'm not bound by traditions.

I take a fresh look at everything and decide for myself what to do."


But someone might say: "No.  The poem's about a crazy person who

really thinks that the world began when he was born.  It's a case

study in insanity."


Or someone might say: "No.  The poem's an ironic attack on America's

westward expansion.  The poet deliberately puts ridiculous claims

in the character's mouth to make him appear foolish."


Now, I'm not saying you need to take these sorts of interpretations

seriously.  I'd say you should usually feel free to trust your own

judgment and your own common sense about what a poem means.


However, if you for some reason did want to treat these

interpretations seriously, there are two basic steps you might



Step 1.  Examine the poem.  Ask if anything in the poem contradicts

the interpretation.  Ask if the interpretation is needlessly

complicating the poem.


Step 2.  Examine what's known of the author and his likely

intentions.  Above all, look at his other poems.  If the author

wrote lots of poems extolling the cowboy life, which, as it happens,

he did, then these interpretations look even sillier than they did



Sometimes people object, on principle, to step two.  They say that

the poem is meant to stand on its own, as an independent creation.


Ayn Rand, for instance, wrote something that can be taken as

an objection to my step two:


"In essence, an objective evaluation requires that one identify

the artist's theme, the abstract meaning of his work (exclusively

by identifying the evidence contained in the work and allowing

no other, outside considerations)..."

                                               [Art & Sense of Life]


I have to say I don't exactly agree with this.


I think it's right to approach the poem as being, in a sense, a

work that stands on its own.  Just as it's right to approach a

building as a work that stands on its own.  But just as a building

is designed to fit into a particular location, so a poem is designed

to be understood within a cultural context.


The present poem affords a good example.  Imagine that you didn't

know anything at all about America's westward expansion, or cowboys.


Do you agree with me that the poem would lose something for you?


But suppose that even this state of ignorance, the poem still

intrigued you, because much of the meaning still got across, and

suppose you really liked it?  Then that might be the time for you to

do a little research - just to enhance your own enjoyment - just to

bring out a bit more of the flavor of the poem.


Finally, I want to say a word about what you might call personal

meaning.  Especially in the case of a poem that really seems to speak

to you, that somehow echoes and ties together with your own emotional

associations in a really big way.  When that happens, there's an

important sense in which those words become your own.  The poem

has special personal meaning for you.


That's a meaning to hold onto, even if you happen to decide it's not

the meaning the original poet had in mind.


Or, as we might say:


   The poem began when I heard it,

   And the poem is mine to interpret.


Let me give you an example from my own life:


Irish poets, learn your trade

Sing whatever is well made

Scorn the sort now growing up

All out of shape from toe to top,


This is from Yeats' poem "Under Ben Bulben."  It has deep personal

meaning to me as a call to create well-crafted poetry, as opposed

to the widespread formlessness of modern poetry.


I'm pretty sure, from looking at the lines that follow, that this is

not what Yeats had in mind.


And if I were teaching the poem to somebody, I wouldn't offer it as

an interpretation.


But when I say those words to myself, they remain a rallying cry for

well-crafted poetry.



2.  The Sound of English


We've been talking about words and what they mean, but we also need

to talk about words and how they sound.  Because poetry is the art

form that uses both sound and meaning to achieve its main effects.


Most of poetry's special sound effects are based on repetitive patterns

of sound - and on variations within these repetitive patterns.


This is true of rhythm and rhyme, to take two major examples.

Rhythm is a repetition of time-counts of syllables.  Rhyme is a

repetition of word endings - such as June and tune or ceiling and



Let's talk about rhythm and rhyme, as they occur in English, in turn.



a.  rhythm and meter


The simplest form of poetic rhythm, perhaps the only form that many

people consciously notice, is repeating patterns of line length.


In the excerpt from Ozymandias, for example, all the lines look about

the same length, and also sound about the same length.


If we try counting the syllables per line, we'll find that each line

has exactly 10 syllables.


And on the pe-de-stal these words ap-pear:      10

"My name is O-zy-man-dias, king of kings:       10  (or 11?)

Look on my works, ye Migh-ty, and de-spair."    10

Noth-ing be-side re-mains.  Round the de-cay    10

Of that col-los-sal wreck, bound-less and bare  10

The lone and lev-el sands stretch far a-way.     10


Actually, to be really precise the second line here might have

eleven syllables.  It depends on how you count the "dias" in

Ozymandias.  One syllable or two?  Or is it one and a half?

