Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Elements of Poetry

Prof. Prabhat Kumar.

Elements of Poetry

Following are the elements of poetry which may be of help to understand a poem as well as the given elements. It may be noted that the method adopted for elaboration is for the purpose of knowing these and these are not supposed to be copied down in the examination answer-book. Moreover, contents may be used according to appropriateness to the context.

An allegory is a whole world of symbols. Within a narrative form, which can be either in prose or verse, an allegory tells a story that can be read symbolically. You may have encountered The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser, or a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne such as Rappacini’s Daughter, or maybe you’ve heard that The Wizard of Oz was originally an allegory. Interpreting an allegory is complicated because you need to be aware of what each symbol in the narrative refers to. Allegories thus reinforce symbolic meaning, but can also be appreciated as good stories regardless of their allegorical meaning.

Alliteration occurs when the initial sounds of a word, beginning either with a consonant or a vowel, are repeated in close succession.

Athena and Apollo
Nate never knows
People who pen poetry

Note that the words only have to be close to one another: Alliteration that repeats and attempts to connect a number of words is little more than a tongue-twister.

The function of alliteration, like rhyme, might be to accentuate the beauty of language in a given context, or to unite words or concepts through a kind of repetition. Alliteration, like rhyme, can follow specific patterns. Sometimes the consonants aren't always the initial ones, but they are generally the stressed syllables. Alliteration is less common than rhyme, but because it is less common, it can call our attention to a word or line in a poem that might not have the same emphasis otherwise.

If alliteration occurs at the beginning of a word and rhyme at the end, assonance takes the middle territory. Assonance occurs when the vowel sound within a word matches the same sound in a nearby word, but the surrounding consonant sounds are different. "Tune" and "June" are rhymes; "tune" and "food" are assonant. The function of assonance is frequently the same as end rhyme or alliteration: All serve to give a sense of continuity or fluidity to the verse. Assonance might be especially effective when rhyme is absent: It gives the poet more flexibility, and it is not typically used as part of a predetermined pattern. Like alliteration, it does not so much determine the structure or form of a poem; rather, it is more ornamental.

Denotation is when you mean what you say, literally. Connotation is created when you mean something else, something that might be initially hidden. The connotative meaning of a word is based on implication, or shared emotional association with a word. Greasy is a completely innocent word: Some things, like car engines, need to be greasy. But greasy contains negative associations for most people, whether they are talking about food or about people. Often there are many words that denote approximately the same thing, but their connotations are very different. Innocent and genuine both denote an absence of corruption, but the connotations of the two words are different: innocent is often associated with a lack of experience, whereas genuine is not. Connotations are important in poetry because poets use them to further develop or complicate a poem's meaning.

Diction refers to both the choice and the order of words. It has typically been split into vocabulary and syntax. The basic question to ask about vocabulary is "Is it simple or complex?" The basic question to ask about syntax is "Is it ordinary or unusual?" Taken together, these two elements make up diction. When we speak of a "level of diction," we might be misleading, because it's certainly possible to use "plain" language in a complicated way, especially in poetry, and it's equally possible to use complicated language in a simple way. It might help to think of diction as a web rather than a level: There's typically something deeper than a surface meaning to consider, so poetic diction is, by definition, complex.

Think of an image as a picture or a sculpture, something concrete and representational within a work of art. Literal images appeal to our sense of realistic perception, like a nineteenth-century landscape painting that looks "just like a photograph." There are also figurative images that appeal to our imagination, like a twentieth-century modernist portrait that looks only vaguely like a person but that implies a certain mood.

Literal images saturate Samuel Coleridge's poem, "Kubla Khan: or, A Vision in a Dream":
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And there were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. (lines 6-11)

A figurative image begins T. S. Eliot's famous poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

To see the evening in the way Prufrock describes it requires an imaginative leap: He's doing much more than setting the scene and telling us that it's night time. We are encouraged to see stars, to feel the unconscious and infinite presence of the universe, but these things are only implied. In either case, poetic imagery alters or shapes the way we see what the poem is describing.

As a figure of speech, irony refers to a difference between the way something appears and what is actually true. Part of what makes poetry interesting is its indirectness, its refusal to state something simply as "the way it is." Irony allows us to say something but to mean something else, whether we are being sarcastic, exaggerating, or understating. A woman might say to her husband ironically, "I never know what you're going to say," when in fact she always knows what he will say. This is sarcasm, which is one way to achieve irony. Irony is generally more restrained than sarcasm, even though the effect might be the same. The woman of our example above might simply say, "Interesting," when her husband says something that really isn't interesting. She might not be using sarcasm in this case, and she might not even be aware that she is being ironic. A listener who finds the husband dull would probably understand the irony, though. The key to irony is often the tone, which is sometimes harder to detect in poetry than in speech.

Closely related to similes, metaphors immediately identify one object or idea with another, in one or more aspects. The meaning of a poem frequently depends on the success of a metaphor. Like a simile, a metaphor expands the sense and clarifies the meaning of something. "He's such a pig," you might say, and the listener wouldn't immediately think, "My friend has a porcine boyfriend," but rather, "My friend has a human boyfriend who is (a) a slob, (b) a voracious eater, (c) someone with crude attitudes or tastes, or (d) a chauvinist." In any case, it would be clear that the speaker wasn't paying her boyfriend a compliment, but unless she clarifies the metaphor, you might have to ask, "In what sense?" English Renaissance poetry is characterized by metaphors that turn into elaborate conceits, or extended metaphors. Poets like John Donne and William Shakespeare extended their comparisons brilliantly, with the effect that the reader was dazzled. Contemporary poets tend to be more economical with their metaphors, but they still use them as one of the chief elements that distinguishes poetry from less lofty forms of communication.

