A Trap for Unwary Poets
by Tina Blue
September 6, 2000
Because I teach a course called "Introduction to Poetry" (a course in understanding poetry, not a course in writing it), many people--students and others--ask me to read and comment on their poems. One problem I often find even in otherwise good poems is that the writer, in his attempt to hold together all the complexities of idea, language, sound, and aesthetic structure, sometimes lets something lapse.
For example, if a poet is attempting to manipulate a rigorous fixed form--like a sonnet or a sestina--he may, in something like desperation, settle finally on a word or phrase that just doesn't work, but that fits the metrical pattern and the rhyme scheme. Even in less rigid forms--say a poem consisting of however many quatrains rhyming abab cdcd efef, and so on--a less skilled poet might permit himself an inappropriately archaic inversion, or some other jarring note, in order to get a line to scan and rhyme.
I was offered a poem to read this summer that had in it the clause "He me did show." The line it was in scanned perfectly, and rhymed, too. But there was nothing in the poem's subject or context, or in any other of its elements, that allowed for such phrasing. Such inversion calls attention to itself in a very big way, so if it is doing something important and appropriate for the poem, that's fine. But I must admit that I have never seen such a line that was anything other than a clunker. I can imagine how one might be effectively used, but it would be a difficult feat for even a very skilled poet to write such a line without its being a blemish on his poem.
Another problem is one of grammatical consistency and logic. If, for example, your poem addresses someone throughout as "you," then to suddenly switch to using "you" as a general-reference pronoun (meaning, essentially, "one" or "a person") is confusing and destroys the unity and effect of the poem. Similarly, a misplaced comma can make nonsense of an otherwise carefully constructed line. Example: If your final lines have a statement that involves a compound predicate, but you punctuate it incorrectly, then the logical and grammatical connection between the two verbs will be lost. Besides, a significant grammatical or usage error is bound to undermine the effect of a poem, unless a slangy or colloquial ungrammaticality is part of the effect the poem is intended to convey (think, for example, of Huck Finn's ungrammatical dialect).
In a poem that has an identifiable meter and rhyme scheme, or in a poem written in a closed form, it is certainly essential to maintain the rhyme scheme, the metrical pattern, and the fixed structure. To shove in too many syllables or to suddenly switch to a less demanding structure is to really drop the ball. But maintaining rhyme, meter, and form are not the only things you have to be doing, and writing nonsense or cliches just to get the right number of lines or syllables or the correct rhyming sounds is a serious blunder. I think of Cinderella's stepsisters--they needed to fit their feet into the glass slipper, so they cut off their toes and heels to squeeze them in. It looked like a fit, but it was really just a bloody mess.
One of the first things an aspiring poet needs to learn is that there are no short cuts. You can't look for cheap and easy ways out of the corners you have written yourself into.