For now, since such a regularity has emerged, let's call

"Ozymandias" a four syllable word and keep the overall line

count down to 10 syllables for every line.


Well, you say, what a regular pattern.  Is that how we keep

time in classical English verse - by counting syllables?


No.  It's not that easy.  If this were French, it would be that



But this is English, and we do count syllables, but we count something

else as well - an attribute of the syllables that we call stress or



English is a language that uses stress a lot.  Almost all two syllable

words in English come with one stressed and one unstressed.


He was content with the content of the memo.


In this example, what looks like a repetition of the same word - that

word beginning with "c" - turns out to have two different stress

arrangements, dictated by the two different meanings.


conTENT is an adjective.


CONtent is a noun.


If you look up words with more than two syllables, you will find

that they generally fall into patterns of alternating stresses.

Two unstressed syllables may occur in a row, as in:


e MO tion al IS tic


But it will be almost impossible to find any words with three unstressed

syllables in a row.


Anyway, the natural tendency of English speakers is to speak in

alternating patterns of accented and unaccented sylliables.


By the mid-1300's, the time of Chaucer, English poets had abstracted

from these tendencies, and worked out a system of rhythm that's

sometimes called accentual-syllabic meter.  It's a way of keeping

time that involves measuring (or metering) both stresses (or accents)

and syllables.


There are 2 main counts, double and triple.



       soft HARD soft HARD...


       soft soft HARD soft soft HARD...


The repeating part of the pattern is called a "foot".


So "soft hard" is the foot of the double time rhythm.

And "soft soft hard" is the foot of the triple time rhythm.


The technical name for soft-hard is iambic, and the technical

name for soft-soft-hard is anapestic.  These are names taken over

from ancient Greek terminology.


In general, double time is far more common among poets than

triple time.  That is, iambic is the main meter of English



5-stress double-time, also known as iambic pentameter, sounds

like this:


He jests at scars that never felt a wound.

But, soft!  What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east and Juliet is the sun!

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,


4-stress double-time, more technically known as iambic

tetrameter, sound like this:


I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills

When all at once I saw a crowd

A host of golden daffodils


Now, let's take a look again at our Ozymandias excerpt and

its rhythm pattern.  I've already gone ahead and figured out

what I think the pattern is.  Figuring out the rhythmic pattern

is called scanning, and it's something of a learned skill.  It's

based on a kind of attentive listening to the way

you naturally are inclined to stress the words in the line.

But there's some trial-and-error to the method, and there are

sometimes judgment calls involved.  Experts can disagree

on details of how best to count the stresses and syllables in a line.


I've capitalized the syllables I count as stressed.


Over to the right I've charted a completely abstract

diagram of the soft and hard pattern, with soft syllables

showing as hyphens and hard syllables showing as apostrophes.

As I've charted it, the poem is basically iambic pentameter -

5 stress double-time.


Now I'll read it aloud, overemphasizing the emphases:


and ON the PE-de-STAL these WORDS ap-PEAR:       -'-'-'-'-'

"my NAME is O-zy-MAN-dias, KING of KINGS:        -'-'-'-'-'

LOOK on my WORKS, ye MIGH-ty, AND de-SPAIR."     '--'-'-'-'

NOTH-ing be-SIDE re-MAINS.  ROUND the de-CAY     '--'-''--'

of THAT col-LOS-sal WRECK, BOUND-less and BARE   -'-'-''--'

the LONE and LEV-el SANDS stretch FAR a-WAY.     -'-'-'-'-'


You'll notice, looking at the abstract chart, that there are only 4

places where Shelley runs two unaccented syllables next to each

other.  He actually does it simply by inverting the expected order of

some of the soft-hards - substituting hard-softs in their place.  He

does it quite carefully, so that it gives him a bit of variation

within what remains a pretty stable and tidy rhythm pattern.


I do want to show you a triple-time poem, as well, so I'm going

to share with you a limerick I wrote for my daughter Felicia.


  There was a young girl named Felicia             -'--'--'-

  Who giggled much more than a geisha              -'--'--'-

     But call her a name -                         -'--'

     Her temper would flame                        -'--'

  And she'd growl like a dog on a leasha.          --'--'--'-


If you look at the abstract stress chart, over to the side,

you'll see that most of the lines seem to start double time but

then shift into triple time, and you'll see that three of the

lines end with what might be called an extra leftover unstressed

syllable.  These are well within the normal range of variations

for limericks.


