Poetry, Chapter 1

Let’s talk about reframing.

Poetry might be overused as a term.  It seems to mean everything from “beautiful” to “meaningless”, plus the undefinable literary form of poetry which then gives rise to its prose definition…  The point is, ask most people and they won’t be able to tell you exactly what poetry is.  Of course there’s the dictionary definition— but how do you pin down poetry?  How do you pin down what’s poetic and what’s not, and what makes a good poem different from a bad one, and what lets some writers get away without capitalizing entire paragraphs while other writers get trashed for it?

I’m not going to try.

Well, I lie.  I am going to try.  But I’ll tell you now, poetry is so much more than I can ever tell you it should be.  If you think I’m wrong, good.  I’m wrong.  Give me a better definition.

Poetry, to me, is a reframing of one situation into terms of another.  It takes the present— yours, the author’s, the character’s— and reimagines it in terms of something completely unconnected, or refocuses it on the tiniest possible detail, or steps back to look at the picture as a whole.  It’s a reframing from the way we approached the situation.

Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine.
(Neil Gaiman, American Gods, GoodReads)

The above stuck out to me from the many pages of the book in which it was couched.  It’s poetic, it’s something that makes you stop and think, “Huh.  Never thought of it that way.”  The characters are on a car trip, and, well, yes— Chicago would arrive pretty slowly if you’re driving toward it for a long time.

But why this exact phrasing?  It happened “like a migraine”.  That’s structured as a simple simile, but it’s a strange one.  Why not “like a cloud on the horizon”?  Why say Chicago “happened”, instead of “arrived” or “grew closer”?  (I’m intentionally being dull here.  We all know Gaiman’s sentence is probably the best version of that sentence we could ever get.)  What makes this sentence poetic?

I believe it’s the explanation of one concept by the introduction of something completely different.  It sheds new light on the subject and makes a person think, but simultaneously sparks the exact reaction the writer planned to spark.  In other words, it’s showing, not telling, but showing so creatively and elegantly that we can’t help but call it “beautiful” or “poetic”.

But this is just a single aspect of poetry (reframing a situation via simile).  Poetry is obviously more than just that.  We could discuss a verb intriguingly applied to a cloud, or understatement as a tool.  How about another style of poetry that I mentioned, refocusing on a tiny detail?  Maggie Stiefvater has something to say about that:

So remember, it’s not that the parking lot is lonely. It’s that it’s empty, and there’s one seagull picking at an abandoned bag of cold French Fries next to an old Escort with a dent in the door and a dirty, crumpled battle of the bands poster.

(Maggie Stiefvater, Dissecting Pages for Mood)

Or how about the final one I mentioned, zooming out to look at the big picture?  Here’s some Leo Tolstoy:

There was nothing over him now except the sky—the lofty sky, not clear, but still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds slowly creeping across it. “How quiet, calm, and solemn, not at all like when I was running,” thought Prince Andrei, “not like when we were running, shouting, and fighting; not at all like when the Frenchman and the artillerist, with angry and frightened faces, were pulling at the swab—it’s quite different the way the clouds creep across this lofty, infinite sky. How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before? And how happy I am that I’ve finally come to know it. Yes! everything is empty, everything is a deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility. And thank God! …”

(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Schmoop)

And this, also from War and Peace:

Looking down over the railing, Prince Nesvitsky saw the swift, noisy, low waves of the Enns, which, merging, rippling, and swirling around the pilings of the bridge, drove on one after the other. Looking at the bridge, he saw the same monotonous living waves of soldiers, shoulder braids, shakos with dustcovers, packs, bayonets, long muskets, and under the shakos faces with wide cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and carefree, weary faces, and feet moving over the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge. Occasionally, amidst the monotonous waves of soldiers, like a spray of white foam on the waves of the Enns, an officer pushed his way through, in a cape, with his physiognomy distinct from the soldiers’; occasionally, like a chip of wood swirled along by the river, a dismounted hussar, an orderly, or a local inhabitant was borne across the bridge by the waves of infantry; occasionally, like a log floating down the river, a company’s or an officer’s cart floated across the bridge, surrounded on all sides, loaded to the top, and covered with leather.

(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Schmoop)

Of course, you could argue that the two above quotes are not actually a zooming out at all, but a focus in on the clouds, or the river, or the artillerist, or the column of men, or the officer in his cape, or Prince Andrei, or Prince Nesvitsky— and within the many facets of the second quote, a likening to the motion of a river.  And you’d be correct.  I think this final quote exhibits all three techniques in one.

But they’re all reframings.  The Maggie Stiefvater quote takes an empty parking lot and turns it into a seagull and a dented car, things we don’t associate with every lonely parking lot— but if we hear about those things, we can picture it all the better.  The first War and Peace quote is, I believe, moments after the narrator got either stabbed or blown up or had something violent happen to him while he was fighting the French, and he dramatically sets it all aside for a breath of tranquility.   The final War and Peace moment is possibly the most blatant reframe, where the soldiers become the river, a cart becomes a log, an officer becomes a spray of white foam.