Meter is the rhythm established by a poem, and it is usually dependent not only on the number of syllables in a line but also on the way those syllables are accented. This rhythm is often described as a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. The rhythmic unit is often described as a foot; patterns of feet can be identified and labeled. A foot may be iambic, which follows a pattern of unstressed/stressed syllables. For example, read aloud: "The DOG went WALKing DOWN the ROAD and BARKED." Because there are five iambs, or feet, this line follows the conventions of iambic pentameter (pent = five), the common form in Shakespeare's time. Stressed syllables are conventionally labeled with a "/" mark and unstressed syllables with a "U" mark.

The basic definition of rhyme is two words that sound alike. The vowel sound of two words is the same, but the initial consonant sound is different. Rhyme is perhaps the most recognizable convention of poetry, but its function is often overlooked. Rhyme helps to unify a poem; it also repeats a sound that links one concept to another, thus helping to determine the structure of a poem. When two subsequent lines rhyme, it is likely that they are thematically linked, or that the next set of rhymed lines signifies a slight departure. Especially in modern poetry, for which conventions aren't as rigidly determined as they were during the English Renaissance or in the eighteenth century, rhyme can indicate a poetic theme or the willingness to structure a subject that seems otherwise chaotic. Rhyme works closely with meter in this regard. There are varieties of rhyme: internal rhyme functions within a line of poetry, for example, while the more common end rhyme occurs at the end of the line and at the end of some other line, usually within the same stanza if not in subsequent lines. There are true rhymes (bear, care) and slant rhymes (lying, mine). There are also a number of predetermined rhyme schemes associated with different forms of poetry. Once you have identified a rhyme scheme, examine it closely to determine (1) how rigid it is, (2) how closely it conforms to a predetermined rhyme scheme (such as a sestina), and especially (3) what function it serves.

Have you ever noticed how many times your friends say, "It's like . . ." or "I'm like . . . "? They aren't always creating similes, but they are attempting to simulate something (often a conversation). The word like signifies a direct comparison between two things that are alike in a certain way. Usually one of the elements of a simile is concrete and the other abstract. "My love is like a red, red rose" writes Robert Burns. He's talking about the rose's beauty when it's in full bloom (he tells us that it's May in the next line). "Love is like a rose" is a simpler version of the simile, but it's a more dangerous version. (A black rose? A dead rose in December? The thorns of a rose?) Sometimes similes force us to consider how the two things being compared are dissimilar, but the relationship between two dissimilar things can break down easily, so similes must be rendered delicately and carefully.

A symbol works two ways: It is something itself, and it also suggests something deeper. It is crucial to distinguish a symbol from a metaphor: Metaphors are comparisons between two seemingly dissimilar things; symbols associate two things, but their meaning is both literal and figurative. A metaphor might read, "His life was an oak tree that had just lost its leaves"; a symbol might be the oak tree itself, which would evoke the cycle of death and rebirth through the loss and growth of leaves. Some symbols have widespread, commonly accepted values that most readers should recognize: Apple pie suggests innocence or homespun values; ravens signify death; fruit is associated with sensuality. Yet none of these associations is absolute, and all of them are really determined by individual cultures and time (would a Chinese reader recognize that apple pie suggests innocence?). No symbols have absolute meanings, and, by their nature, we cannot read them at face value. Rather than beginning an inquiry into symbols by asking what they mean, it is better to begin by asking what they could mean, or what they have meant.

The tone of a poem is roughly equivalent to the mood it creates in the reader. Think of an actor reading a line such as "I could kill you." He can read it in a few different ways: If he thinks the proper tone is murderous anger, he might scream the line and cause the veins to bulge in his neck. He might assume the tone of cool power and murmur the line in a low, even voice. Perhaps he does not mean the words at all and laughs as he says them. Much depends on interpretation, of course, but the play will give the actor clues about the tone just as a poem gives its readers clues about how to feel about it. The tone may be based on a number of other conventions that the poem uses, such as meter or repetition. If you find a poem exhilarating, maybe it's because the meter mimics galloping. If you find a poem depressing, that may be because it contains shadowy imagery. Tone is not in any way divorced from the other elements of poetry; it is directly dependent on them.

Poetry can be like a recipe. If you were making a cake, you would first mix the dry ingredients together; then you would cream butter and sugar together, then add eggs, then stir the dry ingredients in. Why wouldn't you just drop all of the ingredients into a big bowl at the same time and mix? You'd end up with a lumpy mess, and no one wants a cake, or a poem, to be a lumpy mess. Word order matters—sometimes for clarity of meaning (a solo guitar isn't the same as a guitar solo) and sometimes for effect ("a dying man" is roughly the same as "a man, dying," but the effect of the word order matters). There are many different ways to order words and communicate approximately the same meaning, so readers should always question why poets have chosen a particular order, whether the choice is conventional or just the opposite.

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