That horrible rhyme on the last line is also within the normal

range for limericks, which often feature, for their humorous

effect, purposely mis-pronounced rhyme words.



b.  rhyme and its cousins



I decided to talk about rhyme after rhythm, because one of rhyme's

major functions is to emphasize where the line endings are, so that

you can hear the patterns of lines more clearly.


Two words rhyme when they have identical endings.  We can be more

specific than that.  Two words rhyme perfectly in a poem when they are

identical sounding - starting from a stressed vowel sound.


For instance:

             badly & sadly  rhyme

             free  & me     rhyme


             but badly & me, don't make a perfect rhyme because the

last stressed vowel in badly is "a" sound and there's nothing like

that in "me".


Let's test it:

                 She was mean to me

                 I took it badly


Compare that to:


                 She was mean to me

                 I set her free


The second set of rhymes, I think you'll agree, is much stronger.


Most rhymes in English are simple one syllable rhymes like

    Flunk & Monk

These are called masculine rhymes


Less common are two syllable rhymes like

    Flunkie and Monkey

These are called feminine rhymes


Truly rare are rhymes of 3 or more syllables

    America & Esoterica

To them, we assign no gender.  They have a tendency to show

up in humorous verse.


Another type of rhyme that has a tendency to show up in humorous verse

is rhymes involving more than two words.  For instance:


    Very gravely                   --'-

    I forgave Lee.                 --'-


I would say this still sounds a little less than perfect to the ear,

because the real truth is that we don't really pronounce those 2

Lee's the same.  We might think that each "lee" is relatively

unstressed within the poem - as compared to the "ave" syllable

just before.  But it's also the case that we hear the name Lee

pronounced more sharply than the L-Y lee.


Rhyme has many cousins, and poets sometimes use these relatives as

stand-ins where you might have expected a rhyme.  That's right,

poet's just whip out their poetic license and say:


Officer, let this pass as a rhyme.


You remember, back in that first poem we looked at, To Althea

from Prison, we mentioned the so called "eye rhyme" between


            cage and hermitage.


It looks like it should rhyme - but you know how deceptive English

spelling is - all we get really is a sorta-rhyme,  what you might

call a near rhyme.  Because the trailing consonant sound the "j"

sound is the same, but the two "a" sounds are really quite different

here.  You might call this a consonant rhyme with similar vowels.

It's still a noticeable sound effect, just a weaker one than normal.


My own impression of the effect caused by various sorts of near-rhymes

in places where full rhymes are expected, is that they have a slight

emotional flattening effect... a subduing of tone.


Let's look at Lovelace's stanza again:


Stone walls do not a prison make,       -'-'-'-'

  Nor iron bars a cage;                 -'-'-'

Minds innocent and quiet take           -'-'-'-'

  That for an hermitage;                '--'-'

If I have freedom in my love            -'-'-'-'

  And in my soul am free,               -'-'-'

Angels alone, that soar above           '--'-'-'

  Enjoy such liberty.                   -'-'-'


What's interesting here is that free & liberty, while normally

categorized as a full rhyme, is probably not heard as strongly as

love & above.  Nor as strongly as make and take.  The liberty rhyme

sounds a little weaker because the "tee", while markedly stressed

in the poem's metrical pattern, doesn't have the feeling of being

stressed quite as much as the "free".  Because, within the word

Liberty, the "ty" has to stay stressed somewhat less than the LIB.

We say liberty, liberTEE.


I feel this works fine in this poem.  It seems to give it, for me,

a very sober emotional ring, that plays nicely against the extreme

intensity of his claims.


After all, he's claiming that a long as his mind and love are free,

he's as free as an angel.  Pretty strong stuff from someone sitting

behind bars.  I would s ay there's a real danger of sounding

hysterical when expressing such sentiments.  I think the off-rhyme

on heritage, and the slightly flat rhyme on liberty, help make him

sound more serious about what he's saying.


Rhyme, when used in combination with rhythm, is an extremely

powerful technique.  But it is possible, by intensive use of

other sound effects, to write poems in English that sound

as musical as a poem that does rhyme.


A good example is a poem of Tennyson's.  Here's the first stanza:


Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,

Tears from the depth of some divine despair

Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,

In looking at the happy autumn-fields,

And thinking of the days that are no more.


