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Long Live Structured Poetry

By Linda Loegel
Copyright © 2009 by Linda Loegel, All Rights Reserved


Poems that rhyme are past their time
Some folks would have you think,
But I still feel such poems are real
 And not at all extinct.- Loegel

A structured, metered, rhyming poem not only produces a sound that is pleasant to the ear but also offers a challenge to the poet to work within a given structure.As an added challenge, a poem doesn't have to be long to tell a story or evoke a feeling. Consider the following poem by Robert Herrick called Upon Julia’s Clothes:

Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, me thinks, how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
hat brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!

Liquefaction. What an amazing word. Add to that vibration and glittering, and in just six lines Robert Herrick paints such a vivid picture one can almost hear the rustling and see the billowing of Julia's silk gowns.

Using only four lines, John C. Bossidy aptly illustrates the snobbishness of Boston's upper crust in A Boston Toast:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.

 

Here's a four-line poem, by Edwin Markham, titled Outwitted:

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

This poem has a story, contrast, conflict, and resolution, all in thirty-one words.

The following beautiful poem, Jenny Kissed Me, by Leigh Hunt describes one poignant moment in time:

Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief! Who love to get
 Sweets into your list, put that in.

 Say I'm weary, say I'm sad;
 Say that health and wealth have missed me;
 Say I'm growing old, but add-
Jenny kissed me!

Working within a metered structure presents a unique challenge which free verse doesn't offer--putting a given number of syllables in a line with the proper stress on each syllable.In the poem Jenny Kissed Me, there are only five multisyllable words:Jenny, jumping, into, weary, and growing, so in this poem stressing the syllables in the proper place does not appear to be a problem.

In Robert Herrick's poem, the one word liquefaction has four syllables and is stressed in such a way as to retain the tetrameter structure.

I had to work out this problem in a Shakespearean sonnet, written in iambic pentameter.This required ten syllables to a line and every other syllable stressed.

Way deep within my lonesome, beating heart
Rich soil awaits the fragile, tiny seed
Which will, when planted, give my life a start,
Fulfilling every yearning, every need. - Loegel

There was a further requirement that every other line must rhyme.I could have gotten the same message across had I written:

Down inside
my empty heart
rich soil awaits
the fragile seed
that once planted
will give my life a start
fulfilling my every need.

However, I find very little challenge in free verse as I'm not bound by any strict rules of structure.It took me two minutes to compose the above stanza in free verse; yet, the original stanza took hours to get not only the right words but the right syllabic stress in each word, and then a rhyming scheme on the last syllable of each line.Definitely an interesting challenge.

The rhythm of a structured poem creates its own music.Take, for example, my original lilting little poem at the beginning of this paper:

Poems that rhyme are past their time
Some folks would have you think.

You can almost skip to its beat.Feel the rhythm, too, when you read these lines from Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five,
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

A structured poem rolls right off one's tongue.Listen again to Leigh Hunt's poem: Jenny kissed me when we met/Jumping from the chair she sat in.Now imagine if it were written without a specific meter:Jenny kissed me when we met/Jumping up from her chair.The second version is jarring, an abomination to the ears.Rhythm is everything in poetry.Its cadence carries one on a wave of feelings unmatched in any other form of the written word.The poem's rhythm can put the reader in a lighthearted mood, such as in A Boston Toast, or in a somber mood, depending on its structure.For example:

My childhood's home I see again,
And sadden with the view,
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There's pleasure in it, too.
I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I'm living in the tombs.

These are the first and last stanzas of a ten-stanza poem called Memory, written by Abraham Lincoln.

Another poem I'm especially fond of is The Blind Men and The Elephant.It tells a story with a moral and uses a good deal of dialogue to personalize the poem.Also, the poem was written by John Godfrey Saxe, my great- great-great-great-grandfather, born in 1816.Here’s the second stanza:

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

Another benefit to rhyming poetry is the mnemonic value of making things easy to remember.How many of us would know how many days there were in July if it weren’t for “Thirty days hath September….?”

Free verse is a fine form of poetry, there's no doubt about that.There are times when the full impact of a poem can be felt only when presented in free verse.However, metered, rhyming poetry not only presents a challenge to the poet to work within a given structure, but also such poetry literally sings to the reader and touches his soul.What more can one ask of a poem?