Poetry is reframing.  The picture twists and changes into something completely different in our minds, whether through simile, detail, or generalization.

Further Reading:

  • Any of the books I quoted or mentioned in this post are worth the time.
  • If you’d like to browse through some literary devices, feel free.

Exercises:

  • Pick one of your favorite books or movies.  Find a moment that strikes you as poetic.  What techniques does the author or director use in that moment?  What kind of words, what kind of rhythm, what kind of imagery?
  • Write something poetic.  It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to reframe something.  Try to reframe in a way that hasn’t been done before.
  • Describe your house by picking on a single detail.  Now describe it by generalizing.  Now describe it by simile.  See if you can blend all three.
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A Toast to Balance

Imagine your perfect kitchen.

You have an oven.  You have a stove.  You have a microwave.  Between the toaster and the refrigerator is a clock radio that plays your favorite tunes.  Special lighting illuminates every inch of countertop.  This kitchen is basically the Ikea model; functionality, variety, and brushed aluminum everywhere.

Unfortunately, this kitchen has no electrical outlets.  When you go to make toast, you might be disappointed.

Now imagine the opposite.  Your friend has a kitchen.  It has electrical outlets every six inches.  No matter how many beaters, blenders, or bread machines your friend owns, each one has an outlet.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t have any of those appliances.  In fact, despite all her outlets, she has nothing to plug in.

Yours might be the Ikea model kitchen, but hers is the Home Depot electrical showcase.  (“Choose the outlet that fits your personality!!”)

Will either kitchen work if you want toast?  Probably not.  What kind of kitchen would give you toast?  That’s pretty easy to imagine: the kitchen with the best of both worlds.  Enough appliances to do the job, with enough outlets to power them all.  Perfection.

Before I lose you, I promise I’m not going into kitchen design.  I’d like to twist this metaphor to talk about speaking and writing (especially nonfiction).  Despite the appliances, this is a “show don’t tell” kind of post. Continue reading “A Toast to Balance”

How to Learn

Listening is not active.

Maybe you’re a good listener.  Maybe you take the time to sit down next to someone and really hear what they’re telling you.  That’s active, because that’s a conversation.  It may be largely one-sided, but it’s still a conversation and you’re still contributing, whether by body language or word whiskers (mms and aahs).  If you needed to, you could jump in and state your side, then go back to listening.  That’s active.

At times, however, we’re all bad listeners.  The TV is on and you’re hearing it, but you’re looking at the little news ticker on the bottom of the screen for lottery numbers rather than listening to the news.  Or you were having a conversation with someone, until they hijacked it for their own complaints, and now you’re just nodding along to make them think you’re a good listener.  That’s not active.

Here’s the thing: listening itself is not active.  It’s what you do alongside listening that makes it active.  Maybe you’re taking notes as a teacher is talking.  Maybe you’re trying to understand things from another person’s perspective, and interjecting into the conversation once or twice to clarify, or give your own experiences.  Jumping rope while listening is not active listening, despite both being active and listening.  If you’re taking what you hear and making something out of it, you’re actively listening. Continue reading “How to Learn”

Another Tag

Here’s another tag post, filled with fun, whimsy, and questionable interpretations.  I mean, interpreting questions.  Because I can’t answer anything straight.

This is the Would You Rather book tag, given once again by Katie.  Full disclosure from the beginning, I can’t stand either/or questions, because there is never a situation in which you won’t change your mind.  Would you rather have pizza or rocks?  Well, I’d probably pick pizza at first, but if I just spent the last eight months eating nothing but pizza while travelling around the magical and pizza-filled Pizzazia, I think I’d have to go with rocks.  All I’m saying is there’s always a possibility.  Thus, I’m not going to like any of my own answers, so definitely don’t read too much into them.  So, would I rather… Continue reading “Another Tag”

How to Title Stuff

You walk into a bookstore.  A promising book peeks out at you from a shelf.  You take it out and look it over.  Intriguing cover art, thick enough to really enjoy, and the synopsis looks great.  You look at the title again to memorize it for next time (you don’t have the funds this time to splurge on unknown books), and wince.  Despite all its promise, it has a generic title.  White Lie, a contemporary novel.  Dark Kingdom, a fantasy.  My Perfect Laddie, a romance.  Everything else sounds so promising, but someone didn’t know how to title their book.

For me, I wouldn’t be as enthusiastic.  A title that brings nothing new to the imagination doesn’t promise much for the rest of the book.