You'll notice he has a strong rhythm going.  You'll notice he

repeats the word tears 3 times.  You'll notice he has 3 important

words beginning with d on line 2.  You'll notice he actually does

have a rhyme, between rise and eyes, at the first word and last word

on line 3.


And it turns out that there are three more stanza's, all of which

end with the phrase "the days that are no more."


Tennyson's poem, while not rhymed, would never be called "free verse."

For something to be called "free verse," in English, it has to be

lacking in rhyme AND lacking a noticeable regular structure of stresses

and syllables.


And even free verse can sometimes sound pretty good:


I have said that the soul is not more than the body,

And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,

And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is,


Nice sentiments.


That Walt Whitman, of course, from Song of Myself, the beginning

of verse 48.


While his rhythms don't fall into a very regular pattern, the lines

still come out - at least for these three - at about the same length.

And there is a lot of verbal repetition - the same words and phrases

repeated completely.



c.  tracing patterns



Now that we've talked about rhythm and rhyme, we can talk a little

bit about verse forms.  Verse forms are are particular arrangements

of meter and rhyme - formal little recipes for building a poem that

probably will sound good.


We're going to talk about two very typical forms of English verse:

the sonnet, and the ballad or hymnal like form that's called

common measure.


The very first poem we looked at is an example of common measure.

Here it is again.


Stone walls do not a prison make,       -'-'-'-'   a

  Nor iron bars a cage;                 -'-'-'     b

Minds innocent and quiet take           -'-'-'-'   a

  That for an hermitage;                '--'-'     b


If I have freedom in my love            -'-'-'-'   c

  And in my soul am free,               -'-'-'     d

Angels alone, that soar above           '--'-'-'   c

  Enjoy such liberty.                   -'-'-'     d


Way over to the right, those abcd letters - those are an abstract

indication of the rhyme.  A letter is assigned to each rhyme-ending.

So a=ake, b=age, c=ov, and d=ee


Anyway, here's a recipe for strictest sort of common measure:


You build the poem in 4 line units,

All the lines are double-time.


The first line has 4 stresses,

the second line has 3 stresses,

the third line has 4 stresses

the fourth line has 3 stresses.


The first line rhymes with the third.

The second line rhymes with the fourth.


This pattern evolved out of folk ballads, and you will see it,

and things that resemble it, a lot.  Sometimes only the second

and fourth lines rhyme:


For instance:


  O, my love is like a red, red rose      --'-'-'-'   a

    That's newly sprung in June.          -'-'-'      b

  O my love is like the melody            --'-'-'-'   c

    That's sweetly played in tune.        -'-'-'      b


As long as we're looking at the poem again, look how much

verbal repetition Burns has going here.  "O my love is like" at the

beginning of 2 lines and the other 2 lines both begin with "That's"

and have utterly parallel grammatical structures.


The other verse form I want to discuss is the Sonnet, just because

so many have been written, and it's regarded as a form for poets

who really know what they're doing.


There are somewhat different varieties of sonnet, but a general

recipe is 14 lines, all double-time, 5 stresses each, each line

rhyming to at least one other line.


It has a very different feel to it than common measure does.

Where the common measure retains a song-like quality, the sonnet has

a much more talky kind of feel to it.


Earlier, we looked at the last six lines of Shelley's Ozymandias.

Now let's look at the first eight lines as well, which combined with

the last six is the whole poem - all 14 lines of it.  Yes, it's

a sonnet.


Before we read it, let me mention that antique, as it's used in this

poem, means ancient, and that visage, which is a 25-point vocabulary

word, means face.


I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert.  Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair."

Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.


I'm not going to analyze this poem much more right now.  I just wanted

you to hear what it sounds like as a unit.




3.  Sound / Sense Integration


We've talked about sound and sense.  Let's talk a little now about how they

integrate into a single work of art - a single mode of expression.

I'm going to talk about this at the simplest level - because it's

a level I understand pretty well.


At this simplest level, integration has occurred as long as there

aren't any really ugly clashes.  So let's talk about the very basic

ugly clashes that the poet wants to avoid.



a.  tortured vs. smooth syntax



The first ugly clash occurs when the poet has so much trouble trying

to get his words into a pattern of some sort that he renders his

sentences almost unreadable by knocking the sentence out of its

natural pattern.


Consider the sentence:


Let me not admit impediments to the marriage of true minds.


Then consider this order:


Let me not, to the marriage of true minds, admit impediments.


