Advanced Poetry Writing
Michael McDowell
Portland Community College

Poetry Lessons
(Numbers in parentheses indicate pages in R. S. Gwynn's Poetry: A Pocket Anthology, 3rd ed., 2002) 

Lessons from John Keats

Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (140)
Lesson 1. The pathetic fallacy makes the setting evoke the right mood for the reader. Here, the knight's environment is one where "the sedge has withered," "no birds sing," and it's a "cold hill side." La Belle Dame's world is one of garlands, roots of relish sweet, manna dew. The effect created is what Bakhtin might call a "character zone."

Lesson 2. Established poets have historically talked about others, not about themselves and their own personal problems and desires. They sublimate their emotions in their characters, imagining another life, another time, with all their own desires. 

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" (196)
Lesson 3. Poems of address can bring inanimate objects alive, especially works of art. A good exercise is to sit in front of a huge canvas or sculpture at the Portland Art Museum with pen and paper and start talking to the artwork.

Lessons from A. E. Housman

"Eight O'Clock" (195)
Lesson 1: Rhyme gives a sense of inevitability, of harmony. It creates a tension in a situation like this, where there's an about-to-be-hanged man resisting the inevitability, but rhyme wins out. The strongest sense of inevitability (and of harmony) comes with the last word, which fits perfectly: "struck."

Lesson 2: Strong verbs bring even a static scene to life. In this poem, nothing happens until the last word; everyone is simply waiting until the clock strikes eight a.m., then the traditional hour for executions. Then the clock strikes, and the lever to make the man fall is struck. But look at the verbs that convey action during the wait: stood, heard, sprinkle, tossed, strapped, noosed, nighing, stood, counted, cursed, collected. The poem has twelve verbs among its fifty-three words; 23% of the poem is verbs! (And of course not a one of them is a "be" verb or other linking verb.)

Lesson 3: Poems gain power as they shed the clutter of qualifiers, especially adjectives. The entire poem has only one adjective--"morning," in front of "town"-- and that one adjective is really a noun functioning as an adjective. The rest of the poem's nouns stand alone, immediately meaning exactly what they mean, without the reader's mind having to qualify what kind of the noun is meant: steeple, quarters, town, market-place, people, hour, luck, clock, tower, strength. We might also note that no nouns are repeated.

"Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now" (195)
Lesson 4: Subtle alliteration links concepts: bloom/bough, woodland/wearing/white, ten/twenty, seventy/springs/score.

Lesson 5: A metaphor becomes more immediate if it's prepared for by a similar grammatical structure earlier in the poem with the tenor of the metaphor in the vehicle's place. In stanza one, we get "the cherry now / Is hung with bloom along the bough," and then in the last stanza, the elliptical and synecdochical "the cherry hung with snow" has a stronger, more immediate effect with fewer words needed.

Lesson 6: Obvious transitions ease the reader's movement from thought to thought of the poem. Look at the first line of each stanza, and we get "now," "Now," "And since."

Lesson 7: The stanza structure of the poem makes the ideas more immediately graspable if each stanza is a self-contained thought unit. Here, we have Stanza 1: observed fact; stanza 2: reflection on the fact; stanza 3: proposed action on the reflection. 

Lessons from William Butler Yeats

Lesson 1: The greater world which education opens up provides a starting point which can speak across differences in geography, era, and culture. 

  • Lake Isle starts from Thoreau's Walden
  • Leda from Greek myth, 
  • Byzantium from European history, 
  • Second Coming from the Bible, and 
  • Aegnus from Irish folklore. 
Lesson 2: Exact words recreate reality:
  • Lake Isle: "clay and wattles," "glade," "linnet" 
  • Leda: "nape," 
  • Byzantium: "salmon-falls," "mackeral-crowded seas," "hammered gold and gold enameling"
  • Aengus: "hazel wood," "silver trout," "dappled grass"
Lesson 3: Parallel structures, especially compounds, create memorable lines:
Lake Isle: 
  • of clay and wattles made
  • There midnight's all a glimmer and noon a purple glow
  • On the roadway, or on the pavements gray
  • Fish, flesh, or fowl
  • Begotten, born, and dies
  • To lords and ladies
  • What is past, or passing, or to come
Second Coming:
  • The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity
  • A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun
  • and cut and peeled a hazel wand
  • Through hollow lands and hilly lands
  • And kiss her lips and take her hands
  • Till time and times are done
  • The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun 
Lesson 4: Quotable lines often follow a rigorous meter:
  • An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
  • u ' / u ' / u  ' / u ' / u ' /        u ' / u ' / u ' / u  ' / u '  =  two exact iambic pentameter lines
Lessons from Edna St. Vincent Millay

"If I Should Learn, In Some Quite Casual Way" (244)
Lesson 1: A poem sometimes starts by a writer imagining a particular person she or he knows well and has strong feelings about, and then imagining a situation in the future in which the writer's persona illustrates his or her feelings by a particular behavior.

Lesson 2: A poem can use a Shakespearean sonnet form (abab, cdcd, efef, gg) in strict iambic pentameter to make a normal statement, straying from ordinary colloquial syntax and diction.

Lesson 3: The poem does not explain feelings; instead, it demonstrates feelings by showing particular revelatory actions. The last two lines of the poem express emphatically the speaker's relegation of "you" to a level of importance below helpful hints on storing one's furs and treating one's hair.

"Not in a Silver Casket" (244)
Lesson 4: The structure of a poem typically indicates changes in subject or attitude. Here the first quatrain is about the kinds of rich silver caskets some girls give their lovers; the second quatrain is about the traditional love objects other women give their lovers (lovers' knot, ring with a perfume compartment); the third quatrain employs a "volta" in the way Petrarchan sonnets do--a sudden turn in sentiment--and shifts from the bejeweled crafted world to the natural world (cowslips, apples); and the final couplet speaks in a simple loving child's voice, in tune with the third quatrain, to illustrate feeling (without ever saying "I love you" or "I feel for you.")

Lessons from William Stafford

Stafford, "Traveling Through the Dark" (273)
Lesson 1: Writing in quatrains and in 5-stressed-beat lines gives a sense of form (form = art), without worrying about the niceties of meter.

Lesson 2: Alliteration and assonance can engage the ear instead of rhyme.

Lesson 3: Setting is everything. Setting (context) often determines the justness or morality of an act.

Lesson 4: Doubleness rules in poetry; it's the basis of understanding:

  • Dark (ignorance) / dark (night)
  • Swerve (car) / swerve (thinking)
  • Warm exhaust turning red / warm deer turning red
Lesson 5: Every act, every event, is imbued with meaning. The poet's task is to recognize meanings and to present acts and events in such a way that a reader realizes the meaning without a prose-like explanation.

Last modified: May 4, 2002
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