On the other hand, some writers produce brilliant titles.  The title gives a piece of the book which, combined with the cover, synopsis, and everything else, produces curiosity.  The Scorpio Races, for instance, is rather cryptic in terms of the contents of the book.  However, you know immediately it’s about a race, or a series of races.  Scorpio isn’t very easy to interpret— it has a couple different connotations, but none of them apply to racing.  It seems to imply a bit of danger and some other stuff that means more to people who have read the book.  Combined, the words leave more unknown than they clarified.  They create curiosity, and if you’re trying to figure out what the book is like, you’re still stuck.

I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out.  Sneaky author.

You know what a good title does: it makes you curious, it gives you a taste without shoving it down your throat.  But I think you also know how to create a good title.  I’m pretty sure I just explained it. Continue reading “How to Title Stuff”

How to Write Epic Poetry

John Milton is as good as his writing.

He grew up wanting to write poetry, but held off on writing anything spectacularly huge until later in his life.  When he had succeeded in his career, had a family, and gone blind, he finally decided to write some epic poetry, the kind he always knew he could write.  He dictated Paradise Lost, and we still praise him for it.

But was it some act of genius?  Was it a lightning-strike of a Muse, a moment of inspiration unparalleled before and since?  Of course not.  He spent time on this thing.  He thought long and hard about how he was going to write it, who the characters were, and what story he wanted to tell.  He weighed the options of language— should he write it in English, or a more epic language of Greek or Latin?  (He was fluent in all three, and probably several more.)  Should it rhyme?  All of these deep, difficult questions plagued him, but he knocked them down one by one until he could produce the masterpiece we have today.

My point?  There’s a process, my friends, to writing epic poetry.  Homer, Virgil, Milton, all created amazing, lasting works— and you can too. Continue reading “How to Write Epic Poetry”

Enjoying Genre

I sincerely hope I never write literary fiction again.

Literary fiction is, when done correctly, gorgeous.  It explores deeply the complexities of a character, showing in a different light all the disgusting glory of human existence.  It insults, weeps, and delights itself.  Again, when done correctly, literary fiction is gorgeous.

I don’t want it.

A couple days ago, someone presented me with a visual prompt: the sun behind a pair of mountains behind a grove of trees, all frozen solid.  So I wrote a piece of flash fiction, and since I was on the spot and currently reading Thomas Wolfe, I wrote it in that style.  I wrote about choices, and change, and the affect of beauty on the mind.  It sounds so pretentious here, but it was only 200 words, and I showed as much as I could.  It was good practice for description and emotion.

The next day, I realized how much I loathed what I had written. Continue reading “Enjoying Genre”

Transitions

This is a concept I’ve sat on for months, mentioning it here or there when I needed it. A couple times, I’ve started to write a post about it, but stopped. It seemed too elementary, too high school essay writing class. Transitions are technical, boring– useful, but the world is fully survivable without them. But recently, I’ve begun paying attention once again to transitions. Books, movies, anything with a scene break. Transitions make a story run smoothly.

Transitions are fairly self-explanatory. They bridge from one thing to another. When something is running smoothly, such as paragraphs in a scene, no transitions are necessary. But the moment something breaks, such as a scene, a chapter, or a viewpoint, a transition either exists to smooth it over, or doesn’t.

A chapter ends with a plot twist to make the reader want to keep reading. A transition makes it easy to keep reading. Continue reading “Transitions”

The Right Word

Beautiful words are daunting.

Thankfully, beautiful words aren’t what we’re looking for.  Since beauty is subjective anyway, it’s difficult to find any one qualification that makes a beautiful word.  Think about it.  What makes something poetic?  Rhyming?  Not necessarily.  Syllables?  Nope.  Metaphors?  Not at all.  The only thing common to everything we call poetic is beauty, and that’s subjective.  What makes it poetic?

Simple answer: it’s the Right Word.

The Right Word could have many definitions and facets.  It could be exactly what it says, the correct word for a specific instance.  Or it could be a sentence, again perfect in that space.  Or it could be a paragraph, artfully short or vivid.  The Right Word is any selection of words that happens to be perfect for its situation.

Think about that for a moment.  Beautiful words are just perfect.  That’s it.  In order to write beautifully, you just have to write… perfectly. Continue reading “The Right Word”

Poetic Beginnings and Sad Endings (TCWT)

“What are your favorite book beginnings and/or endings?” 

Thus begins my TCWT post for September, because I couldn’t think of anything cleverer to say.  Since I still have nothing, I won’t bore you with it— right into the beginnings.

One of my favorite beginning is that of The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.  It’s an epic fantasy that doesn’t begin with a battle between the Dark Lord and the few ruggedly handsome who dare to stand up to him.  Instead, it begins with silence.  A silence so layered that you can feel it through the pages.  It’s called poetry, my friends, and it’s beautiful.

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

Another excellent, poetic beginning is that of The Book Thief.  Poetic, and hypocritical— the narrator tells you the truth no one wants to remember, then talks about colors to help himself forget about that same truth.  It’s a pretty amazing character moment as well as a great hook. Continue reading “Poetic Beginnings and Sad Endings (TCWT)”