This may not seem quite as natural, but it's still pretty

understandable.  And this is how Shakespeare opens up one of his



Let me not, to the marriage of true minds,

Admit impediments.  Love is not love

That alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove;


You see, he's managed to line up minds so it rhymes with finds.


Now let's really botch some syntax.


Give me liberty

Or death me give.

Unless I'm wild and free

I just can't live.


My second line here is simply an abomination.  It's normal order

is painfully out of line - all for the apparent purpose of getting

give to the end of the line so I can rhyme it with "live".



b.  forced vs. natural rhymes



Okay.  Let's put the second line back to normal and find a different

way to rhyme the last line with something like the same meaning:


Give me liberty

Or give me death.

Unless I'm wild and free

I can't draw breath.


How's this.  A little better, maybe.  Or maybe just bad in a different

way.  What's wrong here is that godawful last line.  It rhymes very

nicely - but the sense isn't quite right.  Yes, in theory "to live" is

"to draw breath", but to me the new version sounds like the word choice

has been unnaturally forced in order to hit the rhyme.


If it's extremely obvious to you that a word is present "just because"

it rhymed, and it doesn't seem to serve the meaning of the poem too

well, then the integration of sound and sense has failed.



c.  testing by changing



A somewhat different way of looking at the unity of a poem, is to

start with a poem that really works for you - and try fiddling with

it - just to see what goes wrong.  Change a word here and there and

see whether the magic mysteriously goes out of the chant.  Then try

to figure out what happened.


Let's go back to the first poem we looked at, and let's try changing

two syllables:


Stone walls do not a prison make,

  Nor cold steel bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

  That for an hermitage;


What's happened here?  The second line is no longer so flowing as it

was before, it seems to trip on those cold steel bars. After all, even

though we count iron and cold steel as two syllables each, it's clear

really iron is much faster to say.


From a sense point of view, we've lost the conventional phrase

"iron bars", and we've introduced a distracting element of temperature.

And we've lost the pure parallelism of stone walls and iron bars, of

raw material and fashioned barrier.


From a sound point of view, we've picked up a starting-consonants echo

of steel  with stone and cold with cage.  That looks like it could be a plus.

But we've lost a subtle echo between prison and iron.


Overall, I'd say I've seriously damaged the line.



4.  Approaching the Poem


a. listening vs. reading


You may have noticed, as we've talked about making sound and sense

walk hand in hand, that I've switched back and forth between asking you to

use your ears and asking you to use your eyes.  I've said: listen to

this and look at that.


Listening is more important, but when we first approach a poem it is

usually looking that has to come first - because most of us encounter

poems on the printed page.  We don't just happen to overhear them when

we're walking down the street.


I just want to encourage you, when you read a poem to yourself, to at

least "sub-vocalize" it.  Even if you can't really say it out loud,

read it slowly enough so that you can imagine hearing it.  Poetry's

a form of literature where speed-reading rarely pays off.


If you can read it aloud, that's where I think the real fun is.


If you want to analyze the poem, having the poem on paper is very

helpful.  Abstract rhyme and meter diagrams are things I personally

am fascinated by.



b.  Entering the World of the Poem


But analyzing the poem is different from the experience of "entering

the world of the poem."


This is a hard experience to describe.  There's something relaxing

about it when you do it.  You have to kind of "let down your guard"

and temporarily accept the poet's words - kind of let them wash over

you - and see what happens - see how it makes you feel.


Rand has a brief description of this kind of experiencing, as applied to

music, in an early scene in Atlas Shrugged, where Dagny, falling asleep

in a railroad car, experiences a melody of her favorite composer.  

Rand describes Dagny as feeling - okay, this is it, you can just let go

and surrender to this experience.


Well, if you can get to that state of mind, that's the way you can get

the maximum effect a poem has to offer.


Spending time on the poem, reading it over and over, can be a big help.



c. Holding off the Internal Critic



Another thing that can be a big help is putting a temporary muzzle on

what I would call your own internal critic - the little voice inside

you that may be in a big hurry to decide such questions as:


- exactly what is this poem saying

- does this poem meet my criteria for a good poem

- do I approve of this poem

- am I capable of ever understanding this poem


Instead, give your sense of life a chance to feel the poem, notice

what it is your emotional side likes and dislikes.  Then

you can let your critical faculty look at WHY you like and dislike

what you do.  But, first, accept the fact of what you really like and

dislike - or love and hate!


This approach lets your critical faculty be your friend.


Accept the fact that you may just love some poems that on a critical

level you are inclined to say: gee, that isn't written too well, or

some of the ideas are awful, or whatever.


Just to share a personal experience on this.  When my daughter Noelle

died, we had a non-religious funeral, and it involved reading some

poems.  A couple of poems by me, but some others as well.


The poems by other people I chose are not poems I would point to as

great poems.  But each of them captured something about what I felt

about her life and death.


I hesitated in particular over the poem we read at her graveside,

called "Prayer for a Very New Angel," by Violet Alleyn Storey.

I hesitated because the explicit form of the

poem is of a mother asking God to take care of her little girl on her

first night in heaven.


Now, I don't believe in God or heaven, but that poem perfectly

captured, for me, the anguish of still wanting desperately to take

care of a little girl who was gone.


I should warn you: there IS a risk in holding off your internal critic

and immersing yourself in the experience of the poem.  The risk is

that you may get pretty disgusted or upset with what you experience.


When this happens, note the name of the poet, and think twice about

doing that with him again.



5. Finding and Keeping What You Like


a. Sampling


Of course, experiencing poetry is only an end in itself when you

enjoy the experience at some level.  How do you find poems that

will do this for you?  I follow two strategies: sampling and



Sampling is where you don't go for total immersion right away.  You

happen to see a poem, you've got lots on your mind, you don't want

to waste your time, etc.  So don't go diving.  Stick a toe in first.

Just read a couple of lines and watch whether it makes you feel

anything interesting.  If it does nothing for you, move on.


This lets you try a lot of new things, and sometimes lets you find

something surprising that you came across quite by accident.



b.  Searching



Searching is the broader strategy that makes sure you have things

to sample.


What I tend to do is:


1) Look for other things by poets I already know I like.

  [Wilbur/Badger Clark]

2) Go to the poetry section of a book store or library and just

   open books by people I don't know and just sample - stick my

   toe in for a couple of lines.

3) Look at anthologies and poetry textbooks and sample there, too.

   These are particularly valuable for finding the may "one hit wonders"

   of the poetry worlds. Anthologies and textbooks usually embody a lot of 

   intelligence that went into find poetry that would engage people.

   And the textbooks often include valuable explanatory material,

   including help with the odd vocabulary you come across in a lot

   of poems.



c. Carrying



Once you find a poem you love - that inspires you or reassures you or

soothes your troubled soul, why not keep it handy?


You may not have thought of it, but poetry is a preeminently portable

art form.  You can write down the lines you really like onto a small

piece of paper, or you can photocopy the poem and cut out the part

you really like, and you can fold it up and carry it with you.


Stick your favorite verse

In your wallet or your purse.                               

Then read it

When you need it.



d. Memorizing



The ultimate in carrying convenience, however, is when you carry poetry

in your head.


And poetry's practically designed to be carried this way.  The

repeating patterns of verse makes it easier to memorize than prose.


If you were forced to memorize poems in school, this may sound like

total drudgery.  But it's not so bad if you just do it with stuff

you like.  And it's easier than you might think.





This is the end

Of our whirlwind tour

I hope that it wasn't

Too much to endure


Thanks for listening.  And now, I'm ready to listen to your questions

and comments.





Note from Q & A period:


1 poetry recording I somehow forgot to mention:

  Linda Abrams' Berton Braley tape.




1) How Poets Make Sense

   a. "saying what isn't so"

   b. metaphor & simile

   c. irony & ambiguity

   d. compression

   e. interpreting


2) The Sound of English

   a. rhythm & meter

   b. rhyme & its cousins

   c. tracing patterns


3) Sound / Sense Integration

   a. tortured vs. smooth syntax

   b. forced vs. natural rhymes

   c. stilted vs. varied meter

   d. testing by changing


4) Approaching the Poem

   a. listening vs. reading

   b. entering the world of the poem

   c. holding off the internal critic


5) Finding and Keeping What You Like

   a. sampling

   b. searching

   c. carrying

   d. memorizing


For further reading (all in print):


Some short introductory works about poetry:


Poetry Handbook, by Babette Deutsch, 1982, Barnes & Noble, New York


The Poet’s Handbook, by Judson Jerome, 1986, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio.


Rhyme’s Reason, by John Hollander, 1989, Yale University Press




Big textbook with many poems:


Introduction To Poetry, 1997 (now in 9th edition), edited by X.J. Kennedy, Addison-Wesley.




Advanced reference work:


The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, Princeton University Press.